Sacred Forests: Atsuta Jingu Shrine

Finally, a new post about travel! I went to Japan at the beginning of May for a 5 day weekend and while I got rained on for most of it, I still had a great time. Nagoya isn’t exactly on the top of everyone’s Japanese travel itinerary, but I have a friend working there and it was nice to combine some travel goodness with some friend hang outs. Eventually, I’ll be writing about Nagoya Castle, Tokugawa Gardens, the awesome regional foods of Nagoya, and a few other gems, but for now I give you the epitome of “forest bathing” at this old and venerable Shinto Shrine.


I only got one sunny day on my holiday and this was not it. This was a special shame because I had actually planned my more touristy activities for Monday and Tuesday to avoid the holiday/weekend crowds. I swear I checked the forecast before this plan, and it was just supposed to lightly rain one of the days.

Thinking this, I picked some indoor activities for Monday, the light rain day, and planned to split Tuesday, the partly cloudy day, between the two main outdoor attractions I was interested in. However Monday is also the day all the indoor activities like the aquarium, planetarium, and science museum are closed! I could not be less interested in car and train museums, so I decided to brave the rain and head to the forest anyway. 

A Little Bit About Shinto Shrines
Generally in Japan, anything called a “shrine”shrine icon is Shinto, while a “temple” temple icon is Buddhist. The map icons help to distinguish, and no, that’s not a Nazi swastika, it’s a traditional Buddhist symbol that is much much older than Hitler. The Shinto tales of kami (kind of like gods and spirits) are every bit as long and sordid as the Greek or Egyptian myths and involve lots of improbable births, sibling marriages, and explanations for how the world got so messed up. I do not know the whole thing as well as I know Greek gods because I wasn’t raised on a steady diet of Kojiki myths, but they show up regularly in Japanese pop culture and anime and unlike the Greek pantheon, they are still relevant and widely worshiped inside Japan to this day.

There are three sacred objects in Japan: a sword, a mirror and a jewel. The sword is enshrined here at Atsuta Jingu. It belonged to Yamato Takeru in life and was enshrined along with some of his other belongings upon his death. The main god of the shrine, Atsuta, is the god of this sword.

Atsuta Jinju is said to be about 2000 years old. In addition to housing the sacred sword, it honors 5 major deities including Amaterasu (the sun godess), Susano-o (god of the sea and storms), YamatoTakeru (12th Emporer of Japan whose death inspired the shrine), Takeinadane-no-Mikoto and Miyasuhime-no-Mikoto (the first parents of the native people of Nagoya).

20180506_123502
Large, old Shinto shrines are quite different from their small cousins.  I ran across a smaller shrine in Osu (above) that was about the size of a house. There are dozens tucked in wherever a sacred spot can be located. The city sort of swallows them up. Larger shrines like Meiji Jingu in Tokyo (below) and Atsuta Jingu in Nagoya are located in sacred forests. The fact that Shinto is an active faith in Japan means that these forests have been preserved and protected throughout history and urban development. Now, some of the largest cities in the world have these crazy old growth forests right inside.

20150815_173256

I can’t really get into a full explanation of Shinto mythology and practice here because like every aspect of human culture it is huge and complex, but I hope this gives a little insight into the significance and history of the Atsuta Jingu shrine.

Into the Woods

Going inside, each gate is marked by a gigantic toori gate, usually left natural wood brown and decorated with shide (the zigzag folded paper) and sometimes fresh cut branches. The gates are enormous, and yet in photos they don’t look large beside the trees because the trees are even bigger. People bow to the forest both upon entering and leaving. It’s not just a park in the city, it is a truly sacred space.

20180507_143140.jpg

Walking into one of these gates on a sunny day is somewhat daunting because the bright sunlight and city noises are suddenly absent and you find yourself mystically transported to a world of green-gold half light and birdsong. Going through the gates on a gray and rainy day felt far more sinister as the path ahead of me was swallowed in near darkness. Mists clung to the trees and the birds were silent from the rain except for the occasional cawing of huge black crows. Super spooky and it gave me a real appreciation for the origin of some of those Japanese horror stories.

20180507_135856.jpg

Museum of Treasures

Once inside the forest, my eyes adjusting to the low light level, and my lungs filling with the most amazing air, I began to feel better at once. The museum is near the main gate, so I decided to go there first. I found a couple of chickens hiding in the lee of the building to stay dry. They had become superstars to the other guests, city dwellers who hardly ever see farm birds in any other context than a restaurant menu. I don’t know if it was more fun to watch the birds or watch the people react to them.

20180507_114950.jpg

On display in the museum’s main room is what I can only assume is a replica of the sacred sword said to be enshrined there. It’s loooong. Like taller than Shaq. When I first saw it, I didn’t yet know the myth and history of the shrine, but I assumed that it must have belonged to a god simply by it’s proportions. There is also a small gift shop, and a public restroom and snack machine. Upstairs looked like a library. The museum proper is 3$ to enter and since the shrine is otherwise free (donation based), I didn’t have any problem contributing. I’m a little sad they didn’t have any English, but I enjoyed looking at the relics nonetheless.

20180507_115214.jpg

My absolute favorite was an elaborate painting that depicted the history of Japan from the creation of the world by the gods through modern day. It was done as a spiral pathway that started with creation, followed the early emperors of Japan and the sacred sword being passed down until it was finally enshrined, and then further important events in the shrine’s history. I couldn’t really read the guide, but I know enough about early Japanese creation myths (presentations in Japanese class paid off eventually?) to have recognized the pictures in the center an extrapolated outward.

I was hoping to find an image or print somewhere to share, but it’s not in the brochure or on the website, which also says the relics on display are changed out monthly. It was easily the most distinctive thing in the museum. I enjoy the old ceremonial clothing, dishware and weaponry as well, but it didn’t stand out to me as unique the way that painting did.

Ookusu: Big Tree

Once finished with the museum, I headed back into the woods with my trusty travel umbrella. Different areas of the forest are further divided with more toori gates and the first one I encountered leaving the museum led me to the ookusu. It literally translates to “big camphor tree” and these big old trees are often centerpieces at shrines in Japan. Totoro lives in a camphor tree, after all. The sign next to this one says it’s over 1000 years old. Near the tree there is a chōzubachi (ritual purification water pool) and a decorative wall of empty sake barrels. Sake is used in offerings and rituals, and the empty barrels are turned into art to adorn the shrine. Usually the sake is donated to the shrine and the displaying of the empty barrels is similar to many other types of prayer where notes or paper decorations are displayed. Instead of buying a prayer paper to write on, these breweries donate sake.

20180507_121330

I look back at my photos now and realize there is just no way to show the context of the size of the forest in Atsuta because everything is built to god scale and you walk around feeling a little bit like a child in a grown up world the whole time. Maybe that’s intentional? Probably. It reminds me of my photos of the redwoods where all the trees are so big that they all look normal next to each other. I’m not saying that this ookusu is as big as a sequoia, but it’s still a big tree. I was holding my phone up at arms’ length and I’m still shooting up at the rope marker.

20180507_1215331

The Honmyu

My next stop was the main shrine itself, called honmyu. Here I found several buildings surrounding a gravel courtyard. Photos of Atsuta taken here almost make it look like it’s open air rather than deep forested. It is a working shrine, so the main hall for services was lit, but closed to the public. I was pleased to be able to have a peek through the windows nonetheless. One building was a performance hall although it was empty the day I was there. I suspect that at least one of the other buildings was housing for the shrine maidens and priests.

