All I Want for Christmas Is to Stop Having Culture Shock

It has become unavoidably obvious that I am caught in the grip of some of the worst “rejection phase” culture shock I can remember. I was in denial about this up until this past Monday, but I can’t keep lying to myself about it. I was already upset that I didn’t get a “honeymoon” phase for Senegal, and I’ve spent almost every day since arriving here telling myself to stick it out because it will get better when… when I find an apartment, when my classes start, when the weather cools off, when I meet more people, when I finish this conference… it’s a never-ending goalpost-shift that I’m doing to myself. The wildest part about finally realizing that my anger, doubt, and frustration is “normal culture shock” is that it doesn’t make me feel any less angry, doubtful or frustrated… it just makes me feel very predictable and if anything even more angry, doubtful and frustrated that after 8+ years living abroad I’m still susceptible to this kind of extreme emotional wreckage.

What Is Culture Shock?

There’s a million articles about this, so I’m not going to go over every detail here. The most important things to know about culture shock are a) it’s not something you can just willpower yourself out of, and b) it follows a pattern within parameters. It’s a lot like grief or trauma response in this way. Most people know the “5 phases of grief”, but fewer know the phases of culture shock.

  1. honeymoon – “everything is awesome” or at least quaint, charming, or some other positive adjective
  2. rejection – “everything sucks”
  3. adjustment – “maybe I can make this work”
  4. adaptation – “I got this”
  5. reverse culture shock – “home doesn’t fit the same anymore”

These are often presented as a U-curve but in reality we know it as a rollercoaster that never ends, but just goes around and around and sometimes leaves you stuck hanging upside-down.

Much the same way that reaching the “acceptance” stage of grief doesn’t mean you magically stop feeling sad about the loss of your loved one, reaching “adaptation” doesn’t make you suddenly immune to culture shock.

A lot of the talk about culture shock is on a timeline of a year, roughly in quarters, and I think that’s because a year is a very standard time of living abroad for study or work. I’ve seen people on holiday pass through all four stages in a week, going from loving everything on Monday to nearly getting on a plane to fly home on Wednesday to navigating the public transit system and haggling with the street vendors by Saturday. Then there’s long term expats like myself who never really stop fluctuating through the effects of culture shock, but experience them in less extreme forms.

The brain goes through a bunch of changes when we leave our familiar surroundings. New neural connections are formed, chemicals and hormones are released in new and different ways and amounts. The honeymoon phase may just be extra dopamine and serotonin, and the rejection phase may be extra adrenaline and cortisol. It’s normal to seek the cause for any new emotion in our present environment. I learned about it while studying the trauma phenomenon of “emotional flashbacks” in which we experience an emotion as a result of past trauma but without the accompanying memory, we ascribe the cause of the emotion to the present, to whatever happened just before we started to feel it (the trigger).

When we are still new to a host culture, it’s easy to assign responsibility for any extra emotions (pleasant or un-) to the most obvious changes in our condition – the new culture. When we live in a foreign environment for years, we still experience the extra emotions, but tend to cast about for things within our lives like work or personal relationships which may have changed more recently. It’s classic the correlation/causation mix-up.

For a really long time now, whenever I have had brain changes resulting from culture shock, I didn’t think about them as being related to the specifics of Korean culture, but was able to see them as part of a broader pattern of the expat emotional roller coaster. I was having culture shock, but it wasn’t manifesting in the stereotypical ways. Now, I find myself suddenly having some very textbook-example culture shock symptoms, and I almost didn’t see it because I thought it was just for new travelers. Silly Rabbit, culture shock is for everyone.

Realizing I’m a Stereotype

At lunch the other day, my American colleagues patiently listened to me explain why I was having such a hard time here, and then while agreeing that my observations were valid, also pointed out that my emotional reaction could be culture shock. I gave it very little thought at the time, but it sat in my brain, and by the time I got home that afternoon (grumpy, exhausted, and questioning my life choices) I decided to do a little Googling. At first, I wasn’t finding any resonance. Yes, I missed my honeymoon phase because of housing and weather issues, and I had some complaints about things like chronic lateness and haggling for taxis, but I had plenty of examples of Senegalese culture that I appreciated. I love the food, I really enjoy driving along the corniche and watching the ocean, I like the way that everyone grows flowers to give color to the otherwise sand colored land. I was able to enjoy good nights out, and butterfly migrations, and students having fun. Surely I couldn’t be in this “hate everything” phase and still enjoy all that. Surely my litany of complaints were grounded in objective reality and not in an involuntary emotional response? Right?

Most people focus on the part of the “rejection” phase that centers around negative thoughts and feelings toward the host culture, but it’s not the only thing. There’s a whole pile of physical and mental health issues that come with this phase, especially if one is making the conscious effort to resist cultural judgement.

FATIGUE, ILLNESS, EATING/SLEEPING ISSUES – I wrote before about Bessel Vander Kolk’s seminal work The Body Keeps the Score. That book is about trauma manifesting in the body, but it carries the broader message that all kinds of unresolved stresses will come through as physical symptoms, especially in the form of chronic fatigue, chronic pain, eating/digestive issues & sleeping issues. Culture shock stress is no exception.

Am I extra tired because it’s hot AF, and because everything takes more time and energy to do, or because of culture shock? Am I feeling icky because of new local bacterial strains or because of culture shock? Am I not sleeping well because it’s a new apartment or is my insomnia acting up because of culture shock? Eating ice cream and bread for dinner is probably culture shock, but my recent bout of “I wanna die” fever/chills/aches/bed-to-bathroom/please-let-the-antibiotics-work-soon illness is probably the result of some local microbes my body has no immunity to.

MOOD SWINGS: ANGER, DEPRESSION & ANXIETY – Everything makes me grumpy, I have no resilience for minor obstacles. I hit fight, flight or freeze waaaay sooner than my own personal baseline. This results in some unhelpful reactions like loosing my temper at drivers who can’t use GPS or mentally checking out when I need to be focusing. Are my feelings of grumpiness proportional to the circumstances? Maybe sometimes? I mean, how many cockroaches do you have to squish before it makes you crazy? Is it reasonable to get angry when someone leaves your window cracked and the mosquitoes attack you in your sleep? What about when the neighbors kids get in a screaming match under your window for the 15th time this week, or they are redecorating next door and spend hours every day with hammers and drills? Am I grumpy all the time because of bugs and dirt and noise or because of culture shock?

