I have been having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that I am leaving Korea in less than two weeks. In some ways, I feel like I just left Canada, and in other ways, it feels like a lifetime ago. I think I am different, but somehow, I still feel the same.
I thought I was okay with leaving. I didn’t really feel phased by it. I was asked to give a short speech in front of the school at our closing ceremony. I was confident that I could do this – easy peasy. And then, they handed me the microphone… Standing on stage, in front of all of my students, co-workers, and teachers I have never even spoken to, I started to cry. And let’s just be clear – this wasn’t a normal cry. This was an involuntary emotional response that I was fighting with every bone in my body – and I couldn’t stop it. I lost it, and I was mortified. I tried to pull myself together long enough to string together a few words to express my gratitude to my students for the wonderful year I have had with them. I am sure the few words I managed to spit out were complete gibberish, but my tears and lack of composure said it all – I’m sad and I don’t want to admit it.
Goodbyes suck. We have all been through them. We all know this. We’ve all been through break-ups, drifted from close friends, moved away from loved ones, and even lost loved ones. I don’t have to write a blog post for you to know that. I think the challenging part of this particular goodbye, is it’s definitive. My time in this place has grown and changed me in ways I am not even sure I understand yet. I am leaving Korea 15 lbs lighter and $15,000 less in debt (yeah, you heard that right). I graduated my Masters, taught myself graphic design, learned a bit of French, and opened an Etsy shop. I visited five new countries, made incredible friends, survived a long distance relationship, and made a lot of lifestyle changes – and just like that, I am about to return home to previous life – a life that I knew when I was different then I am now.
I am not entirely sure what that adjustment is going to look like for me, which results in excitement and fear of the unknown. Sometimes, I wish I could stay in my happy Korea bubble just a little while longer, but I can’t. In two weeks time, I’ll be headed to the Olympics here in Korea. Then I will be flying off to travel Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Myanmar. Stay tuned for the adventures to come – I am sure all of my negative feelings will float away when I’m laying on a beach in Malaysia in the sunshine – suckerrrssss.
Ah, my final vacation before I wrap up my time in South Korea – only to venture onto a long-term vacation in a few short weeks – life is tough sometimes. Given that school has been slow over the past month or two, I have had quite a lot of free time. With that free time, I did a lot of research about Taiwan – places to eat, places to see, things to do. I got to Taiwan, and for whatever reason, I completely scrapped majority of my plans. If I were to compare my list of shit to do, with the list of shit I actually did, there would be a reasonable amount of discrepancies – and I couldn’t be happier.
Prior to departing for Taiwan, I realized that the novelty of traveling (particularly by myself) has worn off a little. I realize how much of an asshole I sound like for even saying that, but it’s true. When I think back to the first few times I went to a new and exotic place, and the first few times I traveled on my own, I can almost relive the intense anxiety and excitement I had in the days, and even weeks, leading up to my trip. But now, I find myself eager to explore somewhere new, but I am lacking the anxiety and excitement I once had. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so.
With this increase in comfort and confidence traveling, again, particularly on my own, comes an ability to trust the process. I no longer feel compelled to plan out my entire trip, or even make any solid plans. I no longer feel required or pressured to visit the “most popular landmark” simply because TripAdvisor told me to. That FOMO we’re all known to experience is gone. When I think back to my most memorable experiences in every country I’ve been to – I remember the people I met, the hole-in-the-wall restaurants, the really shitty situations I encountered, and the spontaneous moments that wouldn’t have otherwise happened if I hadn’t left room in my trip for them. Taiwan was a great example of how memorable a trip can be, even if you don’t go to that super famous temple, or visit that really important museum – what will be will be, if you just let it.
So with that, here are a few of my favourite moments from Taiwan:
Stumbling upon beautiful places that aren’t on the “Top 10 list of things to do in Taipei”
Discovering that eating a vegan diet while traveling isn’t that bad
Exploring popular destinations at night, when no one else is around…
Getting lost…a lot
Uhhhh…..am I trespassing?
Making new friends and realizing just how small the world truly is
Coming to the understanding that major tourist attractions often disappoint you the most…
Expecting to be disappointed because, “it’s not beach season”….
Taiwan was beautiful and unexpected. I met amazing people, ate amazing food, and spent most days aimlessly wandering – what more could I ask for?
The past two months have been action packed. I expected to spend much of the winter hibernating, but surprisingly, I have spent most of my weekends away from Ulsan. I have been trying to make the most of my last few months in Korea, so I have been braving the cold and leaving my cozy mountain each weekend. I visited Jeonju, the foodie capital of Korea; Tongyeong and Geoje Island; and spent Christmas on Jeju Island. I also spent a weekend in Busan, and New Years Eve in Seoul. I am looking forward to laying low for a few weekends after the the madness of the past two months.
