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To (Not) Go Home

“So, why Korea?” Marshall asked as we drove through the mountains of Vermont en route to New Year’s in Montréal.

“I really wanted to study printmaking in Italy.”

“I hate to tell you, Steph, but have you looked at a map?”

But that is exactly how it began. I wanted to study printmaking in Florence. I had wanted to study printmaking in Florence for at least five years. Whenever Life As I Currently Knew It became unbearably predictable, there I was again, calculator in hand, determining how many thousands of dollars it was going to cost me to study printmaking in Florence. How many, many, several thousands of dollars. Many several thousands of dollars good friends like Sallie Mae and the IRS wanted instead.

Through a series of serendipitous conversations, it was revealed that Korea was the one place I could go to experience overseas travel & adventure and be PAID several thousands of dollars to do it. Not Italy, not laying on my back in the Tuscan sun drawing in my diary, having romantic entanglements with Italian men, all while sipping espresso. But also not Massachusetts and with that, I was sold. This was followed by a few months of hemming, hawing and other procrastination techniques at which I excel. Finally in January, I ponied up and did it. Within 12 days I was on a plane.

{February 11} To (Not) Go Home

And so here I am, one year from the moment I landed in Seoul and this is the news: I am staying. I love it. Like, I really, crazy, mad love it. It is strange that I had to go half-way around the world, to a place probably last on my list of places to visit, to find home. But that is exactly what happened.

I will remain at my current job through the spring and then return for a much-needed vacation of weddings and road-tripping and babies being born by sisters. But by fall, I will be returning to Korea, this time with guitar, old cameras and a year’s supply of deoderant.

Korea is nothing like Florence, and I haven’t learned shit about printmaking, but that’s cool. I’ve been walloped over the head with way, way more than I could have imagined.

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After Snowboarding

{January 27} The day I was very sore.

The day I was very sore.
The day in which I ate the best dak galbi I’ve ever had.
The day in which I washed dak galbi out of my new white shirt. Obviously.
The day in which I drove through the mountains in the back of a Jetta.
The day in which I ate roasted chestnuts in the back of said Jetta.
The day in which I slept in the late afternoon sun.
The day in which I dined with SeoulFlickrNerdsCentral™ and was retrieved from my grouchy, tired disposition by sparkling conversation.

Dear Aunt Steph,

Merry Birthday and Merry Christmas! We’re writing you from Kentucky, and I have a Disney ball, Disney Barbies and a Hello Kitty CD player from Santa! He brought them all the way down here! And I have a giant pencil, but it’s not from Santa. It’s from a truck stop.

How are you, Aunt Steph? Love you…miss you…too much to say it. You are my most favorite auntie in the whole wide world. The world is like a planet. And I’m going to learn about space at my school. The very next month. My room has been changed around at home. I got a “Moon in My Room” for Christmas — and some glow-in-the-dark stars to go with it. And my most favorite thing of all is a boogie board. I hope you can come home to the beach and we can use it together!

Do you miss the ocean? Cause I miss you. Do you remember things about Gloucester, Massachusetts? Cause I hope some day I can come visit you. I can bring you things from Gloucester if I get to come visit you, like pine cones from the woods, and twigs and we can make a fairy house. I can bring you seashells from the beach and little treasure toys. A long time ago I found some armies. I spotted them with my eyes. Do you have any kind of shells in Korea at the beach? Maybe they’re a different kind, like sand dollars…or beach glass…. Or I can bring you giant pine cones from Kentucky, and magnolia branches for you.

Love you, miss you. And I hope you have a wonderful birthday if I don’t get to go there.

xoxoxo MADeLYNe

mail

“A tall mountain and me & you on top with a blue sun in a blue sky. And something about Gloucester: ocean waves, the tallest waves up to our teensy toes.”

Dear Madelyne,

Thank you so much for the lovely card and beautiful drawing. I can’t believe you can sign your name! What happened? You were four when I left. Are you 25 now?

