Category Archives: change

Back but gone

Let’s get straight to the point: I’m not in Korea anymore. I’ve been gone for a week now, but I’m not at home. I’m on a six-week tour of Asia.

I spent the last week in Borneo, splitting time between Kota Kinabalu and Kuching. Borneo is an awesome place, and I wish I could spend more time there. In my week there, I went canopy walking, whitewater rafting, island hopping (with some snorkeling), jungle trekking, waterfall swimming, and amateur caving. That’s just a small portion of the Malaysian part of Borneo. It goes without saying, there’s a lot to do on this island. I didn’t even go into the Brunei or Indonesian states of Borneo. I could probably spend a month there and not be bored.

Kota Kinabalu is a small town. I was able to walk from end to end of the city center in about 20 minutes, but it’s a quaint city and nice to walk around. It’s right on the coast, so there’s a waterfront area that overlooks the South China Sea. It’s a nice place to hang out and read a book. Not a bad life if you ask me.

I spent four days there and then three days in Kuching on the western part of the island. It didn’t seem as lively as Kota Kinabalu, but maybe that was because it’s a little too big to completely explore on foot. There’s also a nice waterfront area, but this time it’s along a river. At night, it’s a lot of small lights, so it makes for a nice stroll.

Now I’m in Singapore. I just arrived in my hostel, so all I’ve seen of this town is the shuttle ride from the airport here. In that half-hour or so, I’ve decided Singapore belongs on the list of cities in which I can see myself living along with Chicago and Tokyo. I had planned on being in Singapore for only three days. There’s a possibility I might not make it to Penang now. We’ll see how that goes.

I’ve made it for a week now traveling by myself. It’s not like I’ve been in the jungle by myself, but I have had a lot of time to think. I have a feeling at the end of this journey, I’ll have a good idea of what I want to do with my life and how to get there. If not, I’ll be close, and I’ll probably figure it out when I’m at home. As of now, though, there’s a long way to go.

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Here we go again

This is the street I take leaving school each day. In three months, Ill take it one last time on my way out of Korea.

This is the street I take leaving school each day. In three months, I'll take it one last time on my way out of Korea.

It’s done. I’m officially leaving Korea at the end of August. I told my co-teacher, and it was a much calmer event than I had anticipated considering my co-teacher’s general anxiety and proclivity for histrionics. It still wasn’t any less awkward than I imagined, though. I don’t leave for another three months, but my co-teacher essentially forced me and my other co-teacher to talk to her so that we could get to know each other — almost three months into the job. It was clear to me that the other co-teacher didn’t want to chit-chat all that much since she actually wanted to finish her work. Awkward.

Anyway, if the renewal discussion had come up last week, my life would be completely different. I was pretty set on staying for another year, but then something — I’m not quite sure what — happened over the weekend, and doubt quickly took over. In the end, the fact I wasn’t completely sold on Korea meant I shouldn’t commit to another full year. The worst thing that could happen is I go home, dink around, run out of money and come back. I could fly back here at the drop of a hat. It’s nuts when I really think about it.

It’s very liberating to have this decision finalized, but it’s a little nerve-wracking not knowing what’s coming next. It’s much easier to deal, though, because I have no deadlines or expectations to meet at this point. Except for a couple of bills, I’m free of responsibilities and can fly as far as my money will take me. I could dink around Asia a bit before I head home, where I will definitely bounce around the country. Right now, I’m taking any ideas I can get. I’m nervous, but I think it’s the good kind of nervous.

See you stateside.

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Transience

The sun sets over Seoul, as seen from Olympic Park.

The sun sets over Seoul, as seen from Olympic Park.

As the end of May approaches, I’m rounding the three-quarter mark of my teaching contract. The end of this go-around is visible on the horizon, and it’s the popular water-cooler — actually more likely patio table — topic of the moment. Are you staying? Are you going? What’s next?

It’s decision time around the city, and Korea continues to impress me with its professionalism. My co-teacher breached the topic of renewing with this gem: “Are you satisfied with your job?” Clearly that’s the only criterion we use to decide whether we should dedicate another year of our lives to this country. In addition, this conversation happened yesterday, and the deadline for my decision is tomorrow. If my math is correct, that gives me two days to choose. Awesome.

Two days for a life-changing decision. That pretty much summarizes life as an English teacher in Korea: as adventurous and challenging as it may be, it all comes and goes very quickly. Nine months ago, I arrived as a wide-eyed American, but it feels like the pages of the calendar have just flown off the wall. The evanescence of this experience, however, goes beyond the time that passes.

