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.
Over the past several weeks, I have caught up with a number of friends from back home over video chat. Some of them, I have not spoken to since I arrived in Korea. I am often bombarded by a series of questions about my time abroad – “Tell me all about things in Korea!” “What is it like?” “How is it?” “You must be doing awesome stuff” etc, etc. Being the honest person I am, I’ve been telling them that my life in Korea isn’t really all that exciting, and that it is actually pretty damn stable – some may even say it’s boring. What? Didn’t I come to Korea for an adventure? How are things stable when I am living on the other side of the world? Easy – I have a Monday-Friday 9-5 job, I spend my weekends doing miscellaneous, and sometimes “Instagram worthy” things, and I come home every night after work to do yoga, cook dinner, and relax – wild. My life is essentially the same as it was in Canada, except I live in Asia.
I mean, I have been lucky enough to see a lot of Korea, and I have visited Vietnam, China, and Japan – so there have definitely been bouts of adventure – but all in all, my life is exceptionally stable. Surprisingly, when I am on these adventures, I usually crave the stability that my life in Korea provides – my comfortable bed to sleep in, adequate space and alone time, a kitchen to cook my own meals, and a regular job with a consistent income. After about two weeks, I am ready and excited to get back to my regular routine. Next year, my plan is to travel for several months – I likely won’t have a stable home or job for at least half a year – for a control freak like me, that brings about a lot of anxiety.
While I am clearly someone with a sense of adventure, I also crave stability – can these things go hand in hand? Perhaps I can find a way for these two aspects of my personality to complement each other, or maybe not. Only time will tell as I set out on my long-term travels in 2018.
In the past few months, I have gone from being very frustrated by a lot of the happenings in Korea – the shoving culture on the buses, the obnoxiousness of drunk middle-aged men I encounter midday on a weekend, and the lack of consideration for pedestrians – to gaining a significant appreciation of my life in Korea and the people who live here. Perhaps these are the effects of culture shock easing up as I have been living here for seven months, or perhaps I have stopped giving a shit.
That being said, I came to Korea to step out of my comfort zone – to grow, and to change – and maybe to see a little more of what the world has to offer. While I wouldn’t say I have significantly “grown or changed”, I have noticed that there are small things that Korea has taught me – things about myself, about life, and about those around me – all of which, I did not expect.
I am a type A, control freak who needs to plan everything. This is something I despise about myself. I long to be one of those people who can just go with the flow and take life as it comes. However, Korea has altered my perspective – I no longer feel compelled to make plans seven days a week, and I appreciate far more downtime than I ever have. Once upon a time, my schedule was so ram jammed that I hardly ever had a free evening. These days, I get overwhelmed if I have any less than three to four evenings to myself. My new relaxed lifestyle and copious amounts of free time have taught me to enjoy life as it happens, and to do things as I feel like doing them – instead of having every moment planned, and then hating myself for it later. If I feel like doing yoga, I do yoga. If I feel like writing a blog post, I write a blog post. If I feel like binge watching three hours of Netflix, I binge three hours of Netflix.
I am not sure if my time in Korea has taught me self-discipline, or if extensive free time has allowed me to recognize this about myself – but, man am I ever productive these days. Perhaps the self-discipline of my hard working students has inspired me, because I am truly lazy by comparison.
During my time in Korea, I have started doing things for myself that I have been saying for years that I would do – and that is not an exaggeration. I am waking up early to be productive, I am doing yoga almost daily, and I’ve even been studying French – something I have been saying I want to do since I quit in high school.
Money does not grow on trees
My entire life, I have been a reckless spender. I am not much of a shopper, but when it comes to my social life, I have spent more money than I’d like to admit. Food… Wine… Concerts… Festivals… Traveling… The list goes on and on. Since I have lived in Korea, I have been on strict budget. While I have not deprived myself, I have said no to social events when I am approaching the end of my budget, and I avoid buying new things unless I have to. My mentality towards money and spending habits has completely shifted in the past seven months. I want to go back in time and give my 23 year old self a lecture about money management – or just a good slap in the face – either would be effective. Of course, these are the life lessons we have to learn the hard way. My time in Korea has taught me that I don’t need to spend my entire pay check to have a good time, and that budgeting is essential – who knew?
Home is not a place
I have always been the kind of person who attaches a lot of sentimental value to everything – places, spaces, scents, music, personal belongings. My apartment in Kitchener – formerly known as “The Madi” – was a very special place to me. It was the place where I had a fresh start and began my life as a legitimate adult (sort of). When I left, I was in tears – packing up my life, and seeing the confused look on Bailey’s face as I carried out the final contents of my apartment was difficult. Afterwards, I expected that I would miss my home, but I don’t. The moment I arrived at my apartment in Korea, and I started to unpack my belongings, it felt like home.
I’ve realized that home isn’t a place, and it’s really not all that important to me. I’ve come to noticed that what really matters to me is community – something that us social work-y types talk about a lot. It’s the people I am surrounded by, the neighbourhood I live in, and those who support me. It’s having community events to attend, local spots to do my shopping and people to make memories with. This has made me realize that I could live anywhere in the world, and it will feel like home so long as I have a supportive community. There will always be moments where I miss aspects of my life in Kitchener, and the place I grew up – but as cheesy as it sounds, these places have contributed to who I am, and I carry those pieces with me as I make a new home each new place I go.
