Who? I’m going alone. That’s the point. The Characters most likely to reoccur in this true story are people I haven’t met yet. It’s a clean slate, and hopefully I’ll figure out who I really am, and stop hiding in the process. Moving to a place, indefinitely, that is so far away from anywhere I’ve ever been or anyone I’ve ever met can challenge the strength of your identity.
Who am I? I am an artist ‘till the ink runs out; a soul-searching explorer, happy to try new things and go it alone. I am an optimist but also a fighter of traditional thought and spirituality. I regret fighting it. Perhaps it was a waste of time. I really could have just kept it simple and easier for myself by surrendering to trust my elders who have done it before me, with complete abandon. But I want this to be my discovery of my own convictions. I want to find my understanding and convince myself of things others find so easy to be convinced by and understand intuitively. So that’s why I fight my teachers, sometimes too long for them to be able to see me come to their side and back again…
I am a philosopher and an emotional magician who does not know how to truly love. I am a writer and explorer of truth, intentions, and the paradoxes in basic reasoning. I am a citizen of the world and I’m lucky to be alive to see it happen one day at a time.
I’m Jack. I’ve won a lucky hand at poker and I’m about to board the ship of dreams. Not that ship of dreams, no. Not the Titanic. I’ve already survived a sinking ship. There was a time I thought my life was over, but now it’s clear that it’s only just begun.
What? A one year contract to live and teach kindergarten students on the other side of the world. Korea, to be exact. ‘Korea’ refers to South Korea unless otherwise specified. That’s what this is on paper, but in the physical sense this adventure is so much more. Everything is going to change. I’m about to sever the chains that bind me to my past. There are people and places that I will be forced to let go of, no matter how painful it might be. There are expectations about the future that will be shattered by the constant rising horizon of reality. Today I am in a small city in Southwestern Ontario, Canada. In 48 hours, I will be in the metro area of Seoul, the world’s 3rd most populous urban area. I know a lot of general facts about where I’m going, and what I’ll be doing, but mostly it’s about what I don’t know. My plan is irrelevant. I’m doing this because it’s against my will. It’s not anything close what I wanted five years ago. I don’t want to make the universe laugh even more by showing it my plans today.
Why? Why Korea? Why anywhere, really? People in my life have expressed their excitement for my impending “adventure”. I’ve seen the eyes of strangers light up when it slips out, like once during a simple FedEx transaction over a shipment to Seoul. Everyone has a friend who has done this and might have some useful advice. But I don’t want to talk about it a lot. No one’s practical opinions about Korea are going to help me get there faster to form my own. In fact, I don’t like all of the attention it’s attracting. Why should it? Why would people care so much about me? Who am I? Can’t they just leave me alone and let me go my way? Who am I hiding from?
I assume people think my motives are akin to an explorer on an expedition for some pride in having unique experiences. I don’t really believe I’m doing anything all that original. It’s only original to me. But who knows, maybe I do have my own very specific way of fitting into the equation around me. Maybe I’ll change the equation there. The truth is, I’m actually going anywhere but here to separate myself from everyone and everything that I know to somehow get some real perspective on my problems. And I’ve got problems. I know drama. I’ve been told that I am drama many times. Perhaps I’ll find out who I really am when I’m free from a familiar environment in which I was trained to behave.
There’s also this fear that I’m lost at home, and if I stay in my home country, I’ll remain lost forever. My truest motives aren’t all that glamorous. There’s an understanding I have come to that wherever I travel, whatever I see, I am ultimately seeking something within myself that I yearn to feel and understand. By taking the leap, I’ll hopefully wake a sleeping knowledge within, and evolve. Maybe I’ll learn something about why I can’t stand to let my familiars truly know me, and see me under the façade of laughter I carefully reveal.
When? If I were to die today I would admit that the last year of my life has been the hardest and best year of my life. I’m in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime kind of dramatic transformation of self. My mind, body, and soul, all of my priorities and everything that I live for is changing. I also think I might be beginning to understand what the word “God” means, a word that has been thrown around me all my life, a word I have intellectualized and acknowledged but never felt, a word I don’t use casually. If it’s true, then I’ll find more of it over there. The traditional language of spirituality doesn’t do justice to the feelings that I have been experiencing, but it was in being willing to understand the language that I have begun to try to feel them.
A wise man once told me that 27 is a pretty good age for a new adventure. It’s a time when I’ve grown comfortably into my environment, and I’m having trouble sucking any more inspiration out of my home turf. It’s time to go.
Where? The New York of my past, the city I went to live in a decade ago is no longer there, and now I wonder if it really ever was. I went back for a visit last week, and the people made me feel a familiar energy, but I have changed too much to want to embrace it. I can’t stand all the old feelings, old infrastructure, old ways of thinking, old ideas that New York stirs up in me. I’m not that boy anymore. I’m not living in a dream world on self-centered conquests into the night. New York was everything I ever wanted it to be, and that was the problem.
Last Sunday, I couldn’t wait to be out of there. I hopped on the first Bus to Philly and bolted away from Manhattan. I couldn’t look back at the skyline, and I cried most of the way home.
I’m starting to psychologically disconnect with this western culture of old enclosures of stained brick towns and mood assuming gothic city centers of old high rises that stand to impose their old attitudes and ideas on the future. Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just preparing myself to leave. Maybe it really is finally my time. I feel like it is time to grow up – to take a dramatic big step into my future. And according to everything I’ve read so far – Seoul is the future.