It’s sounds like Santa dumped the motherload on you this year and it sounds like Grammy Carla helped Santa shop. You and I both know that Mommy and Daddy like to shop from that hippie magazine with the wooden toys. Listen, I grew up with wooden toys that my dad made from hand and I never appreciated it either. That’s what Grammies are for. The sparkly stuff. But believe me, one day you will know how lucky you were that you had to build your own Barbie Dreamhouse out of wooden blocks or drive her around in a Corvette made from a shoebox. It will make you stronger. I promise.

And don’t knock the truck stop souvenir, especially if it is a giant pencil. I myself am partial to miniature license plates that say “Stephanie”. Truck stops can be scary places but they give the kinds of gifts that keep on giving. Like acid reflux or VD. But I will let you in on this little secret. That giant pencil? You will never use it.

I am great, Madelyne. Truly. I know I’ve been a rotten excuse for both a pen pal and an Auntie as of late, but sometimes Life comes out of nowhere and takes you by both hands. After months of dipping only my toes into Korea, aching constantly for something else, something happened. Korea delivered. I suddenly found myself surrounded by great friends and an impossible-to-keep-up-with social calendar. Rains, pours. You know the drill.

My quiet, contemplative, simple Korean life became an endless stream of dinners and parties and noraebangs and cameras and subway rides and taxicabs and laughter and cafés and shopping. Oh, the shopping. You mother would lose her mind here. Most importantly, the one thing I had been craving for years, community + a place I love, was in front of my face. And that is the lovely thing about being an expat in Korea. The transient, impermanance that was at first unnerving has given way to complete and utter presence of mind. Dare I say it feels like home.

That said, I do miss the ocean. I have been to the ocean three times since I’ve been in Korea and let me tell you something. It is not Gloucester, Massachusetts. That is for sure. And do I remember Gloucester, Massachusetts? Girl, you crazy? Of course I remember Gloucester, Massachusetts.

All. Twenty. Or. Thirty. Something. Years. Of. It.

But let me explain something. The word “because” is used in transitions to indicate cause and effect relationships. Don’t get me wrong. I miss you, too. But you don’t miss me because I miss the ocean. Additionally, you should absolutely come visit me in Seoul, but not because I remember things about Gloucester, Massachusetts. It’s just a little detail I feel obligated to correct, given my current occupation.

If you come to Seoul, I would love some little treasure toys! I was thinking more along the lines of fresh whole wheat bread from Alexandra’s bakery and an extensive collection of all-natural toiletries, but pine cones and twigs will do. A fairy house? That sounds cool.

Last week I dreamt that you and I were swimming together. We were probably on a mountain, swimming in the tallest waves all the way up to our teensy toes. Actually, I am sure of it.

Love you, miss you.
(I’ll openly admit that the brevity of those words just kills me..)
Aunt Steph

On Nine and Counting

Sunday morning I woke in the most comfortable bed I have slept in for some time, in an apartment about seven times the size of mine, halfway up Namsan mountain, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking all of Seoul. Well, all of one-quarter of Seoul.

stacked

Saturday night had included blue shoes, hamburgers, hot chocolates, 1/3 of Ocean’s Thirteen, wine, live music, Coronas twice the price of an entire six-pack, Paris Hilton in the next room and middle-aged American assholes in tuxedos with an inflated sense of entitlement.

There are two kinds of people in this world: People who, when they hear Paris Hilton is in the next room, want to go meet her and people who want to leave. Can you guess which I am? How about the Dude in the Tuxedo? Can you guess which he is? Let’s just say I did not see Paris Hilton, nor did I over-talk about it loudly in my tuxedo.

The following morning, despite headache, lack of sleep and an exceptionally rosy demeanor, I forged on for a delicious brunch in Itaewon with YoungDoo and Bill. We sat among the golden glow of gingko trees and discussed The Future over pancakes and eggs benedict. I skipped off to spend a solo afternoon in Dublin, for a matinée of this beautiful film which stirred me and filled me with tears and smiles and delight and music and memory and swelling hearts.

It was exquisitely simple. If you’ve not seen it, you must.