20180507_122144

One building was a place to donate in exchange for a variety of charms or blessings. Lucky charms are a big part of Shinto and Japanese culture in general. There were small charms for almost everything. Additionally, there were prayer papers and wooden ornaments that individual prayers could be written on and hung around the shrine. I also saw arrows. I know that miko (shrine maidens) are famous for archery because (guilty look) the anime I watch shows them using bow and arrow to slay evil spirits. These demon breaking arrows are used to dispel evil and ward off bad luck. Absolutely nothing is in English, so I did my best to try and read the labels, but in the end I had to ask. I think I mixed up my pronunciation but the miko I asked seemed to figure it out quickly and I found a white swan for happiness. I don’t know if charms work, but I was happy to have the chance to visit the beautiful forest and that seems like a good reason to donate. Plus, whenever I hear the tiny bells jingle, I get a happy memory. Working already.

The main part of the shrine, where I believe the sacred relics to be enshrined, is not accessible to the public. We could walk up to a gate and get a lovely view of the beautiful buildings, but can go no further. Like many palaces, it’s a series of buildings and courtyards.

20180507_123343

The design is simple, natural and elegant made only of dark wood and a minimum of metal ornamentation. Unlike smaller shrines which are decked out in red and gold, the forest shrine was almost in camouflage to blend in to the trees around it. Despite the heavy rain that day, and the fact that it was mid-afternoon on a Monday, the forest still had a large number of visitors, and not only tourists, but locals who had come by to offer prayers and donations. Many people approached the shrine to drop coins and a formal bow.

20180507_123604

Spirit Houses: Jinja Shrines

In addition to the main shrine, the jingu, there are a number of smaller shrines or jinja around the forest. For some reason I thought these were usually open with an interior display of statues and gifts, but I have since gone back through my photos of other shrines and I was mistaken. All kami houses are shut up tight. These smaller shrines are also a kind of spirit house where the smaller local kami can dwell. Big global or national Kami like the goddess of the sun may have shrines all over Japan, but local kami may only have a few shrines… sometimes just one. People may pray to a specific kami because of it’s history, or because of a local or family connection.

20180507_134116

On the next leg of my walk I stepped off the main path to get a closer look at some of these jinja shrines. They were plain wooden tiny houses on stilts and I couldn’t make much sense of the simple signs adorning each one, so I just decided to enjoy the path when suddenly I noticed I could see my breath! I know the spring has been cooler than usual this year, but it was in the high 20s that day and for most of the day I had felt warm and a little sticky, now suddenly my breath was clouding up in front of me. I tried again, because I like to replicate results. And it happened again. I backed up down the path and it stopped happening. I moved forward, it happened again. I put a hand next to the shrine I was getting foggy breath in front of and I swear it felt colder. Just to be sure it wasn’t an effect of the shade or the wood, I tried the shrine next to it and didn’t feel any difference in the warm air on the path and that next to the shrine. I am not saying it was haunted, but … you know every time there’s a haunting in a movie the temperature suddenly drops and the characters can see their breath, so…

I did take a picture of the name of that shrine to check later, but all I can really find is that it seems to be related to water offerings. Maybe that’s why it gets excited in the rain?

Paper Cranes

After a delicious and filling lunch (which you can read more about in the food post) I felt well equipped to explore the rest of the grounds. I checked a few maps to try and guess which paths I hadn’t walked down yet. All the signs were Japanese only, and referenced the proper name of each building in the compound, so I wasn’t exactly sure what I’d been to and what I’d missed without the map reference.

As I wandered down another wide road, shrouded in tall dark trees, Nagoya’s oldest stone bridge and megalithic 8m high, 400 year-old stone lanterns (said to be one of the three most significant in all Japan), I found a few more of the jinja shrines along the way. Most of them were brown and unadorned, but a few had splashes of color.

20180507_133742At first I didn’t know what they were. I only saw the bright colors from a distance and was drawn closer with curiosity. As I examined the strings of color, it became clear that these were chains of paper cranes folded and strung together in a way that most Westerners are familiar with from the story of Sadako and the 1,000 paper cranes.

20180507_133946

It was so stunning to me to see string after string of brightly patterned paper, neatly and identically folded into shape. The rain had soaked them thoroughly but the paper held together well and the water made the colors pop even more. This one smaller shrine received more attention than any but the largest center shrine, so naturally I was very curious. It’s called Kusu no mae Shrine and is described on the website as “god of amnesty” The sign goes on to mention both Izanami and Izanagi, who created the world and gave birth to the islands of Japan. The website says: “It is commonly called “God of Koyasu” or “Ogunsama”, it cures various diseases” courtesy of Chrome’s auto translate.

A Whole Other Shrine, What?

I was perfectly content playing “find the shrine” in the forest. It was beautiful, the trees kept most of the rain off, and it smelled absolutely amazing to breathe the air there. Thinking I’d almost walked every trail there was to walk, I suddenly turned the corner into a whole ‘nother shrine complex! The same courtyard surrounded by multiple buildings. A slightly smaller charms/gifts shop with similar items. And a nearly identical unapproachable series of dark wooden buildings with delicate gold trim. I thought at first I might have wandered around to the back side of the same area I’d seen before, but the map confirms it is a totally different shrine called Kamichikama.

20180507_135507

Trying to discover the meaning of this led me on a wild Google chase that resulted in me visiting the actual Japanese website for the Atsuta Jingu shrine. Previously I’d only been reading the made for English speaking tourists site. The native one is WAY bigger. It’s tricky to translate religious stuff and ceremonial language, but I found the map with building names and basic function (so much better than the English one) and Kamichikama is a Bodhisattva of wisdom. I can’t find his name anywhere but Trip Advisor in reference to this particular place when I search it in English, but Shinto has a LOT of local deities and honored persons, so it could be that he only exists at this one place and that is not weird.

20180507_135000

I poked around the Japanese version of the website after discovering the insane difference in the level of details. Google translate is not great, but it does give me a little more information than … nothing… I am not going to try to translate the whole site and detail every little shrine I found, but if you’re curious, the information is out there. There are a LOT of shrines inside this forest and they are all devoted to a specific kami  or sometimes historical event that is remembered. People regularly come to them to pray and make offerings. Some people seemed to treat it a little like a wishing well, while others had deeper reverence. The practice of Shinto may have changed over the centuries in Japan, but it is definitely alive, well, and a major part of the everyday lives of the Japanese people.

20180507_134717


Sadly, the low lighting and high humidity played merry heck with my camera and there are not enough good shots of the shrine to be worthy of a solo Facebook album, but I will put together a trip compilation album before the end of the series. Speaking of which… I’m not actually finished writing the rough draft of whole this trip yet… still. At my last school, I had 1-2 hours when I was stuck at my desk with nothing to do but write, but here I have to carve out time because there is no “desk warming”. It’s so tempting to just leave the office behind and go for a walk or take a nap. Plus, I’ve spent a lot of my spare computer hours nailing down plans for the summer holiday European trip which is going to be so awesome. I’ll do my best to get the rest of the Nagoya stories out before the end of the semester? As always, thanks for reading!