I had too many ideas and pre-conceptions about New York to really be able to see what it was with any clarity. And I was drunk most of the time. For me, Korea represents a sort of neutral blank slate of geography for me to go to and populate my mental awareness of it – with my authentic observations. For in the end, a place is only what we perceive it to be. I never thought New York and the people in it would be in my past, but it is. I will remember it forever, how it shaped me, made me feel like the center of the universe, and how it broke my heart by showing me how tiny and irrelevant I was.
There are hundreds of opinions about New York City, and I have read them all. If there’s an opinion about Seoul I won’t hear it. Not until I get there to make my own. This really is an experiment on the awareness of a place, and how we let others affect our experience of it. The world isn’t telling me how to feel about Korea.
Where am I from? I don’t have a direct answer to that question. If I’m asked I suppose I’ll say I’m from this town in southern Ontario, near Toronto. It’s hard for me to find appropriate adjectives to describe this town. It’s neither large, nor small or rich nor poor; it’s not too crowded. My parents were born and raised here. It’s a neutral safe zone that chose me to recover from the traumas of New York in. It’s a place I can always come to if I want to disappear from whatever life I’m living out there. My difficulty forming a strong opinion about this town is probably because it’s so close to the origin of me, and my ancestors. Even though I wasn’t born here, everyone feels like family here. It’s always been close no matter how far away. Funerals happen here. Everywhere I’ve ever been is either more or less something relative to what this town is to me. I think everyone has a town like this, even if it’s in a giant city.
It has been a privilege to grow up around the world, but there is a psychological burden placed on Third-Culture Kids. My normalcy is a restless state of being, with little pieces of different cultures collected in my narrative and no geographic sense of identity. Your narrative feels forever lost in any one place, but it is when you are on the move when you finally find yourself again – and it has to be on the move to somewhere entirely new. Eventually, with only so many places left undiscovered on earth, that feeling will be impossible to re-live. And having been around the world with my parents was great as a child, but I’ve never truly been anywhere on my own, by my own means. I’ve been told there’s nothing quite like the open road. Welcome to a broad highway of possibility. Anything can happen.
How? With the help of a fine Korean recruitment agent, a lady named Joanne. The only evidence I have for her existence is e-mail communication. I have no idea where she is, or what she looks like. We will never meet in person, but she has singlehandedly changed my life forever. Thanks Joanne, this one’s for you.
At The Airport. I’m exhausted, but in good spirits. I haven’t had a real night’s sleep in weeks, with one-months notice for this job, and with all of the emotionally draining goodbyes and the pain of letting go of the things I’ve been holding on to for years – mostly illusions about people and places of my own making. I’ve been pushing through the experience trying to get through it in peace, which is why some of my goodbyes weren’t long or fulfilling enough, but how do you say goodbye enough? I’ve never really said goodbye in a good way. I’m starting to learn the meaning to the word “goodbye”, and that there must have been a pretty clear reason why the coiners of the phrase chose to make “good” a part of it. I really didn’t want to leave this town negatively. I wanted to leave well for once, without leaving a mess behind, and I’m glad my family let me do that.
So this is freedom. No anxiety pills to carry me through the journey with a slower heartbeat… No liquid courage… No reservations. I don’t even know what to expect is there over there. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m going to get there and feel it with all of my heart, and at times, unfortunately, with all of my stomach. I hope I have the courage to just be and be seen for who I am, and not let my judgments and comparisons to others get in the way of my experience in Korea… It all seems too good to be true.
I’m exhausted. I knew this morning would be one of the most important wake-up calls of my life. I was still a bit tight for time, my suitcases barely made it on the flight to Chicago. I blame the design of the Toronto airport. Adam was right, it’s so damn slow. I hope to see my luggage on the other end of this. I hope my Greens Plus gets through customs!
So, I’m at O’Hare international, I’ve been through Check-in twice, U.S. Customs, and Security twice, and I’m finally looking at the tail end of my Asiana jumbo jet. To some it’s just another radar dot in a big skyway network full of airplanes. To me, it’s a glowing, colorful fin of hope for my future. I need to breathe. Just let go. Just enjoy this. This is the greatest gift yet. I have two airplane neck-pillows, an iPhone full of music, a lonely planet Seoul, a grapevine from 1979 and this journal. To the stars, shall we?
“There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance- that principle is contempt prior to investigation.” -Herbert Spencer
Face to the mattress, in a dark room with three other strange men, sweating out the poison and observing the sun rise in a state of shock, I realized I’d fallen through a trap door into a darker, stranger depth in my life than I wanted to fall. When I closed my eyes I saw imaginary hallucinations of things transforming into other things. Things were happening in my subconscious that made me afraid I may be having a schizophrenic episode. When I opened my eyes I gazed at what I guessed was another suffering filthy person, in the same boat as me. He was coughing and gagging and talking nonsense in his sleep. It turned out he was some homeless guy looking for a meal, and I was just a lost kid in the right place at the right time on the last bed they had, seeking sanctuary from myself at The Salvation Army. I couldn’t trust myself anymore, so I’d voluntarily locked myself in here the previous night. I looked up and saw someone peek through an interior window into the hospital-like bedroom. We were being observed to make sure we didn’t die in there.