I’m no stranger to anxiety either, but I was very interested to find that culture shock anxiety comes in new flavors like special concerns about water/food safety, a preoccupation with being scammed or robbed, and an obsession with cleanliness. I am not gonna lie, having to boil all my water even to brush my teeth means I spend more time thinking about it. I also sanitize my produce, which is not a thing I’ve done in other places (wash yes, but here we soak it in a mild bleach solution and rinse it with boiled water, it’s way more). I am also finding myself preoccupied with the bugs that I find crawling around. Intellectually, I know it’s just part of living in a climate like this. Even living in the US southern states you’ll be living with bugs, but I have noticed I think about it more here.

I’m starting to see that culture shock and emotional flashbacks have a lot in common. They are both strong emotional states which are frequently misattributed to coincident actions or environmental conditions. After I learned about the existence of emotional flashbacks, I had to start learning how to evaluate triggers. Sometimes, I’m triggered by things that are genuinely innocuous. In those cases, my emotional response is 100% not caused by the trigger. Other times, people do things that are objectively crappy and I have to sort out how much of my emotional response is flashback and how much is reasonable given the circumstances. I have to learn what a proportional emotional response feels like.

It’s reasonable to be upset and express disappointment when someone flakes on plans, but not reasonable to scream and cry for days about it. It’s reasonable to be frustrated that professional drivers can’t read maps, but not reasonable to yell at them about it. Why allow ourselves to be upset or angry at all if it causes so much trouble? Our anger protects us from abuse and harm. It’s reasonable to stop making plans with a person who never follows through, or to cut a person out of your life who won’t stop hurting you. It’s reasonable to leave a job that has a hostile work environment or move to a new city if the pollution is wrecking your health. Our proportional emotional responses serve to help us establish and maintain boundaries and ask for what we need in life to be comfortable and safe. The trick is identifying those when you’re in a state of emotional dysregulation.

SELF-DOUBT – This is the one that completely ate my brain when I found it. I was sitting around thinking things like “maybe I’ve made a terrible mistake”, “maybe I’m not strong enough to meet this challenge”, “maybe I’m a spoiled white-girl American after all”, “I don’t know if I can do this again, but I feel like a loser for not wanting to take advantage of this opportunity” and then I read this: Culture shack manifest as…

  • Questioning your decision to do this work
  • Feeling more shy or insecure than normal
  • Questioning long-held beliefs about religion, gender, morality, or other core convictions
  • Feeling like you’re an imposter
  • Questioning your ability to overcome adversity

Questioning My Decision to Do This Work

I already felt like the work I was doing in Korea was pretty darn meaningless, but the ability to travel the world on my holidays made up for a lot. During the pandemic when I was teaching required English classes online to students who were not interested in learning or using English and generally slept or played video games during the class, and I was totally unable to travel, the pointlessness of it all was eating away at me. When I was offered this Fellowship I thought, “well, no matter that Senegal will come with heat and dirt and bugs and other hardships, I will be doing something meaningful, and not in a “White Man’s Burden” way by imposing my own values, but by providing support to locals who are building meaningful educational programs themselves.” Reality has yet to measure up to this expectation.

The work I’m doing is if anything less meaningful. Meeting veterinary students one day a semester to promote the value of English education when no English education is available to them and no school resources or faculty members are allocated to help them is a waste of energy to promote a façade. Don’t get me wrong- I love meeting the students. I love watching them have fun in English and shake off some of the language anxiety, but I am frustrated by the total lack of ability to form rapport, or to provide growth opportunities. I feel like someone at State is going tot read this and ask me why I didn’t ask for more help from the school or the program, but the reality is, I’ve asked for help and been told “Inshallah, maybe next year” and due to the long list of culture shock symptoms listed above, I don’t have the energy or conviction to keep banging my head into that particular wall. And the idea that I, the foreign visitor, should be the one to spearhead the change or improvement or new program is exactly the kind of crap Kipling was advocating in his famously racist poem that I am working so hard to NEVER exemplify.

Feeling More Shy or Insecure Than Normal

I don’t know if I will ever actually be “shy”, but I have definitely had a lot of thoughts of insecurity – not only related to my ability to do the work or overcome the challenges, but in a social way. I have a lifetime of misreading social situations, and over the past many years I had come to a kind of peace with that where I became ok with people wandering off or didn’t listen because I just decided I would spend my energy on the people who wanted me around and showed it. I find that the people who stick around are a much more fulfilling category of relationship and I’m able to enjoy the more causal company of others with no expectations.

Now in Senegal, I’m suddenly I’m having the “are they secretly laughing at me when I’m not in the room” thoughts again. I feel like I’m imposing when I ask for help from the people whose job it is to help me. I feel like I’m incompetent in communicating when people say they can’t understand my French (it’s objectively accented but not unintelligible). I have to psych myself up to place delivery orders because I’ll have to talk on the phone. “I don’t know if I can do this” is starting to feel like a mantra, and it’s not a good one.

Questioning Long-Held Beliefs About Morality or Other Core Convictions

Questioning long held beliefs is a hobby of mine. I love reading/watching stuff that makes me think. I love the fact that living abroad makes me question myself. I love that teaching university students makes me constantly aware of changing values by generation. I have questioned my religion, gender, and sexuality to death, but I still managed to find a new morality / core identity issue to question here in Senegal: my privilege, my biases, my culturally baked-in racism, the morality of existing as a person whose privilege comes from the multi-generational exploitation of the country I’m in (one of the biggest slave ports was here in Dakar), and my responsibility within a problematic system.