Advertisements

The No-Travel Blog?

I feel like I’ve been absent from writing for months. I set up a schedule of publication in anticipation of having more new things to write by now and it simply hasn’t manifested. What happens to a travel blogger when they aren’t traveling? No one but the independently wealthy and the corporately sponsored can maintain a year-round travel lifestyle, so chances are, all your favorite travel bloggers have downtime, too. In an effort to keep my story alive, I’m here to look at this question and hopefully figure out how to fill time and pages until the next time I get on a plane.


In 2015 when I headed back to Seattle for 5 months, I tried to write about my life there, but it was so much “go to work, look for work, hang out with friends” that I couldn’t think of anything to say for 3 of those 5 months. Winter makes it even harder since the local adventures that one could otherwise undertake to find writing inspiration are out of reach (especially if you don’t ski).

Image result for bored in winter

2017 presented similar adventure writing challenges. My whole summer holiday was spent amid friends and family, mostly in their homes. I did take photos when we went on outings, but to be honest, I was much more focused on catching up with them than in the scenery. I suppose it’s just possible that the blogosphere would enjoy such personal details, but I doubt my friends and family would appreciate being aired in public. Plus, inside jokes are really hard to narrate. Thus, the summer trip got exactly one blog post, while a typical holiday may have 10-20 stories!

I did take a trip in the fall which is the main new content I’ve been able to publish, but I had no winter holiday at all, just a brief weekend trip. Leaving me to reach back into archives and scramble for even small details to bring to the page.

It’s not just the writing either. Traveling is my hobby and my greatest source of joy. The thrill of planning a trip, reading other blogs on my destination and looking for the best hidden gems while designing the most efficient color-coded itinerary (ok yes that makes me a little weird, but I love it). Then going on the trip and seeing all the things I looked forward to plus finding things I didn’t even know about. Then coming back and sorting through my memories and photos and researching all the things I saw but didn’t know about (still a nerd). Then finally posting my story here. It’s a whole process that keeps me engaged and productive and most of all happy.

Image result for twilight sparkle vacation plan

Finding Your Happy

Like a lot of people in the modern world, I struggle with happiness. I spent a long time not having it, and a long time learning how to change that. There’s all kinds of stuff out there about positivity and manifesting, most of which is quite frankly bunk, but it does have a root in real science.

Surely you’ve noticed that when you’re in a good mood, everything seems wonderful. Conversely, when you’re feeling low, even really great things can barely make a dent in the depression. Happy brains focus on the positive without effort. Unhappy brains focus on the negative, often way more than we want them to. Cognitive behavioral therapy and positive psychology are ways to help train your brain to focus on good things more often. As with any other form of training, it takes hours and hours of practice and effort and as soon as you stop, you lose ground.

Like playing the piano or working out, happiness requires daily practice. For me, the anticipation, experience and reflection cycle of travel is my happiness workout routine. 2017 was like a broken ankle in my happiness marathon training. I knew it was a legitimate (non-imaginary) problem, and I tried hard to take it easy and give myself time to deal with the things that were presenting as obstacles, knowing that one day soon it would get better again. Well, now it’s April of 2018 and I’m stretching out those “muscles” for the first time in months and boy are they rusty.

No, It’s Not Out There

When the stress of the job hunt was finally over and spring was on the horizon, I thought, “ok, this is where it gets awesome again!”

Image result for skipping through flowers julie andrews gif

Wrong. Instead of sunny 17 degree weather, I got sleet and ice. Instead of 2 weeks of beautiful blooms and festivals, I got one day of getting lost trying to find a few trees that hadn’t quite gotten there yet, followed by enough rain to destroy them all. 

Image result for being rained on

Instead of going to see a traditional Korean bullfight (no animals harmed!) and persimmon wine tasting, I’m going back to the dentist because the festival was canceled due to concerns of, I’m not kidding, foot in mouth disease… which I guess is a cow thing. Every external goal that I pinned my happiness on fell through and my emotional resilience took hit after hit as I faded into a potato chip munching Netflix binge-watching funk.

I was relying on the spring warm weather, the cherry blossoms, and the resumption of the Korean festival bonanza to lift me back into mental shape and that was a critical mistake. Happiness doesn’t come from outside. Of course, mindfulness and gratitude practices are easy when the world outside is giving you a lot of beauty to be mindful of and grateful for, but relying on the external for that boost can only last so long.

All The Small Things

Thus sitting in my small room, staring at the gloomy gray skies and listening to the rain that was ruining everything and huddling with my heating pad to fight off the winter that wouldn’t leave, I found myself asking the question, “How can I even write a travel blog if I’m not DOING ANYTHING?”

Which, a few days later I realized is a tremendously silly way of looking at this. I’m doing a helluva lot. I moved to a new city (in Korea), rented a foreign apartment all by myself for the first time, started teaching in a totally new educational environment, started exploring my new neighborhood and meeting new people. Ok, so I haven’t had any “big” adventures, but I’m not in a coma.I didn’t get cherry blossoms, but I tried every cherry blossom themed food I could find. I may not have any sweeping vistas of the mountains without smog or rain, but I’ve been focusing on the small flowers and building a bigger photo journal on Instagram. Sometimes small stuff is where we have to look for joy. The point is, never stop looking. Join me as I reflect on the tiny adventures of daily life in Gyeongju, South Korea. 

20180412_112145.jpg


Don’t worry. This isn’t going to permanently turn into a daily life blog. I have a trip planned to Japan in May and I’m going to Europe for the summer holidays so there will be plenty of travel stories coming soon. Until then, try to enjoy this “slice of life” time, and check out the Instagram for my spring flower collection. Thanks for hanging in there with me. ❤

Malay Peninsula 10: When Things Go Wrong

It’s popular for people on social media and blogs to focus exclusively on the best experiences (unless it’s Yelp, then complain away). Sometimes I look at other people’s travel blogs or photos and think they must have the most perfect lives. And, then I wonder if anyone thinks that about me. My life *is* fairly magical, and I think the vacation to New Zealand was supernaturally blessed, but I would hate for anyone to think that it’s all perfect. Stuff goes wrong, sometimes catastrophically, and how we deal with that will impact the days, months and years that follow.


A Good Start

In the morning, I headed out extra early to catch that next bus and managed to get a few snaps of the famous street art on my way to the ferry terminal.

Amid the ferry terminal’s endless tiny shops selling convenience food and cheap souvenirs,  my eye was drawn to one stall that had what appeared to be handmade goodies displayed on a table. The stand was run by a husband and wife team, and the husband happily talked about his wife’s cooking until I picked out three goodies to try for breakfast. One was a flavorful potato pastry with delectable spices and what could have been pieces of dried fruit. 20170123_080706One was a glutinous rice ball wrapped in a leaf and filled with some kind of sweet coconut. The golden brown goodie was the one the husband most highly recommended: a spicy coconut bun in a wheat pastry (as opposed to rice) with a coconut filling similar in texture to the rice bun, but with a spicy kick. The coconut fillings were unique to my palate. It seemed like the coconut had gone through a ricer instead of a shredder. It was similar to vermicelli but also dried enough to be chewy without being crispy. The entire experience was delightful and I wish I’d bought 3 more!