I remember being afraid to close my eyes because I’d see these strange visions of things I was certain I’d never seen before. Maybe the devil was infiltrating my brain. Whatever it was, I sensed it was evil. A skull being formed out of clay would get bigger and bigger until its eyes would burn flames forming the face of a 70 year old President Obama or some future-famous icon. I could hear my mother yelling from the other room even though she wasn’t there – screams of terror. I could hear my brother’s rage. I was dancing with the devil. I didn’t know where I was sometimes, and had to consciously remind myself. Every so often my brain would send an electric jolt from one side to the other, shocking my body into a twitch and I would open my eyes again. What were these symptoms? I wondered. Could I be going mad?
How the hell did I get into this mess?
It was then that I began to finally wake up.
My eyes snapped open within the catacombs of the dozing Asiana passengers. I adjusted my LCD screen in front of me to display the sky map. Waking up on an airplane over the Arctic Circle was a strange sensation. The flight from North America to Asia is a flipping of the global coin, a portal to a place with different history books written in different directions on the page. The Asian man sitting next to me couldn’t see out the window, and had trouble with his cell phone. In broken English, he asked “Are we underground?”
I paused, unsure of how to respond or explain. I assume nothing. For all my disoriented brain knew, we might as well have been underground. Earlier in the flight, he told me he was from Laos. “No. We’re so high up you can’t see the ground.” I said gently into his inverted perception of the world. I would never begin to comprehend how different his life was from mine, and you encounter all types of exotic people on long-distance flights. The fascinating thing about flying overseas is that no matter what differences we have in our beliefs or origins as people, we pack ourselves like sardines into a giant airplane. We are together behind one common goal – a destination that unites us. For the duration of that flight, the diversity among us forces itself to coexist peacefully. Perhaps we will find that common destination for humanity.
Landing at the port of Incheon was seamless. We dodged North-Korean airspace, bypassed Pyongyang and dove over Dalian. Before I knew it we had touched down on Korean soil. It wasn’t until I got off the plane that I started to notice it. The efficiency of everything, and the clean, sleek design and upkeep of the lit up signs and the public environment was impressive. It had been rated the best airport worldwide nine years in a row.
I washed my face with cold water in the spotless restrooms. It was a bit intimidating to approach the Korean customs entrance for foreign Passport holders. The officer gave me a quick glance up and down, and stamped “ADMITTED” onto my Republic of Korea Visa. That piece of paper took months of pain and frustration to obtain, and to just breeze through customs into The Hermit Kingdom without even being asked a single question was puzzling, but thrilling. I wouldn’t question it.
I collected my bags, exchanged some Dollars for Won – fastest way to become a millionaire – and coasted through the arrivals gate. There it was – my name on a sign that read “Dream Works”. It was like Steven Spielberg was calling my name at the onset of this story.
I handed my greeter 12,000 Won, and he helped me board my bus to Ori Station, Bundang-gu, a giant urban tentacle that extends south off the behemoth sea-creature city of Seoul. The bus was even impressive, with wide leather seats that rivaled International Business Class and plenty of space and wifi for everyone. I had arrived in a world of abundance, so it seemed. I chose a seat at the back of the bus by the window to press my face against the view of my approach into the unknown.
It was dark outside, but I will never forget the lights on the bright white Korean Flag waving in the cold wind as we crossed the Incheondaegyo expressway. The buildings were lit up in a tasteful sequence that showed off the shapes of their exterior design. The air tasted different – almost sterile, the breeze moved gently, the bus flowed through the quiet traffic aggressively. We passed through clean white tunnels and traversed inclines that contoured the wavy terrain. The view from one hilltop in particular made me gasp at the vastness of this urban environment. Two sharp apartment towers shot up high above the hillside, surrounded by a smattering of dated apartment buildings around several glowing cores of neon-Asian commercial density. I was an Alien peering into the machine of human existence.
It was nothing like what I expected it to be. It was a much bigger, scarier, and broader real place. It was on the approach from the port of Incheon, as my expectations were shattered by the first impressions and my real fear, that I knew my life would be changed forever. I had crossed over into a different future, and a new destiny that lay somewhere in that labyrinth of endless density. No one was going to take care of me here. It was time to be a man. My childhood was over.
“Japan’s been in a recession since the 90’s, and since China is the only one with any real money and power but is too big to organize a way to use it, it puts Korea in an interesting spot right now to shine in Asia.” Dr. Andrews says. “They are an organized, focused, efficient and dedicated group of people – twice the population of Canada, but 1/100th of the size, with a more geographically focused infrastructure. Korea is in a very special place in the world right now. It has something the US hasn’t had since the 1950’s. People feel good about the country. The economy has never been so good. There is progress. There is big potential for fast adaptation. Unity. Confidence. Optimism. Watch out, it may rub off on you…” Dr. Andrews sips his chamomile tea and smiles.
The suburbs of Seoul are an expanse of massive residential developments linked to a luminous commercial network that doesn’t ever seem to go dark. Notwithstanding the over-used neon signage that crowds the outer shells of buildings, the human energy of the space is temperate-mannered and efficient. With my skull pressed against the glass, taking in the ride from the airport, I felt like the city was saying “come closer…” to me. “There’s space for you here… Let me reveal myself to you.”
Korea has gained a self-proclaimed blessed independence from the history of oppressive violence from China and Japan. It has been invaded for centuries but hasn’t invaded a single outside country once. It is nicknamed the “shrimp” between the whales. It has been given enough time and space to thrive on its own in the last few decades. Korea has evolved and grown in revolutionary ways, perhaps because it appreciates the time and space in the world it’s finally been given. Independence and room to grow as an individual is exactly what I came here for. Our narratives compare interestingly.
