Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Resolutions Checkpoint 2014: December

Before I regroup and get my 2015 resolutions finalized and posted, I wanted to do my final resolution checkpoint of the year, which tends to get forgotten with the buzz of a fresh new year and new resolutions.

At the start of December, here are the things I'd wanted to accomplish during the month, with the completed items in bold and comments in italics:

1. Digestive health

  • Revisit IBS books from my bookshelf, now that I'm home. Any new info I can put into action? - Whoops, honestly never cracked those books open.
  • Continue to eat lots of plants and avoid dairy/meat.

2. Health site

  • Publish one post every Thursday - I published four posts this month, on my Thursdays!
  • G+ Updates too - Check!

3. Non 9-5 work

  • Get Korean Food guide to a complete rough draft stage, aka write, write, write! - While I did at least touch it this month, I think it was only one day. This will become a higher priority in 2015.
  • Read The Art of Non-Conformity

Background Goals

And here's my final overall progress on those bits and pieces that I'd also wanted to accomplish this year:
  • Read 32 books this year (2 in Spanish)
  • Gain strength & muscle, enough that there's a notable difference in a before and after picture - I went to 7 weeks of Pilates and Zumba classes this fall, plus a few weight lifting sessions, and have signed up for 13-week sessions of "SHAPE" and Pilates starting in January.
  • Add pull-down tabs to both of my Blogger blogs - Really need to update my template in 2015.
  • Walk the Camino de Santiago
  • Visit Hannah and Herm in London 
  • Make a Korea bucket list and post it (and do it!)
  • Unplug more oftenI deactivated my Facebook account at the start of December, it's been awesome! (Details to come)
  • Resume French study - I slowly picked up speed this month, have turned my phone language to French, and will be making this goal take center stage in 2015.

How was your December in terms of resolutions/improvement? Are you getting ideas for 2015 resolutions?
• • •

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014: A year in books

Just like last year and in 2012, I'd like to share the books I read this year, and which were my favorites. I've been keeping lists of books I read ever since I was little, and have tracked reading and made yearly reading challenges with Goodreads for the past several years.

In 2014, I set a goal of reading 32 books and reached it! Here are the books I read this year, starting with the most recent and working back to last January.

• • •

Sticking with Dietary Restrictions over the Holidays

This post originally appeared on Have Your Health, a blog of mine active from 2013-14.

Firstly, happy holidays!

Secondly, this week I wanted to share the difficulties I've found in keeping to dietary restrictions around the holiday seasons, plus some tips that have worked for me to make it easier. So which dietary restrictions am I talking about here?

My Current Dietary Restrictions

I feel like it almost goes without saying that processed/fast foods are off limits; they're hardly even a legitimate option in my mind of something to eat, which is huge progress from where I was at several years ago.

So my main answer to that question right now is that I avoid dairy. I simply can't digest the stuff, but surprisingly I don't miss it (still battling with chocolate, though). I've also been learning that dairy perhaps isn't as good or necessary for us as our country's food pyramid makes it out to be, which makes it that much easier to stay away from.

And one final restriction to add: Lately, especially since reading The Omnivore's Dilemma though, my diet is getting closer and closer to a meatless one. I haven't yet sat down and strictly decided to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, but I don't want to eat meat from industrial farms. So I haven't been buying meat from the grocery store, and I look for vegetarian options when out at restaurants, though occasionally I'll eat a bit of meat if one of my parents makes something and I'm so inclined to indulge.

Difficulties of Dietary Restrictions During the Holidays

The biggest difficulty for me has been the surplus of food at my house. We were six for just one night, and the numbers varied as my siblings came and went, so my parents cooked lots of full meals (which we honestly don't normally do), plus we hosted one of our family Christmases on Sunday.

On top of all the food, my mom made a batch of sugar cookies a few days before Christmas, my aunt brought a big tupperware of cookies, the neighbors brought over cookies, my sister and mom's elementary students gave them cookies and sweets... so basically I've been surrounded by Christmas cookies and chocolate.

I was actually surprised by how little I was tempted by lots of these sweets I would have devoured even a year ago. The Hershey's kisses don't even tempt me. Yay for progress! But I really don't like to waste food, and with so much coming in, I often thought that I had to do my part in not wasting said food.

So how did all of this come into play over the holidays? I'll fill you in on some happenings that went down while sharing tips for sticking with dietary restrictions during this time of year. And yes, I realize it would have been loads more useful to put this list together before the holidays, but you live and learn.

Tips to Sticking with Dietary Restrictions over the Holidays

Prepare healthy alternatives for yourself

If you know you're going to be surrounded by lots of things you can't eat, plan ahead and surround yourself with things you can eat. Even go ahead and spoil yourself with a healthy treat, which for me would be a Naked or something.

I had (and still have) dried mangos on hand, which have been my latest treat when I'm itching for something sweet, plus other fruits, hummus, and various good snacks.

Purchase substitute ingredients

If people around you are going to bake some traditional holiday recipes, they could easily substitute ingredients if you have them. So this is another one where it's easier if you plan ahead. Family members are much more likely to substitute an ingredient for you if you have the alternative right there in the kitchen, versus needing to run out to the store after someone's already begun cooking. 

This holiday season, my two biggest substitute ingredients I always had in the fridge were Earth Balance (butter substitute) and rice/almond milk.

Notify hosts ahead of time and make it easy for them

If you're going somewhere for a Christmas meal, talk with your hosts a few weeks ahead of time to find out what they'll be serving, and discuss your dietary restrictions. If you feel comfortable asking, see if the host is willing to use any of your substitutes when making any of the dishes, if you provide them, of course.

If the menu is not yet decided, you could recommend dishes that are safe for you to eat, and delicious for everyone else. A specific recipe would make it so much easier for the host.

Host your gathering or offer to bring dishes

You can go a step further, and offer to bring dishes to the gathering, as I did with one of our Christmases. My grandma was really concerned about there being things I could eat, so at first I mentioned two new recipes I'd copied from this vegan cookbook I had checked out from the library. As the event got closer, I decided to make the two sides at home on my own, and just bring them to our family gathering. This way, I knew there would at least be two safe dishes, and I saved my grandma the headaches of having to figure out what she could/couldn't make.

Bringing a dish or two is probably the preferred option when going to someone else's house, though I suppose each host has his/her preferences. If possible, you could also offer to host the meal/event yourself, which would put all food preparation under your control.

Bring your own meal or eat beforehand

If you're not as lucky as I am, and don't have understanding family/friends, you can always pack yourself an entire meal to bring to the event. Explain that you have special dietary restrictions, and you would never hold others to the same restrictions, so you've brought your own meal.

I'm actually going up north tomorrow for New Year's to stay with some extended family, and I'm bringing two tupperware of "safe meals" for myself just in case there are limited options for me based on my dietary needs. Plan ahead and help yourself make it easy to eat the right things. Depending on the gathering, you could also eat at home before you go, so that you're not hungry when you arrive.

Be grateful for your understanding relatives

Finally, be grateful for your understanding relatives. I was not home for the holidays last year, so this is my first year at home with stricter dietary restrictions. My family was really awesome about it this holiday! Check it out:
  • My mom used my Earth Balance spread instead of butter when she made sugar cookies and chicken pot pie (yup, that's one of the meat dishes I did eat).
  • My dad made a special non-cheese quiche with almond milk just for me at our Christmas brunch, with my red and green peppers I had left in the fridge.
  • My aunt always gives all of the grandkids chocolate candy and a $5 Culver's gift card, among other Christmas trinkets every year. This year instead of chocolate she gave me a bag of energy bites from and $5 at Trader Joe's instead! It was so very thoughtful and considerate, and I loved not being tempted by the chocolate candy.
  • My grandma was super worried about what I'd be able to eat—both at Christmas and Thanksgiving—and was willing to make whatever I said.
All in all, it was a pretty successful holiday on the food front. Did I eat things I shouldn't have? Yes, for sure. Since my mom used "my butter" in the sugar cookies, I felt obligated to eat many of them. I had some Christmas cookies and a bit of chocolate and fudge.

