Monday, May 30, 2011

Are You Afraid to Travel?

As a child, my shyness and sensitivity were such that Emily Dickinson, that queen of recluses, would have appeared as a raging socialite by comparison. When the phone rang, I would run and hide because if I were near the phone I might be asked to answer it, and if I answered it, there was the chance (oh, horrors!) I would not know the person who was calling. I was almost pathologically shy -- except for when I was with my best friend, Amy. During those times, I would talk too much, laugh too much, and daydream out loud. When I was with my best friend, I acted like the person I would eventually grow up to be.

Amy and I met in kindergarten. I immediately took to her because she wore her hair in princess-like brown braids, sometimes in loops above her shoulders, sometimes pinned above her head. And she was always smiling. I liked that. Amy and I spent nearly every waking moment of our childhoods together, as well as many sleeping ones in what seems, in retrospect, like summer-long slumber parties. As we loped through the awkwardness of adolescence, we had a fight, grew apart, and lost touch. But when I remember Amy, I think of sunshine and fresh-cut grass, picking sweet wild strawberries, dressing in costumes of tulle and glitter, creating worlds of faeries and witches and sophisticated cats who wore top hats and ballgowns, pedaling our bikes so quickly uphill that our legs ached, and racing so fast downhill that it felt like we could fly. She was the other half of my childhood. But Amy didn't make it far beyond childhood herself, dying from cancer at the age of 25.

There have been other friends and acquaintances in my social circle who have died. Though not as close to me, their deaths were sad and unexpected. People who were in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. People who radiated health and happiness. People who had simply gotten in their car at the wrong time, turned down the street just 3 minutes too soon.

Nana, mother to my mother, was the only person on whom I could always depend. Hours after an unexpected heart attack, she spoke her last words to me from a hospital bed. I watched her, the person I loved most in all in the world, as she died. Then there are the other relatives who faded from life -- my aunt and uncle on an icy Christmas Eve, all my other grandparents, a distant teenage cousin. As Elizabeth Bishop wrote, the art of losing isn't hard to master.

When I tell people about my plans to backpack alone around the world, the comment I most often receive is: Aren't you afraid?

Do you want to know the truth?

I am afraid of many things. I'm afraid of not helping others enough, not deferring to God enough, being unable to write a decent story, never finding someone who will love me enough to stick around. I am afraid of simply not being good enough.

And that just covers the internal fears. There are also the more pragmatic fears directly related to travel: the potential of being physically hurt by someone, attacked by an animal, or caught in the path of natural disaster. There are a lot of things that are scary in this world.

Last August, a man tried to break into my apartment in Seoul while I was at home. I was alone in a foreign country and without a working phone at the time. For weeks afterwards, I felt frightened if a man walked too close behind me on the sidewalk. Tears would start in my eyes if a friend ran up and greeted me in surprise. (Some of my Korean friends would then exclaim, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I forgot you were American,” thus starting a strange stereotype that all Americans, in fact, cry when startled.)

I’d walk down nearby streets in the area and study all the men. Was it you? Was it you? Was it you? I’d think. But I didn’t tell anyone the extent of the fear I felt. I even felt guilty for continuing to feel afraid, like I was being a drama queen. After all, the man had not been successful. He hadn’t found a way into my apartment. He hadn’t touched me.

After I moved from that apartment and months passed, I believed myself to have gotten over the scare of that night. But when traveling through India with Katie, the fear of being attacked in my sleep reemerged. Katie would sometimes get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. Still asleep, I sensed someone was nearby, moving in my bedroom. Without even opening my eyes, I'd begin to yell things like, "Get out of here! Go away! Leave me alone!" Then, through the haze of my terrorized dream-state, Katie's voice, tiny and frightened, would break through. "It's just me. I need to pee!" she'd softly exclaim. "Sorry," I'd mumble into my pillow and re-immerse in sleep.

In the situation where I’d actually been threatened, I was lucky that the would-be intruder had failed in his several attempts to enter my apartment, that even though he'd pried at my door and opened my windows, there were locks and bars that prevented him from entering. But what if there's a next time? What if I'm not so lucky then? I like to think that God protects me, but the truth is that good people get hurt all the time for reasons I'll never fully understand.