Jeonju had been on my list of places to visit before I even arrived in Korea. Jeonju is know for having the largest 한옥 village in Korea, it’s amazing food, and for being the place to wear a 한폭 – traditional Korean dress. We had a wonderful weekend experiencing Korean culture – wandering through the village, eating Bipbimbap, drinking Moju and Makgeolli, and freezing our asses off pretending to be Korean princesses.
I’ve visited Busan many times since arriving in Korea. Being there in December, we were lucky to visit the Christmas Lights festival in Nampo-dong. I also finally visited Gwangali – one of the main attractions in Busan. Check…Check…
Geoje Island & Tongyeong
Geoje Island and Tongyeong were both beautiful destinations along the southern coast of Korea. I saw very little of Geoje Island, but explored most of the sites in Tongyeong. Tongyeong is home to a beautiful art village that overlooks the fishing port below. It’s a lively and beautiful town with plenty of beautiful sites to explore.
Christmas in Jeju
Jeju Island is off the southern coast of Korea, and it is loosely referred to as, “The Hawaii of Korea”. I wouldn’t go that far, but Jeju was pretty damn beautiful. One of the reasons I wanted to visit Jeju was to climb Korea’s highest peak, Hallasan. Sadly, weather was not on our side and we had to settle for museum hopping instead. We ate plenty of delicious food, and viewed the beautiful coastlines on our three day vacation to Jeju. I’ll be back for you Hallasan.
New Years in Seoul
With three and a half days off of work, it only made sense to head up to Seoul for New Years Eve. As usual, I went to Seoul with one main intention – to EAT. We indulged in three days of veggie burgers and Mexican food – I was in heaven. We also went skating at Seoul Olympic Park. Sadly, the skates were by far the worst skates I have ever worn in my life – I’m fairly certain they had never been sharpened – Ohhhh Korea. I also finally made my way up to Namsan Tower – check!
Korea’s version of “skates”
The coolest of cats
In the past two months, I have checked off most items on my Korea bucketlist. I can spend my next two months in Korea, saving money, relaxing, and spending quality time with friends before I leave. I only have fifty five days left until I leave, and it is a bittersweet feeling recognizing how fast that time is going to go by.
I got kicked right in the feels last week at my school festival. The opening performance by our choir was a song from Rent – Seasons of Love. Well, I’ve never seen Rent before, but this song nearly knocked me on my ass with emotion: My time in Korea is coming to an end.
I have less than sixty days left in the place I have called home for almost a year. I have made unforgettable friendships; worked with incredible, intelligent, and inspiring students; visited new countries; and experienced an entirely new culture – for better or for worse. And just like that, it’s all about to come to an end.
I struggled saying goodbye to my life in Ontario, but this is a different kind of goodbye – one that feels permanent. It is very likely that I may never return to Korea. It is very likely that I will never see a single one of my students again. It is also very likely that I may never see some of the wonderful people I have met here, ever again. I’m left feeling torn between the excitement of the adventures to come and the sadness of leaving something so special behind.
Choosing to come to Korea was a relatively spontaneous decision – as many of my adventurous ideas are. I decided on a Thursday afternoon, on a whim, that I wanted to move to a new country – and a few months later I was selling my belongings, quitting my job, and giving notice on my apartment. I can’t imagine where my life would be today had I not made that spontaneous decision. I am excited for what’s to come, and I know I will look back on my time here fondly in the years to come. Time to go watch Rent for the first time, and have a good cry ㅠㅠ.
At the start of my year in Korea, we were asked to write one goal on a piece of wood during our Taekwondo class. We had to break this piece of wood with our hand – a symbolic way to announce what we wanted to accomplish during our time in Korea. I wrote – “Climb as many mountains as I can”.
Moving to Korea, I knew that I wanted to do as much hiking as I possibly could. Living in Ontario, my access to mountains has always been limited, and I have found myself fleeing to other countries for many years to get my hiking fix. At the start of Autumn, it dawned on me, that not only had I not done as much hiking as I wanted to, but that my time left in Korea was limited. I decided that in the next few months, I had to conquer my two biggest bucketlist hikes – Jirisan, Korea’s highest mainland mountain, and Gajisan, Ulsan’s highest mountain.