But did I eat a million times better than any previous holiday in my life? Heck yes! Only ate one peanut butter cup cookie from my aunt this year (who always brings a boatload). Didn't eat any Hersheys anything. Didn't eat ham or sausage at our brunch, even though I was tempted.

So I'm definitely making progress, yet there is still a ways to go. Luckily, a fresh blank slate of hope and motivation is just around the corner with 2015 in sight.

How was your holiday season food-wise? How do you handle diet restrictions at this time of year?
• • •

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Thankful Thursday: 12/25/14

[Thankful Thursday is a weekly segment that began 1/10/13 - read why here.  I invite you to join me in practicing gratitude!]

Happy holidays, you guys! Today I'm so thankful that I got to spend Christmas Day with my entire family. Yes, all four siblings under one roof with the parents, plus a visit from grandma and my aunt in the evening.

What did we do with our precious limited time together? Why we re-created family photos, of course! 

It was more exhausting than you'd think, to first find all of the necessary props and clothes, reorganize that part of the house to match its past self, and then getting everyone all lined up in just the right positions for the retake. It's a pretty awesome outcome though, if I do say so myself. Totally worth it!

Here are the three we did yesterday:

• • •

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Omnivore's Dilemma

This post originally appeared on Have Your Health, a past blog of mine active from 2013-14.

Last month I finished reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural history of four meals—named one of the top 10 books in 2006 by the New York Times.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Fascinating Read

The Omnivore's Dilemma

Just like Pollan's other books I've read this year (In Defense of Food, Food Rules, and Cooked), The Omnivore's Dilemma was a fascinating read. Pollan is a gifted writer who conveys important information in a clear, honest, and entertaining way. What I love about Pollan is that he always dives right in and gets involved with the source of whatever he's researching, learning first-hand from various people. Living and working on a "grass farm" and learning to hunt wild boar are just two examples of such involvement from this book.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is split into three sections: industrial corn, pastoral grass, and the forest; with their accompanying four meals: fast food, grass-fed, industrial organic, and hunter-gatherer. I never knew reading about corn or the word "organic" could be so interesting! Throughout the book, Pollan points out the problems with the modern American diet, and how they came to be. In the introduction, he writes that this book is the answer to the question "What should we have for dinner?," as well as an exploration of how this basic question became so complicated.

I highly recommend this book for any American eater. Since a summary could in no way live up to or correctly explain concepts learned through reading the whole book, I'll just share some of my big take-aways using quotes that I highlighted while reading. (Note: Book quotes are italicized and blocked.)

Big Take-aways from The Omnivore's Dilemma

The problem with corn

I mentioned earlier that it was so interesting to read about corn in the United States (though also a bit depressing and hopeless). Pollan introduces that section by going through a grocery store and common American food items, tracing each back to the same origin: corn. Basically corn is overproduced and also subsidized by the government, and most is used to make high fructose corn syrup, a cheap and unhealthy sweetener for processed foods.
A farm family needs a certain amount of cash flow every year to support itself, and if the price of corn falls, the only way to stay even is to sell more corn. Naylor says that farmers desperate to boost yield end up degrading their land, plowing and planting marginal land, applying more nitrogen—anything to squeeze a few more bushels from the soil. Yet the more bushels each farmer produces, the lower prices go, giving another turn to the perverse spiral of overproduction.
I liked that I had this background before watching "Fed Up," as the book explains in depth how corn became so cheap, which made it the key ingredient in sodas (high fructose corn syrup) and so many processed foods.

What it means to be "organic"

'The organic label is a marketing tool,' Secretary Glickman said. 'It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is "organic" a value judgement about nutrition or quality.'
While some organic foods are made on smaller farms that take into account natural systems, the book also explored "industrial organic" farms, as the author names them. These industrial organic farms cause many of the same problems as industrial farms, and aren't much more humane to animals and the land. Pollan shows with specific examples how the picture painted on many organic food labels can be just as misleading as non-organic labels.

The magic of a grass farm

I loved the chapters that Pollan spends on Joel Salatin's "grass farm" in Virginia, Polyface. It's often called a grass farm because the various species of grass are so important to the overall health of the farm's ecosystem. Everything is connected, and it was a wonderful reminder of nature's beauty to see the interconnectedness of all species and plants, big and small.
The reason Joel moves his cattle at the end of the day is because that's when sugar levels in the grass hit their peak; overnight the plant will gradually use up these reserves. It seems the chickens eschew fresh manure, so he waits three or four days before bringing them in—but not a day longer. That's because the fly larvae in the manure are on a four-day cycle, he explained.
Joel says that this gives the fly larvae enough time to fatten up for the hens to eat them, but not enough time to actually hatch into flies. He explains how the forest on the northern side of the farm impacts all of the plants and creatures, for example, as well as numerous other elements. It was so eye-opening and refreshing to see that nature's default is health. Here's a snippet of what we learn about Budger, a cow on Joel's farm:
Chances are Budger has also chosen exactly which grasses to eat first, depending on whatever minerals her body craves that day; some species supply her more magnesium, others more potassium. (If she's feeling ill she might go for the plantain, a forb whose leaves contain antibiotic compounds; grazing cattle instinctively use the diversity of the salad bar to medicate themselves.)
We also see how this drastically contrasts to cows raised in industrial farms, which are force fed corn (their stomachs are specifically meant to digest grass) which basically kills them. They have to be kept "healthy" by so many antibiotics and shots (there goes big money to the pharmaceutical companies) which in turn gets absorbed into your body when you eat meat from an industrialized farm. It is absolutely cruelty to animals what happens on such farms, and while it's certainly not pleasant to read the details, I'm really glad that I did and am no longer living in ignorant bliss. Without even consciously deciding to change anything, I haven't been ordering meat at restaurants nor buying it from the grocery store.

The environmental impact of industrial farming

I think the biggest thing most people think about when it comes to industrial farming is the negative impact on animals. What I had never given much thought to before reading this book is the entire environmental impact, and how farming is connected to global warming.
For example, if the sixteen million acres now being used to grow corn to feed cows in the United States became well-managed pasture, that would remove fourteen billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year, the equivalent of taking four million cars off the road. We seldom focus on farming's role in global warming, but as much as a third of all the greenhouse gases that human activity has added to the atmosphere can be attributed to the saw and the plow.
It was also important to see how these impacts, both environmental and human health-related, aren't taken into account at all when pricing food items.
The ninety-nine-cent price of a fast-food hamburger simply doesn't take account of that meal's true cost—to soil, oil, public health, the public purse, etc., costs which are never charged directly to the consumer but, indirectly and invisibly, to the taxpayer (in the form of subsidies), the health care system (in the form of  food-borne illnesses and obesity), and the environment (in the form of pollution), not to mention the welfare of the workers in the feedlot and the slaughterhouse and the welfare of the animals themselves. If not for this sort of blindman's accounting, grass would make a lot more sense than it now does.
I think many people don't buy organic or grass-fed items because you can get off-brands cheaper, but Pollan makes the point that as a consumer, you can choose to either pay for "honestly priced" or "irresponsibly priced" food. I now keep this in my mind when I'm grocery shopping.

While shopping I also remind myself that Americans spend the lowest percent of their paychecks on food compared to any other country, which always gets me to go for the better option. I'm paying for my current and future health when I make good food choices, as well as helping the environment and reducing our country's future health care costs.

