Posted in Thoughts, Travel

My Korean Dating Disaster

“You said you need to lose weight, right?” my date said between slurps of noodles.

“I don’t think I said that.”

“Oh.” He put down his noodles and went back to the chicken, unbothered. “You said something about how Korean girls are so skinny.”

“Yes.” I poured myself more beer. “That doesn’t mean I need to lose weight.”

“Oh.” He turned back to his food without comment and I conspicuously checked my watch for the tenth time.

Things had started out well enough.

After a disastrous series of dates with a Korean doctor (with such a big language barrier between us that I couldn’t even break up with him without consulting a dictionary), I relished the opportunity to date a Korean-American and talk freely.

Jason (obviously not his real name) was on vacation in Korea for a month to visit his family. We’d talked about medical documentaries and hunting rifles, sushi and horror movies and everything in between. Over text, things had been going well.

When we met in Hongdae on a Friday night, everything seemed great. We played rock paper scissors to decide where to eat and picked a place based on the pretty lanterns in the window, which we both hit our heads on upon entering because we are TALL.

Things started to fall apart once we ordered food.

Jason spoke to the waiter, asking questions about the grill that neither of us really understood how to use, then thanked him and turned back to me.

“So, did you understand what he said?”

“Who, the waiter? No, not really.” I hadn’t really been listening. Why would I, when there was a fluent Korean speaker placing my order for me?

“Damn,” he said. “You need to study more. You’ve been here two months already.”

He was smirking, so I knew it was supposed to be a joke, but I didn’t find it funny. There was nothing funny about how I spent hundreds of hours making Korean flashcards and reviewing them every night. It wasn’t funny when I mapped out a detailed plan to communicate with a bank teller in Korean, but failed in the first two minutes of actually speaking to him and went home ashamed. It wasn’t funny that I tried so hard but still didn’t know how to refill my prescriptions, or where to buy size 10 shoes, or how to ask for salt for my fries.

“I study every day,” I said, amazed at how unaffected my voice sounded. My face probably wasn’t as pleasant, though. I’d always thought I had a poker face until my thesis advisor informed me that I very noticeably pursed my lips together when someone said something I disagreed with in class. “I mean, Korean is hard,” I said.

“No, it’s so easy,” Jason said, setting more meat on the grill.

“For you, it is,” I said, frowning. “You grew up speaking Korean.”

“No, it’s just easy.”

I looked out the window so I wouldn’t have to look at him anymore. A mosquito buzzed by my ear.

“You’re making me want to punch you in the face,” I admitted.

I wasn’t joking, but he laughed anyway.

“Kylie, I’m a black belt. I could kick your ass. I’m also an egalitarian, so I’ll hit girls.”

I wondered if that was supposed to impress me.

“You must say that to all your dates,” I said, snatching a piece of meat off the grill with more force than necessary.

I learned that Jason liked to talk a lot. I took the opportunity to eat most of the meat while he ranted, because I’d accepted the fact that I’d be paying for my half of the meal. Even if he tried to pay (spoiler: he didn’t), I knew I wouldn’t let him.

I tried my best to sound at least mildly interested in the conversation, because I’m the kind of person that doesn’t like to make other people feel awkward. I hate it when I share what I think is an interesting fact with an acquaintance and I’m met with stone cold silence. Something as simple as “Oh, really?” or “Wow, that’s interesting,” goes a long way in making me feel at ease.

But Jason was really testing my patience.

“Wolves eat people from the ass up,” Jason informed me.

“Oh. Really.”

“Mhmm. It’s the softest part of the body. Always remember that.”

“Oh. You don’t say.”

“Yep. The ass is the softest part of the body.”

“Yes, that is what you said.”

“I’m tipsy,” he announced.

“Really?” Korean beer was basically flavored water. I’d had more to drink than him and I was still completely sober.

“Yes, so I’m going to find the bathroom because my dick is about to fall off.”

I graciously assumed he’d meant to add “because I have to pee” to the end of his sentence but decided not to press it.

I watched people walking by just outside the window and imagined I was with them, definitely having more fun than I was with Jason. When he came back, I was still looking out the window.

“Their haircuts are all the same,” he said, sliding into his seat and gesturing to the people on the other side of the glass. “It’s disgusting.”

“It’s a small country,” I said. “It makes sense that one trend is so pervasive.”

He shook his head. “It’s gross.”

I sighed and turned back to the window. Two girls were taking a selfie by the restaurant, probably because of the pretty lanterns that had drawn us there in the first place.”

“I’m gonna throw up,” Jason announced.

I spun back around to face him. “Wait, seriously?”

“Yes. They’re disgusting.”

I frowned. “Who?”

He pointed at the girls taking pictures by the window.

I scowled. “That’s not what ‘seriously’ means. And they’re just taking pictures.”

“But it’s so fake,” he said, still grimacing. “I only like candid shots.” He glanced over his shoulder at the girls who had yet to move, then groaned and turned away again.

“You’re a very negative person,” I said before I could stop myself.

He blinked, and something flashed in his eyes like he’d started to realize that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t impressing me at all.

“I’m just a realist,” he said. “I tell the truth.”

“You mean you say your opinion.”

“That’s the truth.”

“So you just walk around disgusted with everybody and everything, always angry?”

“Yep!” he said proudly.

“That sounds miserable.”

He shrugged, stabbing a piece of chicken with his chopsticks.

“We should get going,” I said.

“Yes,” he agreed. “I just need to finish this meat.”

I was naive in thinking he meant the meat on his plate. He meant the rest of the meat on the grill, because we were paying for it and it “couldn’t go to waste.” He continued to share unsolicited stories about his travels for another hour before he had to use the bathroom again.

“Can you ask for the check so it gets here by the time I’m back?” he said.

By this point, I was blatantly checking my phone for the tenth time to not-so-subtly show him that I wanted to go.

“Why don’t you ask for it,” I said. “You’re the one who can speak Korean, aren’t you.”

He nodded understandingly and went to go get the check. I didn’t tell him that I’d asked for the check dozens of times in Korean restaurants.

The waiter gave me the bill and I slapped money on the table for my half, not willing to let him pay for me even if he’d offered (he didn’t). For a moment, I seriously considered paying and leaving before he got back from the bathroom, but ultimately decided I wasn’t that level of evil.

We finally left the restaurant, but we had to take the same train for a few stops, so we walked to the station together.

“Say something in Korean,” he said as we boarded the train.

“No.”

“Come on,” he said, elbowing me.

I sighed and mentally scrolled through the sentences I’d memorized for my last Korean dictation exercise.

“당신 같은 사람은 이 세상에 없어요.”

It means: “There’s no one like you in this world.” This can be romantic, if you smile and bat your eyelashes when you say it. It can also mean “You’re really fucking weird” if you say it with a completely straight face, devoid of emotion. Guess which one I did.

He laughed and said something in Korean that I didn’t catch.

“What?”

“I said ‘there must be a few people like me.’ See, you need to practice. It was a simple response.”

“You don’t know me well enough to say that to me,” I said.

He stopped smiling.

My stop came mercifully soon. I was ready to run out of the train, but he opened his arms for a hug, which I reciprocated with the enthusiasm of a wet sock, grateful that at least he didn’t try to kiss me or ask me to go home with him.

I transferred to another train line and stood staring at my boots, suddenly feeling profoundly sad.

Part of it was that I’d wasted my time and money. But a bigger part of it was that I worried he was right about my Korean. After all, my co-teachers who always complimented and encouraged my efforts weren’t exactly unbiased — they loved me and fretted over me like a little sister. But this stranger clearly had no problem telling me the truth.