A Scorpion in my Cocoapuffs

I left myself extra time to get to the bus station. Missing the bus would have entirely spoiled my day (although now that just seems ironic). As a consequence, I had nothing to do for about 45 minutes. The bus station in Butterworth seems well organized, but I suspect it’s a cleverly crafted illusion. As the time for my bus drew closer and closer with no sign of the bus anywhere, I began to get worried. When a bus pulled into the gate that I had been told by the ticket counter was my departure point, I got excited until the driver told me it was a bus to Kuala Lumpur. Definitely not where I was trying to go. The departure time on my ticket crept up and then past. I kept trying to get anyone to help me find my bus, but no one seemed fussed and said it should show up eventually. I spotted another traveler (the skin tone and giant backpack were clues) with a ticket that looked like mine. Trying to be friendly, I asked if she was trying to get to Kuala Perlis (my destination) too.

Allow me to do an aside on the expat/backpacker community for those who have not experienced it. It’s a tribe. And like all tribes, when we see each other out in the world there is a feeling of  “ah, one of mine”. The extent to which we aid one another or spend time with one another can vary from person to person, but most of the time when I greet another traveler, the response is friendly. Maybe they need help, maybe they can give it, maybe we’re just going to play a game of Uno or chat over a beer. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve taken great joy in meeting both locals and fellow travelers. I’ve shared meals, cabs, directions, taken and given tips on what to do or how to get places, translated or been translated for, exchanged stories and when one or the other of us is ready to part, there’s no pressure, we just wish each other well because we all know that’s how it goes. So when I met a backpacker who was angry and mean it was like finding a scorpion in my cocoa-puffs. I was expecting something nice and got stung instead.

She looked at me sharply and asked in clipped tones where I was going. I replied that I was headed to Kuala Perlis, but before I could finish my sentence, she pointed back at the building and snapped, “ticket office”. Yes, I said, I already have a ticket, I just — again she cut me off with the single invective, “information” pointing once more at the main building. This was no linguistic barrier, her accent was natural and her tone and body language adequately communicated hostility. I was completely shocked and decided to stop trying and walked as far away from her as I could while still being able to see the bus stops to watch for mine.

I want to believe that something was going on with this woman that made her so grumpy, but the fact is, I approached her to share information (namely that the bus she was standing in front of was not the one listed on her ticket, and that the gate we wanted had changed, but was not announced yet) and she shut me down like…I have trouble even finding a metaphor of when it’s appropriate to treat another person like that. Everything I can think of is some kind of gtfo response to racism or misogyny. Even knowing now what I do about the trials and frustrations involved in traveling SE Asia, and having lived through my own travel induced emotional meltdown, it’s still hard for me to imagine what put her in the mindset that caused her to treat me so. Regardless of whether her mood was justified, it was demeaning and hurtful to be treated like that by another human being. It was made worse by the fact that I had no defenses up at all when it happened. It completely destroyed my emotional well being in that moment and for possibly the rest of the day.

The Transportation Worsens

The bus was nothing like the nice buses I’d taken up to this point. The seats were narrow and much less comfortable. The front of the bus was “normal” two seats on each side of the central aisle, but the back was divided into three single seats with two aisles between them so that passengers travelling alone didn’t have to rub elbows with strangers. I sat in my middle single seat and tried to bring my emotions back to center.

My destination that day was the island of Langkawi. I had decided after much reading on the internet that I was better off taking a bus to Kuala Perlis followed by the shorter (90min) boat ride from there rather than trying to take the 3hr boat from Penang. Initially, the idea of a 3 hr boat ride was appealing to me because I like the ocean and boats. But it turns out that all the boats here are kind of enlarged speed boats where passengers sit in assigned seating rather like an airplane and there is no access to the deck or other outdoor spaces. Since going out on deck is the number one thing to do if you get seasick, that didn’t sound great. Instead I think I just learned that the only comfortable way to travel north of Penang is airplane.

Bad Decision for a Good Reason

Nevertheless, when I got off the bus I met a couple more backpackers who made some headway toward restoring my faith in the tribe. They had opted for the bus/ferry route to save money. They were out for the whole summer taking a break from university and needed to stretch every cent. We got some lunch together and had some nice conversation, shared the ferry ride, and I was enjoying their company so I let them talk me into walking from the ferry port to our respective hotels in Langkawi. I have to say, I admire the packers who can walk themselves around with all the gear especially in that weather. I am not one of you. I should not have tried. It’s not that I can’t walk or carry gear even, but there is something horrible that happens to me in hot/humid weather. One day I will learn my lesson, and surely this experience was some very compelling evidence.

My feet were swelling from the weather, my clothes were drenched in sweat and I simply could not keep up the pace of my lunchtime companions. They never once complained about my slowness, but I still felt guilty. Then it started raining. You would think rain would be a relief in hot weather, but that is a lie. The rain doesn’t cool things down, it only increases the general humidity and makes you damper. Could this whole experience have been better if I had a different attitude? No doubt. It can be hard to maintain positivity in the face of certain obstacles – the angry lady in the morning had set my nerves on edge. The heat, humidity, and pain in my feet was eating away at what goodwill I had left. When the rain began and I realized that the ONLY event in Langkawi that I had planned to do would not be accessible, it pushed me straight over the edge into genuine misery and self-pity.

This Isn’t Fun Anymore

Google lied about the distance to my hotel. When my GPS indicated I had arrived, yet I could not see the hotel, it suddenly reset to a location another 15 minutes away. This was after I’d already been walking for 45, which was longer than the original Google estimate of 30. When I decided to go on foot, I figured I could just about tolerate 30 minutes of walking to the hotel in the heat. What I got was an hour in the heat and rain. When I finally arrived at the hotel, I discovered a man sleeping on the only bench in the tiny lobby, so I couldn’t even sit down while I waited for the clerk to show up and check me in. And he was snoring so loudly! It seemed to take forever to get checked in and get to my room where I promptly rid myself of my soaked clothes and basked in the air conditioning while I had a serious think about my options.

The Langkawi Taxi Lockdown

I do not like giving in to despair. I do not like nurturing negative emotions. I did not want to sit there and feel sorry for myself, damnit. I only planned to spend a half day in Langkawi in any case. The very next morning I was scheduled to take another boat out to the tiny tropical paradise island of Koh Lipe in Thailand. I had looked at how to avoid Langkawi altogether but it seemed like any way to go from Penang or even Ipoh directly to Koh Lipe would have involved a very long overland travel and another land border crossing, I thought at the time that shorter journeys would be better and that every place I was stopping at must have something interesting. However, I failed to take into account that Langkawi has the most bizarre taxi lock out in the world. There is not only no Uber or any other rideshare on the island, the taxis don’t stop on the street, or use meters, or bargain. They all have a set rate chart that tells them the fare from one place to another. And unlike Georgetown with it’s free bus and easily walkable areas of interest, Langkawi seems designed for package tours and resort dwellers. In my first plan I was going to spend 2 days in Langkawi and only overnight in Koh Lipe but research led me to a different notion and I had decided the most interesting thing to me was the cable car and skywalk, which being high in the mountains and made of metal would not be accessible or safe in a thunderstorm.