Read The Omnivore's Dilemma This Month

I highly recommend The Omnivore's Dilemma; why not pick it up from your library this week and start reading it? While the book communicates must-know information about America's food sources, it's engaging and fun to read at the same time.

Has anyone else read The Omnivore's Dilemma? What did you think?
• • •

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

South Korea pros and cons: What I will and won't miss from the Land of the Morning Calm

The end of December will mark four full months since leaving South Korea.

In some ways, it doesn't feel like it's been that long; I actually just had a dream last night that I was teaching a group of my Korean students. Yet in other ways, Korea feels like a lifetime away—almost as if the whole year had been a dream, some alternate reality of sorts. I recently talked about this feeling with friends who also taught in my program when five of us (the "non-renewers") got together for lunch this past Sunday.

We commented that overall, since sliding back into U.S. society has felt as simple as hitting the "play" button again, at times we ask ourselves if Korea actually happened. At least, that's how it feels for me, because it was this completely separate life and hardly a hint of it remains visible today.

My bizarre upside-down Korean life!

• • •

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Common items in a Korean elementary school

I've sprinkled bits (and sometimes dropped massive bits) of advice about teaching in a Korean elementary school over the past year. But what will it look like visually? What daily items can you expect to see?

Here are some items found around my Korean elementary school, that I believe are universals in elementary schools around the country:

Korean elementary school

School drinking fountain

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Friday, December 12, 2014

Fed Up: It's Time to Get Real About Our Food

This post originally appeared on Have Your Health, a past blog of mine active from 2013-14.

For the first time in the history of the world, more people are dying from obesity than from starvation. That's one of the earlier lines in the movie "Fed Up," which my food blogger brother wrote about in October.

Documentary-lover that I am, and with my interest in nutrition and health, I borrowed his copy of the movie and watched it myself. I highly recommend the film, especially for Americans who have never thought about their food before. It's a great, simple introduction to many of the complex problems surrounding the average American's health and diet today.

Here's the trailer:

Fed Up with Childhood Obesity and Diabetes

The movie focused on the problem that more children today than ever before in history are becoming diabetic. This is also the first generation expected to have shorter lives than their parents. Why? It's because of what children are eating.

The movie follows the stories of a few severely obese children and their families, observing how each is trying to fight the problem. One is a 12-year-old girl who weighs 212 pounds. Another is a 400 pound 9th grade boy from Texas. It was hard to watch at times, only because most of their families were going about helping their children lose weight in the completely wrong way, hence no results.

For example, the 12-year-old swims four days a week and walks her dog on the weekend, says she's "eating healthy," but still no change in weight. Her doctor told her to join Weight Watchers, but when they looked into the program, they found out she's not old enough. So they stopped going to the doctor. Instead, the parents check fat content on boxes, always sure to buy low-fat products, and fortified cereals with whole grains in them. At school she eats the school lunch, but that's often a cheeseburger and fries. (More on public school lunches in a bit.)

As the rest of the movie explains, this is the wrong way to lose weight and have your health. But I suppose this was part of the point—that directions from our doctors and physicians, coupled with what items in the grocery store are mislabeled to make you think, aren't clear. Society blames people for not exercising enough, they blame the obese person's lack of will power. But that's not the problem. So what's to blame? This film says that sugar is the main culprit, and I believe it.

Fed Up with Sugar and the Processed Food Industry

In order to look at the present day sugar and processed food problems, we need to first go back to 1977. The McGovern Report from that year was the first time the U.S. government sat down to write dietary guidelines for the country. But the egg, sugar, dairy and beef industries didn't like the suggestions in the report, as it would have hurt business (surprise, surprise). So under industry pressure, the recommendations in the report were changed. It encouraged Americans to buy more lean products instead of less processed and sugary products. So that's what prompted the '80s to boom with "low-fat" products.

How does low fat lead to sugar? Well, as the film explains, if you remove the fat, the food tastes worse. So to make it taste better they add sugar. Lots and lots of sugar. If you take a look at all of the products sold in grocery stores today, 80% have added sugar in them. In fact, from 1977 to 2000, Americans have completely doubled their daily sugar intake. D-o-u-b-l-e-d. And we wonder why there are so many health problems today...

Well, how do we know that all of this excess sugar is bad? What are the dietary guidelines about sugar? How can so much be in all of this food if it's bad for us? In 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO, division of the United Nations) put together a document called TRS 916. Original name, I know. The TRS 916 included the recommendation to restrict sugar intake to 10% of your total calories. This is nearly a repeat of the McGovern report, because once again, the food industries didn't like the health recommendation.

So because of all their pushback, Tommy Thompson went to Geneva himself and actually told the WHO that if they were to publish the document, the USA would withhold the 406 million dollars they'd promised the organization. Wowzer. So guess what happened? The WHO completely removed the sugar recommendation from the report. Surprisingly (or not?) the USA now recommends that 25% of your daily calories should come from sugar.

Yeah, it got bumped from 10% to 25% in our country: two and a half times the original WHO recommendation! How did all of this sugar creep into our diet? Easy, check the nutritional label of anything. Find the sugar line and look at the grams. Now look at the Daily Value %. Oh wait, there isn't one! Yes, food companies are somehow magically exempt from reporting the daily value percent for sugar. On many products, the sugar percentage would be super high, often over 100%—and that's with the daily recommended value that's already 2.5 times the World Health Organization recommendation!

The bottom line is that sugar is addictive, it's cheap, so the food companies are thriving off of it, while our health is suffering incredibly. Food companies are here to make money, not to make us healthy. The food industry does not care about your health, no matter what their boxes, labels, and advertisements may try to trick you into thinking.

Fed Up with Lies from the Processed Food Industry

As I've learned earlier this year from reading several books (especially "Whole") and doing some nutrition research, a calorie of x is not the same as a calorie of y. "Fed Up" compares 160 calories of almonds to 160 calories of soda as an example. The almonds have fiber naturally built in (nature knows what it's doing, folks), meaning that it's not absorbed immediately by the body, so blood sugar rises lower for longer. Soda, on the other hand, is absorbed directly through the portal system to the liver. This causes the liver to have a sugar rush, so the organ immediately turns it into fat. A calorie is not a calorie, yet all of the soda companies and processed food companies will tell you the opposite. They want you to focus on calories, calories, calories—because they can turn those up or down as they wish.

The documentary also briefly touches on the political muck surrounding fast food and processed food companies. Many, like Coca Cola and Pepsi for example, fund university research and donate to professional societies. This allows them to get studies showing the results they want—which is neither science nor the truth. These companies have teamed up with Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign, to keep her from attacking their industries. The First Lady's original campaign was set to tackle both diet and exercise, but quickly became solely focused on exercise when the big companies heard the message she was going to spread. So companies like Kraft, Coca Cola, Hersheys, Kellogs, etc. signed an agreement with her to remove 1.5 trillion calories out of the market place in 2015. This only comes out to a bite a day for the average child, but that's besides the point. See what their focus is again? Calories. They're taking out a few calories, but these new products have the same amount of sugar.

Fed Up with Processed Food Ads Targeting Children

"Fed Up" actually compares processed food and fast food companies to tobacco companies 30 years ago in the way that they target children in ads.

They use cartoons, have toys in kids meals, fun play areas in the restaurant, etc. But kids have never seen a commercial for fruits and vegetables, and this completely changes their whole conception of food—which I can attest to, as I was born in 1989. All people born in the '80s and on have been surrounded by these processed food and fast food advertisements their entire lives. Candy bars in check-out aisles of every type of store, fast food in school lunches. I didn't know what real food was until I left the country for the first time my junior year of college and my eyes were opened.