Just as I was fishing my headphones out of my bag, my phone vibrated with a message from Jason.

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I laughed, startling the old man sitting next to me.

It must have been so easy to go through life with an attitude like Jason’s. To think, “I had a good time, so that’s what matters” and damn the consequences for the people around you, who cares how you made them feel? They just can’t handle the truth.

I stared at my phone for the rest of the train ride, then tucked it into my pocket for the walk to my apartment, kicked off my shoes and fell into bed, hugging my stuffed lion.

It was hard to be mad at Jason when deep down, I knew that he hadn’t meant to make me feel this way. He was just socially inept and had poor taste in jokes.

I rolled over in bed and looked at the broken piece of wood that I’d leaned up against the window. During orientation, we’d written what we wanted to accomplish in Korean on pieces of wood, then broken them during a taekwondo class.

be fearless

 

My piece of wood now sat in my room as a reminder of why I was here — to learn and to keep learning even when it was hard, even when I was scared.

I took out my phone and stared at Jason’s text for a few more minutes.

My first instinct was to type: “I know, no worries :)” because at least I could pretend to be happy through text if I couldn’t in person. It wasn’t like I was going to see him again, so it didn’t matter.

But then I decided I was done pretending for the night.

Instead, I typed:

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I set my phone down on my bed and stared up at the ceiling. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that I was probably going to die as an old woman not in the arms of a man but surrounded by ragdoll cats and welsh corgis. And, at this point in my life, that sounds like a pretty awesome way to go.

~~~~~~~~



Bonus: Versatile Blogger Award & 7 facts about me

I’ve been nominated by the lovely Carol (Born into the Wild Life) for the Versatile Blogger Award, which is less of an award and more of a way to get to know other bloggers. I haven’t dedicated a separate post to this because I try to keep my blog centered around travel and writing, but I do think this is a fun idea to get to know both me and other bloggers. The rules are as follows:

  1. If you’ve been nominated, you have been awarded the Versatile Blogger Award (lol, like I said, not really an award)
  2. Thank the person who nominated you for this award (thank you Carol! :D)
  3. Include a link to their blog (heeeeeeeere)
  4. Nominate 15 other blogs/bloggers that you’ve recently discovered or follow regularly (see below)
  5. Tell the person who nominated you 7 things about yourself (also see below)

I have to be honest and say that I don’t really follow many bloggers besides the really well-known ones (who I know will never see this post), so I can really only nominate 4 people. But hey, quality over quantity, right?

Born into the Wild Life — the lovely Carol, who writes wonderfully about her very relatable life experiences, often about being half-white-half-asian like me 🙂

The Landscape is Always Changing (Stephanie Yu) – reflections and insights on life that are practically poetry because they’re so beautifully written.

The Empathetic Activist — discussions of mental health and self-harm

Babs Handmade Creations — adorable crochet animals that I love to admire

And for the last part…

7 facts about me:

  1. I love escape rooms and I’m decently good at them:

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2. I’m tall. Like 5.9-5.10″ (depending on who’s asking)

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3. Once, I managed to get red wine on my ceiling (don’t ask)

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4. I love cereal and eat it for dessert most nights. I have received cereal as a Christmas present. The day I went to a cereal cafe in London was maybe the best day of my life. Brand-name cereals are about $7/box in Korea, which makes me incredibly sad.

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5. I also love tea, which is probably why my teeth are never the right color.

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6. I taught English to a group of Tibetan monks at my university. I’m not sure why anyone trusted me to do this unsupervised (this was before I had any teaching credentials), but it was an amazing experience.

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7. I keep many toys on my desk at work (for the kids, I swear). My favorite is a stuffed lamb that I use for games. Usually, the kids pass him around to music and whoever has it when the music stops has to answer a question. The lamb inevitably gets thrown around the room. He used to be white but now is sort of gray. I creatively named him Snowball, but the kids call him 양양이 (yangyangi) which is like “lamb lamb”

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Posted in Thoughts, Travel

English Textbooks in Korea are Hilarious

I spend a lot of my lesson-planning time laughing at the English textbook that I’m required to teach from. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to explain to my students that the textbook is wrong, so please ignore every single picture and video that teaches you this very incorrect English.

I’m not sharing this to make fun of Korean people’s attempts at speaking English (God knows I could never make a Korean textbook). English is an incredibly hard language and even trying to learn it is admirable.

HOWEVER

Publishing an English textbook without having a native English speaker give it a quick read-through is doing a huge disservice to Korean students. There are so many mistakes that could have been avoided by paying literally any native speaker, educated or not, to quickly read and approve each chapter. It’s clear that the publishers didn’t take the time to do this, and as a result there are tons of mistakes, awkward phrasing, and just plain weird choices in topics (ie things that English speakers rarely ever have to say). As cool as it is to hire native English teachers like me, improving the textbooks would probably help students a lot more.

(Not all of these pictures are examples of irresponsibly bad English. Some of them are just funny)

Okay, without further ado, let’s take a look at Chapter 1 of the 6th grade textbook. This chapter is called “What Grade are you in?”

textbook 1Ignoring, for the moment, the fact that nobody would say “the” here, WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS KID’S HEAD?

Okay forget that. Let’s go to the library with Jason. The librarian says “Can I help you?” and Jason says:

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That’s not the right verb, but okay.

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Hi, Jason.

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… How do you spell “Jason”? Really?

But Jason gets his library card (he makes a peace sign in the photo that the librarian takes for his ID, which is definitely something white people do) and moves on with his life. But, because this book likes to keep you on your toes, in the next chapter, Jason goes to the nurse with a headache.

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She takes his temperature with this ray gun, which she taps against his eye for 0.5 seconds, before announcing that he has a fever.

textbook 10Then she offers him a single, mysterious pill in her bare hand.

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WHY IS HE HOLDING THE PILL LIKE THAT?!

But fear not, Jason recovers and tries to woo Sora, his lady-friend, by picking up a frog in the park and showing it to her:

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Sora takes the frog while their creepy friends watch from the bottom left corner.

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Then the frog jumps out of Sora’s hand and they make this facial expression:

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Sora then laments:

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…You did what?

(More importantly, how did this mistake make it into a published book?)

Jason should probably be worried, because Sora has an internet friend from America:

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I actually had to look this word up. Apparently, it’s a gathering of scouts. Upon realizing this, I remembered going to jamborees when I was a girl scout. Except, there aren’t coed scouting groups in America as far as I know. So… how did Sora meet a boy at a girl scout event?

THE PLOT THICKENS.

We’ll revisit Jason and Sora later. For now, let’s take a look at the 5th grade book:

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As an American, I can testify that this drawing is an accurate representation of how American people dress. We also greet each other with “Hello, friends!” so A+ English here.

In the same chapter, the authors take a stab at teaching Korean kids about nicknames in English:

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I think they missed the mark a little.

textbook 7This is still not how nicknames work.

