Who Am I?

My photo
South Korea
I'm one of many young American EFL teachers in South Korea. Before coming to Korea, I taught in France. I started this blog in summer 2011 as a way to retrospectively cover my life in Europe before going on to updates from Korea. As my journey takes me further down the road of activism for intentional community, farming, natural preservation and simpler living, this evolves from a short-term travel story to a story of growth and transformation. Feel free to get in touch.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Awareness Part I


This blog still exists.

I've been writing in two other places, Gwangju News and the English-language blog of the International Strategy Center. Community and political writing.

I've neglected the personal stuff because it's been changing so quickly and deeply that I'm still not sure how to put it into words. Just looking at the photos from one year ago compared to now, I see a different face and a different girl called sun.

The biggest and most lasting change that happened was something I enforced on myself: the 10-day silent meditation retreat called Vipassana, meaning awareness. I flew all the way out to Malaysia in August and even though I had a few lovely days of Couchsurfing and mingling with fellow meditators, I 'sacrificed' my 15 days of summer vacation for what Goenka called 'psychological surgery.'

At the time of going into the retreat, I was contemplating spending a long time at a temple or meditation center. Like, a year. It's been four years since I first moved abroad to France and life experiences have just built up. It was time for some serious clearing out.

It was supposed to make life easier, lighter. For a while, it did. Of course, the key is to continue keeping at meditation, every day. The other thing is, though, in some ways it's made current life harder, at least temporarily. Lots of things opened up, came up to the surface. Things I knew were there all along but was actively suppressing or simply ignoring. They're still bubbling on the surface, not having come out or been resolved.

So this year at school has been hard. I actually started out with quite a lot of good energy. My winter camp wasn't too bad. I took students out and we had some good interactions. It was exciting to see the new freshmen, to break through their shells with my wackiness and start to get to know them. Yet, something was off. Last year, I had come at the end of April so I missed the frantic start of a new school year. This March, I was right in the middle of it.

Last year, my supervising coteacher was right in the middle of getting ready to study abroad in the US, so he was kind of driving me batty for a while. Last-minute questions and long-winded conversations and yet spotty appearance in my classes or in the teacher's room when I needed him. Over time though, I got used to it and developed a good relationship with him as a mentor and confidante. We held the freshmen classes pretty well and I got a good foundation at the school.

To be continued...

Monday, March 24, 2014

Year of the Horse, Year of the Slug

Be Active and Slow Down. Also another meaning that will reveal itself later... 

The road back to Gwangju from Hanbit's bus stop
After a big, positive and necessary personal writing spurt during my first year in Korea, the last half of 2013 saw things go into decline again. That's not to say that I've stopped writing altogether. In the fall, after a blazing hot and kind of sad summer, it finally occurred to me - hey, there's an awesome English-language magazine in Gwangju and why in the world am I not working for it? After a couple months of online volunteering, I finally did something that I thought would be a way of giving back to my school - I interviewed people and wrote an article about Hanbit High School for Gwangju News. In the process, I learned things about the beginning of the school and perspectives from students and teachers that I lacked before. This year, I've taken on an Online Editor role and writing more stories.

Fortunately, around the same time I decided to volunteer with Gwangju News I also discovered the Solidarity Stories blog, run by a handful of engaged expats. It took me until the New Year to get in touch with them, but as with many other things, I'm really glad I did and almost wish I had started sooner. It turns out that the English-language blog is an offshoot of the International Strategy Center, a Seoul-based organization that works to connect Korean social movements with struggles around the world. Every month, the international media team gathers in a location to cover a specific movement, event, group or person. The first meeting for me was March 8 International Women's Day weekend, where we watched an interactive play about the lives of three women workers and union activists from the 1970s. We also went out with the art collective and women after the performance, one of the more meaningful beer and soju-soaked nights out. I'm looking forward to growing deeper in Korean history through this group.