Fed Up with U.S. Public School Lunches

The U.S. Department of Agriculture got put in charge of the country's dietary regulations after the McGovern report, which definitely shouldn't be the case. (Conflict of interest, anyone?) Even though school lunch policy was recently "improved," did you know that both pizza and french fries count as a vegetable under our country's policy? You heard me: According to the U.S. government, pizza and french fries are vegetables.

Want to know how the pizza remained in that definition? Schwan, a frozen food company from Minnesota, makes 70% of its pizza sales to public schools. So if the government would have declared the truth, that pizza is not a vegetable, pizza sales would have dropped.

Another case of special interests being put ahead of public health. So many fast food restaurants operate in schools. If school cafeterias prepared food in the school, as they did years ago, that would fix so much of this health epidemic. Movie narrator Katie Couric asks near the film's end: What if all sodas carried a warning label, like cigarettes do now? What if fast food and processed food advertisements were removed from TV and taken out of public spaces? What if school lunches were cooked at school, removing all fast and processed foods from the building? What a wonderful world it would be!

The "Fed Up" Challenge: Sugar Free for 10 Days

The makers of the movie have created the "Fed Up" challenge, which is fantastic because people need a concrete action in order to change. People may agree with everything in the film, but unless you have a specific action to put in place, old habits will remain. So the challenge is to go sugar free for ten days.

Other ways to get involved and keep the conversation flowing would definitely be to watch the film if you haven't yet seen it—better yet watch it with someone (friends, family). Be aware of that sugar line on food labels, check for sugar in the ingredients list, and avoid "low-fat"/"reduced fat" foods. Better yet, stick to the outer rim of the grocery store (produce, fresh foods) and purchase more foods that don't come with a nutrition label.

And after you've seen the film, I'd love to hear from you—are you fed up?
• • •

Friday, December 5, 2014

Swanson Soil-based Organisms: A Worthy Supplement?

This post originally appeared on Have Your Health, a past blog of mine active from 2013-14.

While my grandma was visiting me this past summer when I still lived in Korea, she inquired about my digestive health. This discussion resulted in her telling me something so huge that I wondered why I hadn't heard about it sooner.

She said my cousin (all right, a second cousin's son if we're being precise) had bad digestive problems for many many years, recently started taking some supplement, and his symptoms have totally left! Of course I asked what supplement it was, so she e-mailed his mother and got an answer within the day.

What did he take? Swanson soil-based organisms. Yeah, I know I've publicly sworn off supplements here on the blog before, but when you hear a success story like that from someone you know and trust—a relative—it's hard to ignore. So as soon as I got back to the states last month I ordered a bottle online. And at $9.99 per bottle of 90 capsules, it was an easy purchase to make.

Let's take a closer look at what's in these guys:

Swanson Ultra Soil-based Organisms

This dietary supplement is meant to promote "regular bowel function and immune system health." It has 15 strains of beneficial microorganisms and digestive enzymes. Here's the product blurb from the Swanson Health Products site:
"Regain the missing ingredient lacking in so much of the food grown today and enjoy steadier energy levels, easier digestion and improved bowel function. Modern farming techniques that impoverish soil together with cooking and heat processing destroy the microscopic soil-based organisms (SBO) that give our food its full nutrient potential. With over 5 billion live organisms per serving, plus digestive enzymes and 72 trace minerals, SBO will improve your intestinal absorption of nutrients and speed the body's synthesis of superoxide dismutase (SOD), a powerful first-line-defense antioxidant. The SBO retain full potential until you consume them, only activating upon exposure to liquid."
And here's the complete ingredient list from the bottle label: (Click the label to see it bigger and clearer)

[Image lost during move from Have Your Health]

Other ingredients: Gelatin, stearic acid, may contain one or both of the following: magnesium stearate, silica. Suggested Use: As a dietary supplement, take one capsule per day with water or juice. WARNING: Consult your healthcare provider before use if you are pregnant or nursing.

My Experience with Swanson Ultra Soil-based Organisms

You're supposed to take one capsule a day with water or juice, but I'm not great at swallowing pills (hence my Dr. Mercola's powder probiotics I used to take). And believe it or not, when you're out of practice you don't get any better.

The first day I was pleasantly surprised that I actually got it down on the second try! Maybe I could become a capsule-swallowing pro after all. All hope dwindled on the second day when I just couldn't swallow it no matter how many swigs of water I took. Soon the capsule started disintegrating in my mouth—which tastes oh so very great as you can imagine.

So I improvised and have been able to swallow a capsule with my first bite of bagel when I have breakfast. For some reason it's completely doable when I'm swallowing with food. But when that capsule is floating in my mouth with a bunch of liquid, my body just does not want to swallow it.

So I take it with food, and then drink a few swallows of water before continuing to eat my bagel. I hope this isn't affecting the results, though I did see one customer comment saying that you should take this supplement with food (but if that's the case, then why wouldn't they instruct it?).

So can I notice a difference? It's been several weeks now, I'd say, and I take one capsule every morning. The first few days I didn't notice anything, though a couple more days in and I noticed new smells and colors (hint of green) leaving me. So something was changing, at least; with the Dr. Mercola probiotics I used to take regularly, I never once noticed any changes.

And then after maybe a week I noticed a heftier change in my BM one day. All of a sudden that morning something solid left me! Small parts, but solid nonetheless. I was really excited that day, could this be it? Was this all I had needed to introduce into my gut ecosystem? And then things returned to "normal" the following day (my normal=liquid), and ever since.

I also noticed back when I first started taking the supplement that I wasn't very hungry. Normally when I'm home all day (which I am now, working from home), I'll snack and snack. Especially to procrastinate. But at the start I'd fill up on less than normal and not feel like eating until I'd be hungry again, which wouldn't be until significantly after American meal times (a good thing though, I think, to only eat when you're hungry).

So I'm not sure if that had to do with the supplement or not. I'd say maybe I'm still eating less than my "average" now, but it could be due to my new environment, new food, the winter season, new exercise routine, etc. I'm tired too, but I think that has more to do with the winter season, lack of light, and working as an editor (it's draining!) more than anything.

Supplements Aren't "the Solution"

I know that you can't just take supplements and expect things to magically be fixed, which was part of my reasoning last April to not take them anymore in the first place. Rather, you must change what you eat if you want to see changes in your health. Remember, in the words of Patty Yeager:

[Image: Patty Yeager health quote from "Food Over Medicine" - Have Your Health]

That said, I'm going to keep on taking the supplement every morning for now, hoping it will help my body grow a healthy flora as I experiment with food choices. I'm well aware that what I choose to eat always impacts my health—with or without the supplement. I'll be sure to update in another month or so regarding these soil-based organisms, and whether there's been any change or no change at all.
• • •

Thursday, December 4, 2014

[Teach Abroad Blog Carnival] Crack a smile with some ESL student drawings

Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I'll be posting a new ESL-related article on my blog at the start of every month, and the carnival is always published on the 5th by that month's host. Check back for more articles, and if you'd like to contribute to next month's Blog Carnival, please contact Dean at, and he will let you know how you can start participating.

This month's host is Samantha Baker of Samantha in Saigon, which is where you can read all of this month's entries.

Prompt: What were the most endearing/hilarious English mistakes your students have made?

Reach to Teach Blog Carnival: Student ESL Mistakes

So, I have to be upfront: You're not going to find any stories about hilarious English mistakes in this post. But you might still crack a smile.

Why don't I have any such stories?

Here's the scoop: I laughed a lot while teaching English at my elementary school in South Korea. Much, much more than when I taught English in Spain to students who were my age at the time and older (22+).

But most of my laughter in Korea wasn't at English mistakes, but rather the everyday goofiness of young kids.

• • •

Monday, December 1, 2014

Resolutions Checkpoint 2014: November

Wow, here we are at the last month of 2014!

