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.
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.
Now, it sounds like I am trying to poetic with my title, but sadly, that is not the case. Recently, I have started to get out hiking more, as I want to take advantage of the mountains before the temperatures reach a point where I no longer want to leave my air conditioned apartment.
Over the past month, I have spent several weekends hiking on the mountains of Korea. Luckily, I live on a mountain, so this is as easy as stepping outside my apartment and going for a hike after work. It’s pretty magical to have the opportunity to step outside my door and have an entire system of trails to get lost on. The mountain my home is situated on is not a large mountain by any means, but it fills my mountain void that I constantly struggle with living in Ontario. This is a great opportunity to get out for some solo hikes, and escape the concrete jungle that is South Korea.
However, I have also reached the summit of two mountains in Korea over the past month. The first one was Namsan in Gyeongju – a beautiful mountain that has a spiritual significance to the people of Korea. There are many Buddha statues, and other tributes to Buddhism on your trek up the mountain. My favourite part of this hike, was the post cards and mailing box they have close to the top (*hint hint* some of you should be checking your mail for a surprise).
We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day to get out hiking – the sun was shining, and I was surrounded by more green than I think I’ve ever seen. We met some kind Korean’s, who when we asked them to take a photo of us, decided that we were essentially a tourist attraction, and took turns taking photos with us. I felt like a Disney princess. I also learned on this hike that I am a terrible navigator (and am usually the designated navigator among my friends for some strange reason). I had intended to take us up the mountain, and then back down the same side of the mountain, but what I actually did, was take us up and over to the other side of the mountain – whoops. Luckily, Korea’s transportation system is quite extensive, and we didn’t have to trek too long before finding a bus stop. Namsan was a pleasant hike that I look forward to doing again – hopefully in the fall when the colours start changing.
Now, onto hike # 2 – Sinbulsan. Sinbulsan is the second highest mountain in Ulsan, but it is not even on the top ten list of the highest mountains in Korea – regardless, the technicality of this hike should not be underestimated. I was told that on this hike I would have to semi “rock-climb” and pull myself up several systems of ropes. Okay, I can handle that, I thought to myself.
In reality, Sinbulsan was a terrifying experience once we started to reach the summit. There were at least five sections where we had to pull ourselves up a rope, while walking up a moderately steep rock face. This was fine… I could handle this so long as I didn’t look down. I felt good knowing I had been working out, and this was not as physically daunting as I thought it would have been. However, my paralyzing fear of heights really started to catch up to me.
Things got really interesting when we reached the top area of the mountain, and I realized we essentially had to walk across the peak of a mountain – where there was basically a straight drop to death on either side. While I was hyping myself up in my head – “You fucking got this Justine”, I started to walk across the peak and immediately dropped down to straddle the peak of the mountain. Now, this is where things got intimate. Picture this – my friend and I are essentially straddling the peak of this mountain… sliding ourselves across to a more stable section. While this is happening, our other friend and several Korean’s are laughing at us, taking photos, and walking by like it ain’t no thing (I would share the videos with you, but I am not willing to subject myself to that sort of humiliation #Sorry). Apparently dying isn’t a concern for the people of Korea. Eventually we made it across, and later, as we were on our descent, my friend points up to the peak – “Hey guys look, that’s the mountain you essentially had sex with”… Awesome.
Overall, I am pretty happy I completed Sinbulsan, but I think my irrational fear of heights will stop me from ever completing that trek again. I’m off to climb Mount Fuji with Jay in August, and while it is over two times the elevation, I think it will be a walk in the park after my mountain straddling experience in Korea. Good times.