It started because things are hard and I complain, and I end up feeling very “spoiled white girl” complaining about difficult, expensive, or uncomfortable things, which then makes me feel guilty, which then makes me self referentially aware of my white guilt, and I get sucked into a moral rabbit hole that would give Chidi Anagonye a very upset tummy.

When I complained about stuff in Korea, it was cultural not economic. Things were not better or worse, they were just different. Here, my lowest acceptable standards for long-term quality of life are actually quite high relative to the local people’s lived experiences, and it’s not something they can afford to change. One could argue that it’s a class/economic issue separate from the question of race, but the reality is the reason most of Africa is in poverty is because of the exploitation of the slave trade and colonialism.

Even though I experienced poverty by American standards, I still grew up with relative wealth and privilege that came directly from the historical destruction of this culture and economy, and now I’m so spoiled by all that privilege that the way many of these people live seems substandard to the point of discomfort and even disgust to me. Do I have any right to complain? And yet I can’t make myself comfortable with the local quality of life just by acknowledging this disparity. I always say it’s not the Pain Olympics and we shouldn’t engage in comparative suffering, but I can’t help wonder if I’ve become the global version of the kid who is mad they only got the second newest iPhone for their birthday.

There’s pressure to conform to the white savior trope, too. I am pushing back against that, but I can feel it coming not only from the program and the Embassy, but also from the locals. I know my intentions are good in being here, but there’s a huge accountability gap between “not purposely making it worse” and “not actually making it worse”. I can’t say for sure that my presence here isn’t making things worse. The school ditched their local English teacher when they got a foreigner, and they don’t have any plans to hire real English faculty (I’m not working here as a full time teacher), so now the students have a “meet the native speaker” day instead of a real class with a Senegalese teacher. It was supposed to be “in addition to”, but this is what happens when people assume the white/American/native English speaker is automatically a superior resource. When I go to conferences and speak, I’m given preference simply because I’m perceived as a foreign expert, and I have to figure out how to balance my desire to further my own career with my responsibility not to take away time/attention/resources from locals.

Regardless of my intentions before arriving (when I didn’t yet understand the full reality we can argue I was not making a moral transgression) but now that I know do I have a moral obligation to take a different course of action? We hold people accountable for being a knowing and complicit part of a damaging system, so the question is: is this a damaging system (in the assumption that we as Americans occupy a position of needing to step in and help or manage programs in developing nations, and are we helping in the sense of following the locals’ lead or “helping” in the sense of telling them what to do?), and is staying and doing my best more or less morally responsible than leaving this “white man’s burden” parody of diplomatic relations?

I don’t expect an answer, it merely illustrates the point that my “questioning moral and core beliefs” switch has been fully engaged in this round of culture shock.

Feeling Like I’m an Imposter

A lot of “former gifted children” feel this. Being told for years that you’re smarter and more driven and more creative and generally better than your peers is not actually helpful, as it turns out. I managed to maintain the illusion until I got to grad school, where I was suddenly surrounded by all the other gifted kids, many of whom also had major economic advantages in terms of private studies, internships, and study abroad programs and were leaving me feeling like I didn’t belong at all. My polyglotism is a chronic source of the strange see-saw of confidence/imposter syndrome. Compared with the average American, even the average American with my equivalent education, I have awesome language skillz. I can get unlost in 7 languages. However, I can’t have a reasonable conversation in more than 2-3 and I can’t have an advanced topic discussion outside of English. Compared to most of the people I meet in academic or government programs, I’m a language idiot. Every one of the 6 Fulbrighters (22-24 year-olds) who I met at orientation is fluent in French and several are already passable in Wolof. They were selected for the program in part for this skillset, while fluency was barely a consideration for my position and I shouldn’t feel bad because I was selected for a highly competitive program based on a lifetime of education and experience, but I feel like I’m somehow less qualified to be here than the new college grads. Imposter!

I also feel that the expectation that I’ll be organizing projects, mentoring teachers, and presenting at conferences is in a big way setting me up for another round of “I don’t belong here”. That’s playing back into the insecurity, but insecurity and imposter syndrome are best pals. After all, if I’m not actually qualified to do this and people figure that out, they will dislike me, right? So far I’ve been able manage the projects I’ve been asked to take on (feeling like a faker the whole time); however, there’s no doubt that the imposter syndrome is stopping me from asking for more opportunities or creating more for myself, which contributes to the feeling that I’m not doing any meaningful work, which contributes to the self doubt of whether I should be here at all. It’s a vicious-tangled-circle-web culminating in…

Questioning My Ability to Overcome Adversity

Everything I complain about, all the feelings of doubt and inadequacy, all the physical discomfort, the obstacles to personal and career goals, and the ongoing struggle with depression and anxiety are ADVERSITY, so as soon as my ability to overcome adversity comes under fire, it makes all those other issues that much bigger and by definition insurmountable.

When we are young, we feel immortal and almost arrogantly confident. We don’t know enough to know that’s supposed to be impossible so we do it. As we age, we learn our limitations through painful consequences. Perhaps 25 years ago, my faith in my ability to overcome was based in youthful grit and stubbornness, but these days it comes from a place of experience. I have overcome adversity in the past, and any time I can compare my current adversity to a past adversity which has already been conquered, it’s easy to have faith that I’ll make it. The reverse side of the “past experiences” coin is that my anxiety is also based on experience: “this horrible thing that most people only imagine and isn’t actually very likely has already happened and is therefore 100% likely and reasonable to feel anxiety about”.