So yes, I'm afraid of traveling alone through the world. The possibility of getting hurt is a valid fear; but I'm still far more afraid of dying before I've fully lived.

I can't believe that we would lie in our graves wondering if we had spent our living days well. I can't believe that we would lie in our graves dreaming of things that we might have been. ~ Dave Matthews Band

Now in Seoul, I'm friends with a dancer who has the words Carpe Diem tattooed in delicate, beautiful curlicues around his wrist. I pursue a friendship with him because of that tattoo and because he goes by the nickname Dreamer.

"We are alike," I have told him several times. "Similar personalities."

I rarely see Dreamer, though, since he spends most days at the office working until late at night, even during weekends. I told him about my plans to take a year off and backpack around the world.

"Oh, that's my dream, too," he replied softly.

"Well, why don't you do it?" I asked.

"I can't," he replied with quiet resignation. "I'm Korean. I need to get married, make a family and a career."

I can't recall any particular negativity I've encountered when telling my friends and family about my plans to travel around the world, except for one fiercely-opinionated woman who flat out told me traveling around the world would be quite impossible unless I were rich.

I smiled at her and nodded.

"Yes, it may be impossible," I said, "but I'm still going to do it."

{What are you doing with your one wild and precious life? ~ Mary Oliver}

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Smurfy Sort of Day: Office Life in Korea

A smurf has wandered into our office -- Smurfette herself, to be more specific. "Why?" I keep asking my coworkers, but no one seems to know. This makes today pretty much the same as any other day in Korea, when I also don't understand much of what's going on.

The good part to constantly being perplexed by my surroundings? I've learned to let things go, drift along with the currents that are moving through the city and my daily life. Ignorance is Zen.

Smurfette, who is much larger in the real life than the cartoon ever led me to believe, wanders up and down our office aisles. She carries a long yellow stick with a molded plastic hand attached to the end of it. For a while, she seems content with simply using her stick to poke office workers in the back. Then she rocks back and forth in silent laughter as the more attentive workers, who just seconds previously were focused on the computer screen in front of them, leap from their seats in surprise. Soon enough, though, the whole office is made aware of Smurfette's presence. Without the element of surprise, she begins to grow weary of this game.

Next, Smurfette moves on to the ever-popular Korean pastime of "rock paper scissors." Smurfette uses her real hand (well, comparatively real -- it is blue, fuzzy, and more mobile than her yellow stick hand) to play rock paper scissors. My coworkers who win are given what appear to be delicious pasties but are actually fancy bars of soap molded into pastry replicas. My coworkers who lose are given a pretend slap in the face with the fake yellow hand. I can't look away.

Soon enough, Chun Kyung, the office worker who sits next to me, notices my fascination with the smurf and pulls her over to play with me. I am proud to report that my cunning strategy and flawless execution while competing in rock paper scissors allows me to receive a soap rather a slap.

"Yellow hair! Yellow hair!" all the textbook workers closest to me cry, pointing at the obvious similarity between me and the tall blue creature beside me. Even Smurfette herself seems impressed by this parallel in our appearance. She gently thumps her hand against the top of my head, as though I were some sort of exotic pet belonging to the smurf community.

"You're sisters," Ji Hee smirks.

I still don't know why any of it happened.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Cherry Blossoms in Japan

Although I go to Japan as a solo traveler, I find that I am rarely alone. In Kyoto, especially, I am often approached by Japanese ladies, usually in pairs.

Where are you going? Are you lost? Can I help you?

It is this seemingly never-ending kindness as I'm passed from one stranger to the next until I reach my intended destination that endears the country to me. While I'm rather infamously bad at following directions, locating compass points, reading maps -- anything, really, that would mark me as someone capable of leaving her own back yard -- I am never, ever lost in Japan for longer than a 5 minute stretch. Any trace of puzzlement on my face or the action of unfolding my map is like a cry for help and the Japanese ladies nearest me immediately rush to express their concern, put me on the right bus, walk me to the sushi restaurant I'm trying to find, plot out my course and quiz me after to make sure their directions are clear. Their kindness is overwhelming.