This experience is as much about the people as it is the place. Ever since orientation, when I was quarantined for a week with 200 other foreigners, I’ve basically survived with this group of friends. Now with the questions, we all realize the adventure will soon drastically change for everyone. A large portion of this group is headed in different directions, and it’s over,  just like that.

We’ve all been through this at least twice before: high school and college. I had essentially the same friends from second grade through graduation — 11 years — and then I had to move on and start over. The cycle repeated itself in college but instead in a five-year period. Now I’m in Korea, where the lifespan of an English teacher — and its consequent friendships — is all too often only one year.

Tomorrow I decide whether this one year in Korea is enough for me. I think the easy decision is to avoid the unknown and re-sign, but the thought of giving one more year to this venture isn’t one that inspires joy in me — especially without a handful of my newest and closest friends. They’re leaving as quickly as they appeared, and I could very well do the same thing.

Stay tuned.

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A Social Experiment in Economics

One of the biggest reasons I chose to teach English in Korea over other countries was that I would be able to save a significant amount of money in a relatively short amount of time. Without having to pay for housing, gas, and other monthly nuisances here in Korea, I estimated I would bank at least 60 percent of my paycheck each month. Even inadvertently, I had saved about that much (which, however, resulted in the counter-productive purchases of a 22-inch LCD monitor, a DSLR camera, and a round-trip ticket for a weekend in Taipei) but now that the Korean won has fallen faster than Sarah Palin’s approval rating with turkeys, I need to be more critical of my expenditures.

Again, it’s all about setting goals: I’ve decided to put myself on a strict budget. I believe I can live comfortably in Seoul for 600,000 won per month. All it takes is finding some new things to do instead of carousing two nights each weekend in a bar or nightclub. My personal pledge to see something new every weekend helps with this as well; I can’t wake up at 2 pm with a throbbing headache and expect to make sightseeing a priority over drinking water and sleeping more.

After receiving my monthly paycheck, I’ll take out the 600,000 in cash and live from that. The more interesting experiment comes in its first run-through this month: I spent 420,000 won booking a flight to Taipei for an ultimate frisbee tournament, leaving me with 180,000 won for essentially a month. Ignoring the exchange rate[1], think that anything that would cost $1 in the States costs roughly 1,000 won here; I have the spending power of about $180.

Obviously the nightlife will be a bit tamer (I was getting a bit jaded toward the bar scene, anyway), but it’s the little things that will need to be reined in to make this work — mainly my insatiable desire for snacks. I constantly eat, even when I’m not hungry and especially when I’m bored. The stops at 7-11 on the way to school will have to be reduced, and I’ll have to fight off my constant urge to devour street food every time I see it. Chicken on a stick is hard to resist.

While this might be a bit extreme and I might be able to talk myself into ignoring the cost of the plane ticket as an outlier that shouldn’t be figured into my monthly budget, it’ll be interesting to see whether I can do this. I have a reputation to be a free-wheeling playboy with my excess savings, so I’ll have to learn to be more disciplined — especially since I’ve *knock on wood* bought all the tech gadgets I’ll need for this leg of the journey. Maybe the occasional lens will set me back a bit, but in theory, I’ll have more than enough for that.

I’ll probably disappear off the social map for a while (except for my inexpensive “See a New Thing Each Week” tour), but I’ll have more time to be productive for myself and maybe tick some other things off my “To Learn/Do” list. Saving some money and actually doing new things isn’t all too bad.

See you in the black.


[1] At the time of this post, $1 USD equaled 1,456 Korean won. When I arrived in Korea, I exchanged $1 USD for 1,050 won, which means I’ve lost nearly one third of my paycheck in the three months I’ve been here. Because of the Korean economy’s instability, I constantly check xe.com to add a sprinkle of depression to my day.

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It’s Finally Over

Twenty months later, we’ve finally figured out who the 44th president of the United States will be. On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the next commander-in-chief. It has been a long process, and whether it should be so arduous is neither here nor there. The point is that, according to President-elect Obama, “change has come to America.”

Indeed, there will be change. Along with taking the White House, the Democratic Party continued its 2006 surge in this election as it gained seats in both the Senate and the House. This election has also been historic in many aspects. In addition to electing the first black POTUS, women came closer than ever to reaching the Oval Office while John McCain would’ve been the oldest president had he won. Campaigning tactics have been changed forever with the use of new media (read: the Internet), which resulted in a record turnout of voters.