Damyang river
In fact, since my 3.5 week trip home to the States for New Year's and the better part of January, I've hit the ground running and though I've had plenty of opportunities to sit down and reflect, the time is flying faster than ever. There's nothing like coming straight from warm and sunny San Francisco to the quiet but persistent Korean snowfall. The snow melted soon enough though and the first weekend
back, under a quietly falling rain, I went to Gwangju City Hall and boarded the third Hope Bus to the troubled Gyeongsangnamdo Milyang county. Reconnecting and meeting new members of KFEM (Korean Federation for Environmental Movement), activists and foreign teacher friends was nice and marching from Milyang City Hall to Milyang Station for a rowdy stage of music, theater and speeches was powerful. BIG BONUS: running into a total of three Hanbit students coming from different places! Packing this in with a stay in one of the villages and a morning rally before heading straight back to Gwangju was a little overwhelming though, and I would like to spend more time in the countryside with the grandmothers. It will have to be another weekend, another time.

Other notable events of 2014 so far include an English-subtitled and director meet-and-greet screening of single-mom themed Korean documentary My Place with my French buddies in Seoul. This was a truly intense and unexpectedly full learning experience during the Lunar New Year Weekend. A short month later, I was meeting N & J again for mine and J's LASIK surgery, a decision that I came to much faster than I thought. I won't go into detail about that here, because for us the experience itself was not awesome though the results are so far, so pretty freaking good. For a great detailed description of LASIK in Korea, here as an account from a friend: just one of many Gwangju English teachers who rave about it.

Working as an English teacher in Korea has also brought with it the new phenomenon of living alone, also necessary for my mental health back at the beginning of 2012. Two years down the road, especially living in a one-room apartment with not much view of the outside, this solitary home life is officially feeling stifling. Though a strong introvert who craves ample alone time and private space, I've always had the duel personality of needing to be outside, active, exploring, interacting with others in meaningful ways. My summer 2010 sublet in the Cambridge Coop and the big Lille house are atmospheres that I had been striving towards, but that I willingly gave up when moving to Korea.

On the other hand, the Gwangju community and others are vibrant and I've made some great new friends. I just haven't been able to have it all - radical, intentional community-living AND a new cultural and language immersion experience with a stable job and easy travel opportunities. I reckon if I took real, concrete steps to bring an approximation of the first desire into my Korean life, things could be really wonderful. I sometimes feel that I am living a double life - half mundane and half exciting and enriching, but not always a good mixed balance.

Students enjoying Indian/Nepali food for the first time
My greatest accomplishment, which tends to overshadow shortcomings, is improving my attitude to teaching and building strong relationships with my students and coworkers. Despite the hustle and bustle and the tired feeling by the end of the day, I can honestly say I look forward to going to work in the morning. Korean teenagers are maybe my most favorite people here and I love every little joke in the hallway, every time I teach them something totally new in class (like the successful and fun Couchsurfing project that I'm continuing with this year's freshmen) and every time I can have a meaningful conversation about their frustrations, hopes and dreams.

In this regard, I've come a long way from my lackluster French classrooms, which I can hardly remember now - they were that boring, I think. Admittedly, one of the biggest differences is that I rely heavily on the PowerPoint presentations and Internet downloads in my Korean English classes. If I didn't have technology, could I still teach an effective class? And when I don't have a coteacher, am I still able to keep my students understanding and engaging with the content? All these are questions that I mull over a lot more deeply than I ever did in the past and it makes me feel that if nothing else - I am doing my job right. I told myself this was the most important thing and I have achieved that measure of success.

Jeonju guesthouse with student
If I had more time and focus, I would love to do a tour of alternative schools and other education centers in Korea. Interest is certainly growing, and I know like-minded Koreans are undertaking portraits of the different schools. Whether or not foreigners are doing the same, I don't know.

As for my Korean language skills, I think they have grown considerably over 2 years, especially considering I started from zero. I'm still lacking a systematic study format, though I've been blessed with a handful of patient coworkers and activist acquaintances who have made a world of difference in my conversational speaking and understanding. I am steadily writing Korean instant and Facebook messages and I'm now haltingly starting to read short articles and stories. Coming from France, where I already knew the language and could readily engage with locals, my impatience in not being able to do that in Korea seems to constantly waver between giving up and shutting down to being super motivated to learn. There is still a long, long way to go.