"It can be a nice feeling to be situated in Asia.” Dr. Andrews says. “As an American, I struggle more when I go back home. It’s interesting to see where they seem to think things are working, and where they clearly aren’t. For instance, I refuse to leave my shoes on when visiting a friend’s home, even if I’m in America. It just doesn’t make sense to me anymore. It’s commonly known among expats that if you stay in Asia over six years, you may never return home to stay. If you do, you will find it much more difficult.”
It was the end of the ride, and I was the last one on board. My bus approached the stop at which I was to disembark. The driver waved his hand in the air and made a strange grunting sound. I descended the stairs, unsure of what to expect. He tossed the bags that had my whole life in them onto the street – not even the sidewalk. It was then that I realized the bus was over 10 feet out into the road, holding up traffic. They treat the street differently here. Everyone appears to be in a constant hurry – but everything seems to work out okay.
“Jack?” I heard my name from behind. I turned around to see my director. There she was, standing a foot shorter than me in leather boots, a fabulous shiny black fur coat; dressed head to toe in what could have been Christian Dior’s fall line. “Come.” She said, smiling with her dark, emotionally blank eyes. All the English I’d hear from them was in one-word directions. I lifted my bags onto the sidewalk and prepared to walk. That’s when her sleek, white hybrid Mercedes Benz pulled up, driven by another fabulous Korean woman with a perfectly egg-shaped face and an intimidating Confucian stare. She pointed to the trunk to place my bags. “Quickly.” She whispered. We got in the car. I remained silent, and in suspense about where we were going. They were saying things to each other in Korean. Were they talking about me? My paranoia ran marathons.
“There will come a time during your work experience here that your director will order you to get drunk in the presence of your colleagues. It’s a natural, perfectly acceptable professional bonding behavior here.” Dr. Andrews warns. “If all else fails, claim physical allergy or intestinal sickness, and they shouldn’t consider it rude.” He finishes his tea.
We arrived at a Korean restaurant and were served water in small cups. My Director cut the noodles in front of us with scissors. On her last snip, out came many bottles of Soju and beer – shots all around. My director poured me a shot of the clear liquor, and slid it toward me. She didn’t react to the fear in my eyes.
Did I really fly all the way to Korea to be offered a drink? I stared at the seemingly harmless serving of the transparent substance. I retreated back to the perspective I had just two years ago.
Maybe it was missing that tiny dose of that new pill they put me on to treat the fear of growing up. Maybe it could be the lack of alcohol in my system. For years I thought my symptom was caused by the lack of alcohol in my system, and the alcohol would make it better, and it was and it did until the odd occasion that it just wouldn’t. It could have been manic insomnia. I couldn’t diagnose my extreme case alone, with all the medications I’ve either not taken because I’ve forgotten to take them, or taken double of because I forgot that I did.
I had lost all control of my mind. I had become completely paranoid. I was obsessed with what was wrong with me, when the answer was staring me in the face. Several bottles of pills with confusing names, next to several empty bottles of booze – and no recollection of consuming any of them – can make a boy go mad. I wasn’t trying to hurt myself. I told myself I was trying to feel calm, or normal, or cure some kind of symptom. I wasn’t being honest with myself.
“Why…?” My director whined. If only she knew how many times i’ve tried to ask myself that question.
I inhaled. I shook my head and smiled. It required no explanation. I sat there and watched as they toasted to new beginnings, drank up and gazed forward as their pale faces faded to red and their eyes watered with that sensation of life being bearable that I once craved so much. That night, I was grateful to have water. This isn’t the story of how Jack got fucked up in Korea and was sent home in a baffling paranoia-woven in-flight detox session. This is a story of self-discovery in the Land of the Morning Calm. And water can be pretty fucking amazing if you really think about it – and sometimes I do have to think about it, and push my enthusiasm to find a new amazement in it until I’ve overthought it, at which point I’ll just call it a night.
Steadily, and slowly, careful not to slip, I treaded on the icy sidewalk slopes toward my apartment complex. It was when looked up to get my bearings that I saw it – a bright neon red glowing cross on the other side of the street. A lit up phrase reading “Doing The Most Good” at the top of a three-story building was painted next to a sign that read The Salvation Army. There it was, right across the street from my apartment complex, in a far insignificant corner, lost in the outer expanse of Seoul. It appeared above me in the thick Korean crisp air as a gentle reminder of the hope I once needed and the people who saved my life, on that cold night nearly two years ago.
While I failed the Korean Soju initiation, I passed a more important test – the one of my determination to a philosophy of life. I was finally given the keys to my basement apartment in Korea. To some, it’s the unglamorous bottom of the crowded food chain in terms of starting a life in Asia. To me, it was a glowing golden beacon of hope – a ladder to use to climb to a new freedom. I felt lucky to have a place to set things down and call home for now. But the bigger question that haunted me was – given where I’ve been – could I trust myself with these shiny keys? I unlocked the heavy steel door to freedom.
You’ll remember how Dundas street darkened into the horizon of east London, a town that was barely big enough for the small-scale high rises of big banks and lawyers, a corrupt mayor, a local real estate celebrity and every second artist on the next greyhound bus to Toronto. A town of old brick houses, practical means and honest livings, with more parking spots than people that coexisted with a forest worth of trees.
Some days you entertained the belief that you could actually love that place and commit. You thought you could just sit down in one seat in the world and just be content. The smaller a city, the bigger you are. You could really be something here if you wanted to see it that way, you thought. You didn’t make it in New York, but if you did then you could have made it anywhere. You didn’t fall in love with this “piece of shit town”, but if you could have loved it here, you could have loved it anywhere. Will you make it anywhere? Will you love it somewhere?