I’m relatively irresponsible
Alright onto less sappy stuff – I’ve always prided myself on being a pretty responsible person – but in recent months, I have realized that I am actually really fucking irresponsible. Somehow, in the past two months, I have managed to lose not only my Korean ID card, but also my credit card, I smashed my cell phone to the point where it no longer functioned, and I went swimming in the ocean in the middle of the night after getting a tattoo the week before.
Additionally, even though I stick to a budget, I spend the last week of each month living off of approximately $10, and declining all social invitations with the excuse, “sorry, I have no money”. This month, I even spent my last $10 on a pizza – adulting. I’ve never been a 26 year old before, but I can’t believe that most 26 year old’s are this irresponsible. Maybe I’ll grow out of it, or maybe I’m destined to lose shit, spend all my money, and break electronics for the rest of my life.
Thanks for the useful teachings Korea – my bank account is grateful.
Oh, Japan… I am just going to go ahead and say this out loud – Japan is like Korea, but better – sooo much better. Within hours of being in Japan, Jay and I agreed that we 100% could live in Japan. It was beautiful, and clean, and everyone was ridiculously nice. I was so overwhelmed with the kindness of the people of Japan. I am not sure how Canadians earned the rep of being the “nicest” country, but Japan has us beat by a landslide. If we looked lost or confused for even a second, you could guarantee a Japanese person would approach us to offer help. They taught us how to use the machines at the subway, directed us to our destinations, and one woman even rode the subway with us to take us where we needed to go.
Japan was also an ideal vacation for me because our trip centered around two things – a big hike, and lots and lots of food – the dream.
The first stop on our trip was Osaka. Unfortunately, our flight was delayed a day due to Typhoon Noru hitting Japan – the day we were set to arrive – of course. We finally arrived in Japan a day late and decided to skip Kyoto and head straight to Osaka. We spent two nights in Osaka, one at the start of our trip, and one at the end of our trip. Osaka is known for being a foodie city, so I was eager to explore. With our limited time in Osaka, we spent most of our time strolling around the Dotonbori area along the river. We indulged in sushi (of course), and also okonomiyaki, and takoyaki – which are both specialties of the Osaka area – all of which did not disappoint. I also had a horrifying encounter with a screeching bug in Japan who landed on my foot – long story short, I gave a good laugh to a few locals as I screamed and leaped around the sidewalk. I think this was one of the highlights of the trip for Jay…
For me, this was why I went to Japan. I was more excited to climb Fuji than anything else on our trip. Fuji is a manageable climb for beginners with a rather impressive elevation, standing at over 3700 meters. Due to this, it is recommended you sleep on the mountain to avoid altitude sickness. We started our day by taking an early bus up to the Subashiri 5th station at 2000 meters elevation, and then we started our climb. Within an hour, I started to get light headed and nauseous – I now had an irrational fear of getting altitude sickness. We decided to take the climb slow and take many breaks, so I could acclimatize properly.
We took a longer trail that is less frequented and goes through the forest. There was an eerie mist throughout the forest for most of our climb, and we saw very few other climbers – it was perfectly peaceful. Inevitably, the higher we climbed, the more barren it got, and out of nowhere – the mist cleared up and we realized we were far above the clouds.
After about 8-9 hours of climbing, we reached our hut at the 8.5 station where we would sleep for the night. We had expected to see a mix of Japanese locals and tourists, but we were surprised to see that most of the climbers were locals from Japan. We slept in a room with 100 other sweaty hikers, nestled into rows of bunk beds.
Around 1 am, we were woken up by everyone preparing the trek to the summit. I woke up a very sleepy (and slightly grumpy) Jay, and we started to prepare to head to the summit. When we stepped outside our hut, I could not believe my eyes. There were thousands of people trekking up to the summit, and all you could see was the trail of lights.
It took us about two hours to reach the summit as we were going at a snail’s pace (my kinda pace) in line with everyone else. When we reached the summit, it was freezing cold, so windy, and snowing (sort of). I had to dig through my backpack to add on several layers of clothing, to the point where I was even wearing a pair of socks on my hands – yeah, I can be pretty resourceful. To our disappointment, we did not see a proper sunrise due to poor weather. We got a few glimpses of it through the clouds, but that was it. **Insert some cheesy quote about how it’s about the journey and not the destination**. Thanks for the pivotal life lesson Fuji.
However, once we started to descend about 50-100 meters, the views above the clouds were incredible. We started our trek to the bottom, which involved sliding down loose volcanic gravel for several hours – this proved to be quite challenging for my grandmother-like joints, but I survived. I was pleased when we reached the bottom to discover that I had lost my hippie clutch – aka my wallet – aka my Visa and my Korean ID card…. It will likely puzzle me forever how and where I lost that stupid thing, but that’s life.
Fuji was a beautiful accomplishment, and I was reminded of this in the following three days as I navigated the metro and streets of Tokyo. Every stair was taken painfully, one at a time, while my non-dilapidated boyfriend was able to walk around like normal. I will forever be grateful for escalators, elevators, and moving walkways.