Of course, at some point everything we overcome has to be overcome for the first time. Artists don’t start by painting museum quality oils. Athletes don’t start by running a marathon. We start small and build up. It’s true that we get older, we become more risk averse, but I can continue to do things like “quit my job and go to a foreign country” because my experience tells me that is actually a low risk activity for me. Before coming here, I thought that my past experiences of living in China and Saudi and travelling around the Middle East and Southeast Asia would prepare me for the challenges I’d face in Senegal. Now I’m wondering if there are just some adversities I have Murtaugh Listed out of being able to handle

Psychological Side Effects

There’s one more factor about living in Africa that is unique to this continent: anti-malarials. The British relied on quinine, and while I love a good G&T, these days we have pills to fend off severe malarial infections. There are a lot of options on the market, but they all have pros and cons. Cost is a big factor for a lot of people. Daily vs weekly doses is another consideration. I’m not good at daily pills even short term, so weekly was a big appeal for me. Then there’s strain resistance. Malaria in some places has become resistant to the more commonly used drugs. That includes Senegal, for which Chloroquine is contra-indicated due to resistant strains of malaria that dominate here. That left me with Mefloquine which has a higher than desirable risk of psychological side effects, many of which are co-morbid with the psychological effects of culture shock, with the added bonus of vivid dreams, possible hallucinations, and seizures. Yay. Studies are fairly limited and there is no data which studies the effects of the medication in the subject’s home culture, so no way to know what amount of the distressing symptoms are a result of living in Africa as a foreigner or of the Mefloquine.

And I hate hate hate the idea that as women we are constantly judged as overemotional due to our hormones, but I did just turn 45 and some of this mood swing business could legitimately be a part of perimenopause. So we have at least 5 different factors in play: 1) pre-existing conditions, 2) environmental adversity, 3) culture shock, 4) medicine and 5) getting old. The chances of my mental/emotional state being only and entirely just ONE of these factors is 0, and 3 of them are directly related to living in Dakar.

Is It Real or Is It Culture Shock?

The time is coming where I have to start making decisions about my future. We’re already making plans for our mid-year conference, and before you know it, the 10 month Fellowship will be over. Whatever happens, I know that this is a life altering and immeasurably valuable and unique experience. I don’t regret the decision to come in any way. I just want my future self to be able to tell some “it was so awesome” stories about Senegal alongside my newfound stories of resilience and overcoming adversity. However, I’m having a really hard time making plans or looking forward to anything while I’m in this particular loop of the emotional rollercoaster. So please, Santa, all I want for Christmas is no more culture shock… or if that’s not possible, then I’ll take one in blue.

안녕히계세요 Korea: It’s Time to Go

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

What Have I Been Doing All This Time?

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

The Death of the Traveler

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

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

The Rest of 2020

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

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

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

2021

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

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

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

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

2022 to Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Can Even, Right Now? – Gallivantrix

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

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

Who can even, right now?

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

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

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

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

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

What have I been doing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

It’s ok to not be ok.

Life a Little Upside-down

Hi everyone.

This is half letter, half rant, half diary entry. Yes, that’s 1.5 posts. I know. Don’t worry, it’s not THAT long.

All my posts through February and March were pre-written and scheduled in January. I haven’t written anything new since I found out there was such a thing as Covid-19.

All my great plans to be posting about Ireland and Spain while breezing through my Spring Semester classes that I’d worked SO HARD to prep into good shape last year specifically so they would be a breeze and leave me tons of free time to write and work on my PhD application are…. fucked.

As far as I can tell, everyone in the world is to a greater or lesser degree similarly fucked. I thought for a long time about what I could say here and every time I thought I knew, something changed.

Outside of China, it hit Korea hardest early on. When it started in Daegu I was still in Spain, and I figured I’d deal with it when my holidays were over. Then I got to the airport in Paris to discover that not only had my flight been cancelled but no one bothered to tell me or put me on a different flight. I had a pretty good idea that it was changed because Air France announced the cancelling of all flights through China, but when I checked the flight matrix, it looked like my flight was just changed to a direct flight – Paris to Seoul.

I thought about telling you about the 9 hour airport drama of getting on a new flight, but it seems trivial now that people are delayed days without news, or even completely blocked from returning home.

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Then I got here (Korea) and I stayed in my apartment for 14 days. Quarantine wasn’t mandatory yet, but my University asked us not to come to the campus for 14 days, and the weather was bitterly cold, no good for going out, plus all my plans to visit other cities seemed unwise as our case count climbed higher and higher every day. Public schools and universities were all delaying the start of the school year (normally March 1 in Korea).

I read constantly. Trying to understand this new and strange thing. I thought at first it might be like SARS or MERS and I held of on writing anything because I wanted to see what the resolution would be. By the time my 14 days was over, it was painfully obvious the resolution was a long long way off. However, I still couldn’t write here because by then I had permission to return to campus and the school had finally decided on an online class platform.

A week of total insanity where we all tried to figure out what this was, how to use it, being horribly frustrated with everything. The school trying to tell us all “it’s only for 2 weeks” and I kept trying to convince everyone it would be at least the whole spring semester and possibly longer.

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I thought about regaling you all with the horrors of teaching with a language barrier in a platform designed for meetings (not training sessions or classrooms) and totally inadequate technology, but by now there are hundreds of such tales from teachers of every level around the world. The Korean public k-12 schools will start their online classes this week and then there will be even more stories out there.

I got sick for about a week. It was only a little sick. I had a horrible non-stop headache and horrible sore throat that I thought were the result of the new online class format. I got a little cough, and a lot of fatigue, and I learned how to teach class from my bed in my pajamas. I don’t have a desk in my apartment. I’m feeling much better now. I don’t think it was Covid, but I didn’t ask to be tested, I just self quarantined until I was symptom free for over 72 hours. I tried to buy a thermometer, but I can’t get one, so I have no idea if I had a fever.

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And now I’m allowed back on campus. I have energy again. I am more informed. I feel like an amateur epidemiologist. I’ve done a 4 week intensive online crash course. I thought, “I should write something.”, but I still don’t know what say.

Korea is doing better, but in many ways only because so many Western countries are doing SO MUCH WORSE. I hate the way the President and PM and schools and everyone in charge has been handing out information one/two weeks at a time. The understanding from the WHO and top scientists that this is a long-term project, that a flat curve lasts longer than a tall curve, has been public for what feels like AGES and yet in Korea, they keep acting like it will all be over any minute now. Just another week …. maybe two. Then when the time is up, they say it again.

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While everyone in the West is still worried about mass graves seen from space or ice-rink morgues, I’m worried about idiots who can’t go one spring without looking at cherry blossoms ruining all the hard work we did in March and starting a second wave.