Often, a pair of them will take it upon themselves to give me a tour of whatever temple I happen to be in. See the tree in the corner of the garden? It is old. See these roof tiles? They are old. *pause for dramatic effect* Very old.

{The Silver Pavilion is old.}

Maybe the information they give me is not quite as precise as that I might receive were I to actually hire a professional tour guide, but even if I was told the exact dates, my memory would sooner or later sort them into the categories of "old" and "very old," so in the end, it's all the same.

{The Golden Pavilion was old. But then a monk fell in love with it -- yes, the building -- and burnt it to the ground so no one else could have it. The rebuilt structure is mostly new.}

The Japanese ladies are also very solicitous about helping me dress. On my previous visit to Japan, I bought a used kimono of coral silk with delicate silver branches embroidered across it and sleeves that drip halfway to the ground, indicator that I am unmarried. I also have a floral, tapestry-type obi (belt) and linen undergarments someone gave me to wear with it. However, in spite of the lengthy instructions I've printed from the web, I'm not entirely confident in dressing myself in these items. If I wrap the kimono in the wrong direction, it indicates that I'm dead. Even worse is the matter of trying to tie the obi, an elaborate and complicated procedure.

At one of my hostels (I change hostels every night because the entire city is booked during sakura season), I meet a friendly Japanese girl named Asuka.

"Do you know how to wear a kimono?" I ask and show her my clothing spread. Asuka drapes the kimono in slightly loose folds around me and carefully ties the obi into an oversized bow in the back.

I happily wander around the city like this and get as much attention as Mickey Mouse at Disneyland: everyone from Japanese salarymen to Western tourists wants their photo with me. But when I get to Maruyama Koen Park, one of the Japanese ladies tilts her head at me and frowns. Without a word, she undoes my obi and reties it into a different shape, a sort of waterfall design, and then smiles. All better.

Next, I visit the Fushimi Inari Temple Complex at the edge of the city. With its hundreds of sunset-orange tori gates spanning the hillside, it's one of Kyoto's most iconic sites. After my long walk there, I must be a bit disheveled, for one of the vendors at the end of the trail grabs my hand and pulls me over by her table. For God and all the world to see, she strips me down to my underthings (which, fortunately, are plentiful) while a group of Finnish tourists stops to take photos of the event.

The Japanese lady then redresses me, wrapping the kimono tightly around my body. She untangles the long obi from its waterfall shape and ties it around my waist, refashioning it so that it is once again in the shape of a large bow. She then smiles proudly at her improvements on my appearance. It does seem tidier, with cleaner lines, now that everything is bound more closely to my frame.

Before arriving in Kyoto, I had imagined how wonderful it would be to see the cherry blossoms in a rural, isolated setting -- rice paddies with maybe a pagoda or two on the skyline. Kyoto is nothing like that. While the city is a living treasury of historic temples and beautifully-tiered pagodas, it's also packed with people. Some of the people are European and (non-Japanese) Asian tourists, but mostly the city is crowded with people local to Kyoto and various other cities in Japan. I unexpectedly love it, the crowds. There's something touching about being surrounded by families, groups of friends, and other solo travellers who are all there for the same simple reason as me: to celebrate some of the beauty the world has to offer.

{The photo does not do it justice. The weeping cherry tree at Maruyama Koen is the most beautiful thing I've seen in my whole life.}

The blush-pink and starry-white cherry blossoms which indiscriminately decorate the city, next to pagodas and homes, in school yards and parks, next to rivers and on tiny, otherwise unlovely, dead-end streets, seem to offer a lesson.

We always have the choice of whether to open ourselves to the world. We've all been hurt in various ways; it's easiest to stay closed. But how much better it is to let our hearts and lives, like the wild white cherry trees, burst into blossom without holding back.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cherry Blossoms in Korea

{flower thieves}
{"He loves me. He loves me not. . . . This is gonna take a while."}

Cherry blossom viewing in Korea is met with the same sort of enthusiastic hedonism that I've previously only encountered in American malls on Black Friday morning.