Jirisan annual 1st grade fall hike
While there are some English teachers who take the time to learn Korean beyond the basic survival level, it's not so common. One of the biggest obstacles is that while Koreans take great pride in their cultural heritage and enjoy sharing it with foreigners, native English speakers aren't particularly encouraged or expected to learn the language. It almost certainly has to come from a great amount of self-motivation. It's hard to explain exactly why this is the case. English is a highly-prized commodity and status symbol and many Koreans, even those who have studied and can speak the language at a competent level, will begin an interaction with "My English is not good." Part cultural modesty, part ineffective memorization-based language education, part socially-enforced competition and feelings of inadequacy and other things I don't fully understand, there are some complicated communication barriers at play. In Korean culture, context is everything and a person's presentation and background are melted into one. So we are usually foreigners and English teachers before we are anything else. Sometimes, just a simple "hello" and "thank you" is greeted with "you can speak Korean well!" When described, it might sound nice and easy, but after some time a certain amount of frustration sets in, which eventually gives way to quiet resignation.

Then there's the "getting healthy" aspect. The meditation and natural-living initiative is quickly changing from an awkward infatuation to an integrated part of my life. I drink lots of different herbal teas including persimmon, mulberry and mugwort loose leaf, do more yoga, cycling and steep hiking. Since moving here, I've actually found an increasing initiative to be more creative with my cooking, especially since living alone offers some extra free time. I've had nice results with new-to-me foods like perilla, acorn, millet and I've started making yogurt and even kombucha (it's in my Russian blood) for the first time. I go in-and-out of cooking phases, but with the new WWOOF Korea CSA box coming my way and more foodie buddies in town, there's no excuse not to get down and dirty in the kitchen.

Musangsa meditators
Over the Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) holiday in late September, I went on a full meditation retreat at Musangsa Temple International Zen Center in Gyerongsan Mountain near the industrial central city of Daejeon. I even managed to rope in a couple of friends, who came in unaware of the strict 3 a.m. - 9 p.m. 3.5 day regimen but were pleasantly surprised with the results. I really enjoyed the sitting and had a wonderful mentally-healthy month after that, before the dark months of November and December and end-of-the-school-year chaos gradually sucked out my energy. I can only imagine what this year's 10-day Vipassana planned summer retreat will bring me.

Not long after the retreat, a Gwangju friend introduced me to Reiki Energy Exchange, yet another New-Agey practice that I had heard about but not tried. I've gotten the "massage" several times now and while I can't speak definitively to the long-term effects, just the act of settling down on a Sunday night before the workweek and experiencing it is an intensive form of meditation on its own. I do think some unexamined issues have come up too. Another Gwangju blogger has a good write-up about Reiki and the related and more intensive "running the bars" method. I'm happy to be learning about all kinds of mind-healing techniques which have improved my quality of life, though I have surprisingly yet to try acupuncture or other Asian traditional methods.

And what about growing my own food? That hasn't been too successful a venture, though I continue to volunteer on farms and at my school. Maybe this will be the year that a rooftop or community garden actually gets started. I have 2 consecutive days off, only at my school, so maybe I'm off on my bike to the market tomorrow to buy some new seeds and soil...the spring equinox has just passed and we are here. <3

Fall/winter kitchen inspirations

Sunday, September 22, 2013

'Great Light' and The City of Light 한빛고, 빛고을

The English-speaking science teacher remembers the date I arrived this year - April 25. The students were just finishing up their midterms.

Annual early June rice planting by hand
I thought I would live in a village deep in the countryside. But then again, I didn't know I would be placed at an alternative high school - well worth any 'inconveniences' of city living.

Field trip: burying the history teacher

What is a 대안학교, an alternative school? And what does it mean to have an alternative school movement in South Korea? If you've read some stories, you may know some sobering statistics and generalizations about Korean modern life: the highest suicide rate in the OECD, especially among teenagers, students in school literally all day with few breaks, salarymen who stay out drinking and hardly see their families. A 대안학교 stands in not-so-silent opposition to this current state of affairs, looking to turn young people to something more, a brighter, more creative, engaged and life-affirming present and future.