You interviewed artists and dreamers who were building their lives. You heard the tales of the adventure that never was. You heard his story about his brave railroad expedition as far west as the pacific, only to make it back empty handed on a mission to love this town. You heard about her decision to make that huge plan to go abroad, only to be too afraid to get on that flight to the other side of the world, and take a taxi home to open arms with her suitcases having never left her side. They were believers in a different love story.
But you weren’t attached to any place or love story anymore, even if you were to leave and never return. A way back wasn’t in the plans. You could never go back, especially to New York City, it was a hollow dream and you knew it. Instead you got on that flight to Korea, the last place you ever wanted your life to end up in, but the best place it could have possibly gone. You said “thank you” in a whisper in the car on the 401. Thanks London for keeping me alive in the darkest days, and giving me the gift of a second chance at life. Thanks for the generous ride out of town before I had a chance to get stuck there. From the other side of the Pacific, you’ll see it all clearly and know that it was time, and that you just had to pack up what little was left of your life and make your move, for the sake of your own freedom.
Were Jesse Teacher’s last words to me. Who knows why? Maybe he was trying to warn me. He explained that every time a foreign teacher quits, they basically quit Korea, they secretly formulate a plan and disappear unexpectedly from the country in a breach of contract. This makes it harder and harder for Koreans to trust foreigners and for new teachers to get work. Maybe he thought that I wasn’t ready, and had naïve notions about the kind of work I was getting into, or the country I was in. Jesse was the Teacher I was replacing, at the school he was leaving and who’s apartment I had moved into. Korea had essentially swapped his life out for mine. At first those words didn’t worry me, because I knew I could handle anything if I played my part correctly. All I needed was my charming one-liners, sarcastic wit and my hero soundtrack to loom in the background as needed.
The truth is whatever talent, intelligence, or experience I thought I had no longer mattered – I was a kindergarten teacher now. I had nothing to offer and only feedback to receive. I had to un-learn all of my pools of adult knowledge to be able to do this job correctly. And I had to turn the soundtrack off and listen to the students break the rules of english. What I didn’t realize was that the words “Don’t quit” was Jesse’s subtle warning of the beast I was to work alongside. “Quell the beast” would become a mantra of mine in the months to come as I braved a jaw clenching walk of fear to the elite pre-elementary prep school and return home to tears of defeat in child’s pose, forehead to the floor, night after night.
My school was "fancy" they said. The ambitious and talented faculty had a system that was highly rigorous and less casual than most other English schools in the country. The expectations from the teachers were high, the hours long, and the children were being monitored for performance expectations and even the tiniest scrape or bruise. I eventually realized that I wasn’t going to be having one of those fun teaching abroad experiences I’ve heard about so many times. It just wasn’t going to be that easy for me, and it never was. I would be given a harder, more punishing experience in Korea, because god wants me to suffer. I would be facing my greatest fear daily, and being given notes about it from unimpressed experts in their field. My living and place in Korea would be hard earned. And there would be no getting out of it. No escape, no matter how much I wanted to fight and flee.
Maybe my next job wouldn’t be so bad, I thought. Maybe the challenges are different in Japan. Maybe the hours are shorter in China. I had barely arrived, and I was already starting to think about what my next move would be. I was already planning my escape from my great escape. I knew I couldn’t go on living this way.
Sometimes the emotions of it all surfaced and I broke into a spontaneous cry, but not so much because I was stressed or sad – I cried because I was I was really feeling it, and living a journey i’d only ever known in dreams. On the bus, in the subway, on a run by the stream – anywhere I’d just feel overwhelmed about the reality of everything. This is real life, these are real challenges, this is Korea, I kept thinking. I made it, and I’m glad to have grabbed life by its horns and to be getting to know how to ride it. It had a calming effect. Somehow I knew that whatever experience I needed, I was being given. Everything will sort itself out; everything good in life has always come slowly.
It was the end of the first week of school in Korea. “Good Morning!” I exclaimed. “Good m-morning.” She stammered. The tiny student knew what she was getting into. As her little hands began to haul her diary from her miniature backpack, she broke down. I watched the emotional cracking of a 4 year old at the hard beginning of a Friday morning. Great, I thought, I’m crying, she’s crying, everyone’s crying. Nobody wants to be here.
Whether she liked it or not, the day would be full of intensive English schoolwork that was meant for children much older and more advanced. But at my high-expectations elite pre-school in Korea, they would expect the child to exceed no matter the challenge. The parents must see measurable progress in their child at the end of each day of study. If I could get these four year olds to compose their fifth symphonies themselves, the parents might be impressed. The students were in the middle of an elaborate education con that I would learn more about later, and I wasn’t sure if it was the parents or the business that was ultimately to blame for the unfairness of it all.
I sat there and watched her cry for a second, but saw the clock was ticking and decided to unzip her tiny Ralph Lauren winter coat and pull it off. I wished I could comfort the child and tell her that it all gets better, but in the cold heart of Korea, and the fact is, it just won’t. Life will only get harder. Days will only get longer. The competition will only get fiercer as the classes increase in intensity. This is as easy as it’s going to get. It’s all uphill from here. She will be busy studying hard for the rest of her life. I held the sobbing child and gently whispered into her ears “you’re not even in Kindergarten yet.”