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Also not how nicknames work, but I’m starting to see a pattern here.

A few chapters later, these two kids show up next to a river, apparently with no plans.

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But this is a girl who knows what she wants in life:

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…This is an odd thing for a child to say.

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Does anyone actually want to do this? These writers are awfully idealistic.

The other vocabulary for this chapter includes:

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I cannot think of a time in my life when someone has asked me if I wanted to feed the pigs. I am beginning to suspect that this book is meant for kids living in rural Korea because this vocabulary is not particularly helpful for kids in Seoul.

But it’s okay! In later chapters, the kids learn more relevant things, like furniture and rooms:

textbook 16

*clenching my teeth and ignoring the awkward use of “it is” instead of “it’s”*

textbook 17

… There’s really nothing I can say about this one.

Let’s move onto some rapid-fire slides that I like to call “This is not how this phrase works in English.” Exhibit A:

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Who even says “What a surprise!” anymore, and if they do, this certainly isn’t the way to use it.

Exhibit B:

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“Not at all” comes after someone says “Thank you,” not “I’m sorry.” No points for research here.

Exhibit C:

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The book, for some reason, randomly and aggressively asserts that you have to say “COME home” and not “GO home,” even when talking to people who don’t live in your house. This is especially confusing to me considering that “go” and “come” verbs work the same in Korean as they do in English.

Let’s take a break from raging about poor English research and visit our friend Ming, who is coming home from school:

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Nice of you to ask, Ming.

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… Stereotypes, much?

It’s worth noting that in a previous chapter, when Ming tells her dad she has a cold, he simply responds: “That’s too bad” and the scene ends.

But, even if the book has stereotypes, at least it has inspirational cartoons:

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I never knew it was that easy!!!

But wait!

Let’s not forget about Sora. Without Jason’s knowledge, she’s met up with Eddie after class:

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Do you mean like a school dance? Are you trying to ask Sora out?

Apparently he is, because he then tries to woo Sora by “showing her some moves”:

textbook 29

He apparently splits his butt in half while doing so.

Whatever, Sora seems to like it.

Posted in Travel

A Day in the Life: Teaching English in Korea

5:30AM: I’m a morning person, I tell myself. I like getting up early, I tell myself. Go be an early bird and catch some worms, I reason with myself. I let out a groan of misery and flop onto my back, count to three, and throw my limp body forward into a somewhat-upright position. Happy Wednesday, I think.

6:30AM: I’m wearing human clothes and sitting at my desk/kitchen table that I use to drop all my books because I don’t have a bookshelf, studying for the GRE. I’m on chapter 3 of the Algebra review guide and it occurs to me for the 100th time that not taking any math classes for my four years of undergrad was a bad decision because I forgot everything. 

7:45AM: My co-teachers like to make me practice Korean by asking me (in Korean) “What did you eat for breakfast, Kylie?” The answer is always the same. Peanut butter on toast and almond milk at 7:45. This doesn’t come from a place of trying to minimize my decision fatigue à la Steve Jobs same-outfit-every-day, but rather from a place of absolutely hating purchasing groceries and needing my shopping list to be as simple as possible. If you spend too long in the grocery store, you will eventually be mowed down by old Korean ladies.

8:15AM: Walk along the stream to get to work. I see a few tiny dogs in sweaters pulling their owners along the path. My school is on top of a hill, so I climb about 10,000 stairs to get to my room and would arrive covered in sweat if it weren’t 2 degrees outside.

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My commute to work. Yes, it is very slippery.

9:00AM: I teach a class of 20 sixth-graders. I hear a boy in the hallway shouting “I hate you, my fucking brother!” I debate whether to reprimand him for swearing, or teach him how to swear correctly in English.

This chapter in their book is “Do You Know Anything About It?” which does not top my personal list of The Most Important Things to Teach English Language Learners but I have to choose my battles wisely lest I end up rewriting the entire English curriculum. I show them pictures of bizarre animals and ask “Do you know anything about blobfish?” “Do you know anything about pangolins?” Unexpectedly, one student is an expert in pangolins. I teach the rest how to say “I have no idea!”

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9:50AM: Another sixth-grade class. One boy in the front shouts: “Give me candy!” and I regret using candy as an incentive earlier in the year.

10:30AM: Retreat to the teacher’s room. I lounge on the couches with the other subject teachers and try to decipher their Korean conversation. I hear something about a “wind snake” and develop a newfound fear for flying Korean snakes. When I ask, I’m told that they were talking about “blue snakes” in one of their dreams, which means that someone will have a baby boy. There are no such things as wind snakes. I’m just bad at Korean.

10:50AM: 6th grade Take 3. This class is my favorite because the kids frequently dance into the classroom while screaming “HELLOOO KYLIE TEACHEEERRRR!”

11:40AM: I teach my last 6th grade class of the day and send them away 5 minutes early for lunch. I tell my co-teacher: “gosaeng hasyeoss-eoyo” (고생 하셨어요) which she told me means “you’ve worked hard today,” but I think it literally means “you’ve suffered,” which isn’t inaccurate when it comes to teaching 6th graders.

12:20PM: Korean lunch, aka The Best Meal Ever. I eat rice with lots of seaweed sprinkles (which is probably not their actual name), soup with beef and vegetables, fried lotus root, apples, and chicken in a mysterious-but-delicious red sauce that also comes with tiny eggs.

1:00PM: I teach 3rd grade with a different co-teacher. There’s a section called “Showtime” at the end of every chapter in our textbook, where the kids watch a video and then perform it. This one is a watered-down version of The Prince and the Pauper in which said characters switch identities by switching clothing (aka “Here, put on this shirt!” “Okay. Put on this jacket!” “Okay.” “Bye!” “Good luck!” FIN). I brought my own jacket and shirt for them to use as props. The jacket is a dress on their tiny bodies and it makes me laugh.

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1:40PM: I type out my lesson plan for tomorrow. The teacher book has a lot of Korean text, so I need to pre-translate a lot of it before class in order to use the corresponding computer software, lest I end up saying things like “Okay, now do Reading Check Question number 1… I don’t know what it says, but just do it… And the answer is… something in Korean. I don’t know what that says either but you know it right? Right.”

I research some ball-throwing games (the kids are always sad if there’s no game) but ultimately decide to take a powerpoint game from the Waygook teacher’s forum (which I grudgingly paid for) and add in the target language from this lesson. The game features copious Pokemon which I think the kids will appreciate.

4:40PM: FREEDOM (I go home)

5:00PM: I roll out my dollar-store yoga mat and somehow manage to do yoga in my studio apartment, even though I can’t stretch my gangly arms out all the way without hitting my bed or dresser.

5:40PM: I cook dinner, which (just like breakfast) is almost the same every day: two fried eggs and half a zucchini. Don’t be fooled by how healthy this is. I always eat chocolate afterwards.

6:00PM: I have a Korean lesson over Skype. My teacher reads through my homework with me on our shared Google doc and points out the numerous errors. I wrote a lot of practice sentences about dragons (The purple dragon is having surgery, right? … Oh no, the pink dragon ate another dragon!). My teacher laughs. Then she tells me to stop writing about dragons.

7:00PM: I turn on my ondol (heated floors), leave my pajamas on the ground so they get warm, and hop in the shower. I do the dishes, meditate, then make some hot chocolate and curl up in bed to watch the newest episode of Run! BTS. In this one, the boys are trying to train dogs. My love of corgis is reinforced and I end up reading 20 articles on puppy training for my future corgi.

8:00PM: General tomfoolery that sometimes includes writing or studying but mostly relaxing because teaching can easily suck your soul if you don’t take time for yourself.

