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!
• • •

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.
• • •

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Resolutions Checkpoint 2014: August

As I predicted, I didn't get that much done in August since I was on vacation with my sister and grandma for nearly two weeks, and then packing and wrapping up the year the last week. I also overestimated the amount of free time I'd have at work in the afternoons during summer English camp. So, here's the progress I made in August:

-- August Progress --

1. Digestive health

  • Finish reading The China Study.
  • Research criticism of The China Study and write findings into a draft post.

    2. Health site

    • Publish one new post. - I backdated it to July, but posted it in August. Counts, right??
    • Make graphic for one older post and share on Google Plus.

    3. Non 9-5 work

    • Work on Elance profile for 2 hours.
    • 10 hours/week editing (only weeks when I'm not traveling)

    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

    -- Background Goals --

    And here's my overall progress on those bits and pieces that would be great to accomplish this year as well:
    • Read 32 books this year (2 in Spanish)
      • I've read 21/32 books -- (One in Spanish)
      • Finished The China Study and Orphan Train this month.
    • Gain strength & muscle, enough that there's a notable difference in a before and after picture
    • Add pull-down tabs to both of my Blogger blogs
      • Rough plans to make a new template for this blog with Herm's help when I'm in London
    • Walk the Camino de Santiago
    • Visit Hannah and Herm in London
    • Make a Korea bucket list and post it (and do it!)
    • Unplug more often
    • Resume French study

    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

    -- September Focus --

    September and October are going to be even stranger than August in terms of breaking from the routine. I won't bring a computer with me when I walk the Camino de Santiago in a few days, so I won't be working on the health site at all. Here's a very light rendition of September's focus:

    1. Digestive health

    • Eat as many plants as possible.
    • Avoid dairy and greatly minimize meat consumption.

      2. Health site

      • [Hiatus]

      3. Non 9-5 work

      • Be open to getting inspired while walking the Camino. Write down ideas.

      And there we have it. I see myself getting more rigorous with my goals again in November, when I'll have the time to focus on them. But for now, I want to focus on the present, and gain all I can from this limited time in Spain.
      • • •

      Wednesday, September 3, 2014

      [Teach Abroad Blog Carnival] Be yourself like Ida was herself

      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 Jamie Phillips of The Accidental Nomad, which is where you can read all of this month's entries.

      Prompt: Who was the best travel companion or person you met along the road and why?

      I have met some great people through my travels and hostel stays over the years, but the one who jumped into my mind first was Ida.

      I spent two weeks of my winter break in 2011-12 living with Ida and many others who came and went while working in exchange for food and accommodation (through HelpX) in Válor, Spain.

      New Year's Day hike in Válor, Spain

      I don't know Ida well and I have no idea where she is today, but her impression has clearly stuck with me.

      Pictureless description of Ida

      Although I have pictures of Ida, she was wary of me even taking one back when we were together, as she didn't want them to be put online anywhere. So I'll take a stab at creating an image in your mind solely with words instead.

      Ida, in her early 20s, had hair as short as a buzz from the front, covering the first quarter of her skull in a dyed deep, dark brown with a hint of red. But the rest of her hair was long and blonde, often piled on top of her head in a heap.

      Ida had a tiny nose ring on her septum, and both ear lobes had been stretched out around black ear gauge loops. Both arms were inked; the upper left arm had a black and grey design covering nearly all of the skin, while her right arm's tattoo began in the lower arm with a flowery vine curling around the arm, and gorgeous birds flying across the upper arm.

      Her face was round and cute, and it's that face with her kind smile and eyes that I remember clearly (I'd actually completely forgotten about the tattoos, nose ring, and ear gauges until I looked at a photo to write this post).

      Ida was from Denmark, and was pleasant to be around. She had a calm aura about her, and though she wasn't overly outgoing, Ida often said things that were a little too bold for me to say, but thoughts I'd had myself. I found her honesty refreshing, and perhaps both her slight accent and the way she phrased things in English - in ways that native speakers would not - added to her interesting character.

      Skinny dipping in the afternoon

      Although my time with her was in December and January, this was southern Spain, so the temperatures could reach the upper 60s and 70s in the afternoon. One day after working, the four of us HelpXers who remained that day made our way to the pool.

      Before I knew it, Ida had stripped off all of her clothes and dived in, then not long after, hopped out and wrapped up in a towel to warm up.