November especially felt faster than most months; the end really snuck up on me. I've been working much more on my "side editing gig" than I'd expected—around 30 hours a week, which also had something to do with the speed of this month I think.

As a result, I have more unfinished tasks than I'd like, but am still slowly making progress.

• • •

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Importance of Gratitude

This post originally appeared on Have Your Health, a past blog of mine active from 2013-14.

When I was younger, my mother would always say to us four kids during dinner, "All right, two good things." And my siblings and I would go around the table, each required to tell two good things that had happened to us that day. It's just what we did.

Some days I loved it, excitedly sharing something neat that had happened at school. Other days if I were in a sour mood, I would grudgingly give a thoughtless answer. As we got older, moving into middle and high school, meals together became rare. Between the four of us kids we had jobs, music lessons, rehearsals, co-curricular events, and so on. So at some point, the "two good things" dinner routine stopped.

Writing Thank You Notes

Another "forced-gratitude" element of my childhood, if you will, was writing thank you notes. After every birthday, Christmas, and any other occasion in which we received a gift of any sort, we little ones had to write thank you notes to each and every giver.

At the time I did it because we had to, and it would get added to our chores list. If many days had passed since receiving the gifts, we probably couldn't watch TV until we finished writing those thank you notes, or something like that.

But now, I willingly and gladly write them, snail mail lover that I am. They're fun to make and decorate, and it simply feels great to express gratitude. I love putting that energy into the card or letter, knowing that it'll create even more good feelings when the recipient opens it.

Because of my upbringing, plus personal experiences since, I've learned that gratitude is so important to have and share. Here are a few reasons why:

The Many Benefits of Gratitude

  • Focusing on something positive, like what you're thankful for, makes you happier. It just does. So if you want to feel better? Appreciate what you've got.
  • Gratitude lowers your stress levels, making your body healthier and resulting in better sleep at night.
  • Focusing on gratitude shifts your mind, filling it with positive thoughts. This shift helps you solve problems and deal with others in a kinder way during the rest of your day.
  • The goodness of appreciative thoughts take up room in your mind, leaving less space for negative thoughts. There's a direct increase in self-esteem because of this.
  • Gratitude also strengthens your relationships. By honestly and openly telling your friends or significant others what you appreciate about them, you'll create positive emotions all around.
Have I convinced you yet? So what are some simple ways to add more gratitude into your life right now?
• • •

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Camino de Santiago 101

If you've been following the blog for any amount of time, you probably know that I walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain this Sept/Oct. (That's what the sneak peak of photos back in October were from).

I know that most aren't familiar with this pilgrimage, so my first post of several about that month will try to cover the basics. If you have any lingering questions by the end, please ask!

What is the Camino de Santiago?

The Camino de Santiago (English: St. James's Way) is a pilgrimage of dozens of routes across western Europe that all end in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

Image Source

The earliest recorded pilgrimages along this route date back to the 9th century, and during the Middle Ages the Camino was an important Christian pilgrimage.

I walked the Camino Francés (The French Way), which is the most traveled route. It begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, and runs across Spain from east to west, crossing through some bigger cities like Pamplona, Burgos and León on the way to Santiago de Compostela.

• • •

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Where Do Vegetarians and Vegans Get Their Protein?

This post originally appeared on Have Your Health, a past blog of mine active from 2013-14.

So while I haven't called myself vegetarian or vegan yet, the first meat I've had in over two weeks was in my chili on Tuesday night. My aunt and uncle had taken me out for dinner, and I'd decided to stay in town - which means not many options. I saw chili and salad on the menu which sounded so good, especially considering the freezing cold outside, so that's what I ordered.

In that moment, I completely forgot why I hadn't been ordering meat out: I want to know where it comes from! I want it to be grass-fed and treated right if I'm going to eat any meat! Which, in my budget, will probably translate to cooking it at home. I feel like all of the restaurants around here that are conscious of where their meat comes from are way out of my budget.

But anyway, so I'd spaced out, which wasn't a big deal - since I haven't established any particular diet that I'm following yet. My aunt works as a dietician in a nursing home, and knew that I have been changing my diet. During conversation, she asked about me eating meat, and then proceeded with, "So how are you getting your protein?"

As soon as she said it, I knew that I had read about this very question in at least one of the books I've read this year, but could I remember the details of what it had said? Of course not. All I could muster is, "Plants and fruits." Later, "Oh - and beans! Legumes! Everything has protein." She said, "But it's not the same type of protein." And I think that conversation ended with a weak "I get enough protein" or something from me. It's fuzzy now.

Later that night I remembered that elephants, the strongest land mammals, are herbivorous. Should have spouted that fact! I also remembered something from one of the books about the fact that protein was the first nutrient discovered, and extra importance was placed on it because the lab rats died without any. This is how my memory usually works in cases like these - I can't remember the specifics of what I've read/seen unless I write it down and study it.

So today I wanted to look into the topic more, be sure that I was getting "enough" protein, and learn how to answer the question better next time.

How much protein do you need each day?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend the following daily intake of protein in adults:
  • Women: 46 grams protein
  • Men: 56 grams protein
Government health recommendations are too often littered with political agendas, but I think this is all right to go by.

And so what does that mean in terms of food? From what I've read, basically if you eat a varied diet it's hard not to reach this amount. Most Americans actually get way more than the recommended daily value, and apparently it's not clear (or not agreed upon yet) if consuming excess amounts is harmful or not. So I wouldn't go out of your way to surpass this daily intake amount.

Why is protein important?

As I touched on above, protein has this extra importance placed on it, at least in the American society. That's because it was one of the first nutrients discovered. Researchers found out that lab rats died when they didn't have any protein, so it was seen as this special nutrient that sustains life. Yes, without any you will die, but the benefits of protein were very much exaggerated.

What's in this protein that sustains life? Amino acids, the building blocks of life. Our body can make many amino acids, but there are nine that we must consume from outside sources in order to have them in our bodies. These are called essential amino acids. There's such an emphasis on meats, dairy, and fish when it comes to protein because they carry all nine of these essential amino acids, and are thus labeled "complete proteins."

There is still plenty of protein in plant-based sources, but each of these individual sources will not contain all nine essential amino acids. That's why a healthy varied diet should be getting you what you need. So which vegetarian and vegan foods provide the most protein?

Where can vegetarians and vegans get protein?

Here are some foods where both vegetarians and vegans can get some of their protein. It is not at all exhaustive, and when there are categories, I've only listed a few suggestions.
  • Green peas
  • Edamame
  • Quinoa
  • Nuts and nut butter (almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, cashews, pine nuts)
  • Beans (red, black, lentils, chickpeas)
  • Tofu
  • Leafy greens
  • Seeds (chia, sunflower, sesame, poppy)
  • Avocado
For those of you looking for longer lists, and breakdowns of exactly how much protein is found in each item (and even which amino acids), check out these awesome sources:
For Vegetarians: Vegetarian Protein Foods via No Meat Athlete
For Vegans: Protein in the Vegan Diet via The Vegetarian Resource Group  

So that's what I've compiled so far on this protein topic. Yes, we need it, and yes you can get enough on a vegetarian or vegan diet. Hopefully now we're all a little more prepared for the next time a well-intentioned family member or friend inquires about our protein intake.
• • •

Thursday, November 13, 2014

James Clear: 18 Superb Posts for Better Health

This post originally appeared on Have Your Health, a past blog of mine active from 2013-14.

One of my favorite blogs I started following this year is that of James Clear. James Clear is an entrepreneur, weightlifter, and travel photographer. He writes about "science-based ideas for living a better life and building habits that stick." He publishes two posts on his blog every week, always on Mondays and Thursdays. He has done this for nearly two years now - talk about commitment and consistency!