Actually, I’m worried about a lot of things. Mostly my family in America where it appears that life is well and truly fucked. My parents, my sister, and her two kids live over there. I’ve heard so many stories from drive up veterinarian offices (they don’t want people to come in, but still want to treat urgent pet health care issues) to race arguments about whether black people can catch it (spoiler, they can, but that’s not stopping people on Twitter spreading lies). It’s a patchwork mess, and everyone I know who is in a different county or city, let alone state, is experiencing something else. Schools are cancelling the remainder of the school year, so many people are out of work that the unemployment graph actually broke. Many of my friends are either part of that spike or stuck in “essential” jobs that put their health at risk every day, and since most of them also have underlying health conditions, I’m basically expecting people I love to die before this ends, and those who survive to be financially crippled for years if not forever.

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I am very full of emotions.

I distract myself with school and mindless TV as much as I can because if I think too hard about what is going on in the world, I cry.  Like, now.

I’m reassured by a multitude of therapists and psychiatrists that this is normal. That what we are experiencing is so big and so terrible that our poor little brains are just totally unequipped to handle it. The amygdala is in overdrive trying to decide what fear response to use for this unseen threat – fight? flight? freeze? WHAT? cycling us through an endless, relentless roller-coaster of emotions that we may not even recognize as related to the pandemic if we don’t listen carefully to ourselves. Grief is present. Grief for lost opportunities, lost jobs, futures… that’s a real thing. Anticipatory grief is a real thing too. Mostly people go through that when a loved one has a terminal illness. I’m grieving the loss of my life plan and I have some anticipatory grief because I am pretty sure I’ll loose someone I love and almost 100% sure I will lose someone I know. Then there’s depression, anxiety, dissociation, mania. There’s also a collective trauma being built that we will all own the aftereffects of for the rest of our lives. You don’t heal from grief and trauma, you just learn to let it take less space and cause less pain gradually over time, and we are nowhere near the part of this where we can even START to do that.

I’m trying hard to let myself feel my feelings, but also not to let them drown me, and not to forget to be grateful for good things, not forget to enjoy things even while I worry and fear and hurt. It’s hard.

My job is something I can focus on. I work to remake lesson plans into the ill-equipped web format I’ve been ordered to use. I read a lot of advice from other educators online. I spend a lot of time trying to remember my students are so young and so ill-equipped to handle what is happening in their lives right now that I have to be calm, and gracious, and forgiving and encouraging, but I feel like I’m not getting enough of that for myself.

I think my friends/family are trying, but we’re all so scared and unsure that no one can really be “the adult” who listens and supports and comforts. I don’t want a therapist for this (yet), I just want someone to listen to me rant and then tell me comforting things. It’s not easy. No one is unaffected by this. The ring theory does not work when everyone is in the same ring!

ringtheory1I also started an art project before my winter holidays, another paper sea creature. It’s incredibly intricate and I spend at least one day a week happily cutting tiny pieces of paper and checking colors and patterns until I’m happy with one. It’s coming along nicely. Some people paint, draw, or use coloring books. Some people are cooking, or making music, or writing, or making videos, or holding virtual karaoke rooms. Art helps.

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Another thing I can focus on is my hobby of travel and photography. I can’t travel right now, but I can dream about it and remember it. I started an Instagram challenge to post a landscape photo every day from a different place in alphabetical order. I call it the #alphabetlandscapechallenge and it’s really excessive, but I needed something complex and detailed to focus on.

I met a lady from Malaysia on Insta the other day and we talked about travel plans for like an hour. At the end she said she felt guilty for dreaming about travel while so many people in the world were worried about COVID, their health and employment.

Someone, somewhere is always suffering in the world. Even before COVID there were people in fear of their health, dying for want of medicine, unable to feed their children, unable to find a job or working for slave wages. I believe it is important never to forget these things, but also to not let them destroy us. I don’t usually go in for quoting religions of any kind, but even Jesus agrees with me on this one, guys.

Now more than ever we need beautiful, creative things. We need dreams of what will come after that are better than what came before. So, maybe that’s what I want to say.

If you take anything away from this rambling letter, then take these 3 things:

Everyone is in this together.
It’s ok to not be ok.
It’s important to keep dreaming.

Now, #staythefuckhome and #flattenthecurve.

x25uvp9or8n41

Vincent and Me

I know I said I was going to tell you about Ireland, but… We passed through Paris for a few days on the way because CDG is in the middle of everything and I love Paris. Another visit to the Musee d’Orsay got me thinking about the impressionists I love, especially Van Gogh. So, this post isn’t about Ireland OR Paris, it’s about my experience at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.


In the summer of 2018, I passed through Amsterdam for a single day. You can read about the rest of the day here, but this post is dedicated 100% to the Van Gogh Museum.  It was such an inspiring and emotional experience for me that I paused to take notes about my thoughts and feelings as I was walking through the collection. Usually, I write reflections afterward, but my mind was racing with insights and inspirations so fast, I was afraid I might forget. I mentioned in my essay about the Musee d’Orsay how connected I feel to Vincent, but it wasn’t until I toured this museum in Amsterdam that I really understood the depth of my feelings.

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I didn’t include this in my original stories about that summer because I wanted to watch the movie “Loving Vincent” before I finished writing it. I finally got that chance when it turned up on Netflix for a short run earlier this year. The movie was beautifully hand painted in Van Gogh’s signature style, but I was surprised to find it’s almost entirely about his death rather than his life. The point of view character is charged with delivering a letter and gets caught up in the mysterious circumstances of Vincent’s supposed suicide.

I’ve always loved Van Gogh, and it seems everything I learned about him at that museum only made me love him more.

The Museum

The museum is so crowded. I had the very earliest time slot available and I still felt hemmed in by bodies. I went backwards from his death on the third floor to his youth on the ground level. I’m glad I started at the top because after 3 hours of wandering the displays, I felt all itchy skinned at having to deal with mountains of bodies, mostly focused on their audio tours, and many trying to take photos even though it’s not allowed except at special photo-op areas. Even then, the museum took my photo for me, and sent it later by email.