Give in to Self Care

As I lay in the hotel, resting and cooling off, I looked on the web to see if there was anything near by that seemed interesting, or anything even within a reasonable distance. I had wasted all my energy walking to the hotel when I didn’t need to and could not bring myself to be excited about any of the hiking or cycling options. I had no desire to go shopping since I’d taken care of my needs the day before. I didn’t want to visit a zoo or aquarium. In fact, nothing at all sounded fun, and while I was grumpy about the fact that I’d just “lost” a day of vacation, it struck me that the best thing I could do for myself was nothing at all.

Sometimes stuff happens to us on holiday and we just have to stop. I remember in Egypt I got horrible food poisoning that completely took me out of commission for about a day and half and left me weak for a long while even after I returned home. It’s not fun when you get sick on vacation, but it’s still important to practice self care. Sick doesn’t always look like a cold or an upset stomach, sometimes it can be an overdose of culture shock, heat edema, and physical exhaustion. So I took a shower, put on some clean clothes and walked all the way to next door to have some dinner and then spent the rest of the night reading in bed. I have only one picture from my entire time on Langkawi, and that was a food pic I took of that dinner for Instagram.

20170123_161247

Worst Day?

I told myself that every vacation has to have a “worst day” and that I was on my way to a tiny island paradise where I would see coral reefs and swim with glowing plankton and sleep on a hut on the beach and at least two of those things turned out to be true.


When I look back on my time on the Malay Peninsula, this is not one of the stories that stands out to me. At the time, it was horrible, and potentially vacation ruining, but Daniel Khaneman talks about “the remembering self” in his research, and using memory to create happiness. I choose to memorialize this day not to focus on the suffering, but as a way of reminding myself that what seemed so horrible at the time, cannot evoke strong emotion in me even 4 months later when I review and revise the experience, yet my positive experiences still bring a smile to my face. Plus, now I know what not to do the next time I travel to Koh Lipe.

Queer in Korea: A review of Pride and Pulse 2016

It’s taken me a long time to put this post together. The events I’m talking about happened 3 weeks ago which is a lifetime in social media terms. And yet, I feel like for once, it’s good that it took so long. I feel like it gave me and others time to absorb and process, but I don’t think any amount of time will cause this to stop being relevant until civil rights and gun-violence are solved. In the first week after the events, I was riding the emotional roller-coaster and nothing I wrote was worth reading. In the second week, I settled down to some serious writing, but before I could publish, the third week brought me low with that child-borne plague — the common cold. It’s finally done, however. It’s much longer than my usual posts because I just couldn’t bring myself to break this experience up into smaller pieces. I do hope you’ll give it the extra time and read all the way to the end. There’s a love “crust” down there waiting for you… like with pie.


20160611_153315When I first found out about the festival in March, I was excited to see it. When I found out it was the 17th annual one, I was blown away. Try as I might to keep up with real news and world events, I still had a solid perception that LGBTQ+ rights platforms were the domain of the West (and that America might actually be the farthest behind in that race) while the rest of the world lagged far behind in tackling this important civil rights issue. I saw things like Russia banning LGBTQ+ at the Olympics and China striking down gay marriage as signs that the East just wasn’t doing that much.

And, to a certain extent, the East still has a long way to go. These are cultures that haven’t had to deal with the different and the other that often in their history. Or, when they have, they’ve dealt with it by employing the classical Asian two-level system: above-what is acknowledged, seen and talked about; below- what everyone knows is really going on but never vocalizes. It’s a kind of national “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on all kinds of things from gambling and drugs, to porn and alternate sexuality. The Japanese actually have words for this (“honne” and “tatemae”), but I’ve witnessed it in other Asian cultures as well.

SKOREA-SOCIETY-HOMOSEXUALITYKorea just recently had, for the first time, two (famous) men petition the courts for legal marriage. The case was rejected, but there was some room in the language for future laws to be added to the books that would allow it. Considering it was the very first time that anyone in Korea tried, it’s not really a surprise that it was struck down. But it’s definitely becoming more and more of a public issue, thanks in no small part to a 17 year tradition of publicly celebrating LGBTQ+ pride in the nation’s capital every summer.

cd3e37ae-b9b1-4636-be4a-2ad4c07750b0_mw1024_s_nPrevious years’ festivals have seen large groups of protesters who have screamed at, spat at, taken pictures of, and occasionally engaged in greater displays of violence and harassment toward the festival goers. They’ve reportedly lay in the street to block the march, and even engaged in physical violence against the police to try to get at the Pride participants. Protesters have tried to shut out Pride by booking up the space, nearby spaces, and hotels to keep people out. This year, the conservative anti-gay Christians tried to petition the courts to shut down the festival on the basis of public indecency, but they were denied. However the Korean culture may feel about LGBTQ+ currently, at least the government respects everyone’s right to peaceful assembly, which is awesome. More than merely respecting it, the government issued stern warnings to the protesters to refrain from violence, because violent protests are illegal.

I’m from Seattle, where being LGBTQ+ is more often the assumed state than being straight. Where it’s so normal for people to see gay couples in public that my BFF was often mistaken for my GF, and *not* in the “you’re going to hell” way that happened to me in Memphis. Pride in places like Seattle is no longer a civil rights issue (plenty of places in the US it is, keep marching guys). In Seattle, Pride is one big party with corporate sponsorship. It’s a fun party, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not a civil rights movement, it’s a victory celebration. And worse, because of the division within the LGBTQ+ community, the G (and to a lesser extent the L) tend to drown out the BTQ+. The people who still need protection and help even in a culture like Seattle are the ones being most ignored by their own supposed community.

Because of all of this and more, I was very excited to see what a Pride festival would look like in a country where LGBTQ+ is legal but not common or (to most people here) socially acceptable. I knew it could get ugly because I’d read about the protesters in previous years. I knew it might be small and underfunded because it doesn’t get a lot of support here. I knew it might be full of foreigners who just wanted to bring their own culture into Korea. I knew it might just be a marketplace full of cheap souvenirs and magkoli stands because it was a festival in Korea. But I didn’t care, I wanted to see it. And I’m so glad I did because it was none of those things.

(Ok, one magkoli stand.)

Getting There

subway_mapMy Busan Bestie and I headed to Seoul Friday after work, arriving after midnight and experiencing the very beginning of the Seoul public transportation headache. We managed to find the right bus, but missed our stop and got stuck on the wrong side of the bridge, which I guess technically people walk across, but it was the middle of the night and we had luggage, so we thought, oh hey, we’ll just take a taxi… nope. Scarcely any to be had and none for us. We finally found another bus and got back on the right side of the bridge but didn’t make it to our hotel for almost 2 hours after our train arrived. Why didn’t we take a taxi from the train station? Well, the line for real taxis was 30 people deep and no taxis were coming, the bus ride was only supposed to be 30 minutes, and as we found out later, there are plenty of fake-out taxis waiting to charge you an arm and a leg for a 15 minute drive.

The hostel was nice. I’d sent them a note after the Taean pension disaster to let them know we would be arriving quite late, so they left me a note on the whiteboard telling my my room, and they left the key in the door as well so we didn’t have any trouble getting into the room. I’m torn about this hostel, because they did nice stuff like that, and they helped drive another patron to a place he could catch the airport bus, but they had some advertising issues that could have been handled better, like “air conditioning” which was only central and kept at an uncomfortably warm temperature, and “continental breakfast” which was cook your own eggs and toast in the rooftop kitchen. I think I could have been ok with these things had I not been expecting something else, so it’s hard to say.