It makes for tough people, in a fast country where complaining isn’t tolerated. If you put the same plate of food my 4-year olds eat for lunch with a couple of metal sticks in a Canadian cafeteria, the kids would probably start crying and scream “that’s not food!” But somehow, it all works. We don’t go hungry. We learn to love the challenge of being immersed in work. Koreans have become some of the most intelligent, refined, and disciplined people to ever grace this planet. As hard and cruel as it seems to the children, the adults it generates are reassuring. Was I adopting Korea as my motherland, or was Korea adopting me? I would become enthusiastic to let some of their cultural norms wash over me.
Every time I walked into school I’d see a new pair of Stiletto heels sitting in a cubby next to my slippers. Sometimes Dior, sometimes Manolo Blahnik, always my Director’s, a classy pack of Korean women ran this place, however, I felt my job would be bearable if I could change just one thing. My British coworker Amber reminded me of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I was Jack Nicholson’s dry humor encouraged by the insanity of children’s play, and Amber was trying to figure out any legal excuse to give me a lobotomy. It was harder to communicate with her than my Korean coworkers despite our native language.
She had what I felt was a very traditional, old-world fight against my poorly researched passion for liberal parenting and a threat to my personal inner child. I wanted to brighten up children’s lives with joy and games, and she wanted to control and mold them with fear and oppression. When her bloodshot eyes scanned classrooms for a child that might be sitting, snorting or moving improperly, I wasn’t sure if she was looking at the children or seeing merely learning machines. She scared the children, but the benefits of a classroom full of fear was control.
I’ve never seen anyone do quite what she could do with a classroom full of children. Like programmed robots, they sat pencils-in-hand, poised and attentive, with carefully controlled and synchronized speech and hand movements to meet her behavioral demands. Every so often I felt like I was witnessing the beginning of the invasion of the body snatchers. And it sometimes felt like we worked in an Emergency Room with our every move rigorously monitored by CCTV cameras
There was something about Amber’s British cultural tone and dignity that seemed to prevent her from having any joy in her heart. When she suggested I teach expressions during our class lunches, I suggested there was barely time to eat in our 9-hour days, often with no break. She took it like a slap in the face and made me out to be an impostor passing up a perfectly good opportunity for the children to learn about eating in English. I was scolded like a child. Suddenly I felt like a kindergarten rebel, in a battle for the daily expression, and with it my pride.
Maybe I was the one who needed to be praised like a five year old. I would stress that I was trying my best, and being a beginner responsible for close to 40 hour of teaching per week and very little time to lesson plan on top of that, I was stressed, and she had no sympathy for my pain. Over time, my question became: is my school’s policy’s ethical? Not for the employees, definitely not, but even for the children?
My fear was that we would be expected to have them perform more than is humanly possible for a four or five year old. We were constantly stressing the threshold of the potential knowledge we could squeeze into their tiny brains. I was afraid my job would be a task of constant disappointment – much like my fears about what would become of my entire adult life. The truth is, my Korean boss does expect more than is humanly possibly of children, and I expect more from myself than I can realistically deliver in life. The children still manage to surprise.
Eventually I came to depend on a realization to help me let go of all the stress and just hang on – I have no power here. I’m an immigrant.
I’ve never been more excited to be at the beginning of something. What this job is making possible for me is incredible. The children will learn, and I will learn with them.
It was pointed out to me the passive stance that people from the west – generally from white-dominated places – take on moving abroad. When someone from the west moves to the east, they’re an “Expat”, when someone from the east moves west, they’re an “immigrant”. As a Canadian in Korea, with my bottom-of-the-food-chain teaching gig, I feel like an immigrant from a slow, underdeveloped land. We’ve never come close to the kind of potential this place has.
I felt homeless, surrounded by a dense alien landscape. Many nights had passed without a real night’s sleep, and still the Korean box-springy bed in my studio apartment felt like it was a slope for me to fall from. When I sat on the edge I could feel the heated wooden floor. It seeped through the yoga mat as I knelt in child’s pose, forehead down between my knees, crying out the tears from the overwhelming joys and pains of growing up. One night I built up the courage to push my bed up against the wall, and take my co-teacher Amber’s advice to sleep on the floor. It took some courage to get down there against the floor – a frightening place I’ve always thought was for dogs, heroin addicts and slaves, but with the soothing feeling of stability I sank deep into a hard, back-straightening sleep. I sprang up with more energy the next morning. When you wake up on the floor, you have to push yourself up into your day. Within a week my back soreness was gone, my posture improved. Sleeping on the floor became a healthy habit, like kimchi with every meal. I drifted towards Korean culture in my daily life. It felt good. It felt right. I may never go back to bed in Canada.
One night my boss told me not to eat breakfast the next day, but not to help me slide into Korean clothes. It was time to make sure I was as healthy as I said I was. A Korean physical is fast, painless, and inhuman. They took samples, made sure I could read numbers, measured my blood pressure, and then sat me down in front of a doctor – time to lie about my alcoholism, I worried. She smiled at me and asked, “How do you feel?”
I said “good.”
She said “Okay.” And went back to some paperwork. We were done. She didn’t even give me a chance to lie. I was fine, and here, I wouldn’t get convinced otherwise. Talk is cheap.
When one of New York City’s prestigious psychiatrists who has spent over a decade in school tells you after months of talk therapy and assessment that “You need to take your medicine, or you will end up in the hospital.” And you have this mind that feeds off paranoia and has driven you to states of comatose by redlining into anxiety relentlessly in worry about the state of your health, and one day years later when you’ve simplified the chemical equation in your brain enough to feel a gradual return to sanity, and you stop taking your medicines, one day, one milligram less, one frightening milligram less at a time… Overthinking the worry, will I get to sleep tonight?