Jirisan 1,915 m
Gajisan 1,241 m
In October, I visited the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF). I saw a screening for a film called Mountain – a documentary about the history of the relationship between humans and mountains. In the film they ask, “What is this strange force that draws us upwards? This – siren song of the summit…”. This well timed film had me questioning my motivation on the long climbs up both Jirisan, and Gajisan. My quads were burning, my calves were uncomfortably tired, I was gasping for air because my cardio is shit, and I couldn’t seem to find a happy body temperature – why do I do this to myself? No matter how many mountains I climb, no matter how sore I am the next day – something keeps me coming back.
On the descend from Gajisan, I think I finally figured it out. I think I enjoy the unpredictability that comes with climbing a mountain. The first time you summit a peak, you never know what to expect. For someone who enjoys structure and planning, mountains challenge me in a way I can’t control.
On our way down Gajisan, a man stopped us and told us in broken English “Oh, don’t go that way – very dangerous – very dangerous”. Being my usual stubborn self, I decide to proceed down the “very dangerous” route regardless. Turns out that this route involved a lot of scrambling down large boulders, and trying to estimate whether there was a mystery rock under a pile of leaves, that may or may not cause me to eat shit. Regardless, this was probably my favourite part of the entire climb. Hiking and scrambling in unpredictable areas gives me the chance to do some immediate problem solving. My brain is constantly calculating where to put each of my hands and feet in the most efficient way possible. It’s like rock climbing in a sense, because there is no space in my brain for anything else – a mindful meditation if you will. My mind seems to be the most clear when I come off of a mountain – a clarity that I find difficult to find otherwise.
As we do with all great things in life, I have taken my time among the mountains of Korea for granted. The mountains help me clear my head, and they keep me sane. I am going to miss having easy access to them when I return to Canada in 2018.
But how would I summit all these mountains without great hiking friends?
I was standing at the back of a second grade classroom proctoring an exam. The students were exhausted from getting four hours of sleep each night due to excessive studying. The bell to indicate the exam was beginning rang, and in an extremely uniform fashion, the rows of students passed back their test sheets one at a time. The execution of their test sheets was as flawless as a synchronized swimming routine. I imagine my clumsy self being inserted into this assembly line – I’d be fumbling papers, dropping them, and scrambling to pick them back up.
When I went to the hospital a few months back, I was passed along from person to person, and within the span of forty five minutes – I had seen a physician, received not one, but two x-rays, had an EKG, was admitted to the hospital, and had an IV inserted into my hand – in forty five minutes. This process would have taken hours in Canada.
I have observed that when it comes to routine tasks, the people of Korea are excessively efficient. It seems that everyone knows exactly what they’re supposed to do, and when they are supposed to do it. Day to day roles are clearly defined – even down to the simple roles – like passing exam papers in a classroom.
What causes this efficiency? Are we doing something wrong in Western Culture? I recently listened to a podcast by Russell Brand that discussed the idea of individualism in Western cultures versus collectivism in Eastern cultures. This got me thinking – what if we are doing something terribly wrong in Western culture? I wonder if our society and our communities would be stronger and more efficient if we moved away from our obsession with individualism. I am not even sure how, or if such a paradigm shift would be possible. We are taught so early in life to focus on ourselves – to be selfish. I find myself pondering over the idea that maybe the world would be a better place if we put our communities first.
On the other hand, there has to be a downside to a culture based on collectivism. I have observed in Korea, that there is a stronger expectation to follow a traditional lifestyle. In Canada, it is more acceptable to go against the grain. I pride myself on being a highly independent and self-sufficient person – who doesn’t necessarily follow a traditional way of life. I can’t imagine a life for myself where this wasn’t the case. I also find myself wondering whether individualism or collectivism best promotes a culture of creativity. Perhaps we shouldn’t be exploring the downsides of both individualism and collectivism, but finding a balance between the two.
At the beginning of October, Korean’s celebrated Chuseok, also known as Korean Thanksgiving. As a public school teacher, I was lucky enough to get a 10 day vacation based solely on public holidays. When I arrived in Korea, I frantically began to look for flights, and was disappointed to see that the prices were outrageous to fly anywhere in Asia – except to China. I never had a strong desire to go to China, truthfully, it was near the bottom of my list of places to visit in Asia. That being said, I typically let cheap flight prices dictate my travels, so I went for it.
My friend and I set out on a nine day adventure around China with the lowest expectations possible. I had heard that China Eastern – the airline we were flying with – was the worst airline ever. I was told that China was dirty, busy, and to prepare myself to get body-checked more than I do in Korea (which is a lot). I was also told that as a vegetarian, it would be nearly impossible for me to eat at restaurants. Lastly, I was told China was difficult to navigate, and that I would definitely require a VPN to survive among the Great Firewall. None of these things were true.