The posts vary in topic, as you might guess from his interests and pursuits, but all share a common theme of improving yourself. So the posts show you how to build habits, increase productivity, boost health - become better. For those of you who are new to his blog, this week I've pulled together a collection of his best posts about health - both physical and mental. Enjoy!

18 Superb Posts for Better Health from James Clear 

Physical Health

Mental Health

• • •

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The story of my pixie cut inspired by a buzz cut

Back in April, Sally at A Breath of Foreign Air buzzed off her long locks.

Well, she didn't buzz it off herself. Some newly-made friends at her hostel did it for her!

Oh, and to top that, it went down in a pub. In Ireland.

And for whatever reason, that event sparked the idea to cut off my own hair as well. I could do it right before I started the Camino, I thought, to make showering less of a chore during the four weeks I'd be living out of a backpack.

Why I Wanted to Cut Off My Hair

That logistical benefit was definitely noted, shower-hater as I am, but it wasn't the only reason why I was thinking to cut my hair super short - or buzz it off, or whatever.

• • •

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Thankful Thursday: 11/6/14

[Thankful Thursday is a weekly segment that began 1/10/13 - read why here.  I invite you to join me in practicing gratitude!]

Today I am thankful for my town's village center. Along with having rooms and spaces for a variety of community events and a senior center, the village center also has a workout room and offers a selection of fitness classes.

So on my second day home (I'm in the USA now, in case any of you missed that detail), I went down there and signed up for 8 weeks of Zumba (meets 1x/week) and 8 weeks of Mat Pilates (1x/week) in the morning (I've never done either before). Then I went ahead and bought a 3-month membership to use the fitness center to weight lift on top of that. 

Why? Two reasons. First, not playing ultimate last year in Korea resulted in me doing close to zero physical activity. That was not good, especially in the winter. So I want to stay active this winter to prevent that from happening again, and I'd like to gain some muscle too. (Remember, my Korean traditional medicine doctor even told me I needed more muscle!). 

Secondly, now that I'm working from home on my computer, I have total control over scheduling my day. Since I signed up for two morning classes (8am), that both will force myself to be awake, and also should increase productivity the rest of the day since I'm getting the workout done first thing in the morning. My plan is to work out in the fitness/weight room the non-class days of the week, also at 8am - to make it a habit/routine.

Oh, and the cost is a steal compared to private gyms. 

The part I'm most thankful for is that it's located a mere 0.7 miles from my parents' house! That makes for a quick jog or a nice walk, meaning I can easily get there despite not owning a car. How awesome is that? Very awesome.

I know that not owning a car here will limit me in some ways (mostly social), but the fact that it's not holding me back from working out is very lucky!
• • •

November Health Updates

This post originally appeared on Have Your Health, a past blog of mine active from 2013-14.

Three full months have passed since my last post. What have I been up to? Why the absence?

Accounting for My Time: August - October

During my school's summer break in August, my sister and grandma came to visit me in Korea for two weeks. We spent some time in Seoul and Gwangju, and then finished up in Hong Kong. I left my computer at home the entire trip.

Then I had my final week working and living in the country. I kept busy packing, cleaning, taking care of loose ends, and blogging about the recent trip with my grandma and sister. Then I spent five brief days in Tokyo where I visited a friend before continent hopping over to Europe.

I was reunited with my love, Madrid, before heading off to walk the Camino de Santiago across northern Spain for a month. And then the last two weeks of October I visited my dear friends in London.

On Halloween I spookily reappeared at my parents' front door here in the states. While I've journeyed to pockets of the globe, I've remained on this health journey as well. I'm looking forward to putting greater focus on my digestive health, now that I'm living in a place where I speak the language and have total control over how I spend my time and what I choose to eat.

November 2014 Health Update and Posts to Come

And now for the catch-all, I'd like to document where I'm at now and what you can expect in the coming weeks here on the blog.


I signed up for zumba and pilates (each meets once a week), plus a 3-month weight room pass at my town's village center. The plan is to get into a routine of going every morning at 8am, whether it's for one of my classes or lifting in the fitness center. This is good!

Fed Up

My older brother lent me the documentary "Fed Up," which I'll be watching and writing about soon.

Human Gut - American Food Project

I recently placed an order online to participate in the American Food Project - Human Gut. When the kit arrives (3-4 weeks), I'll be submitting a stool sample, and will eventually receive a list of the bacteria living in that sample, and their abundance. I'm hoping this will give me some insight to my IBS.

Soil-based Organisms Supplement

While I've previously written about why I stopped taking probiotics and other supplements, I just ordered a bottle of Swanson's Soil-based Organisms with 72 Trace Minerals. Why? My grandma told me that a distant cousin of mine had had digestive problems for many years. He started taking these capsules and within a few days felt better than he had in a long time. So I figured why not try it out, just in case? The bottle was only $10, so it's not a huge investment.

The Omnivore's Dilemma

I'm in the second half of Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and enjoying it so much. A write-up will follow.

Month-long Challenge/Experiment

I've been telling many people that I'm going to do some sort of strict month-long diet challenge/experiment. No dairy and no meat (and no processed foods) was the original idea, though it could change. I need to solidify this soon and START! 

So I clearly haven't even started this month-long "food challenge" yet, but I'm already meeting some resistance. My grandma keeps telling me to start it after Thanksgiving; she really wants me to eat everything she makes for the holiday, but I'm fine with skipping it. Also, living with my parents there's a ton of food around that I shouldn't eat. Certain things are really easy to avoid (Kraft Mac & Cheese, for example... there's no way I would ever open and cook you!), but others are a lot more tempting (like the dark chocolate M&Ms that live in the almond container).

So while I'm happy to be home (and not paying rent...), sharing a kitchen with others who eat very differently from me does pose its difficulties. I've got to sit down and make a plan, and then stick to it. I might be ordering a spiralizer, too, to help consume more plants. So that's where I've been, where I am, and where I'm headed. How are you doing?
• • •

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

[Teach Abroad Blog Carnival] Slow travel: Low stress and high rewards

Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I'll be posting a new ESL-related article on my blog at the start of every month, and the carnival is always published on the 5th by that month's host. Check back for more articles, and if you'd like to contribute to next month's Blog Carnival, please contact Dean at, and he will let you know how you can start participating.

This month's host is Heather Richards of Traveling Vanilla Bean, which is where you can read all of this month's entries.

Prompt: What are the benefits of slow travel?

I was reminded just a few weeks ago that not all are familiar with the term "slow travel". I've spent time in four different countries over the past three months, which has felt like a whirlwind for me.

So forgive me for the vague details, but someone (can't remember who), somewhere (no idea where I was at the time), asked me what slow travel was when it came up in conversation (obviously no clue what we had been talking about). I gave the best answer I could on the spot, and I'll try again now - with a little more time to make it coherent. I feel as though this definition could differ person-to-person, so know that you're getting one take of the general idea.

• • •

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Resolutions Checkpoint 2014: September/October

I'm in Wisconsin, everyone! I got in yesterday evening, just in time for some surprise trick-or-treating at the parents' house.

And after two months of suitcase/backpack living, I'm ready to establish some sort of coherent routine again, and keep working on this year's resolutions.

As always, my key is as follows:
     Bold = Completed
     Regular = Not completed
     Bold + Italics = Completed, not originally on task list

September/October Progress

If you recall, I gave myself some loose goals for the month of September, knowing that I'd spend most of that month (and the following) walking the Camino de Santiago. Here's how it went:
• • •

Friday, October 17, 2014

Camino de Santiago: A month in photos

My time spent walking the Camino de Santiago across Spain this fall was wonderful. Not life altering as some talk about, but a very welcome break from everything. After a year of difficulties with language barriers and new cultural norms while living in Korea, returning to Spain was such a refreshing reunion. 