9:00PM: Tidy up, brush teeth, read in bed. I’m currently reading David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell.

10:00PM: I turn off the lights and snuggle my stuffed Ryan lion in bed, actively reminding myself not to angst about tomorrow’s lesson while trying to sleep. My favorite line in my favorite book (The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho) is “the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself,” which applies well to my teaching nerves. I fall asleep thinking about corgis.

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My stuffed Ryan and favorite Korean candy
Posted in Travel

Climbing a Mountain While Hungover

“Whatever they ask you to do, say yes.”

This was the advice that one of the speakers gave us at EPIK orientation.

Were you invited to a Tuesday-night work dinner where you’ll stay out late drinking soju and won’t understand anyone? Say yes.

Did your principal ask you to teach after school classes and judge an English speaking contest? Say yes.

Do your co-teachers want you to dress up as a bunch of grapes and perform an interpretive fruit dance for the new chapter on fruits? Say yes to that too.

In my case, I’d been invited to a work retreat to the mountains on a school holiday. I passionately hated sleepovers and could think of a thousand more relaxing ways to spend my day off, but of course, I said yes.

I regretted that decision on Monday morning, a few hours before we were set to leave the school on a bus that would take us out of the province. I was feeling an inexplicable sadness that I sometimes felt since coming to Korea. It was a hard sensation for me to wrap my mind around, because I really had nothing at all to complain about;

My job was tiring but fulfilling and let me be creative, I loved my co-teachers and students, I had friends, and I had a clean and cozy apartment very close to my school. But sometimes I couldn’t help but compare my life in Korea to my life in America and feel immensely sad, in mourning for the end of what I’d dubbed “the best years of my life.” When I felt that way, it was difficult to do much of anything, much less drink with coworkers and climb literal mountains. I wanted to go home.

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Throwback to the best of times

But this wasn’t a trip I could easily back out of.

I found myself on the bus next to my coworker named Jiwon, who fed me red ginseng candy that I thought tasted kind of like dust.

About two hours later, the bus stopped just outside a buddhist temple by the sea. IMG_4330

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There’s something about the sea that relaxes me. I remembered that I first started feeling at home in Spain when I got to the sea in Galicia. I don’t even like the beach that much, but the sound and smell of the waves is incredibly peaceful.

(I feel obligated to mention that at this temple, one of my co-teachers ran up to me and shouted “KYLIE, LOOK! THERE’S A WHORE! A WHORE!” to which I said “WHAT? A WHAT?” She then dragged me into the temple where I saw a small HOLE in the floor that let you see the ocean crashing up on the rocks)

That night, as is typical in Korean work culture, we all got very, very drunk.

We ate sashimi and drank beer, then soju, then beer mixed with soju. Then the principal and head teachers came around to pour everyone shots. I’d been to enough of these work dinners (called hwesiks) to know that when someone came to pour you a shot, you had to 1) get on your knees if you’re in one of the traditional floor-sitting restaurants 2) chug whatever’s left in your own cup or take the proffered shot glass with two hands 3) take the shot like a champ, but looking away from anyone who’s older than you (which is particularly annoying for me, as I’m always the youngest at a hwesik and find myself turning completely around in order to not stare down an elder)

I found myself leaning on my co-teacher Seung-jin’s shoulder and nuzzling her denim jacket affectionately with my cheek when another teacher asked from across the table:

“Kylie, how much have you had to drink?”

I peeled myself away from Seung-jin and reached for my water, knocking my chopsticks off the table.

“I don’t know,” I said honestly, letting my head roll onto my right shoulder.

I was the first to go down but not the last. By the time we left, even the gym teacher who normally ignored me because he didn’t speak English was shouting “SHOES SHOES SHOES” at me as I struggled to put my shoes on before leaving the restaurant. I clung to Seung-jin and watched the gym teacher stare fervently into a fish tank while we waited for the bus.

We got back to what I think was a Korean-style hotel, except it didn’t have beds and I was too drunk to ask why. It did, however, have a closet full of bed-sized cushions. I dragged two across the floor to be my bed and one more to use as a blanket. Then I sat on the balcony and looked at the beach while my co-teachers did drunken pirouettes behind me.

I came back inside to brush my teeth and promptly slipped on the floor, landing on my back and smacking my head on the hardwood.

“ARE YOU OKAY?” Seung-jin shouted for the hundredth time that night, rushing over only to slip on the exact same spot and fall on her back beside me.

I laughed and rolled over on top of Seung-jin, feeling warm and happy from the soju but also from the people around me and the closeness I felt growing between us.

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“Are you okay?” Seung-jin asked in the morning, as I was putting on my eyeliner using my reflection in the glass door.

“No,” I said. “I’m hungover.”

I was nauseous, exhausted, and had no idea how I was going to climb a mountain without falling off the side.

I thought breakfast might have helped me pull myself together, but in my agony I’d forgotten that American breakfasts of toast and eggs isn’t that common in Korea. Instead, we got a spicy, mushy, fishy soup. I probably would have enjoyed it in literally any other context, but on that particular morning all I could do was stir it around and eat my rice.

 

I got back in the bus, feeling slightly more awake, and watched as we made our way to Seoraksan, the mountains we’d all been waiting for.

As soon as we reached the entrance, I recognized the bear statue from my Korean textbook. That was how I knew this place was really important.

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Jiwon and I ended up walking together up the mountain. At first it was easy and so, so beautiful.

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But after about an hour, it started to get steeper. There were fewer slopes and more stairs. My tank top was drenched in sweat. Even Jiwon, who is Korean (and according to real science, Koreans sweat less than white people) was sweating.

“You can go ahead,” Jiwon said when she stopped to rest.

I shook my head, panting and digging my water from my pocket. “God, no. Please let me take a break.”

Our pace was laughable because our legs were shaking after a few hours. When we reached a part of the trail with hand-rails on the stairs, I used the rails to essentially drag myself up, rather than using my abused leg muscles.

I didn’t even realize when we made it.

“Is this the top?” I asked Jiwon for probably the fiftieth time. I couldn’t tell, because everything around us was so beautiful. The sky had opened up everywhere above us and the ground was painted with autumn foliage.

I did a quick scan of the platform, jogging around and jumping excitedly when I realized there weren’t any more stairs.

“Jiwon, this is it! This is the top!”

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I gave myself a moment to grip the railing and smell the air and just appreciate everything before I started taking pictures. I thought about how colorful and perfect the world looked in that moment, and how the view before me was something I never would have seen for as long as I lived if I’d decided to stay in America.

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This isn’t meant to be a story about climbing a mountain as a metaphor for overcoming my struggles in Korea. To be honest, I don’t know that I overcame much of anything except for a hangover. Sometimes, I still want to go home. Sometimes I still question what I’m doing here and what I want from my life. Sometimes I still feel sad.

But when I feel those things, I try to remember the way I felt standing on top of that mountain. The clean air, the leaves, the open sky…

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Posted in Thoughts, Travel

Being Half Asian in Korea

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Half-Asians have a spider sense for other half-Asians.

It’s hard to describe what, exactly, makes someone “look” half-Asian. I’ve met halfies with pale skin and dark skin, straight black hair and curly light-brown hair and everything in between. Yet, somehow, we can always find each other in a crowd.

That’s why, when a skinny girl with long brown hair sat in the first row of my third-grade English class during my first week as a teacher, I knew she was like me.