After some reckless consumerism and a purchase which has officially propelled me into the 21st Century, I returned home to a splendid evening spent listening to NPR podcasts while scouring every inch of my apartment, the afternoon’s love songs trailing through my head. My 21st Century Purchase sitting unopened on my desk.

Somewhere around scrubbing the bathroom floor it occurred to me that it was the 11th, my nine month anniversary in Korea. Most astonishing was the revelation that this was unremarkable. I’ve stopped counting. The last few weeks have been unwaveringly present, full of perfect dates with my city, exploring new corners and new friendships. A newly discovered local watering hole with new co-workers who have made this wacky place feel like home. And then, as I walked through my neighborhood to my local tofu restaurant for dinner, I realized something else.

It will be hard to leave.

Eleventeen

It is the 17th of October, which means eight months and one week ago today I was standing blurry-eyed on the sidewalk at Incheon International Airport with my suitcases. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I may as well have been drunk for the latter half of January and all of February, as I recall little to nothing of that time, at least nothing that seems like it wasn’t a dream. On second thought, had I actually been drunk for all of that time, I am certain it would have been a more pleasant month.

I am officially closer to the end than to the beginning, and that is both liberating and eye-rolling. My eye-rolling sounds like this: “Really? I have to do this for four more freaking months?” With this pending monthversary looming on the horizon, I have found myself stuck with the number 11 in my head. I am not sure if this is because the day itself falls on the 11th, or because I feel mentally closer to eleven than eight. A crushing disappointment for the impatient.

The last two months have been exquisite socially, as I have unearthed many dear new friends and have seen this city in a whole new way. I cannot say the same for my job, which is tiresome and monotonous and repetitive. On a good day. October in particular has been trying, at best. In recent weeks, decisions have been made. Decisions regarding The Future. And these decisions, well…I want it all to start now. To complicate matters, some irritating health issues have led me to the subsequent yet predictable “I Want To Leave” syndrome. This is not unlike the Great Crash of 2007, when the freezing of my overworked laptop quickly found me tailspinning into feelings of helplessness and being marooned on a desert island. That’s a perfectly reasonable reaction, no?

OK, it is entirely possible that it’s been that special time of the month when one’s hormones are unfairly influencing one’s emotions. When things become slightly “exaggerated”, say, or develop an overwhelming sense of urgency. Where “I am sick of teaching” quickly turns to “I would rather die than teach one more Korean child nothing about English”. Where “I am excited for The Future!” heads down a slippery slope into “I am trapped and suffocating in Korea. I want The Future to start now!”

I am in the middle of an airy fairy spiritual New York Times Bestselling Memoir, which I will refrain from naming as I’ve already said too much. It is one of those books that has crossed my path for the last year and I’ve yawned at it saying, “It’s very popular. It can’t possibly be any good.” The jury is still out on that one.

What I do know is that I am essentially reading my own life-story of the last ten years, and while there are many differences in our life circumstances, the similarities between the inner-workings of the author’s brain and my own are eerie. Today I stumbled upon this passage:

Here you are in India, in an Ashram in one of the holiest pilgrimage sites on earth. And instead of communing with the divine, you’re trying to plan where you’ll be meditating a year from now in a home that doesn’t exist yet in a city yet to be determined. How about this, you spastic fool — how about you try to meditate right here, right now, right where you actually are?

This whole Be Here Now thing is not news to me. It was simply the mirror I needed to look into today, right here, right now.

So today: I ran a really strong five kilometers, I had Vietnamese noodles and frozen yogurt with two lovely new co-workers, I watched the speed skaters at Lotte World and bought blue shoes for ten dollars. And for one whole day, I did not think (very much) about the past eight months or the next four. Just right here, right now.

blue shoes-1.jpg

Five Hundred Million

My sweet, sweet Madelyne,
Today you turned five years old. I don’t really need to tell you this since the second you picked up the phone this morning you said, “It’s my birthday Aunt Steph. I am five.”