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That was a big contrast over the d’Orsay. There everyone queued up to snap photos of famous painting (yeah, me too), while in Amsterdam, people are just clumped around, usually plugged into headphones and oblivious to the presence of other visitors. I’m not sure which is better/worse. I think it would just generally be better if it were less crowded. It’s hard to get time with a painting when being jostled and stepped around. I’m glad everyone wants to experience the art but it feels like it looses something to my “oh my God get the humans off me” response. I can’t even imagine how it is during “peak” times.

I’ll talk about the main displays in a moment, but one little fun mention is the tactile sunflowers near the gift shop. Art museums are not usually targeted to the blind or visually impaired, but someone had created  a reproduction of the famous sunflower painting that can be touched. Along with touch, the senses of sound in the form of violin music with amplified sounds of the flower growing, blooming and dying (listen below), and the sense of smell with some sunflowers in a box. Interestingly, it was not only the smell of the flower but the smell of the painting as well. It’s not a part of Vincent’s art, but I thought it was an amazing way to experience art in a new way.

On to Vincent — backwards.

He died July 29, 1890, two days after receiving a bullet wound to the torso, possibly self inflicted.

Auvers-sur-Oise (May–July 1890)

 The works at the end of his life were frenzied like he knew his time was almost out of time, and he had to get as many paintings done as possible. He finished 75 paintings in 70 days, many of which are his most famous works: like Wheat Fields with Crows in Amsterdam, or Church at Auvers in Paris. There is impatience in the brush strokes and they looked massively different from a few feet away and across the room.

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The way he is attracted to the colors of night, the intense deep blue of the sky on days it gets so blue it becomes dark. The blue and pale gold of all his wheat fields that is a color scheme I would live inside if I could. He did scores of these kind of blue and gold themed paintings during his last days, but it wasn’t the first time he hit on the intensity of those countryside colors.

Saint-Rémy (May 1889 – May 1890)

Although Starry Night and Almond Blossoms were both made during this time, the paintings on display for this part of his life are drab compared to his other colors. Almost painfully dominated by brown and dark green with pale skies. He was in pain and unable to escape.

Part of the display in the museum here are audio recordings of some of his letters. We could pick up an ear piece and listen. I was entranced. Listening to his letters I could hear my own thoughts, yearning for something best called “religion”. He says that he doesn’t go to church, but he goes outside at night to look at the stars and the sky that is cobalt blue. He muses about color, that all things appear colorless when looked at too closely (sand, water, air), but that doesn’t make it true. He talks about his friends: that the bonds of friendship are one of the best things in life even if we resent those bonds in our times of depression.

I don’t know the best way to explain it other than to say his words resonated with me on a very deep level. I think we all struggle to be understood in some way and in a moment when you realize someone you admire and respect understands the way you think and feel, what’s more, understood it long before you were born… I suppose it could make someone feel less special or unique, but for me it’s like finding a friend across not just space, but also time.

Arles (1888–89)

This is where Vincent painted the famous Sunflowers, and where many people feel he truly found his voice as an artist, taking what he’d learned and finally becoming free. Van Gogh’s treasured friendships also started here where he sought an artists commune and cultivated a joyful and supportive relationship with several painters. They frequently sent letters, sketches, and even paintings to one another the way that we sent Snapchats and Memes across social media today. There is a painting by Gauguin of Vincent painting sunflowers. It is an imagination since Gauguin was not present when the sunflower paintings were made, but it reminded me of the “taking a picture of someone taking a picture” fashion in modern photography. It seems friends play the same games with images whenever they can.

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Vincent asked Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard to each send him a portrait of the other. Instead, they sent self portraits but had a portrait of the other hanging on a wall as part of the background.  It’s such a wonderful and lighthearted sense of humor. Sadly, Gauguin was such an arrogant ass that he never granted his true friendship, and instead left Vincent always chasing after his affection and respect, contributing to his anxiety and depression, and to his eventual mental breakdown, self-mutilation, and hospitalization. I don’t like Gauguin for a lot of reasons, this is really just one more.

On the other hand, Paul Signac, a neo-impresionist I only recently discovered in 2018 and one who has rocketed to the top of my all time favorite paintings list, visited Vincent in the hospital twice while Gauguin was busy avoiding him, so that’s nice to know.

Paris (1886–1888)

Moving to Paris was the best thing he could have ever done. Watching him develop his color palette reminded me of the first time I realized I was allowed to paint whatever colors I wanted. I didn’t have to make it realistic. It was so freeing and I finally started to like some of my paintings. Looking at his early bright-color works they all have an awkward, exploring feeling which is quite different from the bold and confident colors later.

He used a grid for perspective, which was a thing I struggled with, and he spent years doing just drawings because he wanted to focus on shapes and poses. He didn’t only consider them sketches but full works of art which he signed. I did very much the same thing. He also had a brief but torrid love affair with Japanese culture in 1887, and that was the first foreign culture I was drawn to before I really went full globe trotter. I have never been able to afford as much paint and canvas as I want, and the advent of digital photography and graphic design gave me a much cheaper way to pursue my artistic inclinations.909px-Vincent_van_Gogh_-_Bloeiende_pruimenboomgaard-_naar_Hiroshige_-_Google_Art_Project

While many of his artist friends preferred to paint from imagination, Vincent  preferred to paint from life. I wonder what he would have thought of color photography. It’s a way to capture a scene, a moment of light and color. Modern digital effects even allow us to manipulate the colors and light of a captured image. You can make a blue sky bluer, or over-saturate the colors of a cafe at night… I think he might have enjoyed it?

The Netherlands (1881-1885)

At the outset of his artistic career, he was trying to create a look that was popular at the time and that he genuinely admired, that of artists like Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton. Millet and Breton (left) were famous for dark and drab paintings of peasant life. They were very stark and brutal depictions of what life was like for poor and hard working, technically lovely, but emotionally ugly. Of course, art historians refer to this style of painting as revealing “the beauty and idyllic vision of rural existence”. I think that’s only true if you’ve never been poor. VanGogh (right) was determined to be like them.