I did my introduction lesson, explaining that I was half American and half Chinese (a gross oversimplification, but easy enough for the kids to grasp). In every class, without fail, this part of my presentation was met with astonished interjections and expressions of disbelief (“OOOAAAAA, TEACHER!!! SO COOL!!”) When I explained that I was American, the girl in the front nearly jumped out of her seat in excitement.

At the end of the class, she ran up to me.

“My dad’s American too!” she said in perfect albeit high-pitched English.

“That’s so cool!” I said, bending down slightly so I was at her height. It occurred to me that this little girl was the only person in school I didn’t have to water-down my words for. My Korean co-teachers often went on about how clearly I spoke English (“Just like our textbook CD’s!”) and I wondered if they knew that that wasn’t how I normally spoke.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“My name’s Hailey,” she said.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Hailey,” I said. She smiled and waved, then bowed for good measure, before running off to her friends.

She was the only biracial kid I’d seen in the school. She seemed well-adjusted enough, talking easily in Korean with the other kids.

I realized that I might have been the only other half-white-half-Asian person she’d ever met. This seemed even more likely when my co-teacher came up to me a few days later and said:

“Hailey is always very excited to see you. I can understand her feelings.”

“I’m excited too,” I said, sweating a little when I realized that I’d inevitably and involuntarily become somewhat of a biracial role model for this girl. I just wasn’t sure if:

a) she needed one in the first place

b) I was good enough to be the kind of role model she deserved

But, while I still had a lot to figure out, I’d definitely learned a thing or two about being half-white-half-Asian in my 22 (23 in Korean age, kill me now) years of life. Now that I was in Korea, I was gaining a more nuanced understanding of my race every day.

Top Things I’ve Learned About Being Biracial in Korea

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  1. People don’t stare at you

“People will stare at you,” they told me. My Korean teacher told me. My interviewer told me. My friends told me.

Except… no one really does.

I live in an area of Seoul with very few foreigners, so foreigners are kind of like unicorns. But most of the time it seems like the Koreans here could not care less about my foreigner status.

Even when I twisted my ankle while trying to cross a stream and nearly tumbled three feet down into wet water and rocks, letting out an undignified squeal, none of the Koreans around me so much as glanced in my direction.

After years of being told how white I looked by other Asian people, this is still surprising to me. I hadn’t been worried, because I’d never really fit in anywhere my entire life. People in America never actually stared at me in the street, but I’d heard more than once at school from a near-stranger “Oh, I’ve seen you around campus. You look very… unique.”

I know that I do. Even among half-white-half-Asian people, there’s no one who really looks like me. But I got over my angst about that somewhere in high school. It’s a part of my reality and my identity. Being different is nothing new for me, so I was ready for the stares.

But they never came.

Maybe I look “Asian enough” from a distance. Whatever it is, I’ll admit that, at times, it’s nice to blend in.

2. People overestimate your Asian-ness

It was 7pm on a Tuesday. My friends and I had stopped by a bakery that smelled like literal heaven. I was with two people: Veronica (who is white) and Nadea (who is black). None of us are particularly good at Korean. I have two semesters of college Korean under my belt, while Nadea has a year of self-study and Veronica has been diligently working through the Korean alphabet for a month.

Nadea approached the vendor and tried to ask if the bread on the menu was sweet.

The woman blinked slowly and stared at Nadea, expression unchanged. The classic Korean I-don’t-know-what-you’re-saying-so-I-will-stare-at-you-until-you-do-something-else look. Nadea repeated the question with slightly different wording, only to be met with the same look.

Then, the woman turned to me.

What is she saying?” she asked me in Korean.

I froze. “Ummm… she…. uhhh….”

I fumbled for words, making another attempt at phrasing Nadea’s question differently, only to be hit with more questions in Korean, still directed at me. I wanted to scream “What makes you think I have any idea how to say this?!

We got the bread eventually. Nadea was satisfied. I was a bit flustered.

3. People Underestimate Your Asian-ness

“You’re very good at using chopsticks,” my co-teacher, Seung-Jin, said at lunch. “Did you practice a lot?”

“Umm…” I covered my mouth and finished chewing my jap-chae, “I didn’t really… practice?”

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“So you tried for the first time in Korea?” she gasped.

“No, I mean, I used chopsticks in America.”

“REALLY?”

“I mean, not for like, pizza and stuff. Just for Asian food. My grandmother taught me.”

I remembered sitting at a table in my grandmother’s house with a cup of dried beans on my left and an empty cup on my life. My grandmother put a pair of chopsticks in front of me and told me to move all the beans to the empty cup. While excruciating at the time, I’m forever grateful to her for this lesson.

“My grandmother is Japanese,” I reminded Seung-Jin.

“Ah, right,” she said. Because it was easy to forget that about me, I supposed.

4. People Make Weird Comments About You

 

I don’t mean offensive, I just mean… weird. Such as:

Is that your real hair color? Umm, yes. But it’s so dark. … I’m sorry about that?

Are you wearing colored lenses? No. Your eyes are so interesting. They’re brown. Yes yes but a lighter brown.

My favorite comment came when sitting at a restaurant with a Korean guy who quickly made his way to my “blocked numbers” list:

“Your nose is beautiful,” he said.

I paused before the ddeokbokki on my chopsticks could reach my lips.

“My nose?” I said, conscious of how oily my nose probably was and uncomfortable with him scrutinizing it so intensely.

“Yes. Many Korean people want your nose.”

“It’s my mom’s nose,” I said slowly. “It’s a Chinese nose.” Had he really never seen a Chinese person before? Maybe it was different seeing the nose slapped on a face with “white” bone structure.

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“It’s beautiful,” he said. He brought up my nose seemingly every ten minutes. I started to wonder if he had a nose fetish. I didn’t meet him again.

5. Some People Will Never Accept You

“And who knows a word starting with ‘D’?” I asked my third-graders.

Hailey raised her hand and stood up. “Doll,” she said confidently.

The boys behind her started snickering. “Oeguk-in” they said. Foreigner.

She looked down at the floor and said nothing. My co-teacher looked at the boys disapprovingly and handed them extra sheets of homework as punishment. For the next few minutes, Hailey stared at her desk, shoulders hunched over.

I wanted to yell at the boys, to tell them that Hailey was just as Korean as them, that insulting her was insulting me.

More than that, I wanted to tell Hailey not to listen to them.

I wanted to tell her that for years, wherever I went, people on both sides of my heritage also told me I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t welcome. I wanted to tell her that I’d spent nights crying because I thought I’d never be “enough” for anyone.

But I’d learned, day by day, that no one else could tell me who I was. I’d learned that being an outsider is a privilege because belonging nowhere is also belonging everywhere once you stop caring what people think. I’d learned how special and beautiful I was, how blessed I was to be part of two worlds, to be unique, to have this kind of empathy for outcasts and willingness to explore new cultures.

But, in the end I said nothing.

It wasn’t my place to discipline the kids in a language I could barely speak, and I couldn’t embarrass Hailey in the middle of class.

Class ended and the kids ran out. I saw Hailey eating lunch with her friends, laughing and looking like nothing had happened.

But I knew that she hadn’t forgotten what the boys said and she probably never would. I knew that she’d save every one of those comments somewhere dark and deep inside of her. I knew that her life was going to get harder as she got older, but I also knew that she would be okay, that she would love herself and find people who loved her not as Korean or American but as Hailey.

I hoped that one day, with or without me in her life, she would understand the words I never said.

Posted in Thoughts, Travel

How Can You Make Friends in Your Second Language?

Very late PSA: I’m going to Seoul as an English teacher with EPIK next week…

…and sometimes I wonder how I’m going to make friends with my elementary Korean skills.