Due to the lack of AC, I didn’t sleep especially well, but my excitement woke me up well enough and after a leisurely breakfast that I cooked myself, we headed back out into the city to find City Hall and Seoul Plaza, the site of the Festival.

I have been entirely spoiled by Busan public transportation. I was a little frustrated when I first arrived in Korea that Google Maps didn’t really work here, but I learned how to use the local version (Naver Maps) and have had an easy time getting to most places. For some reason, I thought that the transportation in Seoul would be better than it is in Busan. I’m not sure why. I’ve used the Beijing and Tokyo subway/train systems and so I’m not a novice at complex rail maps. I looked up the plaza on my app and saw it was a short two trains away and we were right next to the station. Lies.

We managed to get on our first train with minimal fuss, our national transportation cards work everywhere (which is so nice). But in trying to transfer to the second train, we somehow wound up going the wrong way. Then waiting at a platform where no train was coming (no signs about this either), then waiting at a platform where trains only arrived to, but didn’t depart from, then finally getting on a train heading the right way, only to find out we had to get off it and move to another train to continue going the right way. I wanted to take the train instead of a bus because train stops are usually well announced in advance while the buses tend to be a mystery and you might not know it was your stop until it’s too late. Buses are great if you know where you want to get off, but subway/train things tend to be easier for the first time traveler. Plus, the directions on the festival website explicitly said to use the metro exit 6 to get into the festival because access was being controlled to keep out the protesters.

Maybe it’s a great train system once you get to learn its idiosyncrasies. But considering the dearth of taxis and the intensely confusing blend of intra/inter city trains and subways, I’m going to say Seoul is definitely a bus town.

Safety First

20160611_154429When we finally emerged from the station, we were greeted by a huge wall of police. I saw the protesters well before I saw the festival. They were set up across the street with a giant stage where they were having speeches, performances, and blasting Christian music in an attempt to drown out the Pride music. The streets around Seoul Plaza were lined with police standing shoulder to shoulder. When the light changed, they parted to allow us access to the crosswalk by which we entered the park. I have to admit, I was becoming anxious, and not in a good way. My heart was aflutter and my adrenaline was definitely going. I’m in no way anti-police. My sister is a police officer, and I have a lot of respect for the men and women who do a necessary and often thankless job. In the US, if I get pulled over or approached by an officer in public, it does not make me nervous. But something about seeing thousands of officers creating a human wall made me more than a little twitchy.

Later, I realized that the police were there to protect us. They recognized the protesters as the threat, not the LGBTQ+ folks. They were keeping an eye on them, and were nothing but courteous to us. It was an amazing feeling. I expect many of the officers did not personally approve of the festival or the LGBTQ+ lifestyle, but they didn’t let it show in their faces that day. They stood around us through rain and scorching sun with no tents to shelter them. They stood facing the protesters so we didn’t have to. During the march, they ran ahead of us to maintain that protection at all times, which was good because protesters followed us too. By the end of the day, I just wanted to give them all hugs and say thank you, because they did so much to make the day possible, whether they agreed with it or not. This is what it means to do your job well and to respect the freedoms of others. Without them, the protesters surely would have entered and berated us up close, ruining what was otherwise a beautiful occasion. Because they were there, festival goers and marchers felt safe to be themselves in a city where that can often be so hard.

20160611_132528Speaking of being free to be themselves, the festival also went out of it’s way to make the space especially safe. In the past, protesters used pictures of festival goers to publicly shame them, or get them fired, or even disowned by family. It’s no laughing matter to be Out here. Homosexuality can’t get you arrested, but there are no laws protecting employment yet. Many families feel it’s shameful and will disown children who come out. LGBTQ+ Koreans mostly have to pretend to be cis-het to get by. A few have managed to make enough money that they aren’t afraid to come out, like the filmmaker who petitioned for a marriage to his lover, like the small community of drag queens that simply make their living as performers. But the average person is hiding. This festival is a chance to be among people who accept and understand, but the attendees probably have to go back to homes and offices where they have to pretend again, and thus, having their pictures plastered on the internet can be scary and damaging.

me and press passThe festival made it clear that anyone taking pictures for anything other than strictly personal use (eg, keep it on your phone and never show it to anyone) must get a press pass and sign the agreement. I like sharing my pictures, so my first stop upon entering the park was to the press booth. I read a multi page contract that stated the rules for taking and sharing photos. It was heavy on permission. (yay consent!), and very strict about not posting anyone’s face you didn’t get permission from. I asked people all day, and handed out cards to the site so they really understood where the image was going. They also collected our IDs, so they can hold us accountable should someone take issue with my following the rules. I told my school where I was going that weekend because I don’t like lying, so I personally am not worried about it ‘getting back’ to my employer, but I know it’s a real issue for many Koreans and I’m glad the festival took such pains to protect them.

Maybe it’s just me (doubt it), but when I see the US paying lip service to equal rights then doing less than nothing to protect endangered minorities (people targeted for violence, discrimination, etc), it makes it really hard for me to accept that whole “land of the free” shtick. I sure as Sherlock wasn’t pleased about the protesters, but everyone there respected their right to peacefully speak their piece. Not everyone in the government involved in protecting the rights (assembly, speech) and safety of the LGBTQ+s like it as a lifestyle, but they respect us as people. It was more important to maintain the core values of respect, safety, and peaceful assembly than it was for them to express their personal opinions on the subject. America, please take notes.

The Festivities

Seoul Plaza is this big oval lawn in front of city hall. ec849cec9ab8eab491ec9ea5_eca084eab2bd

On the day we arrived, it did not look like that. It looked more like this.

queer-korea-festival-city-hall-plaza-6-28-15

This photo is from 2015, however, so imagine it with 20,000 more people. The main stage is just off the lower right corner and the protesters are on both the left and right on the other side of the street.

20160611_171806After securing our press passes and verifying our reservations for the after party, we slowly started to explore the booths that lined the plaza. Unlike events in the US, there was very little corporate representation. And unlike events in Korea, there was a lot more than endlessly repetitive booths of food and trinkets. Most of the booths were operated by groups trying to raise awareness and understanding for some aspect of the LGBTQ+ community. There was a group called “Dignity for Soldiers”, another booth was from the first (and only) NPO that does outreach and support for at-risk LGBTQ+ youth in Korea. There were booths for just about every shade of the rainbow including Trans, Poly, Pan, Ace, Bi, BDSM… I think maybe the only sexual type not represented were Furries. But it’s ok, I found one in the parade later on.

There were also plenty of booths promoting general sexual awareness through sex toys, masturbation tools and positive attitudes. Koreans are often reticent to talk about sex, even when it’s cis-het, so getting out there to help people take some initiative in their own sexuality is still a big deal.

I was really on the verge of tears to see this. Many booths were selling things, pins or flags, erotic books and drawings, non-erotic books and drawings featuring LGBTQ+s, jewelry, booze, snacks, and so on. But making money wasn’t the point for anyone. For most of these booths, they were simply covering the cost of being there and making the materials that they were handing out for free to raise awareness. I have a stack of literature. Every booth was so full of friendly excited people. Any time we bought anything they cheered. Even just a little 50 cent postcard. Everything was a victory in their goals of increasing the awareness of their cause.