We left for China on our China Eastern flight with no issues, and minimal delays. When we touched down in China, I was immediately shocked by how clean and modern everything was – point one China.
Our first stop was Shanghai, where we spent five nights. I instantly fell in love with Shanghai. I am hesitant to say this, but I think Shanghai is my favourite city I have ever visited. There is something extraordinary about a city that is home to architecture from ancient China, and buildings with a strong European influence, but also the modern and futuristic buildings of Pudong. We visited Yuyuan Market, which is a large area near the Yu Garden with a number of shops and food stalls. Yu Garden was initially constructed in the 1500s and the architecture in this area was what I expected to see in China. Not more than a few kilometers away, is The Bund – an area where you can walk along the river and view buildings that appear very European, only to look across the river and see a skyline straight out of the future.
Shanghai was energetic, but not so busy it was overwhelming. It was easy to find quiet places to seek respite, and there are plenty of opportunities for good food and nightlife.
Who said vegetarians can’t eat in China?
Who said vegetarians can’t eat in China?
Two of my most memorable experiences in Shanghai, were Disneyland (obviously) and having a traditional Chinese massage. I paid no more than $10 for a one hour massage, including at least fifteen minutes of a Chinese woman doing intense work on my back -while standing on me. It took me several minutes before I even recognized that she was using her feet – such talent. It was an interesting cultural experience, and my body cracked in places I didn’t even know possible – success.
Of course, Disneyland was one of the most memorable moments of the entire trip. I have been deprived of Disneyland and Disney World my entire life – thanks Mom. But, you are never too old for Disneyland, so I took it upon myself to fulfill these dreams at the age of twenty-six. Disneyland is a truly magical place. Maybe I am still a kid at heart, or maybe the people of Disney are just pure genius, regardless, it was wonderful. We even had the opportunity to see The Lion King musical live – in Mandarin. I was mildly embarrassed by how many lines I could quote, even though not a word of English was spoken.
After several days in Shanghai, we made our way to Beijing. Again, I arrived in Beijing with low expectations, thinking I would enjoy it much less than Shanghai. Again, I was caught with my foot in my mouth. Beijing was much more modern than I had expected. While there were many areas with famous sites from ancient China – the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Temple of Heaven – the downtown area was well developed with many modern skyscrapers. There is such a rich history behind every ancient site in China, so before we visited each site, I did some research online to get a background of why each place is so important. Because of The Great Firewall, I had to use Bing for my searches – seriously, who uses Bing?
In the Tiananmen Square area, there was a distinct communist feel. As most people know, Tiananmen Square is the site of the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989. According to my Bing searches, this appears to be a very controversial and unspoken topic within China. It is still “unknown” how many lives were lost on that day, and there is no site to commemorate them. For me, this created a very strange vibe in the Tiananmen Square area.
On a lighter note, we also visited a pretty decent replica of Central Perk cafe from Friends. Of all the places in the world to have a replica of the Central Perk cafe, I did not think it would be China. They had good coffee, the friends couch, and even a replica of Joey and Chandler’s apartment.
I was told that in China, many people would ask me to hold their baby to take photos because I’m a foreigner. I made it my goal to hold as many babies in China as possible – because ya’ll know how I feel about babies. By the time I got to Beijing, I hadn’t held a single baby – so sad. One night while we were wandering around a night market, we stopped for a break. As someone was walking by with their baby, I waved with my craziest baby eyes. The baby was stoked, and got so excited that her mom put her down on the ground, and she ran right up to me and into my lap – pure joy – my trip to China was complete.
On our last full day in China, we explored the Great Wall. We were taken to a closed section in the Badaling area, and luckily, did not have to deal with flocks of tourists. It was a very foggy day at the Great Wall, and while some might have been disappointed by the lack of views, it actually created a very eerie and surreal feeling on the wall. The Great Wall was significantly steeper than I had anticipated, and some sections even challenged me due to my fear of heights. The Great Wall was beautiful, but I only explored less than three kilometers of this 21,000 kilometer structure. One day, I hope to see more of it.
China far exceeded my expectations, but it didn’t come without it’s struggles. Fortunately, these struggles don’t overshadow the amazing experience I had in China – so I’ll save those stories for another time. China taught me to explore new destinations without bias, and with an open mind. Everyone who travels somewhere has their own experience, and that does not define my experience. From now on, I will take the comments of others with a grain of salt and choose to see and experience things on my own.