Last year, I had the chance to WWOOF and volunteer in a Halloween English camp at Handemy Village 한드미마을 and I heard about 산돌학교 Sandol School near Seoul. With a WWOOF friend, we dreamed of becoming more involved with schools like this, where we could do hands-on farm work with students and incorporate creative teaching methods.

English Festival performance
By simply applying to work in Jeollanamdo province and haphazardly choosing somewhere near Jirisan and Gwangju, I got my wish. I landed at Hanbitt High School in bamboo-famous Damyang County, in a farming village called Daejeon-myeon at the base of a lovely mountain. And it's been great.

Walking across the river to 5.18 cemetery
Hanbitt is a private, Christian-oriented, progressive school that got funding for a native English teacher in 2013, the first time in over 10 years. Founded and led by a rare-for-Korea female principal, the school's motto is 하나님 사랑, 이웃 사랑, 자연 사랑, roughly translated as "love for God, community and nature." Students come from all over Korea, though about half are from the Gwangju and Jeollanam region. They live in the campus dormitories year-round, studying, working, playing, farming, worshipping, communing with each other and their teachers, who quickly also become their parents, friends, mentors. They learn to be more than just 'diligent,' robotic zombies but rather fully-developed people with talents and dreams. At least that is the goal. Judging by the steady flow of returning visitor graduated students - going as far back as 10 years - the three years Hanbitt offers has done wonders for some young Koreans. Not least of whom is Jang Beom Jun, the lead vocalist of Busker Busker, one of the most well-known and actually quality current indie-rock bands.

...And what about where I live - just 20 minutes from Hanbitt - Gwangju, The City of Light?

5.18 Cemetery with students
Coming from Sabuk, home of the April 1980 coal miner's uprising, I was a bit familiar with Korea's radical history. Gwangju, home of the infamous May 18th uprising, is called the City of Light/빛고을 and the birthplace of Korean democracy. A perfect place to learn more. One of the first awesome experiences that happened just a few weeks after I arrived is the annual walking pilgrimage from our school to the May 18th national cemetery. Hanbitt is the only school I know of that makes such a journey.

With all of our ~220 students and most of the teachers, we crossed the Youngsan River on foot. From the old cemetery to the new one, from lectures by our school's indomitable history teacher, to poems and songs, we reminded ourselves of the freedom fighters that died for the Korean people, just 33 years ago. On the way back, the elderly lady who sold us Damyang special strawberries from her greenhouse, said she gets melancholy every year around this time.

The vice principal at Hanbitt is one of the most positively influential person at the school and certainly in my current life. A truly natural farmer, he runs the large vegetable fields on Hanbitt's campus, annually rotating an impressive gamut of fresh deliciousness - lettuce, cabbage, soybeans, corn, peppers, blueberries, potatoes, sweet potatoes, radish, onions, garlic and others. He teaches the students the importance of self-reliance in all aspects of life and sustainable agriculture methods. Through hands-on and classroom work, he 'plants seeds' in students' minds and nourishes them as best he can. Whenever I can, I spend time with just him or him and the students in the fields, drawing deep inspiration from the soil and that which springs from it.
Me with Vice Principal and students by local lotus pond

As wonderful as this place is, I'm slowly learning that nothing good is ever problem-free. One of the main issues I see is the sometimes strained relationship between Hanbitt School and the surrounding village. Living in the country, students have more limited access to going-out activities compared to their peers in Gwangju, so sometimes their normal teenage outings are somewhat disruptive to village life. Furthermore, Hanbitt since its inception at the end of the 1990s - despite its positive atmosphere - could be seen as a small example of gentrification in the area. The school is sort of like an Ivy League university coming into a low-income neighborhood, with many more resources and an 'outsider' status. 

Being still only at a beginner level of Korean, I miss out on a lot of information that even the English-speaking teachers don't fully convey to me. So I am left to ask questions and come to my own conclusions. I do know that the villagers are mostly warm, friendly and laid-back people who work hard and live in a certain degree of harmony with their beautiful surroundings.

I encourage anybody living in or visiting Korea with an interest in alternative movements and village life to visit Hanbitt - 'The Great Light' School.

And of course, Gwangju.