After all, so much of our personalities is conveyed through our words. As a writer and English teacher, the very foundation of my career is diction and syntax. It’s a skill that I’ve honed for my entire life and a tool that I use to convey the many shades of Kylie that I have to offer.

A HUGE part of my personality is my ability make jokes or dish out sass like free chicken samples at a food court Panda Express.

I can make people laugh in other languages, too.

Just… not always for the reasons I intended.

FLASHBACK: Kylie’s Last Korean Lesson (via Skype)

Kylie: So I tried to make Korean seaweed soup for my dad, but it came out really watery. I went to H-Mart and there were too many kinds of seaweed so I just picked one. (Shows teacher a picture of the seaweed aisle at H-Mart).

Teacher: (begins laughing hysterically)

Kylie: … What?

Teacher: (continues to laugh hysterically)

Kylie: WHAT, teacher, WHAT?

Teacher: THAT’S the seaweed you used?!

Kylie: It’s wrong?

Teacher: (slams forehead on desk, still laughing hysterically)

Kylie: YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW WHICH ONE I PICKED. HOW DO YOU KNOW ALL OF THESE ARE WRONG?

Teacher: (starts crying laughing)

Kylie: TEACHER PLZ

Teacher: Kylie-Ssi, those are seaweed sheets for kimbap and rice. (Pastes two pictures into our shared google doc)

What I used:

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What I was supposed to use:

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Kylie: …. no wonder it came out looking like sludge.

Teacher: (dies of laughter. RIP I need a new Korean teacher now)

END FLASHBACK

… My point is, I am unable to express a vital part of my personality in Korean, at least for now.

So, up until I become fluent in Korean, will the only people in Korea who truly know me for who I am be English-speaking foreigners? Will everyone else only know a watered-down, baby-talking version of me?

At first, my answer was a resounding “YES” that motivated me to study Korean even harder.

But then, I thought about the interactions I’ve had with my students and foreign friends of different English-language abilities.

There’s Eugenia, in my beginner English class. I don’t know her nuanced thoughts on American politics and race relations, but I know that she’s punctual and dedicated despite being the lowest-level student in the class. I know that she’s got a funny side, because she saw me on the train after class and sat across from me, staring aggressively, until we finally made eye contact and laughed together when I jumped in surprise.

Then there’s Jonathan, another beginner student who can’t really pronounce the letters “s” or “z” but sits at his table 5 minutes before class and plays scales on a black violin.

Are my interactions with these people less meaningful because they’re limited by language? Are they less “real” than the interactions I have with native English speakers? Are the things we share with each other actually watered-down and inauthentic?

I think that perhaps, when we don’t speak each others’ languages as well as we might like to, what we see is not a lesser part of each other but a different part. Perhaps we see a facet of someone that we might have overlooked when distracted by all the vacuous words so often tossed in the air. There’s a sort of innocence, or maybe honesty, to paring down our words to the bare minimum. There’s nothing to hide behind.

 

 

Posted in Travel

The End

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I hadn’t checked the countdown on my phone in weeks. I didn’t need to anymore, because I knew the little gray boxes labeled “WEEKS,” “DAYS,” “HOURS,” “MINUTES,” and “SECONDS” all had tiny white zeros.

I’d started the countdown almost as soon as I’d come to Spain, back when I sat in bed and stared at pictures of my friends while listening to “See You Again” on repeat and thought please let this be over quickly.

Now I’m afraid that I won’t be able to fall asleep without the sounds of Spanish television from across the hall. I’m afraid that whenever it’s 2:00pm, no matter where I am in the world, I’ll hear Victoria calling “A comer!” from the kitchen, and I’ll remember sitting at a round table with a tablecloth thick enough to be a blanket while she hands me a spoon for my lentil soup. And whenever I don’t have time for lunch and stuff half a peanut-butter sandwich in my mouth, I’ll hear her saying “Es muy poco!” and pushing an overflowing bowl of fruit at me.

Victoria is 77 years old. I know I want to come back to Spain someday, but I don’t have any immediate plans (or money) to come back soon. And it’s possible that by the time I get around to coming back, she’ll be gone.

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Salamanca from the Huerto de Calisto y Melibea 

I’ve said a lot of goodbyes in my life. Sometimes it seems like whenever I teach myself how to be happy in a new place, I run away. I left my family and high school friends in Massachusetts, started from scratch in Atlanta, and just when I figured out how to be happy again, I got on a plane to Madrid.

I’ve learned that my happiness doesn’t come from other people, but is something I take with me and can rediscover no matter what continent I’m in or what language I have to speak. I’ve learned that goodbyes are necessary, because if I’d never said goodbye to my friends last spring, I never would have met Victoria. But for all the practice I’ve had, saying goodbye never gets easier.

Whenever I get too caught up in the “last” time I’ll ever experience something, I think about a passage from my favorite book, Einstein’s Dreams. Every chapter is a different theory about time and all the different ways it might stretch and implode. My favorite chapter imagines a world in which “time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world repeats itself, precisely, endlessly.”

It describes a woman who gives her dying husband one last kiss:

She is certain that this was the last kiss. How could she know that time will begin again, that she will be born again, will study at the gymnasium again, will show her paintings at the gallery in Zürich, will again meet her husband in the small library in Fribourg, will again go sailing with him in Thun Lake on a warm day in July… How could she know?

I think about this passage whenever another “last time” falls on my shoulders. I find it more comforting than any religion I’ve ever practiced or read about – the idea that there is never a “last” time, that there’s no end to your life and no need to mourn the things that are lost because eventually you’ll find them again.

The idea that when I wave goodbye to Victoria from the bus, I don’t need to be sad because one day in August we’ll meet for the first time again. She’ll be waiting for me on Fonseca street, then we’ll take the #4 bus back to her apartment. She’ll take me to my room with two tiny beds, then leave me to unpack while she makes paella for lunch.

I’ll ride my bike in the rain again, take salsa lessons again, get lost in the gardens of a Moorish palace again, look down at the Guadalquivir river from a ferris wheel again, and finally come back home again to eat seafood soup with Victoria. And just like every night, she’ll say “A pasar buenas noches” as she stands at the sink washing dishes, and I’ll say “Hasta mañana.” See you tomorrow.

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Posted in Travel

Being American Abroad

“We’re in Portugal,” I said. “We can’t get burgers.”

That didn’t stop me from staring lustfully at the burger stand in the Lisbon food court. From twenty feet away, I could still smell all the salt, grease, and diabetes. I looked over at Bethany and Amanda, who wouldn’t look at me because they were hypnotized by the word “BURGER” printed in white chalk on the menu overhead.

“Yeah, we can’t,” they agreed quietly, still staring at the burgers.

“Well,” I said, “is there anything distinctly Portuguese about them? Different from American burgers?”

“The meat,” Bethany said. “The meat is different.”

“And we couldn’t eat them in Spain, because we always eat with our host families,” I said. “And we had Portuguese food for lunch.”

Bethany and Amanda didn’t say anything, but looked at me expectantly with eyes that said, Just say it, Kylie.

“I’m going to do it,” I said.

“Me too,” Bethany and Amanda said.

Ten minutes later, we had trays of steaming hot burgers and fries. I had never felt more American, even though I rarely ate burgers while in the U.S. Halfway through my burger, I realized people were staring at us as they cut their burgers into pieces and speared them with forks.

I put my burger down and picked up a fry. “People eat burgers with forks and knives here?” I said.

“Apparently,” said Amanda. “I don’t care, though.”

“Well, we’re the ones doing it right because burgers are American and we’re American.”

“Kylie, be quiet. Everyone here speaks English.”

I stuffed more fries in my mouth before I could say anything else. As I looked up, I saw half the Emory group on the other side of the food court, coming closer to us.

“Shit,” I said, wiping my face with a napkin. “We’ve been caught.”

Bethany and Amanda turned around as Katherine and Jason appeared behind us. Katherine’s eyes locked on my food, which I tugged closer to me.