He did an enormous body of work sketching local peasants and farm workers, the centerpiece of which is The Potato Eaters (below). It’s all done in the same color palette and mood as Millet and Breton, but the faces look almost cartoonish in his effort to capture feelings over accuracy.

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Seeing his still life of fruit in all brown tones, I was shocked to see it was Van Gogh and not Millet’s or Breton. 

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Just looking at the church in Nunes (left) next to the church in Auvers (right), you can see the change and growth. Yes, I promise, they’re both Van Gogh, but from drastically different stages of his artistic development.

I don’t know if he liked it, but it’s definitely a period of drab and dark colors maybe the landscape was more drab or maybe it was the influence of being near his father. He stayed enamored of Millet (left) for most of the rest of his life, and recreated many of those idyllic, pastoral scenes in his own brightly colored impressionistic style (right).

Life Before Painting (1853-1881)

It’s said that his mother never recovered from the loss of her firstborn child and that her relationship with Vincent was strained, but he was also recorded as being a “serious, quiet and thoughtful” child. His father was a minister, and two of his uncles were art dealers. He tried both careers with little success. His father was constantly disappointed in his inability to make it as an adult. Perhaps it was his time as an art dealer that made him try his hand at creating art, and why he spent so much time and effort trying to replicate the style and subject of the famous and successful artists of the time.

Reflections

Going backwards was an interesting choice. I realize that I, like most people, love best his works from 1888-1890. It seems like such a brief time span, but he practiced art for less than 10 years before he died. It is astonishing the amount of work he produced. When people say “practice” this is really what they mean. On the other hand, he was constantly trying to improve, so the fact that he clearly did is a testament to his devotion to self cultivation.

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Watching him evolve was a rushing, intimate roller-coaster of creativity and self-expression under difficult circumstances. He didn’t have formal art training, but taught himself by studying others. He experienced enormous frustration that his attempts to imitate the respected artists he was familiar with failed. Eventually, he found a community of like minded people and permission to explore color and shape on his own in Paris. It was the beginning of finding his own true self, and yet it destroyed his mind to the point that he landed in the hospital more than once. And yet, that Parisian community is what would sustain him in the form of letters, art exchanges, and the oh-so-important stability that even distant friends can offer. 

There’s a misconception that great artists are never appreciated in their own time, but that’s simply untrue. Most famous artists throughout history were superstars of their own day, like Hollywood actors and TV stars today. That Vincent never gained any recognition or respect until after his death was likely a contributing factor to his suffering in life.

Did he kill himself? Maybe. I know that the episode of Dr. Who where Amy and the Doctor visit Vincent is one of my favorite. That it helped me process the suicide of my own dear friend to realize that we can do everything right to be supportive and yet mental illness can still take someone away as surely as cancer. “Loving Vincent” made me question his death all over as suspicious information came to light regarding the gun, the wound, and the strange behavior of the people in Auvers. Officially, his death is still ruled a suicide, but his life remains a brilliant and sad mystery in many ways. According to his brother who was there at the end, Vincent’s last words were: “The sadness will last forever”

In some ways I’m glad I did not read about his life when I was younger. If I’d discovered all our similarities at the age of 20 I might have developed a complex. I might have worked less hard to get help and spent more time glorifying what was happening to me. Instead, when I learned that we shared a diagnosis, I was content just to know there was someone else with my brain trouble.

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I remember when things were very bad thinking that if cutting my ear off would make it stop, I would gladly do so, but Vincent had already proven it wouldn’t work. I could understand the feelings that drove him to see the world in colors and swirls, that drove him mad enough to drink and self-harm, that landed him in an asylum and eventually dead. I understood the sentiment, but I didn’t know anything else about him beyond a few paintings and his suicide. Back then, I looked only at his art and at the very most well known facts about his life and felt a connection.

Now that I’ve learned more details, from his family life, to his progress through art, to his views on the universe and human relationships? I’m blown away by it.

I’m not trying to say I’m channeling van Gogh, but I’ve always felt a kinship with him. I didn’t move to Paris and join an artist commune, so I don’t have a tiny fraction of his nearly 1,000 finished works. I probably never will, because I was able to manage my state of mind better, whether from support of my community or improved medical care, who can say. The end result is that I got it under control and now I not only have a lot more responsibilities than Vincent did, I have also avoided multi-year stretches of confinement under a doctor’s care. Despite this divergence, I can say that trying to be “normal”, “acceptable”, or “popular” in his own lifetime was something he desperately wanted and could never achieve is a feeling I know all too well.

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You can see photos of the complete works of Vincent Van Gogh on this wiki.

You can explore the collection at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsteram here.

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).

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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.

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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!”

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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. 

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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. 

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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. ❤

Hello Bohol: Introductions & Disclaimers

During the Chuseok holiday this October, I took a 9 day trip to Bohol in the Philippines. It’s taken me a long time to get the rough draft out of my head, and it’s going to take even longer to devote time to polishing the words and photos. I’ve broken up the story into small, and hopefully joyful vignettes rather than a continuous narrative. This post is a little introduction to Bohol, and a little explanation about why this story is being told differently. Yeah, it’s another post with no photos… it’s been that kind of fall. If you’re really craving photos, you can go look at the chrysanthemums I found here in Korea last weekend.


I usually take holidays by going to all the places. I can look at my color coded spreadsheets of past holidays and it’s a little bit non-stop. I think the last time I stayed in one place more than a couple nights on holiday (not counting family visits) was in that resort in Egypt, and even then I did a day flight into Cairo and may have done more if not for the food poisoning of doom. Every other holiday has been a whirlwind of exploration, and I love that. I love seeing all the things. But, considering it’s been 2.5 years since I last did a “relaxing” holiday, and considering how I drove myself into the ground in Thailand, I decided Chuseok was going to be a single destination vacation.

Even in the spring when I started to look at plane tickets, the holiday prices were already sky high, and my decision to go to the Philippines was influenced by the fact that they were some of the cheapest flights left. After asking a friend who has lived in Manila decades where to go, I decided to spend my time in Panglao. Panglao is a tiny island that’s off the coast of tiny Bohol.