I've got two notebooks of handwritten notes from my time on the Camino, which I'll certainly be referring to as I start to write some posts about the experience. In the meantime, here are some photos from the month-long walk to give you an idea of the variety of landscapes I passed through on my way from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain:

• • •

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Thankful Thursday: 10/16/14

[Thankful Thursday is a weekly segment that began 1/10/13 - read why here.  I invite you to join me in practicing gratitude!]

I am so thankful to be sleeping in Hannah and Hermann's apartment here in London for the next two weeks! They've let me completely take over their living room, with their big blow-up mattress taking up the entire floor space, plus my suitcase, backpack, and other belongings scattered about. Of course the location and arrangement aren't important - I would enjoy being with these two anywhere!

I'm thankful that I met Hannah and Herm in Madrid three years ago, and that I made it a priority to come see them this year. (Our last time together had been in Canada, July of 2013).

Hermann & Hannah
Selfie sent to me the week before I arrived
• • •

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The sound of death

With all I've experienced since leaving Korea at the end of August, I never thought the following content would be in my first post back after a month without my computer. But I'm compelled to take you with me through last Sunday evening, if you're so inclined to come along.

In a state of exhaustion I walked with my backpack to the train station in Castelldefels, Spain – just outside of Barcelona. “But Rebe,” I can hear you saying, “I thought you were off walking the Camino de Santiago, isn’t Santiago on the other side of the country?” Correct. I finished the walk in Santiago on Tuesday, stayed in the rainy city for two more days, and then on Friday morning I flew to Barcelona.

Spanish nationals for beach ultimate frisbee were held this past weekend in Castelldefels, and I had every reason to get myself there and watch the games. My team from Madrid would be playing, Hannah and Hermann (the London buds I’m currently visiting) would also be there playing, it had been over a year since I'd seen live ultimate, and what’s not to love about a sunny Spanish beach?

Even without having played in the tournament, the weekend still left me worn out. I was up as late as the players both nights, and woke up early with them too. Being out in the sun all day is for whatever reason draining, even if you’re not playing a sport.

So my mental state was extra bleary and depleted. I couldn’t wait to pass out in the bus that I would take at 22:15 that night back to Madrid, once I took the train into Barcelona and walked to the bus station.

I bought my train ticket from the machine and walked outside to the tracks. I figured out that I had to be on the other platform (on the opposite side) so I took the stairs that go down to a little tunnel underneath the tracks and then popped up on the other side.

I found a bench and sat down. There were some vending machines on the platform, and for just a split second I thought about indulging in something, but didn't (hooray me!). Two minutes later there was the regular pre-recorded announcement that the next train wasn’t stopping, please back away from the edge of the platform. When the train went by I remember noticing that you could really feel the air it stirred up from moving so quickly. Even after the train had passed, for at least ten seconds there was a big breeze trailing from the train. 

Image Source: Wikipedia

I was wondering about the science behind it, how could the movement of a fast train create that much wind behind it, and so long after it had left the scene. These thoughts were interrupted by another pre-recorded announcement. This one said that if you need to get to the other side of the tracks, please use the stairs and tunnel; do not cross the tracks. 

The platforms on both sides are raised about four feet above the ground. I looked down at the two tracks in the middle, seeing if I’d be able to push myself up onto the platform if I were down in the tracks. Just something I tend to do when staring at train or metro tracks. (If you were down in the Madrid metro tracks, there’s a cubby of space underneath the platforms on both sides where you could fit if a metro train came.) The platform edges here were straight down, though, so there would be just an inch or two between a train and the side of the platform. 

My attention then moved to a girl and her mom that were walking past. The girl said, “Mamá, me darías un dolla- digo, un euro?” (Mom, can you give me a dolla- I mean, a euro?). I pondered what had caused the girl to mistakenly say "dollar" instead of "euro". Had they just returned from a long time spent in a country that uses a dollar as their currency? Were they Spanish? Perhaps they were from a country that used dollars, and were simply visiting Spain. They sounded Spanish though, when talking with one another.

Some minutes go by, and there was an announcement that another train will go by without stopping, please step back from the platform. Although I’d been surprised at the speed of the first train, this train was much faster. The noise and force it created by speeding through were incredible. That must have been one of the high-speed trains, and the first one a medium-speed train.

Image Source: 

Glad to be sitting when it went by, I looked at the girl and her mother who were standing in the middle of the platform when the train had passed. They had to stop moving when it went by, sort of bracing themselves from the strong gust. The girl was now eating a pack of gummy bears, which she must have bought from the vending machines on the platform with that euro.

Then another train went through without stopping, but coming from the other direction on the far tracks. There was no indication on the screens when our train would be there. How long would I be waiting? When would a train come that actually stopped at this station?

My numb mind was happy with the weekend, but still eager to sleep. There were more people on the platform now that I’d been waiting here for nearly fifteen minutes, and the sky had darkened considerably as night was on its way.

There was another announcement for a passing train that wouldn’t stop. Shucks, another train that’s not ours. A few seconds later I could hear the train coming quickly, with its lights shining in the distance.

All of a sudden a man ran past my bench down the platform while shouting strongly with a hint of panic, “Quítate de allí! ¿Eres idiota? (Get out of there, are you an idiot?!). The urgency in his voice was almost tangible.

Wide awake, I turned my head to the left to see who he was shouting at. Was someone seriously down in the tracks? Who the hell would ever go down there?! Were they trying to cross? Had they gotten out? All I could see were the lights of the train that was now passing our platform as the shouting man continued without pause a final, insistent, “Quítate de allí!” (Get out of there!).


I will never forget that sound.

The train then slowed and stopped, with the front of the train some yards to my right. Everyone on the platform – myself included – had white faces and dropped jaws. My skin was crawling.

I think I just witnessed a suicide, I instantly thought, not wanting it to be true.

One of the first emotions I felt was the this-can't-be-happening-to-me feeling, even though it wasn't something that had happened to me, I had merely seen something happen - but the feeling was similar nonetheless. I had just been going about my normal day, the tournament, my exhaustion, wanting to get on the bus to sleep. And now a woman had stood in front of a fast train and been run over to her death - twenty yards to my left. This really just happened, it wasn't a dream.

Twenty seconds ago that woman was up on the same platform as me. Standing, living, breathing, thinking. What had she been thinking? She probably had walked right in front of me at some point during the 15 minutes I'd been sitting there on that bench. 

And now, moments later, she was irreversibly gone. Forever. With the passing of those few critical seconds, a line was crossed and there was no returning to the other side.

The next overwhelming feeling was sadness. There were surely people who loved this woman. How would they take the news? What had been so terribly wrong that she thought this was her only option? Could we have done something more? What if I hadn't been so sleepy, and actually observed the entire platform? Would I have seen her jump down before the shouting man noticed her? What if I had walked further initially and sat at a bench near the woman. What if someone had struck up conversation with her? Would any of these tiny details have changed the outcome of this night?

But these thoughts were pointless. She was gone, forever.

Many of the people inside the stopped train still had smiles on their faces. They were chatting with each other, reading books, some were probably complaining about the delay, speculating. They didn't know.

The doors of the first car then opened, just to my right. The news was quickly passed to those inside the first car. Two metro workers were on the platform, on the phone with various others, retelling what had happened according to what eye witnesses from our platform had told them.

And meanwhile newly arriving passengers continued to cross under from the station to our platform, unaware of what had just occurred.

Still trying to take it all in, I sat back down. I had over two hours to get to the bus station, so there was no rush to figure out how I'd get there now. How long would the train sit here? How difficult would it be to identify the woman? Is there protocol for this type of situation?

Time was impossible to track, there was only before and after. So at some point after, passengers on the stopped train were instructed to get off. Our platform quickly filled up with people.