View from the school's bus stop, Damyang
Base of Mudeungsan, Gwangju

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Winter's Come and Gone, A Little Bird Told Me So

Both of my English teaching stints in Korea are unique, to say the least. Last year, the nationwide EPIK program placed me in a 5,000 person casino/resort town in the beautiful but often cold and bleak Gangwondo mountains. Sabuk is a special place, even warranting a documentary by a female Korean filmmaker. Its radical history correlates with the Gwangju Uprising, which is where I'm at now.

Back in September, I found out my position would not be renewed, which was followed by a frustrating but ultimately great decision to transfer to the Jeollanamdo Language Program. I was happy and grateful for the chance to go back to the States for 6 weeks in between contracts.

I left Korea on a high note, collecting chicken eggs and munching on fresh greenhouse strawberries at the always great Hansol Farm in Namyangju. It was nice to leave on March 1st, Independence Day - spring was proudly announcing its arrival after the long and harsh winter months.

Goats at Toluma Farms

The bridge on the way back to the city

Beans the fat cat

 I came home to a week-long warm welcome from my Bay Area, California-based family: aunt, uncle, cousins with a baby on the way, cousin's grandparents and old Boston friends who had migrated to the bright and sunny West Coast. Delicious food, fat fuzzy cats, a hike in the Redwoods, revisiting the Mission and Oakland. The second week of March was a much less certain and secure endeavor: road trip from LA to Houston.
A Berkeley park at dusk

Redwoods hike
In the end, it went off with flying colors. I spent a surprisingly pleasant 4 days in LA - a city I didn't know at all - with my cousin's younger sister, her boyfriend and her adorable house dog and baby kitty. I roamed the pre summer heat LA streets, indulged in vegan food, the beauty of an enormous downtown public library, Venice Beach, Koreatown. Finally, instead of hitchhiking, I rode the train to near the end of the Eastern line and met up with a Craigslister who posted his almost too-good-to-be-true van ride offer from LA to Houston.

Venice Beach sunset

Venice Beach madness

Four days on the road before I was finally back in Houston. Grand Canyon, Albuquerque, Roswell, Carlsbad Caverns. I loved what I saw of the Southwest and would go back there in a heartbeat for an extended stint. Not least for the Navajo culture. That must be the Wild Wild West that still remains.

Route 66 sign at a gas station, somewhere between Cali and Arizona
Looking into the Canyon

Towards New Mexico

As we drove across the New Mexico/West Texas border at twilight, I caught the last glimpses of the magnificent mythical American desert. The trip was also my first introduction to US truck stop culture, complete with cheap showers and sleeping in parking lots. I will never forget my first return Texas meal at a West Texas truck stop restaurant.

Goodbye New Mexico
Hello Texas!
Houston - a place that refuses to get worse as I go back, but only better, more welcoming, more relaxing, more active. I wrote down my grandfather and father's life stories - these are men whom I disagree with on many things but their presence in my life is enriching. Austin - a few days of sunny catching up with an old friend and future travelling companion. The people I saw, the way I saw them, was exactly as what it was supposed to be and I was healed of much past trauma.

Renaissance Festival near Austin

Brother at The Orange Show, Southeast Houston

East Side Social Center bookstore and library, Houston

The night I landed back in California, instead of spending every moment I could with my family, I ended up in a screaming argument in the middle of the Mission District. But sometimes even the most interesting people need to be cut from life, if they are bent on destroying themselves and those around them. Back at the goat farm where a friend worked, with my family in tow, we milked goats, sheep, saw more than one placenta-covered hooved baby in the straw and indulged in deliciousness. I slept in my friend's trailer that night, we reminisced on where we came from, where we are and where we might be going. And then the bus took me to SFO airport and I was again flying far far away.

Even during those spacious 6 weeks, how many missed opportunities for real connections? How many conversations cut short for no reason? How many times I could have listened instead of talked and if I talked, only to ask questions? How many times I valued fleeting acquaintances over my own blood? Yet many said I was much better and I spread positive energy. Many people hugged me, many people enjoyed dancing and one-on-one adventures.

April 15,  I woke up in Korea again. Only to find out that the Boston Marathon was bombed. And so would start yet another series of tragic events all across the US, over which I could only hope to tear my hair out through the intangible Internet. What I wanted instead was to be there holding people, physically and emotionally, as we grieved and shouted and fought together.