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Some people may look at the tiny island of Panglao and say, really 9 days? What did you do? Especially when you consider I don’t really DO laying on the beach all day, nor do I have my diving certification (the two main reasons to go there). It turns out that there is a LOT of amazing stuff over there, most especially if you can control your own transportation. I didn’t make a spreadsheet for this holiday either (to be honest, I was a little focused on the US trip, and the dental work). I did make some tentative itineraries based on interesting things and geographic proximity, but I did not have a day to day PLAN. I made fewer itineraries than there were days, so that there would be resting time and I would avoid the kind of burnout that happened in January. I was also meeting a friend there and wanted her to feel like she had some room to suggest things and not be railroaded by color coded schedules.

Researching Bohol ahead of the visit was a little tricky since it’s not a real popular stop on the backpacker routes and the tourists listed the same few “must-do’s” over and over without a whole lot of information on them since it seemed nearly everyone who went joined a tour group or hired a guide to make these tried and true tourism routes. I was largely content with the idea of doing the same things, but on my own time and without an awkward guide trying to make conversation, take silly photos, or rush me on to the next thing (it turned out I couldn’t avoid this altogether, but the few times I was forced into it, it made me grateful for the self touring I did the rest of the time).

The posts in the “Hello Bohol” series are not strictly chronological, but more organized into categories:

First and Last – I thought about calling this one “airports and hotels” but I thought, who’s going to want to read that? It’s the story of getting to Bohol, and a rather special experience on my last morning there.

My Own Two Wheels – After Thailand, I realized that I needed to learn how to ride a motorbike to get around SE Asia. With it’s small size and lack of cities, Panglao seemed like the perfect time to try. These are the stories of learning to ride a motorbike and how it felt.

Chocolate Hills & Tarsiers – Two of the most famous tourism attractions on the larger island of Bohol. I visited the Chocolate Hills, two tarsier parks, and a few other attractions nearby.

Balicasag with the Turtles – I got a spot on a diving boat heading out to the minuscule island of Balicasag, best known as a serious gathering place of giant sea turtles. I didn’t join the divers, but I had excellent snorkel experiences and finally got my own underwater photos!

Beaches – There are so many beaches on Panglao. I didn’t have a chance to visit them all, but I managed to get in quite a variety.

Food & Fancy Restaurants– There is an amazing plethora of gourmet food on Panglao. Everybody has to eat, and vacation is the time to indulge. Vacation calories don’t count, right?

Panglao – things to do and see on Panglao besides beaches and restaurants

Loboc River – a lunch cruise by day and a firefly cruise by night, the Loboc river is another tourism hotspot in Bohol that’s worth the visit.

History & Historical Sites – For anyone who likes history as much as I do, this post includes several old churches, military fortifications, and other historical points of interest, as well as some backstory about the Philippines I didn’t know about before.

Waterfalls – My last full day of the trip I went on a three waterfall adventure quest that took me to muddy back roads and some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

What’s going on with me this holiday?

Every time I write, it’s a work of balancing the best story with the actual reality. This is not to say that I make things up, but sometimes I leave things out. Like any good storyteller, I leave out boring details. You don’t want to read about what movie I watched on the airplane or every time I had cup noodles as a snack or how often I brushed my teeth or what book I’m listening to when I fall asleep. These are pedantic details that do not add to the story. Likewise in life, there are small discomforts and dissatisfactions that happen but do not serve to advance the story or to entertain the reader.

Facebook and Instagram have been accused repeatedly of creating false narratives of our lives wherein all our friends look so happy and successful all the time, while we feel like useless failures. Of course, the irony is that everyone experiences the same distortion because we all post our best selves online, right? I mean, who wants to look bad? Well, me, sometimes. I mean, I don’t want to look bad per se, but I don’t want to create a fantasy version of myself that I won’t recognize in 20 years.

So how to decide what bad things to include and which ones to leave out? I have no idea. I’m totally faking it. Mostly, it’s about how much of an impact did that have on me (did I forget it and move on in less than an hour or did it alter the course of the day/week/year?). And the rest is how good of a story does it make? I mean, let’s face it, we love tragedy and schadenfreude so yes suffering makes good stories sometimes.

In many ways, I think of this blog as a journal. I hate diaries and always have, but every therapist ever says that journaling is a very important part of mental health. I do have some blog posts that will never see the light of day because they are just for me. But mostly, I don’t mind sharing, and there’s something about pretending I have an audience that makes me more attentive to the quality and content and frequency of my writing. But times like this I have to remember that it’s not my diary. It’s one thing for me to tell stories of people I’ve met on my journey who will almost assuredly never be identified by this blog, or even to tell stories of people who are identified as long as the story is the kind that makes them happy.

This time it’s harder because something happened on this holiday that is having a profound and lasting effect on me, and it might even be a good story from an external perspective. But it’s not my story alone. A person I care for quite deeply is involved, and I don’t want to hurt or embarrass her by telling this story in a public forum. But there’s no denying that her presence, her actions, and her choices had an impact on the holiday, on me, and on my writing afterward. Re-creating this adventure was an emotional roller-coaster as memories unfolded taking me from happy times to “oh, and then that happened…”. Photos show us smiling and laughing and I cannot help but remember my joy in sharing those moments with someone so close to me, but the gaps between photos speak to tears and hurt and confusion.

At the time of writing this, it seems that this trip spelled the end of our friendship, so this is my compromise. I won’t tell her stories, but I won’t pretend that everything was great. As you read, if there seems to be a gap where the plot jumps irrationally, or where details are less than they might be then those are the scars left by removing each unpleasant yet wholly private instance of conflict.

Once while talking about death, she asked how I would cope with losing her, and I told her that I would be sad, and I would feel grief, but that those would fade and in the end, it would be the good memories we made together that would last and define my feelings. She’s not dead, but it seems that she is lost to me just the same, so I’m hoping that telling these stories will help me process my sadness and cement the good memories that I want to keep forever.