"Please do not pick the cherry blossoms," a woman's voice pathetically pleads over an intercom.

"If you pick the cherry blossoms, we will have nothing for our festival. Enjoy with eyes only," she announces in Korean, English, and Japanese at regular intervals throughout the afternoon.

Meanwhile, young women pull bouquets of white blossoms from the trees, nestle them in their silky black hair, pose coyly for photos. The guys also pick flowers and affix clusters of them to their button holes, or sometimes allow their girlfriends to arrange the flowers on their heads for more photos, this time funny. Some couples walk down the avenue with entire branches of cherry blossoms entwined in their hands. One woman carries what appears to be a small sapling tugged from the earth.

Cherry blossom parties in Seoul are chaotic, noisy, joyful. I estimate there are around 2,000 people at the Yeouido Festival at the same time I'm there, at least 3,000 of which are kids brandishing sticks. (Statistics don't lie, people.)

{monks walking through Yeouido}

I watch as a child rams a young woman in the eye with the stick he is carrying while his mother, right by side his side, looks on. Instead of reprimanding her stick-wielding child before he'd injured someone, the mother waits until after the injury takes place and then apologizes and bows, and the injured young woman, shaking in pain and with her hand covering one eye -- trying to shove the eyeball back into its socket, perhaps -- bows in return.

Rather than be the next victim of the Cyclops effect, as caused by the happy, stick-wielding herds of children, I decide to distance myself from the crowd. Escaping the masses, I pitch myself over the guard rail and tumble a few steps down a small cliff, to a tiny thread of a dirt trail that is partway down the embankment, poised between a highway filled with traffic below and a seemingly endless line of people above. In this middle ground, however, is a singular area of peace.

Another woman, who has also skittered down the embankment, offers to take my photo. She is the only person I see while I'm in this area.

I stick my face inside a cloud of snowy white bloom to see if the blossoms smell. They don't. I emerge with saffron-hued powder that dusts my chin and the tip of my nose. But that's okay -- it gives me that jovial, subtly-clownish air that's always been lacking in my appearance, I decide, hours later, when I finally look in a mirror and realize I spent my entire day thus embellished.

The only other woman leaves the little dirt path. The further I walk along the path, the more narrow it becomes. I crawl back up to the crowds.

There are several bands and other musical acts performing on the cherry tree-lined street in Yeouido, but since the place is so crowded, there is no possible way for the bands to march. So they don't. They stay firmly in place, standing in perfect line formation, and play their instruments this way.

On two separate occasions, attempts are made to lure me into a traditional Korean dance performance -- with a success rate of 50%. I turn down the pumba performer, who breathes the dragonfire known as soju as he leers and invites me to perform with him. No, no, I wave my hands. Too shy.

But when the gold-toothed adjumma in the center of a different musical crowd begins tugging my arm into the midst of musicians and dancers and, taking my hand, swings me round and round closer into the crazy locus of drums and songs, I let her and let myself dissolve into the joyful chaos of it all. At the end of our song, she gives me her gilded smile and pats both my breasts in approval. Or possibly it was a complimentary breast exam. People are very diligent about their health checks here.

The day before, I walked around enjoying the cherry blossoms at Children's Grand Park. !!! I think, as I watch two older ladies pull aside a policeman and dramatically wave their hands in the air, gesticulating excitedly while reporting some sort of crime. I hang back to see what it could possibly be. The park looks so safe.

The policeman leaves the two older women and goes forth somewhat reluctantly. He turns back to them. They toss their arms about in the direction of the guilty party and shout for the policeman to get on with it. So he does his duty, and puffing up his chest with the pride that befits his role in protecting his country, tells a couple on a nearby park bench that they must stop kissing. It's illegal. Or something.