“How’s the burger?” Katherine said, smiling.

“Amazing,” I said, temporarily forgetting to be ashamed of being so American.

“Yeah, we all ate there half an hour ago,” Katherine said. “It was great.”

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Three dysfunctional Americans exploring Portugal

“It’s actually not that expensive to ship candy corn from America to Spain,” I said.

Amanda laughed.

“I was serious,” I said. “I’m getting desperate.”

Halloween was coming, and I hadn’t had any candy corn since August.

I’d searched every candy store in Salamanca. I’d tried describing it to my host mother, who frowned before pulling out a bag of triangular cherry candies that some French girls left for her. I told her that no, that wasn’t candy corn, but thanks for trying. Then ate the candy anyway.

Halloween was my favorite holiday. I loved to watch horror movies and laugh hysterically while my friends screamed and hid under the blankets. I loved buying tubs of 2/$4 candy corn from CVS, even when the cashier looked at me and said, “You nasty.” I loved wearing a superman costume under a white blouse on Halloween, then quickly unbuttoning it and saying, “Does anyone need help?” when my friends asked a question about our Chinese homework.

But Halloween had only just started trickling over to Spain. Some kids went trick-or-treating, but the grandmothers still said “How shameful!” at the idea of asking strangers for candy. College students stayed in bars until 9am, like always, except this time in costume.

But there were no jack-o-lanterns, no haunted houses, no bobbing for apples or donuts hung from strings. I planned to spend Halloween night in bed, surrounded by dangerously inexpensive candy from Carrefour, watching The Nightmare Before Christmas on my laptop.

The Friday before Halloween, while walking to the plaza, I got a text from Katherine.

“I have your candy corn.”

I dropped my phone on the sidewalk, scooped it up and read the text again to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.

I vaguely recalled a conversation a few weeks earlier when I’d seen Katherine in the street and mentioned my search for candy corn (which I talked about to anyone who would listen). She said her mom was visiting from the U.S. and could ask her to bring me candy corn, but I’d half forgotten about it and half thought that she wouldn’t actually do it.

I texted back:

“Literally any time and place that it’s convenient for you to give it to me, tell me and I’ll be there.”

That night, I cut open the bag and sat in bed marveling at the most beautiful, perfect pieces of candy corn I’d ever seen in my life.

I remembered Halloween sleepovers in middle school with bowls filled with candy corn all over my living room.

I remembered buying 99-cent bags of candy corn from CVS when I got out of work at the daycare back in 12th grade and eating them on the bus on the way home.

I remembered my friends at Emory buying bags of candy corn to help me get through study sessions until 2am.

I remembered sealing a half-eaten bag of candy corn with a purple hair tie during freshman year, then giving it to a guy I liked and later texting him to ask for my hair tie back.

I only ended up eating a few pieces of candy corn that night. I sealed the rest in a plastic bag and put in the drawer of my night stand. This was one piece of home that I wanted to last a long time.

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Celebrating Halloween in 9am grammar class

“I heard that some people were killed in California,” Victoria said.

I spooned more potato and pimentón soup into my bowl. “Oh, sí?

Sí, sí, I heard it on the news.”

I broke off a chunk of bread and starting stirring my potatoes. “A shooting?” I said.

“I mean, I might have heard it wrong,” Victoria said quickly. “There was just something about it on TV right before I went to bed last night. I’m not trying to scare you.”

“It doesn’t scare me,” I said. “Pass the water, por favor.”

I finished filling my glass and saw that Victoria was still staring at me.

“Shootings don’t surprise me,” I said, setting down my spoon. “They happen all the time in America. In movie theaters, at schools…” I paused, wondering how to best translate “Planned Parenthood Clinic” into Spanish. I gave up and shook my head, picking up my spoon again. “It’s easy to get guns, en mi país.”

Almost as soon as I’d come to Spain, I’d started referring to America as “mi país,” or “my country.” Mostly because it saved time, since no one seemed to say “América” in Spanish, but rather, “Los Estados Unidos” and that was a mouthful to say every time I wanted to make a cultural comparison.

But in doing so, I’d unintentionally taken ownership of something that I never realized I wanted.

Sometimes it’s easy to be ashamed of America. I feel that way whenever I watch the news with my host mother and Donald Trump appears on the screen, or when we hear about yet another unnecessary shooting.

Yet, when I was suddenly stripped of the food, the ideology, and even the language of the country where I grew up, I started to miss things that I never even knew that I loved. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d said, “En los Estados Unidos,” because the U.S. wasn’t just a country to me anymore, it was my country, where I was from.

My country is massive, arrogant, and a little chubby, but it gave me a good education, a safe childhood, and raised me with the audacious notion that I can achieve all of my dreams. We have far too many guns and cheeseburgers, but America’s problems are my problems to fix. I can never wash America from my hands just by fleeing to Spain, nor would I want to. I will accept the amazing public education, the terrible health care system, the autumn leaves in New England, the rampant heart disease, the pumpkin pie, the xenophobic politicians, and the American Dream. Give it all to me. I’ll take every piece of it, good or bad.

I thought about this while sitting in my Spanish linguistics class as my professor played a campaign video from the 2012 U.S. elections, complete with “God Bless the U.S.A.” blaring in the background.

“I want to cry,” I whispered to Emma. “I love this song.”

“Kylie,” she said, “this is the cheesiest American song ever.”

“I know,” I said. “That’s why I love it.”

 

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The only way to do Halloween, feat. Clark Kent 2013

 

Posted in Travel

When to Play the “Foreigner Card”

Foreigners in Salamanca are called guiris. I don’t know if guiris give off a particular smell, but everyone seems to know that we’re not Spanish.

A bunch of guiris looking lost in a small village in Salamanca province.
A bunch of guiris looking lost in a small village in Salamanca province.

My host mother once described my complexion by holding up a porcelain plate, and combined with my Asian-ish eyes, I’m not surprised that people don’t mistake me for a local. But some of my American friends seem to attract English-speaking tourists without even opening their mouths, and none of us can explain why.

But there are more benefits to being an “outsider” than I thought. Namely, being able to decide when to play the foreigner card. Which happens mainly…

In situations where my social etiquette is questionable

Something I probably shouldn't have done in a church.
Something I probably shouldn’t have done in a church.

Even in America, I’m spectacular at doing things the wrong way in public: going in through the exit door, using the wrong bathroom, etc. In Spain, it’s even worse. You seat yourself at restaurants MOST but NOT ALL of the time, so standing in the doorway looking confused will usually get you nowhere. The male and female bathrooms are labelled with creative drawings and sometimes “S” and “C” which is confusing because both “Señores” (men) and “Señoras” (women) start with “S.” TL;DR: life is complicated.

So whenever I feel like I’m doing something wrong in public but don’t know how to fix it, I make my foreign-ness as obvious as possible.

Like when I went to a trial Latin Dance class, entered the building by slamming the door against the wall, and stepped into a room of Spanish people staring at me.

I turned to my friend Amanda.

“Let’s just stand here and speak in English so everyone knows that we have no clue what we’re doing,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Amanda. “It’s better to look like a foreigner than just an idiot.”

“Yeah, then maybe someone will help us. Hahaha. I’m so confused. HAHAHA someone please help us.”

At which point a woman at a desk in the back smiled and asked if we needed help, and no one that day died of embarrassment.

This tactic also works when people try to sell me things or hand me brochures while I’m walking back from class. I loudly say, “I DON’T SPEAK SPANISH I’M SORRY” and run away. The same applies for when creepy guys talk to me. So far this method hasn’t failed me.

Most Spanish people *IN MY EXPERIENCE* know basic English (hello, goodbye, hamburger, etc.) but aren't fluent. It's safe to assume that anyone who looks like a grandparent doesn't speak English at all.  Salamanca is a college city so there are more English speakers than usual, but shopkeepers, bartenders, and most people on the street don't understand me if I speak at a normal pace to another American. I know this from my experience pointing out attractive guys on the street and yelling at people who don't walk fast enough without anyone so much as turning around.