I still want that and I wouldn't mind having it right now. But my new southwestern Korean life has taken some beautiful turns of its own.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Learning to Breathe on Jeju, Part I

January 5-7, 2013 
Seoul - Jeju

I'm lying on a tattoo artist's couch in Seoul. Next to me, the only female artist in the studio is tattooing a huge and painful-looking flower pattern on another Western woman's ribcage. She is wincing and nearly crying. Me, I'm just getting my long-awaited sailboat with "you come in on your own and you leave on your own" in a circle around it. A new marking, new memory for a new year.

At the Silim jimjilbang, I can't go into the baths because of the new ink. But I'm able to give instructions to some Singapore tourists. Never thought that would happen. At the lockers, I meet two Western female university students - it takes me too long to realize they are Moonies. Strange encounters. I sleep soundly. The KTX train to Mokpo the next morning doesn't seem too long. There is still snow on the ground all over Korea.

I enjoy the time with my friends and suddenly realize I'm travelling again. I'm ready to go to Jeju for the second time, 5 months down the road. I board the ferry from Mokpo and begin to conjure up the same feelings of adventure I had going last time. I spend as much time as I can handle the stares and wind on the roof of the boat. Some college kids from Jeonju ask for their photos taken, but otherwise, it's a noneventful 4.5 hours. Grey. Windy. Chilly. Peaceful. Bikeless.

Sunrise From Mokpo - Jeju Ferry

Goodbye For Now Mokpo

Pink Dolphin Jeju Ferry Fins

Hello Jeju City
As Jeju City comes into sight again through the distant fog, I'm wondering about what magic this nearly 4 weeks will bring. Four weeks - that's a long time. The taxi driver from the ferry is friendly and tells me all about the biggest cities in the world, Jeju being one of the smaller ones. The people of this island are some of the best I've ever met.  I'm loaded down with luggage and it takes me a while to catch the right bus from Jeju City Hall to Susan-ri, where I'll be spending the next 2 weeks as a WWOOFer at Mulme Healing Farm.

The city seems endless, but finally I realize the bus is nearly empty save for a few farmer ladies. The Jeju countryside appears out of nowhere. The bus comes to a final stop and Susan-ri it is. I walk west up the hill, passing a field of lovely greens. I stop to look, to listen, to feel. The world is full of noise, but less so in the country. Birds and near silence. Another bend in the road and finally there are the totem poles. They surround a quiet guesthouse, which says WWOOF but it's actually the big orange house next door. A gray  calmness in the late afternoon. I have arrived.

Greg, the American farm manager and friend of Yang Heejern the farmer, tells me I missed the big crowd. A Korean from Busan had brought students from her nature school to learn primitive bamboo firemaking, gathered in the forest near Mulme. My timing is never quite right, but I believe that things happen as they happen. I will meet them sometime in the future.

I didn't expect to see a second WWOOFer, but I'm somehow also not surprised to see Ben, an American traveller I met at Hansol Farm's December Hankyoreh newspaper report day. Heejern the farmer and meditation master makes a brief appearance, but takes off back to his house in the city. This would be the trend for the remainder of my time at Mulme. No matter, his presence is somehow felt even in its absence.

It's a Monday evening, the sun is beginning to set, we have no work until the morning. So what is there to do? Run from the guesthouse to the tangerine farm, of course. I'm not a runner and I don't enjoy the temporal experience very much - the actual experience of having a body. But I know that our bodies are meant to be used and not for sitting on chairs and desks all day long. As the colors spread out across the sky, I'm feeling the rush of the mild Jeju winter's country air.

Jeju Field of Greens

Glowing Tangerines

I had just finished reading Derrick Jensen's "The Culture of Make Believe" and as we ran, the conversation naturally drifted to the destructiveness of civilization. Greg and I agreed on a lot of things, but Ben provided more balance. By the time we got to the farm, the locked gate wouldn't open and we slowly headed back to the house, with the promise of fresh tangering picking looming in the morning.