It’s hard not to be afraid of the storm that might be brewing in your mind should you let the doses fall, and the imaginary winds blow in the unpredictable moods of your detoxing subconscious in the absence of a powerful stabilizer. But the alcohol wasn’t there anymore to agitate the mind. Neither were the fancy New York doctors who couldn’t put it simply for me: people like me just shouldn’t drink.
I did it. I stopped taking all of my doctor-recommended prescription drugs. I had used a label as an excuse to hide in self-medication from the fear of taking on the work of a full life. A few pills a day and a professional consensus on my crippling condition seemed like the easiest way out. I never wanted to be bothered to do anything too difficult, so I held up pills in passive defense.
And then the painful time came that I sought to stop pretending, and treat this life like it is real. That would mean hard work – lots of hard work ahead. I was embarrassed for my sanity because I’d proclaimed to so many people I was medically insane just so they would leave me alone to drink.
Years ago, I spent 3 weeks in a psych ward and all I could think about was how good it would feel to have a drink. My mom came and saved me from the reality I’d crashed into. We went for cocktails after leaving the safety of the locked ward. It was exactly what the doctors warned against. I’m not blaming anyone, I’m sick. But we don’t have to see our sickness if we’re surrounded by sick people.
This is one reason why Korea is my first big break from my parents, and although my father doesn’t mean any harm, he made a break to get away from that woman, and when he did he disappeared for a while. Now it’s my turn. No more cocktails with mom on 7th avenue with passive dreams of being a grown-up. I will stay away for a long time, and I hope I stay strong enough to stay out of the storm of drama forever.
I can still hear the screaming when I lay on the floor waiting for sleep in Korea. I’ve been scarred from the ugly life-halting threats made late into the night, night after night and the cries of giving up, and the angry blasts interrupting the sick silence of an alcoholic home. Now that I was out on the open road, I could have my self-made stability and peace for the first time in my life. But still, I had so much personal housecleaning to do before I could even think about trying to bring about any sort of real change out there in the world. I have a past that is privileged with so many nice things and a memory littered with travel, so much so that I sometimes felt that I didn’t deserve anything nice in this world. Learning to live by modest means taught me more joys in having a dignified character, a life I can own, and nothing to feel guilty about. Now that I was finally in Asia, I could begin to fall into complete and total life and character transformation with no intention of ever going back. I came here for things to be different – the more different the better.
Just when I thought the job was overwhelming, I’d pay attention to a simple moment with the children and see the big picture. The kids are doing something to my heart. They nurture your soul and slowly cast a spell on your sensitivity in a delightful, endearing way. A year of growth with a class of students that age, and it will change you forever. I’ll never look at people the same way. Spending time with the Korean youngsters is an intimate cultural experience. It’s hard to get any closer to the place. And in time I started to understand some of the things they were saying in their native Korean.
I went on a spontaneous date with a Korean man around my age who was studying for the Samsung SAT. I expressed an interest in getting better at Korean, and possibly learning Hangul. He sent me home from our second date with practical workbooks on the basics of his alphabet. One at a time, each little shape that fit into the puzzle of Hangul started to make sense to me. I could start to hear the sounds of the words that were written on the buildings all around me. Every little piece of knowledge got me so excited for the potential love and freedom it could bring me. And after a while, the alphabet started to look different from its first impression. It became familiar, less mysterious.
I’ve never wanted to really learn a language. Taking forced classes and sticking with your “expat” culture in a foreign country is a different life experience than actually wanting to learn to speak with the locals and pursuing romantic relationships with natives. The only thing I’ve ever tried to learn in another language has been the equivalent of “cheers” and “fuck it!” because that’s the fastest way to make friends in a bar. And even then, that was just French and Spanish. Those languages had letters. Hangul is a mesh of symbols that look like an architects drafting. It’s a language in which “Hello” is literally translated into “Do you have peace?” 안녕하세요
It couldn’t feel more appropriate to be here, learning and living closer to the peace, one day at a time. The stress I carried in my chest was painful sometimes, and I was bracing for something. Happiness was not an equation that I could find a solution to. Fighting time was a losing battle, like quick sand.
On a Saturday night at the USO I heard a man speak about this incredible feeling that is possible in sobriety – he had this philosophy of life of letting go. He spoke about a feeling he coined free-fall –a sensation of experiencing life when you’ve truly and fully let go of the idea that you are in control. You rise to meet the days, cruising through in the moment, not worried about the future or dwelling on the past. Just here to meet the task of today, right now. I wanted that kind of feeling. But you have to give your life away to get it. I wasn’t sure I was ready to give up, because I was afraid of losing my control over my own life and dreams. I still wanted something for certain in return – an experience had, a goal met. But it feels like the Universe doesn’t want control. Control is a human act. If there is a god, it certainly isn’t human.
Even if we find ourselves steering our lives in a direction we haven’t chosen, everything always seems to work out ever more interestingly. I was bracing for the return of the fighter in me, and praying for free-fall. Maybe I could finally cut the strings I try to pull on the world around me. It’s either that, or face a life-long losing battle against my own expectations.
“I didn’t really come here to get well.” I said in the car to Molly as she drove me home through Gangnam.
“of course you didn’t. It was a geographic cure.” She said.