And some point after that, an announcement was made that the next train, a train going to Barcelona, would stop on the alternate Track 4, the other side of our same platform. The train came and most everyone boarded, leaving the bomberos (firemen) to do whatever it is they did next at the scene.

It was strange to be mixed with a train of people who had not witnessed what we had, "we" being us passengers from Track 3. The others were happily oblivious, while I knew I could never erase the sound of that thud from my mind.

But as the train carried us farther away from Castelldefels Track 3, I no longer felt like I could cry. The farther away we got, and the more that us Platform 3 passengers dispersed through various transfers and stations, the weaker my previous feelings became.

We were thrown back into the hustling bustling daily life of these train stations, with tourists, locals, families, workers - everyone on their own agendas. And time no longer stood still.

As I made my transfer through a busy station, I was able to reflect that life is precious. Life is not forever. 

Though neither are feelings.

Feelings, both the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, do not stick around forever. This is why it's important to recognize and fully appreciate those perfectly happy moments, and to have patience during the tough sunken times as well.

I do not currently feel how I felt Sunday night on Platform 3. In fact, as I described, my initial feelings left within a half hour, as I got farther away from the platform. But that sound, oh that sound. 


The sound of death might just stay with me forever.
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Saturday, September 13, 2014

[Open post] What's on your life list?

I'm currently on my third day of the Camino de Santiago, and therefore won't be posting again until I finish mid-October.

In the mean time, readers, this post is open for you. Whether you read and never comment, are a regular, or just happened here recently, I want to hear from you! Say hello and introduce yourself in the comments.

And if you need more of a commenting prompt: Since the camino is on my "life list," share one thing that's on your life list (if you want to share)!

I look forward to reading these.

Until then, enjoy your autumns, wherever you may be!
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Monday, September 8, 2014

An unusual feeling in Tokyo, Japan

I had this strange feeling during my five days in Japan that I just couldn't shake.

It's not a feeling I've had before while exploring a new place, so trying to describe it felt (and still feels) like trying to catch fog in my hands. I'll give it a stab in a bit, though.

My 3.5-hour flight to Tokyo ended up being a full day of travel, considering the time spent commuting to and from airports, not to mention the time spent in said airports. My checked bag was 15.4 kg, and there was no charge for being 0.4 kg over the limit. Woo!

I successfully got some Japanese Yen out of an ATM in Narita Airport, which was a relief since the opposite happened when I went to Bangkok earlier this year.

Getting to my hostel was also without problems, and I did just fine getting around by myself (aka up and down stairs) with the one suitcase, backpack, and side bag. However, I will never use this suitcase again. It's going right back to my sister and I'll invest in a good suitcase of my own - one with a functioning handle!

Anne Hostel - Tokyo, Japan
Anne Hostel - Tokyo, Japan

The strange feeling in Tokyo

In the days that followed, it didn't feel like I was in a foreign place. Tokyo felt almost unreal - but not surreal, which is an important distinction. When my now former boyfriend came to Korea, that was surreal. When my grandma and sister came to my school in Korea: surreal. But this? It felt like I was on the set of a movie or something - that it wasn't a real place - though there was nothing special in the appearance of the city for me to feel that way.

Although Tokyo is a ridiculously enormous city, it felt quiet.

Quiet in the parks, where you'd expect it to be quiet, but also quiet on the trains.

And quiet in the busy streets.

While I had previously thought Korean buses and trains were quiet, Japan has them beat. On the trains your phone should be on mute, and you're not allowed to talk on the phone, which the loudspeaker kindly reminded passengers of every so often. Some times a few people would be talking, but it was in such a hushed voice and unrecognizable to me that it barely registered as background noise.

I do wonder how closely related this bizarre feeling was to the fact that I went to Japan straight after spending a year in Korea.

After that much time in Korea, it's very easy to pick out if someone's speaking in Korean. Because in Korea, that's what you'll hear from everyone, approximately all the time.

But I still don't have a good grasp of what Japanese sounds like. Maybe that added to the fakeness of it all? To this strange vibe I was getting? Though keep in mind I felt nothing of the sort while in Bangkok, Thailand nor while in Hong Kong - two other places where I don't speak the language.

Tokyo on the surface

Leaving the language aside, I also made some visual observations of this "place that didn't feel real." Bikes were much more common to see - both being ridden and parked around the city.

Most of the bikes had at least one basket in front, though many had one in back, too. Parents of younger kids had child seats in front and/or in back of the bike. It was nice to see people riding bikes who were clearly dressed for work - both men and women.

So many of the men wore white button-up short sleeved shirts with black pants. Although Korea is fairly homogenous, the men do not dress this alike for work.

There were beverage vending machines sprinkled all over the city, just on random streets outside - many residential.

I wondered who owned each vending machine, and what the process is for getting to put one on a street side. Do the vending machine owners pay rent to put them there? Are there designated vending machine spots every x meters? Do people in Tokyo drink a lot more liquid than people in other places? Why is there a need for so many vending machines if there are still convenience stores around every few blocks?

But I suppose that's the other piece to this strange-feeling puzzle: I had questions but no answers. I hardly knew anything at all about this place I was visiting. I didn't do research beforehand or read up on any blogs or travel guides; I had been busy packing up and cleaning out my apartment!

In Korea I had a year of experiences, observations, first-hand stories from co-workers, and books/blogs that I had read to help me understand why Korean society is the way that it is. I could make visual observations, but I also had some depth to my understanding of Korean people. Knowing their values, customs, and history often told me why they did the things that they did, and why things were the way that they were. It was very much real, as I lived and had a role in that society for 356 days.

I had no depth in Japan, so perhaps that contributed to my foggy feelings. It wasn't different enough at first glance - unlike Bangkok and Hong Kong - so I wasn't sure how to categorize it or what to think of the place. It clearly wasn't Korea, but what was it? How did what I saw make it Japan? What wasn't I picking up on?

Friends around the world

Regardless of the unusual feelings that stayed with me all week, I enjoyed the time that I spent in Japan. One of the main reasons I decided to make the trip in the first place was because I had a friend from college who had just started teaching English in Japan back in June. We first met while in the same study abroad program in Madrid way back when (okay, 2009). The last time I'd seen her was also in Madrid, but in 2012. We overlapped for a short time as she moved back to Madrid to teach English while I was leaving after my year teaching there.

We were never close friends, but we have stayed in touch over the years - which I can't say for too many college friends. I never would have guessed our next encounter would be in Japan! In Tokyo we hung out several times during the week. I know it's hard to have visitors when you have to work and keep living your life, so I'm really grateful she spent her free time with me.

I was really impressed with her Japanese skills after such a short time in the country (blows my "Korean" out of the water), as well as how busy and integrated she's become already. It's not easy to start a new life in a foreign country, so I gained lots of inspiration and have tons of respect and admiration for what she's doing now (and what she's done in the past).

Here's some more of what I saw and did last week:

Cat cafe in Tokyo, Japan

Akihabara: Tokyo's electronics district

Arcade claw games in Tokyo, Jaan

Various temples in Tokyo, Japan

Purikura: Japanese photo booths

Yokohama, Japan

On my last full day in Tokyo a boy in my room at the hostel asked which place I liked better, Korea or Japan. "Uhhhhhh" I dragged out, while trying to process what had just been asked of me.

How can you compare a place you've lived in for a year - where you understand the culture and subtleties of everyday life - with a place you've been in for just five days, knowing approximately nothing about it? In the words of my friend Abby: Does not compute.

I would like to return to Japan for a longer period of time, and to visit other parts of the country as well. But for now, my memories of the place are twofold: The cloudy strange feeling that couldn't be pinned down, and the kindness and strength shown by my friend.
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