When people move from the artificial city clock time to country time, our bodies often seem to adapt to the rhythm of the sun. Early to bed, early to rise. Greg made us dinner, and I knew I would be eating more meat during this stay than I hoped. When working hard, food is food I guess. The guesthouse was heated by copious amounts of chopped wood in the stove and this made for a smoky hot shower. And yet a not-so-warm night.

I am ready to start breathing.

Jeju Winter Sunset

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Tracing My Roots - Inspired by Korea, Part 2

When my friend in Texas recently told me she wanted to take the Transsiberian railroad trip starting spring 2014, it sounded like the perfect opportunity to visit the motherland. The seeds for the journey had already sprouted.

This past weekend, instead of firemaking, I called up a Korean friend that I had met by chance (magic?) and travelled to where she lives, one of the better cities, Chuncheon. It wasn't random - I was finally picking up a guitar! She was working the afternoon-evening shift both days, but first we met for spicy Mexican food. 

My friend encouraged me to visit an art gallery while she was at work. Sadly, I couldn't find it the first day and so I wandered around the increasingly cold city, which although nice, is still a city. Once I got my hands on the guitar, I was happy to just sit inside the warm apartment and listen and watch my fingers making sounds. She got back from work with three of her girl friends from high school visiting from Seoul and we all squeezed in together. Over drinks, late night snacks and endless music videos until the wee hours of the morning and the next day, we also discussed both of our future travel plans. She tells me she is endlessly surprised at foreigners' positive reactions to Korea and how many interesting people and places I've been able to find. I showed her my most recent magic Internet find, a book written by a Korean woman raising her daughters in nature by herself. For her, it is almost time to take off for Western shores again and learn farming and nature in Europe. I was happy to share Jo's blog with its wealth of information. 

When I first arrived, almost immediately, she told me about her recent visit to an art space not far from her place, called '야생 갤러리' which means 'Wild Gallery.' As she told me the story, I almost couldn't believe what I was hearing. An established Korean wildlife documentary filmmaker and photographer, who teaches part time at Kangwon National University where my friend has gone to school, runs this small space in Chuncheon. But that's not even the half of it. 최기순 has been working in the Russian wilderness for 15 years, documenting wild animal life, particularly amur leopards, bears and tigers. He also owns a property in Hongcheon, outside of Chuncheon, where Korean students and nature lovers come to stay.

Finally, on Sunday, before we parted ways she gave me his phone number. "I remember - he is not here now," she said. "He is in Seoraksan looking for a cat." Wow, said my brain and probably my face. So I finally found 야생 개러리.

And then, after a couple of days of text messaging in which I foolishly pretended I could speak Korean, 최기순 drove to meet me in Sabuk on his way to work in Taebaksan. After a brief misunderstanding, we ended up meeting for nearly 4 hours. In broken Russian and Korean, he showed me endless photos of his work in Russia. He has followed a family of amur leopards for 10 years, a nearly extinct species. With some rangers, he has taken care of orphaned bear cubs for 2 years, nursing and sheltering them before letting them back out into the wild.

His eyes were bloodshot from fatigue, from staying in a dugout cave in the snow near Seoraksan and Inje, on the watch for wildlife. He would be working more in the next days and soon going back to Russia to shoot more footage. After years of work in broadcasting, he hopes to make a full-length film for showing in theaters. The Russian word for wildlife photography is "foto ohota" which literally means photo hunt. Though I don't want to make light of serious work, I can't help but think of this well-loved cartoon from my parents' generation:

When he is not living and trekking in the wilderness, 최기순 is teaching at the university and putting his heart into the Hongcheon center, which he named 까르 돈 'cardon' after the Russian name for the special house where the natural preserve guards live. His partner, an American musician who is also an English teacher in Korea, now helps run the center, which flourishes in the summer with students and visitors.

When he showed me his work, I felt no sense of bragging or showing off. Only 100% laser-sharp focus on his passion and sharing it with the world. The leopards, bears and tigers' eyes seem as though they are looking through at your soul in the photos and videos. Between his trips to Russia, I was so fortunate to have a chance to meet this person. When I told him I was interested in having land and building a community somewhere, maybe Korea, he immediately said 'no! buy land in Russia, there's so much wild beauty!'