We spent the night in a small town with views of Mount Fuji the day we came down from our climb. I expected Fujiyoshida to be a small, but busy and touristy town, but to my surprise it was a sleepy mountain town perfect for recovery from Fuji. Our guesthouse was perfectly situated beside a vegetarian Japanese restaurant called Little Robot. I came to the conclusion at this restaurant that they do everything right in Japan – even vegetarian food.
We also climbed 398 stairs to see the iconic view of Fuji from Arakurayama Sengen Park, but all we saw was clouds shaped perfectly to entirely block Mount Fuji. It was a beautiful quiet park, and Jay was pretty stoked about taking over a Pokemon gym – or something like that.
First impression of Tokyo when I stepped out of Tokyo station – “Wow, this feels just like Toronto”. The general areas in Tokyo aren’t as crazy as I would’ve expected – it’s not insanely crowded, it’s clean, and it’s pretty quiet. However, there are several popular areas and neighbourhoods in Tokyo that are insanely busy with a buzzing high energy.
To be honest – our main focus in Tokyo was eating (well, for me at least). However, we spent most of our time wandering various neighbourhoods, exploring various shops and markets, and trying to navigate the monster metro system. Shinjuku was by far my favourite area of Tokyo. It was high energy, had lots of food, shops, bars, and small pockets of areas, each with a different feel. We visited an old school video game cafe where I observed Jay spend over an hour setting a high score on some game… to which he succeed. Good for him… We also visited a bar in the Golden Gai area, where the stairs were lined with red shag carpet and the interior had money all over the walls. We met an older couple from Thorne Hill and spent our night chatting about Canada and critiquing the sport of “Speed Walking” that was being displayed on the TV. We even spotted some Canadian Tire money on the walls of this place!
We visited Shibuyua (the world’s “busiest” intersection), Harajuku, Raponggi Hills, and Asakusa, but the highlight of all of this was by far the food. We ate some incredible sushi, ramen, and tempura – all of which, will never be the same again outside of Japan. At most restaurants we visited, we were sat so we could watch the chef prepare our food, which was a pretty special experience on its own. I am pretty sure I gained at least 5 lbs in Japan, but was pleased when someone asked me upon my return – “Have you lost weight? You look so skinny” – the happiest moment after you have indulged in multiple dinners and even pizza for dessert over the past several weeks.
Japan has been my favourite country in Asia so far – any country that offers good food, kind people, and beautiful scenery will win me over. I am interested to see how China contrasts when I visit in six weeks.
Six months. Six months. Six months. I have to retell myself this on a daily basis because it is so hard to believe I have lived in Korea for six months. I have already finished an entire semester of teaching, Jay’s visit has already came and went, and I have visited Vietnam and Japan. I feel like these were all milestone markers in my head over the past six months. Events that I had counted down the days to, have suddenly flown past me.
I am starting a new semester of teaching this week, which means new students and new classes. I am counting down the days until my trip to China at the end of September, Halloween, Christmas in Jeju, winter vacation in January, another visit with Jay at the end of my contract, and my three month Eurasia backpacking tour in the spring. In six months, I am sure I will be twice as flabbergasted that these moments have come and went, just as the past six months have.
The past few months, I have found myself getting very comfortable with my time in Korea – perhaps a little too comfortable. I won’t tell you how many Netflix originals I have binged watched since my arrival. Life in Korea has become a pretty easy coast on autopilot – perhaps that is due to the fact that I spend my weekdays in a constant state of work, eat, sleep, Netflix, workout, repeat. I also spent the majority of my summer weekends locked in my friends apartment watching crime documentaries and battling over the air-conditioner settings. This summer wouldn’t have been the same without delicious vegetarian eats and Amber the dog.
I have essentially had almost an entire month off of teaching, and am excited to start back up. I must say, I have a newfound respect for all of my friends who are teachers. Lesson planning, teaching, grading, and additional teaching responsibilities add up fast, and I am well aware that my workload does not compare to that of teachers in Ontario. Kudos to you guys. I feel like I have made vast improvements in my skills as a teacher over the past few months. I remember at the start of my contract we were encouraged to set up some general classroom rules – and I had no idea what I was doing – Rules? Who needs rules? Well, after six months of classes, I definitely know what rules I want in my classroom.
Jay’s visit to Korea, and our trip to Japan made all of the things I dislike about Korea quite apparent. It is easy to be blindsided by these things until your boyfriend calls you out for bulldozing past a Korean man on the bus – “What? That’s just the Korean way…..” – turns out you look like an asshole to someone who doesn’t understand the “bus-shoving” culture of Korea. But, Japan was a breath of fresh air – the people were lovely, the food was lovely, everything was lovely. I will ramble on about my love of Japan in a future blog post.
It’s hard not to see the past six months as a separate chapter of my time in Korea. I have friends from the first semester who have left on new adventures *sniff*, I have brand new students starting this week, and I have an entirely different outlook on Korea than I did when I first arrived. The next six months will be entirely different than the last, stay tuned.