Most Spanish people *IN MY EXPERIENCE* know basic English (hello, goodbye, hamburger, etc.) but aren’t fluent. It’s safe to assume that anyone who looks like a grandparent doesn’t speak English at all. Salamanca is a college city so there are more English speakers than usual, but shopkeepers, bartenders, and most people on the street don’t understand me if I speak at a normal pace to another American. I know this from my experience pointing out attractive guys on the street and yelling at people who don’t walk fast enough without anyone so much as turning around.

But there are also times when I feel like I have a good handle on the situation and get irritated (maybe unfairly so) when people treat me like I don’t speak Spanish.

This happens a lot when I ask questions.

Lost and confused: my natural state of being
Lost and confused: my natural state of being

While in Santiago de Compostela, I sat down in a restaurant with three other Americans and started reading the menu. I saw caldo gallego under the first course. I knew it meant “Galician Broth,” but that could mean anything from chicken noodle soup to the boiled blood of Galician pilgrims, so when the waiter came over, I decided to ask.

“A quick question,” I said in Spanish. “What is caldo gallego?

Una sopa,” the waiter said. “Soup.”

Sí, sí,” I said, frowning. [Whenever Spanish people offer unsolicited English translations, they seem to pick the least helpful words to translate. One of my program directors once said, “Los romanos, sabéis? The Romans!” because clearly no one could have guessed that]

“I know what caldo means,” I said (still in Spanish). “I’m asking what’s IN the soup.”

“Fish and vegetables.”

Sí, sí,” I said, “pero qué pescado?

“Codfish,” he said in English.

I considered telling him that I knew that word in Spanish, thank you very much. I’d eaten fried bacalao with my host mother every week since I’d come to Spain. It was the same fish hanging in every window in Santiago de Compostela with giant, terrifying eyes. This whole region of Spain was famous for its bacalao and I would have to be blind not to see it written on the chalk boards outside of every restaurant. So I appreciate the fact that even though I haven’t said a word of English to you, you’ve been insisting that I can’t speak Spanish. I came thousands of miles just to speak English with you. I’ll tell you where you can shove that codfish.

Instead, I closed the menu.

Vale,” I said. “I’ll just have the toast and ham, thank you.”

Here's a picture of a peacock to break up the text. This has nothing to do with this blog post. But in case you were curious, this peacock's name is Joder because it was in a tree and when the assistant director of my program looked up at it he said, "Joder!" (which means "fuck"). In Spanish, peacock is "Pavo Real" which translates to "Royal Turkey," so sometimes I accidentally say "turkey" instead of "peacock" in English.
Here’s a picture of a peacock to break up the text. This has nothing to do with this blog post. But in case you were curious, this peacock’s name is Joder because it was in a tree and when the assistant director of my program looked up at it he said, “Joder!” (which means “fuck”). In Spanish, peacock is “Pavo Real” which translates to “Royal Turkey,” so sometimes I accidentally say “turkey” instead of “peacock” in English.

As hard as it is to live abroad and be forced to speak another language to get by, being a guiri is a unique kind of in-between world. As a biracial person, I’ve navigated gray zones my entire life. This is just another case of learning the rules of the game, and having fun even if I can’t always win.

Posted in Travel

The Best Day

The best day started at 5:00AM. I had to catch a 7:00AM bus to Galicia, so I crammed my clothes into a duffel bag, grabbed the “snack” (two sandwiches, a banana, a chocolate bar, and two juice boxes) that my host mother had insisted I needed to eat before lunch, and headed out.

At 6:30AM, the only people on the streets in Salamanca were college students who hadn’t finished their night out. Girls walked past me in mini skirts and high heels while I shuffled away because I felt thoroughly unpretty in comparison in my glasses and sweatshirt, lugging a duffle back up a hill before sunrise. Two guys at a traffic light said something to me about the bus station and patted me on the shoulder when I didn’t understand. I thought that 6:30AM might be the best time to find attractive guys in Salamanca. Then I walked past one guy screaming a sequence of vowel sounds that didn’t sound like they belonged to any language while throwing bottles at a building, and changed my mind.

The bus was big enough that everyone could have their own row, so I wrapped my scarf around me like a blanket, lay down across the seats, and ate my nutella sandwich (called nocilla in Spain) while watching the Spanish sunrise through the bus window.

Six hours later, we stopped at a hotel with no wifi, one outlet per room, and bathrooms the size of closets. After a hot shower and a handful of candy from the front desk, none of it bothered me anymore.

After lunch, we drove to a winery.

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The last time I’d been to a winery, I was 17 and also in Spain. But back then I was averse to anything other than pumpkin iced coffee and salted caramel hot chocolate. This time I had an entire glass of wine and felt thoroughly adult afterwards, even if I didn’t really like it and ended up eating almost the entire bowl of peanuts that came with it.

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Afterwards, we all boarded a boat to see how Galicians catch mejillones. A waiter put a giant plate of mussels and shrimp in front of me. I turned down the extra bottle of wine and received a huge bottle of lemon Fanta instead.

I picked up a mussel and turned to Amanda.

“How do we eat these?”

She shrugged. I cracked the shell open and poked at the orange meat. It looked like a baby heart.

I looked over at Amanda. She had already eaten two.

“They’re good,” she said. “Salty.”

I looked at Bethany on my left. “On three?” I said.

“Okay.”

“Okay. Uno… dos… tres!

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They were very good. As long as I didn’t look at them, or think about what I was eating.

“Maybe if we eat enough of these, we’ll turn into mermaids,” I said, cracking the head off a piece of shrimp. Bethany and Amanda agreed.

Bagpipe music started playing from the speakers in front of us (Galician culture has a lot of Celtic influence). I took off my sunglasses and looked out across the harbor. The air smelled like salt and fish. Suddenly, I felt like I was in Boston again.

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Maybe it was the sunshine, the familiar ocean smell, or maybe it was the shot that I accidentally took because I thought it was a tiny cup of coffee, but for some reason I felt incredibly happy.

Later, we found a staircase that led down to where mermaids lived. I started singing “Part of Your World” for the rest of the night.

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On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a beach to see the sunset. Amanda and I took off our shoes and stepped into the water, which was cold enough to make you scream but not give you frostbite. I thought about how lucky I was to be on that beach at that exact moment to see such an amazing skyline. I thought about how wonderful it was to have friends that let me sing Disney songs for hours and took off their shoes to run through freezing salt water with me. I thought about how when I first came to Spain, I wasn’t happy, and how silly that all felt now.

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After dinner, Bethany, Amanda and I walked around the city until we found a 24-hour convenience store and bought 1-Euro chocolate bars. We sat on the beach and watched the lights twinkle across the water from all the houses and boats across from us.

I heard someone speaking English from the stone wall up above us and looked up at some of the other people from our group walking by.

“Let’s wave!” I said.

“Let’s not,” said Amanda, “because they’re probably going out while we’re sitting in the dark eating chocolate on a Saturday night.”

I thought about this while they walked by, putting another cookie in my mouth.

“Well, I’m happy with my life choices,” I said finally.

Bethany and Amanda nodded. We turned back to the shore and watched the lights again, even after it was too cold and windy and we really should have gone back to the hotel. I refused to let the best day so far come to an end so easily. I stayed until I memorized every pinprick of light on the water, the smell of albariño and salt water, and the feeling of something that I had lost finally coming back to me in one freezing cold wave of salt water against my bare feet.

GALICIA beach