So from seeing these photos, I am really hoping I can see at least a few of these places next year. Vladivostok and Kamchatka, for a start. Maybe I won't get close to the animals, but I can at least get close to the land.

The journey continues.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Tracing My Roots - Inspired By Korea

In just one short year in an ever-modernizing South Korea, I have seen commonplace things that are remarkable to my American eyes. Boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives are often together but hardly touch. Instead, girl friends hold hands and link arms. Boy friends sit on each other's laps with their arms around the other's waist. Young mothers to old grandmothers strap babies to their backs, holding them securely as they stroll through the neighborhood. In public, fathers cuddle their little sons and daughters as they sleep. Mothers, sisters, daughters, girl friends shower, bathe and steam naked together, scrubbing each other and chatting away about their everyday lives. (Probably similar on the male side). Families and groups of friends and coworkers dig into communal plates for their meals, no matter whose chopsticks or spoon or lips have touched the food. If it is a restaurant, there is no question that the older or senior person will pay for the meal. So normal. So natural.

Why is this is so striking to me? I was born in Russia, but I was raised in the United States. I have spent most of my short life in a culture that at its best is open, friendly, and fiercely independent. At its worst, American culture - especially in The City - is isolating, alienating, devoid of communal feeling or solidarity with those around us. Families live divided and far apart, friends have time to text and instant message but are too busy to meet for a drink, aging sickly parents and grandparents are put away in retirement homes, out of sight and out of mind. We barely exchange words with the next-door neighbor with whom we share a wall. Touching people of the same sex means you're gay or creepy. Family members overly touching children, especially naked children, raises eyebrows. Everybody needs their own  personal space. We are afraid of making a commitment.

So what do we do? If we are alternative-minded, we try our best to recreate the communal structure that we so yearn for but have grown up without. Those who identify as women organize special circles to discuss our struggles, our hopes, our dreams, our triumphs. We choose our friends to be our family in collective houses. We cook, eat and do chores together. We try to support each other in our individual pursuits while also working for common causes. We work to be honest and transparent in our romantic and sexual partnerships.

People who value freedom may say that having no rules is a virtue. Relationships are naturally rife with uncertainty and complications. But after spending time in a culture with an unwritten social order, where everyone knows their place - I have come to see this flip side as a kind of liberation and a blessing. As opposed to the West, where laws seem to govern just about every part of our lives and we are encouraged to police one other, Koreans are brought up with certain implicit behavior codes. This is the only place I have lived where people routinely leave their personal belongings in a public place - train, bus, cafe, restaurant, movie theather - and don't worry about it getting stolen. People look out for each other and help each other because it's the right thing to do.


In the fall, I wrote this in an email to a friend back home:

Being in Korea, a land where people have roots going back thousands of years, who are descended from the flesh and blood of early nomads, villagers, farmers. Most of us in Amerika don't know this meaning of identity, of truly belonging to a piece of land instead of owning it. Amerika committed a great crime by systematically erasing people whose identity was bound up with the forests, mountains, rivers, valleys of this land.

But as you say, we have paid the price for our freedom. We have paid with our psyches, with the violence, seen, heard, felt, that we inflict on ourselves, on each other, on our surroundings in a desperate attempt to own and to control that which is just outside of our grasp - belonging.

After a year here, I have become determined to see if going back to Russia and tracing my family history will help me become a whole person. My family comes from the city and they were blue and white collar workers, whatever that means in Soviet times. But what secrets may lie within these intertwining stories? What kinds of things are hidden in the past that may help me understand who I am today and where I may be going? From Moscow, to Moldova, Ukraine, Belarussia, Siberia, all scattered across the great Eurasian continent, what kinds of men and women were my ancestors? What paths led them to create an evolving family tree? What were their passions, their skills, their hopes and dreams?

I know longer want to be a rootless creature with no attachment to the land. I want to know the place from where my life has its roots. So, in 2014, after my second year in Korea finishes, I plan to take the Transsiberian railroad from China and Mongolia to my true motherland. I want   to visit villages, farms and forests. I want to see and ache for the disparity between the crumbling countryside and the gleaming cities.

I want to unlock the doors. More to come...