I kept getting distracted from the booths by people in fun costumes. Asking permission to take a picture is not as much a hardship after I got used to the Middle East photo culture. I can’t put all the pictures in the blog, but they are all in the Facebook album. You’ll probably notice that a lot of the people I snagged photos of are Westerners. This does not mean that the festival was all expats. Actually, of the 50,000 people who showed up (record breaking by the way), I’d say less than 10% were expats. However, the Koreans tended to be a bit more conservative in their costuming, and so there is a disproportionate photo representation.

I found this fun l20160611_133102ady in rainbows and feathers who, when I asked if I could take a photo, told me she was with the US Embassy. It turned out there was a whole row of Embassy booths there, each country sending official representatives to support LGBTQ+ rights (and promote tourism, let’s be honest). And for just a few hours, I was really proud of my country for making this public, overt, international, diplomatic, and above all enthusiastic statement of support for LGBTQ+ and gentle pressure for Korea to catch up. (Spoilers: This feeling does not get to live long.)

We wandered around the booths looking at the huge array of inclusiveness and outreach. We watched some of the shows on the stage- so very Korean, people doing K-pop dances and such. It rained on us a couple times, but it didn’t slow anything down; everyone just popped open umbrellas or put on raincoats. Even the performances didn’t stop in the20160611_134559 rain, they dancers just put on some plastic ponchos and kept right on dancing. I heard later that some of the protesters had apparently been praying for rain to ruin our day. I can only imagine their frustration when we didn’t let it dampen our spirits. If anything, it was a refreshing cool down during the summer heat!

Lest you think that all the churchy-folks were on the wrong side of the police line, we also found a couple of religious booths there embracing LGBTQ+ with signs and slogans about love, acceptance and Jesus. There was at least one Methodist group, and another group of Anglicans. Before you go on thinking that Archbishop Tutu is a crazy Drag Queen stage name, no. He’s a real Archbishop from South Africa whose daughter gave up the ministry to marry her girlfriend. He’s totally a real ally.

We got some mojitos in a bag, took silly pictures with the folks from Lush (maybe the only non-sex related corporate sponsor there, but I really like them as a company so I’m OK with them supporting the Festival to promote their stuff). They had this giant pink triangle people could hold and take selfies in. We took lots of other photos too. There was a girl with a beautiful bird who, when I tried to ask if I could take her picture, instead put her bird on my shoulder and took my phone to take a picture of me instead. There was a giant Kiwi at the New Zealand booth. And there were countless people in fun and adorable costumes.

Among the performers too numerous to count, I recognized one of the Queens from the show I went to here in Busan the weekend before. This time she had a set of 4 hunky dancers in fun costumes with her. I enjoyed the show, but I think even more impressive was the massive audience enthusiasm. The crowds on the lawn came hurtling toward the stage for her performances and fans were screaming and waving hands and signs in the air like a Beatles concert.

It took us over 2 hours to make a full circuit of the plaza and then we realized we’d missed some stuff! I cannot talk enough about how inclusive this festival was. So much representation, everyone sharing love and information. Smiles everywhere. There were also more disabled Koreans there in one day than I’ve seen in the 4 months I’ve lived here. Folks with mobility issues that left them in motorized wheelchairs, and not just old people, young people with a variety of disabilities. Everyone was welcome.

20160611_132547

Another big thing here was the sheer volume of Koreans. Yes, it’s Korea, there *should* be more Koreans, but a lot of people, both Korean and expat, seem to think that events like this are led by and dominated by expats. There’s a horrible myth among the anti-LGBTQ people here that Korean’s actually can’t be gay and that any Korean who thinks they are has been infected by outsiders. Many of the protester signs that weren’t telling us that Homosexuality is a sin were telling the gays to get out because they believe it’s a foreign infection and not a domestic issue. The more Koreans co-ordinate events like KQCF, the more who operate awareness booths and distribute information to their countrymen in Korean, the more who show up to support and learn, the better off LGBTQ+ is in Korea. Expats can show up, but we’re like allies here, we can’t change the country from the outside, we can only tell our Korean bros & sis’s that we support them and love them.

The March

20160611_181534The “parade” did have some “floats”, but it was not what we tend to think of as parades these days. There were a few trucks out in front with banners and people in costume on display in the truck beds, but the majority of the affair was much more akin to a political march than a celebratory parade. The walking area had us leaving the plaza, going up several blocks and around a big loop before returning to the plaza. It was around 3km, so not a huge hike, but definitely enough to attract attention, which was the point after all. The trucks out front 20160611_164622had a few decorations, mostly pink triangles and rainbows, and the people on the trucks were holding pro-love signs and dancing to encourage the crowd. There was nothing like a “parade float” in sight. Actually, that’s not totally true, the protesters had some pretty swanked up gear on the side of the road, but they didn’t march with us.

The majority of people in costumes (as I mentioned before) were foreigners who are more used to the out and proud attitude of Pride parades in the West. There were a few lovely Korean drag queens and a couple others in interesting get ups, but most were wearing fairly every day clothes. Some had on T-shirts with slogans for their cause, some wore various pride flags as capes, a few dressed in traditional Korean historical garb, lots had little signs or buttons, many people had rainbow umbrellas up to shield them from the sun, some waved giant flags high overhead and one couple even put some rainbow dusters in their packs to look like wings! Just because they weren’t going “all out” Western Pride style didn’t mean they hadn’t put thought and effort into their appearance that day.

I could have speculated that a percentage of those 50,000 in the plaza just turned up to stare and had little idea of what was going on, but nobody marches 3km in the June Seoul heat for a lookie loo. So, I’m sure that everyone marching that day was dedicated. I personally felt incredibly lucky to be involved because it felt more like a march than a parade. I felt like here was a thing that people still need to see. There are no “victory” signs at Pride in Korea yet.

The police continued to be amazing. They flanked the streets, blocking traffic as well as guarding us from the protesters along the route. The march was quite long and there weren’t enough police to line it all from start to finish, so as the tail end passed one group of police, they had to run ahead of us to take their place at the next phase of the route. Dedication!

20160611_164901There were plenty of protesters right at the start of the route near the plaza, but as we went on, their number dwindled and the amount of supportive bystanders increased. I’m so incredibly proud of the marchers that day.
The protesters constantly screamed at us, often with megaphones, words of hate and fear and rejection. However, not once did anyone in the festival or parade retaliate with anything other than words of love. As the protesters screamed “homosexuality is a sin” the 20160611_172542marchers yelled back “I love you”. We echoed their “hallelujah”s and smiled at them and blew them kisses. I’m personally a big fan of meeting hate with love, but it’s
hard and I’ve never before seen such a huge crowd so determinedly return love while receiving so much hate. I think Jesus would be proud.

20160611_165222As the protesters fell away, we began to notice people on the sidewalk holding signs of support or waving and smiling and giving us thumbs up signs. Restaurant owners leaned out of their second and third story windows to wave down at us. A group at Starbucks had clearly planned ahead, because not only had they gotten seats right by the window, but they all held up rainbow signs reading “support equality”.

I know it’s not up to me, as an outsider, to tell a country how it should be. I didn’t march because I thought my presence would change someone’s mind. I admit, I went to the festival to see what it would be like here, and it completely blew me away.