{October 4} Five-year-old

I honestly don’t know how this happened. In fact, I remember when Mommy & Daddy and I were boozing it up in Nicaragua & Costa Rica, mere moments before you were conceived. See, Mommy and Daddy spent almost two weeks sharing a room with me & Mary Lee. In the glow of my 30th birthday, they took leave to Managua and got right to business at the Los Feliz. It was a very magical place, I want you to know. We’d spent Christmas Eve there a week earlier, skinnydipping in the pool under starry skies and the thunder of midnight firecrackers.

I trust that in the future, when you skinnydip with your friends, you will be fully clothed.

I remember, also, when I started getting the phone calls from Honduras. And emails about a possible “medical evacuation”. And the moment it occurred to me, “Heidi’s pregnant. That’s what’s happening here.” I lived in a cottage on the ocean in Lanesville with no cell phone service and had to run up the street to check my messages. I stood on the top of that hill, freezing and shivering, jumping up and down and cheering into the wind.

You and I were connected from the moment I first put my hands on the bump in Mommy’s stomach. I am not a doctor or a mystic or anything with a fancy title, but of that one thing I am certain. I had never in my life wanted to meet someone as much as I wanted to meet you. I sang to you and I talked to you and like a small child that doesn’t understand biology, I asked you repeatedly to come out.

Madelyne-3.jpg

The year you were born was without a doubt the most difficult year of my life, for reasons I hope & pray you will never have to live through. Everything was crumbling around me with a velocity that was numbing, and just when it got really bad, it got awful. At the end of August, my grandfather drove himself to the hospital that he would not check out of, the place we would spend the next month watching the cancer spread to his brain. I was hollow and carved out, intensely awake and intensely asleep at all times.

To deal with the stress, I took an interest in knitting and grinding my teeth. I knit the same scarf a hundred times and ripped it out a hundred times more. I became obsessed with my dental plan, all the things we could do to my teeth in one month and the endless amounts of free stuff retrieved at each visit. I drove aimlessly every single day. Everywhere and nowhere. There were not enough showers in a day to clean me sufficiently and wash it all away.

And then there you were. The day before we buried Grampy, there you were. I had cried the entire 3000-hour commute from Brooklyn to northern New Jersey and walked into the arms of my family, into the house I never wanted to leave again. I ate roast beef sandwiches and my sister’s birthday cake, neither of which tasted like anything. I sat on the floor reading Grampy’s love letters to Grammy and found the first letter he wrote to my dad, when he was stuck on a ship in the South Pacific and had missed the birth of his first son. And then my phone rang.

A few days later, I packed my car with every possible thing from that house that would allow me to hold onto my grandparents for one half-second longer, and I drove straight to you. You were in your car seat on the kitchen table and you turned as soon as you heard my voice. I knew it then, like I know it now: you and me, we like each other. You were so tiny. Can you believe you were ever that tiny? I can’t. Because now you are so big and so bright you fill up an entire room, sometimes to the chagrin of one’s ears and one’s sleep patterns.

But I want you to know this, Madelyne, because it is important that you always know these things: you healed my heart that year. I was broken in a million places and you came along like a very tiny medicine man. You were so little and so simple and so impossibly perfect, and very slowly, I began to be put back together. Sitting in my arms, you were like superglue. Epoxy. Epoxy Baby, that’s what you were.

Madelyne-1.jpg

And now you are five and I wonder if you are not, in fact, one hundred. Because it does seem like a hundred, maybe a million, years ago. And you are really smart now. Like crazy genius smart. Even if you are starting to insert “like” into every sentence. I dread the day you use OMG or LOL or some crazy internet-acronym of The Future. More troubling is the fact that you are also developing what is best called the Masshole accent. It is slight, it is subtle…but it is there. Don’t worry. It will be short-lived. Your father will see to that.

On the plus side, your parents’ passion for sarcasm has not been lost on you, as you tried it out on me tonight. Some snarky remark about hoping your birthday present arrives by next year. When I retorted with my own dry wit and sarcastic quip at your naïvety, you immediately enlightened me with, “I was joking, Aunt Steph.” Ah, so you’re onto me already.