But I watched the tail end of this from 6,000 miles away, discussing with new friends from various parts of the world. This made the importance of this election very real. I’ve heard conversations about our presidential election between people from Canada and Ireland. Koreans often ask me whether I like McCain or Obama. Even today, my fifth graders greeted me with chants of “Obama!” as I walked into the classroom.

Now that the election is over and that change is here, so many Americans are finally proud of America — which is a completely strange notion to me. Americans generally worry about the world’s opinion of them and try hard to separate themselves from what they think are the mistakes of the Bush administration; however, when it comes to looking at their own nation, they’re ashamed of the past eight years. Why?

The government is a poor representation of the United States, and I’ve been upset with some of the government’s decisions. I’m not going to drape myself in the good ol’ Stars and Stripes and belt the national anthem, but I’ve never been disappointed in America. To say that I’m proud now because of the new president would only imply that the United States — its people, its landscapes, its opportunities — hasn’t been good enough.

It’s not perfect, and how can it be with 300 million people and 50 states? It’s that diversity that makes the country special, and it can get better. That glimmer of hope is the most important thing Barack Obama brings to the table. The American people, in the midst of two drawn-out wars and an economic crisis that might end up rivaling the Great Depression, need something new, something to believe in. Will Barack Obama fix everything? I couldn’t tell you and won’t pretend to have any idea, but it’s a good start when people are proud to be Americans again.

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The Difference of a Year

I’ve been in Korea for a little more than two months now, and things are still chugging along quite nicely. Tomorrow I start another week of classes, and I’m still excited to do it. Even though each week’s routine is more or less the same, each day is different. That’s the great thing about working with other people, whether it’s my co-teachers or the students; they’ll always come up with something new.

Aside from geography, my life has changed drastically — internally and externally — from one year ago. I dreaded waking up in the mornings and driving to work day after day after day. I wrote this in a separate journal almost a year ago to the day:

In general, though, this past week or so has been completely “blah.” I feel like I’ve really been going through the motions. I know I’ve said it before, but I feel it more this week than I can really remember. Wake up. Change. Get coffee. Go.

Work has been pretty drab. I understand this is a great opportunity for someone who has no prior experience, but it’s nothing like anything I imagined myself doing. I’m having a bit of an identity crisis only 12 weeks (that long?) into this situation. I’m already worried about where I’m going next. I don’t know where or what that could be. So far (I know it’s still early) I haven’t done much that I have felt like is portfolio-worthy, something that shows off my strengths, something that’s more than replacing text and photos.

It only took three months into my first full-time job for me to become jaded and disenchanted, although I’m sure this feeling had manifested itself long before that. Some days, going to work felt more like punishment than privilege. If I felt tired at all, I just had to roll out of bed, inject myself with coffee, and hope a pencil didn’t somehow find its way into my temple.

Here in Korea, I still don’t have the best sleep habits, so there are definitely days I drag myself out of bed and onto the subway for the 45-minute commute, but the difference is that I don’t find myself asking, “Why?” My co-teachers motivate me and the students energize me. It’s a pretty good system we’ve got going here.

I don’t know where this teaching gig fits into the grand scheme of my life, and I definitely don’t see myself teaching in the long run. I might be concerned only with the here and now, but it’s not turning out too badly. After all, that’s what made me quit my job and gallivant to Korea in the first place.

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The View From Afar

I’m spending my first election year abroad, and while I’m physically outside the United States, I can’t escape the political zeitgeist even in east Asia. Watching the economic and political situations unfold from across the Pacific isn’t as difficult as one would think — especially with the reach of the Internet. I still read the same news sources as I did while in the States, such as the (admittedly liberal) Huffington Post and BBC. I’m also following the debates by downloading them or watching them on YouTube.

The U.S. political and economic situation, despite my being 13 time zones away from home, is of great interest to me, mainly financially. The effect of the Wall Street crisis has been felt all over the world; the nation of Iceland is facing bankruptcy and, more importantly to me, the Korean economy, tied tightly to that of the U.S., is flailing as well. The current exchange rate is more than 1,400 KRW to the U.S. dollar; when I arrived in Korea, I could only get 1,040 KRW for my dollar. In that time, my paycheck has lost about 25% of its value, and there doesn’t seem to be any relief in sight.

Since I’m living in Korea, earning and paying won, I’ll have to make only a few lifestyle adjustments. I’m not, however, going to be able to save nearly as much money as I had hoped before I came here. I’m in a real quagmire: do I cut my losses and invest as many dollars as possible, or do I send home minimal amounts to pay bills and hope for a recovery?

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