{pagoda at Children's Grand Park}

So, as you can see by the above example, I'm not exactly a rookie when it comes to witnessing matters of criminal activity. Nonetheless, I am very shocked when -- the very next day -- a man runs past me along the cherry-lined path in Yeouido, so quickly and closely to me that the breath of his body ruffles my hair. He flings himself off the cliff without pause. A suicide attempt, I think, horrified, and rush with all the other nearby people to the edge of the embankment. Before the crowd even fully assembles there, however, three policemen come running past and also throw themselves off the cliff. I look down but there are no bodies. It really is rather small, so far as cliffs are concerned, but nonetheless I find it amazing that the entire group of them, criminal and policemen, continue running after flying down it. I quickly lose sight of them and no one can tell me what happened. Therefore, I can only conclude that the criminal in question had kissed a lot of women.

Almost more quickly than the time it took for the running man and three policemen to dive off the cliff, the crowd of onlookers becomes enveloped once more into the task of walking beneath the cherry trees.

A young man jumps up and laughingly grabs hold of a tree branch, shaking it so the white petals loosen and fall all around us.

I reach up then, as well, pull down a sprig of the starry white flowers, and nestle them behind my ear. Life is good, or at least, as always, it's interesting.

{cherry blossoms and blue, blue sky}

Monday, May 2, 2011

Eating and Uneating Live Octopus

In a number of Asian countries that border the sea, including Korea, seafood plays an immensely important role in the food culture. Freshness of seafood is of the utmost importance. It is sometimes, by my own finicky Western standards, a little too fresh.

"Is the octopus okay? It doesn't look well," J says concernedly. She gently squishes the clear plastic baggie to get a reaction from the octopus.

No reaction.

"Let me open the bag a little to give it air," she continues. "Octopuses need air, don't they?" Then she pauses contemplatively. "Octopuses? Or octopi?"

"Really?" I think. "That's the part you're questioning?"

(It was a snide thought, but don't worry; like all good moral tales, the snide person -- which would be me, in this case -- gets her comeuppance by the end.)

"And its little tentacle looks stuck," J laments.

She opens the baggie and squishes the octopus a bit more vigorously. "Hey, it's still living!"

J shows a surprising amount of solicitude for something she plans on devouring alive in less than an hour, but then again, I'm pretty sure she is drunk. Actually, I'm pretty sure most of the people who soon thereafter gather at the table to eat live octopus have been drinking heavily. I'd even go so far as to wager that the majority of people around the world who eat live animals typically accompany or precede the meal with a large quantity of alcohol. Regrettably, I have not.

While it is not uncommon in Asia for a man to eat an entire small, live octopus by himself simply by putting the whole thing in his mouth, this particular octopus is meant to be shared among a table of people.

W cuts it up. The entire plate full of octopus pieces squirms. Chow down.

"Uh, can I just have a little piece?" I ask.

Someone digs through the writing mass of octopus to find a smallish tentacle end.

"Here you go."

I reach over for it, and the tentacle reflexively wraps itself around my chopstick. I bathe it in the sticky red hot sauce for palatability's sake, and after several false starts, accompanied by a little pre-dinner gagging, place it into my mouth.

"Make sure to chew fast or else the suckers will latch onto the insides of your cheek," someone advises.

"That would suck," I think (and hear a tiny, imaginary rim shot), and I chew vigorously for what I estimate to be several hundred times in a row. However much I chew doesn't seem to make a difference to the animal in my mouth. It is like making a meal of bubble gum. My teeth can make no dent on the thing. I even -- though this is probably just my imagination by this point -- feel like it is still twitching inside my mouth.

I chew it even faster, if possible, while my imagination takes control. What if I swallow it and it's still alive? What if it continues squirming inside my stomach for years? What if the octopus tentacle uses its suckers to latch onto my appendix or my liver? (I opted for botany in lieu of biology as my science requirement in university. In moments of panic, this sometimes shows.)

I can't do it. While those with a biology background (or any other background built on logic, per say, versus a humanities background like mine -- motto: we heart pretending and pretension) may file my reasoning in this matter under the "crazies" category, I just can't swallow the tentacle while envisioning it alive inside me. After chewing the octopus upwards of five hundred times, I spit it out into a napkin and put it away for safe keeping inside a garbage bin.

Just think, a little over a year ago, I received my first serving of boiled octopus in Korea, which I steadfastly refused to eat. I've come a long way since then!

(But not really . . .)