But the cutest thing you said tonight was about the webcam. “You know what will be really exciting, Aunt Steph? When we get to talk on the webcam.” I sighed, trying to explain the very exhausting issue of Apple computers and $300 iSights and useless drivers and money wasted. You paused, exasperated, and shouted, “I’ve been talking about this all year long!”

Me too, Madelyne. Me too.

Happy Birthday, my best girl. I am sorry I am not there to make your cake in the image of your cats, and I am sorry that I always live so far away and will probably always live so far away. It breaks my heart every time you say “I cannot wait until you come back,” knowing what I know regarding that subject. You may not understand this now, but you will be very grateful I live so far away in about 15 years when you want to backpack around the globe with your boyfriend or leave college to become a rock star. You will know where to find me and I promise to be patient & hold back your hair when you are barfing up that pitcher of sangria. And while we may not be family in the traditional sense, you will always be my family and I will always be Aunt Steph.

Mil besos, mi amor.
I miss you like the moon misses the stars.
A.S.

The Beach

This week we are on school holiday to celebrate Korean Thanksgiving or Chuseok, and Monday I travelled out to the west coast with my friend Susan to visit Eulwangni Beach. It was a perfect blue-sky sunny day and fated to be even better, as by 1pm I already had one man buy me beer & give me chocolates and yet another man feel me up. This is sadly the most action I’ve had in my seven and a half months in Korea. I don’t know about you, but I like my groping a little more romantic, a little less public and perhaps a bit less violating. A few extra teeth would also help.

I am not someone who is typically fucked with, and I like to think this is due to my grave and serious nature; a certain “Do Not Fuck With Me” aura which, much like soju from Koreans, emanates from my pores. I am usually able to rid myself of unwelcome company rather quickly and am not often pinned into a corner. However, this time I was not so lucky, as Crazy was fast, determined and well…he was crazy.

Upon exiting the subway station, we were immediately approached by the gentleman in question, who started prattling away in Korean, smiling. We both assumed he was trying to offer us a taxi, sell us some Jesus, ogle the foreigners…you know, something common and expected. Usually when this happens, a simple “no” is all it takes to relieve oneself of the perp. He was not having this. There was some grabbing of our shoulders, some forceful no’s, some running and some chasing similar to dodging an angry wasp. But there he was at every turn, smiling and eager and grunting in Korean. And then it happened: with one hand firmly on my shoulder, the other came out of nowhere and grabbed my breast.

I have since taken a shower in bleach several times and reviewed the scenario in my mind, trying to determine how it all happened and why my knee was not immediately and violently in contact with his prostrate. All I can assess is that I was in complete shock and froze. I recall actually saying in my head, “Did he just grab my boob?” We somehow escaped and made it to the other side of the street, where it took me several minutes to erase the incident from my mind and successfully resist the urge to start sobbing.

It was so awesome.

Moving on. After a fantastic and brief ferry ride over to Yeongjondo Wharf, I met another potential soulmate at the bus stop. Truth be told, Susan accepted the burden of this one, as I have little patience for people who will. not. stop. asking me questions in Korean for 50 entire minutes. Especially when it’s the same question and the same answer every time. And especially when it is clear to me, the speaker and everyone around us that we didn’t understand it the first time. After about 30 minutes of this, I believe I uttered, “OK, I am officially exhausted.”

When we finally boarded our bus exactly three hundred hours later, our Bus Stop Suitor followed us aboard and approached us with a plastic bag, from which he pulled two cold beers and a bar of chocolate, eagerly handing them to us. A gift. And then I felt bad. Because this is where I am also usually an asshole. He was just trying to help and he wasn’t groping either of us. Even if he was a little insistent that we change our plans and take a different bus to an entirely different beach. And would not stop talking.

Eulwangni

We spent the afternoon laying in the sand, enjoying the sun and the water and our cold beers, talking the girl talk. Not one cloud in the cobalt sky. We watched the sun set over what must be China and watched the restaurants opening up for dinner. We ate the best potatoes I think I’ve ever had and watched the carnival rides at Wolmido. We had an incident-free return to Seoul and then I washed myself in bleach.