      The other two volunteers had been working at this location for several months, so they must have witnessed Ida do this many times. But this was many years before I was ever introduced and accustomed to the Korean jjimjilbang (spa), so at this point I had never had friends just get naked in front of me before.

      To me, Ida was strong and brave to not care what others thought, while I was shy and cautious in comparison. She was different from the norm - I mean, who was hesitant to even have their picture taken with a friend on a personal digital camera?


      Ida was learning Spanish, and had a rather advanced level already when I met her. Sometimes she would chat with the Spanish construction workers that our hosts paid to do various tasks for their projects. One day she and I talked together in Spanish, and we both enjoyed ourselves.

      During my stay she lent me a short book in Spanish (originally written in English) about a seagull, Juan Salvador Gaviota by Richard Bach. It taught important life lessons through the story of this gull, and reading it at that particular moment in my life felt significant. The book has a strong association with Ida in my mind, since she's the one who had read it and lent it to me.

      Crafty and creative

      On our help exchange we were up early, but that meant we finished working at one every afternoon, and then had lunch. Thus every afternoon and evening were ours to fill. We were out in the mountains and it felt amazing to be disconnected. We filled the time by going for hikes, reading, walking into town, giving ourselves temporary tattoos from gum wrappers - you know.

      Christmas Day hike with the other HelpX volunteers

      Sometimes our hosts would cut the solar-powered electricity from the house where we stayed if someone had used too much during the day, so we'd play cards by candle light when that happened.

      Playing cards by candlelight

      One night after dinner, I found Ida dipping sheets of paper into a bowl of red wine, and then laying them out to dry. There were wine-soaked pages in various stages scattered all over the kitchen. She was going to make a book with the pages once they dried.

      How creative, I thought. Who else would think to do this on a Wednesday evening? Both Ida and another volunteer sparked my creative juices that winter, which led to the making of my kindle case after vacation.

      Free education

      The other fact I remember about Ida is that at some point she mentioned the classes she had taken at her university in Denmark - which were completely free. I lusted for some time about the idea of a free university after she told me, daydreaming about moving to Denmark and taking whatever classes I wanted. Reality struck when it came out that most of these classes were not instructed in English. Well, shoot...

      After returning back to Madrid after my HelpX gig, I sent Ida a piece of snail mail to the address where we had been. I'm not sure if she ever received it, for she might have taken off for a new destination before it arrived. And that was the last "interaction" I had with Ida, if you can even call it that.

      A lasting impression

      I can't say exactly why Ida made such an impression on me in the few days that I was with her, but she did. Her qualities that I noticed and admired could have very well just been cultural differences, but this didn't stop me from idealizing her during the time that's passed since we met. I think Ida represents a free spirit to me, a strong and creative person who's not afraid to go against the grain.

      There are so many people in my life with certain qualities I strive to acquire. Smile more like the librarian at my elementary school in Korea, say hello to everyone and ask how they are - like one of the professors I used to work with in Madison always did, have focus and discipline to work on habits and hobbies like Brent, etc. And in the foggy background of my mind, Ida has remained on this list:

      Be yourself like Ida was herself, and don't fear going left when everyone else goes right.
      • • •

      Tuesday, September 2, 2014

      Living alone

      An item on my life list has been to live alone for a year.

      I'd thought for many years that I would really enjoy it, but financially I've had to live with roommates throughout college and for two years post-graduation.

      But this past year, while teaching English in Korea, I finally got to live by myself in a one-room apartment!

      And just as I suspected, I loved it.

      I was so much more at ease -completely relaxed - whenever I was at home. Without realizing it, I started doing all those things you read about people who live alone. You know, those "weird habits" like never closing the bathroom door, taking your sweet time to put on clothes after showering, etc.

      I could eat in my bed with no shame, talk to myself out loud whenever I pleased, and only use the heat or AC when I wanted to.

      Living alone was everything I thought it would be, and I will definitely try to do so again when I'm next able.

      After this upcoming week staying in a dorm room at a hostel in Tokyo, then a month of albergues while walking the Camino de Santiago, followed by two weeks bumming at my friends' apartment in London, the next place I'll be living at longer than a month is back home with my parents.

      I'm not dreading this arrangement, as it's so often made out to be on TV shows and movies. I get along with my parents and look forward to hearing about their seemingly uneventful happenings every day - tales that I haven't heard during the past year.

      This is obviously how I feel now, we'll see what I say in a few months!
      • • •