20160611_164806

The After Party

We sat around the plaza until things wound down because we were pooped after the march and we were more than slightly terrified of the public transport while the place was emptying out. The after party we chose to go to was the “official” Korea Queer Culture Festival one, although there were several around and I might choose a different one if I’m able to go again next year.

We bused back to the hostel for a shower and some dinner, but the location of the party was not conducive to public transport, so we had to try for another taxi (where are all the taxis, Seoul?). The nice young man in the convenience store called a taxi for us, but the driver refused to come because it wasn’t a big enough fare. It was pouring down rain and after 10pm, and the poor guy trying to help us is like, oh you can walk there in 20 minutes. No, thanks. Eventually we got a taxi to stop for us and made it to our goal.

13467613_10101445663321721_1849971968_oThe location for the party was stunning: a man-made island in the river. The buildings were huge and fun to look at with sweeping shapes and color changing windows. The party itself was a little lackluster for my tastes, but the one great thing about it was that it was about 98% Koreans. I sound like a broken record, but a lot of events I’ve gone to have had a large expat attendance and that’s fine for fun fun festivals, but this is more than that, it’s a civil rights movement with some party trappings and there can’t be a movement if the people of the country aren’t behind it, so it made me really happy to see so many Koreans there being openly gay in a way they can’t be in their day to day lives yet.

13467513_10101445663341681_243537355_oThere were some vendors in the main hall selling snacks and t shirts. The VIP lounge was quite classy, but the line for the bar was insane. The mojitos were outstanding, however, and there was a classical quartet performance as well. The dance floor was roomy and the DJs were fun, but he dancing was very Korean. This meant that groups of people got up on the stage and danced the moves to K-pop songs while the audience/dance floor did their best to keep up with the same moves… that they all knew… to all the songs. This is an aspect of Korean culture I may just never get used to.

We danced a while (not the right moves, but it was fun anyway), had some drinks, chatted with the few other English speakers we found and finally headed back out sometime around 2am. The next day was all buses and trains again. I got home Sunday afternoon thanks to the speedy KTX train and went to bed that night with a head and heart full of love and hope.20160611_153650That lasted until Monday morning when I opened my Facebook.


This next part is going to be the sad part. It will be followed by the rant part, and finally the bottom layer in the love pie as previously promised. If you want to skip all or any of it, I won’t be offended. I thought a lot about what to say and while I don’t feel comfortable just ignoring it, I know many people have been over-saturated by the events in Orlando. That being said, I hope you read it.


Monday (the Sad Part)

I think everyone knows about the stages of grief, but I think there is one missing at the beginning: empty. I place it before denial because going “no no no, that’s not real” is a distinct and separate phase from “empty”. It’s happened to me only a few other times, typically when the news hits me first thing in the morning. I remember feeling it on September 11th, because I woke up to 14 messages on my answering machine from my mother making sure I was OK (no, I didn’t live anywhere near NY or DC at the time, but moms). She told me what happened and I was like … “what?” There were no feelings at all for a while. Same thing on November 30th (you can read that post if you want). It was several hours before it started to have an impact.

comfortinThis Monday was the same way. I read the news, several times. I even went to google to find an actual journalistic report or 20 and not just some Facebook posts. I got dressed, cooked breakfast, went to work. Explained to my co-teachers that I might be a bit emotional that day because there was a horrible mass shooting in my home country and proceeded to get ready to teach classes. I think I made it through 2 classes before I actually started crying. I didn’t know anyone involved. I’m somewhere beyond “colleagues” yet well inside of “lookie loos” on circle of tragedy in the ring theory. After experiencing the love and warmth of the Korean Pride Festival, it was devastating to me to see what my own country had been up to.

Over the next week I went through plenty of ups and downs. I had an upset stomach from the feelings, so I was nauseous even when I was hungry. I randomly started crying, or talking way too loudly as I try to avoid screaming. I tried to explain the situation to Koreans, but things I take as givens about American culture are so confusing to them, I had to back up and give mini-history lessons just to catch up to how f*d up things were before this shooting. Phrases like “so they buy a politician” send my Korean co-workers reeling. When they asked me why we don’t just vote against pro-gun legislators, I had to explain the NRA, lobbying and gerrymandering. But even with that said, I’m incredibly lucky to have co-workers who will listen, discuss and sympathize because I’ve read other teachers here are forced to avoid it entirely at work.

The next day, a gunman was arrested in my hometown before (thankfully) he could shoot up a mosque just 2 blocks from a dear friend’s home. The internet is covered from head to toe with stuff about this event, and yeah, we should be talking up a storm. We should be shocked, angry, hurt, outraged. Stuff like this should not be normal. I started and deleted about a million posts because I couldn’t focus on anything without swaying wildly all over the emotional spectrum and ending up with some all caps version of “wtfbbq stop killing ppl!!!”.

I’ve gotten some thoughts condensed now. There’s plenty of stuff that’s been hashed and rehashed about anti-discrimination laws, gun control laws, immigration, religion, and so on. I’m not going to do those again because so many people on the internet have already said things more eloquently than I ever will (such as John Oliver on the NRA: Part 1, Part 2)

Instead, I’m going to talk about connection, the “or” problem, can vs should as it applies to free speech, and the crab bucket.

The “Rant” in 4 Sets

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

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

Connection

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

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

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

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

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

The “Or” Problem

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

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

lean-right-gun-control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom and security.

Dislike and respect.

Disagreement and compassion.

Can v Should: As It Applies to Free Speech

peter_tatchell_

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

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

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

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

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

freedom-of-speech-megaphone-300x2361

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

respect-the-freedom-of-others-quotes-freedom-quotes-nelson-mandela-quotes

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

You’re an adult. You should know better.

The Crab Bucket

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

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

quote-we-cannot-selectively-numb-emotions-when-we-numb-the-painful-emotions-we-also-numb-the-brene-brown-47-89-66

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

imagine__1


The Bottom Layer of Love

Penny: “Sometimes people are layered like that. There’s something totally different underneath than what’s on the surface.”

Billy:  “And sometimes there’s a third… even deeper level… and that one is the same as the top surface one…Like with pie.”

-Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog

I promised in my preview that I would end the blog post on a positive note because it’s important to emotional health. I admit I’m not feeling super positive about the situation myself, but I’m going to do my best.

For me and others here in Korea, we experienced the love of the Pride festival before the shock of Orlando, but as the hours and days passed I began to see that in the US, they experienced news of the Korea Queer Culture Festival after learning about Orlando. So let’s start with a recap of the beautiful day. I found this great video on YouTube made by an English speaking Korean vlogger. Enjoy!

It’s the 1 year anniversary of legalized gay marriage in all 50 states.

The Pentagon has lifted the ban on transgenders serving in the military.

Kim Davis’ acts are now officially illegal and court clerks have to issue marriage licenses whether they like it or not.

Despite how dark it may seem in the wake of tragedies like this one, we need to remember the singular rallying cry “love conquers hate”. After the shooting, one friend still in the US sent a link to me of a news article about Korean parents who came to the festival to give out hugs and tell the festival goers that they were loved just as they were. She told me it gave her great hope after reading about the news in the US to see that love was still fighting around the world, so I’ll just leave you with this message of love.. like with pie.