“I still have to live life over here.” I think I was looking for a way out. “I didn’t think I’d actually have to do all of this work…” I saw an endless odyssey to a secret beach in southern Thailand while I daydreamed and vacuumed the cold hard wooden floors in front of me at work. I wanted complete and utter escape from society, the economy, manual labor, this moment and reality itself. I was still planning an escape, and promised myself I’d pull the plug if this experience became too mundane. But the slow growth in my relationship with the children had begun to illuminate some unknown places in my heart. The kids and I were in it together, and there was no turning back.
I was given the task of teaching the fundaments of life to the primordial stew that is kindergarten, where a moment overlooked could send the room on a table-climbing, gibberish-screaming, tissue pulling expedition out of my ideal, graceful control. I learned the benefits of the hard lessons teachers and parental-figures have to teach that aren’t necessarily pleasant. I learned to feel good about giving those tough lessons in bad behavior, and do that service for the children as I began to mold them into civilized, refined people. I began to see the value in my British counterparts. We taught them rigorous lunch table manners and elevator etiquette. We insisted on proper posture. We helped them become more independent with organizing the stuff they carried home. Week after week, the more the children learned, the more energy they gave back, and the more pleasant the job became.
The time came for me to clean house. I was in emotional limbo, and needed to take some thorough personal inventory to get to exit the gates of the great walls I’d built to isolate myself. So I cracked open the urn of the past, and spread the ashes out to get a closer look at everything I’d burned. I listed everything I hated about the world, what I’d burned and where my role in all of that was. I learned a lot about my fears, my shames, and the great war I’ve been waging on myself all my life that I just couldn’t see through my actions. Now, it was on paper, and it was important to let it be known to a trusted servant who had survived the same sinking ship. So I shared my secrets with Doctor Andrews high above the city, overlooking the endless density of Seoul, wondering why I’d come all the way to Korea to reflect on my past.
“I see something in you that perhaps you haven’t been able to see.” He said.
“What do you see?”
“Passivity. It runs through your whole life. You insisted on passively existing in your life for years, so you could blame the world for happening to you.”
All the dishonesty, inner-denial, ego-delusion and vainglory couldn’t fend off a face-to-face realization with my own passivity. I hurt real people. I saw my role in the train wreck of my past. It didn’t feel good. I felt sad. I turned off the iPod, the soundtrack to my life on the bus back to Ori Station. I went home. I went to sleep. I felt sad about my upbringing, and everything that I was surrounded by that I had no clue about – especially every demon that I was living with that I was finally seeing for the first time. The blinders were snatched off, but my ego was refusing to let go.
And then I thought about what else he said – “It also might be the case that you are beating yourself up about things that you don’t have a role in. If you were a child, perhaps you didn’t have a role.”
The scars of my childhood were deeper than I thought. I had flashbacks to the 8th grade, watching my mom stagger into the apartment some mid-afternoon, completely out of her mind on booze and benzos. There was no sense of what was the right thing to do, but I knew that whenever she would wake up, whatever had happened would be denied. We would sail forward with no direction, no clear perspective on the real workings and consequences of life. The only evidence sometimes was a pair of ruined pants. She’s never been drunk, she’d say.
“But when you became an adult, that’s where your role began.” He said. So I guess I lived life by example in a way that never comprehended that I might face real consequences for the abuse. I got everything I ever wanted in New York, and decided to have all fun, and working an honest day’s work was never part of the plan. I thought I’d win the lottery and try to make the world think I deserved it by hiding behind a façade of witty jokes and respectable endeavors. My passions, my art and my charm had been a big show I’d put on to keep the lights off and keep the party going. But eventually the lights have to come on and you have to wake up – and I woke up in a psych ward.
“I can see that your passive streak is ending, with your most recent decisions to make your life better, work on yourself and move to Korea. Those are all signs that you are overcoming this behavior, and letting it go.”
In contrast, here in Korea it was time to go to work with people I didn’t always like at a stressful job that wore away at my stamina and wasn’t all about me. But the kids were good, and they had so much to teach me. Thinking about work got more and more interesting as the weeks passed. This opportunity was the means to an end. The end is freedom. And I would have my first close encounter with that freedom in a visit to my closest friend.
I booked my first flight I’ve ever earned with my god’s honest hands across the East China Sea. I landed in Beijing after midnight and smelt the smoggy, burnt air when the cabin doors opened. I’ll never forget the stone-cold look on the custom’s officer’s face. I could grade her performance with buttons down below. As long as the visa works, she gets two thumbs up.
Entering communism felt like entering a dated movie set of a smoky train station in East Berlin. She was Julia and I was Lillian from the 1977 film. “You still look like nobody else” was what I wanted to say. We were two true friends separated by years of growth reuniting at the arrivals gate on the other side of the world. There was something very cinematic about it. Maybe there was a time when the movies imitated life. But in reality, I saw her, reached in and awkwardly said “Tag, you’re it!” She almost knocked me out because she thought I was a thief and security almost deported me because they thought I was a terrorist, but it all worked out.
In the taxi she explained “’China’ in Chinese looks like a box with a line through it. That’s the symbol for middle. So when these people are running around talking about their country, they’re really just repeating the words ‘Middle Kingdom, Middle Kingdom’. I always thought that was funny.” Julia said. “You have to remember how far these people have come. The Chinese aren’t interested in the old stuff they’ve got lying around. Like, those beautiful palaces and temples that you come here to take pictures of? Oh, we almost forgot about those. Look over here, we’re building something new. That’s what China’s all about – what’s next. The next big thing. And I really think Beijing is onto something.”
The air cleared the next day and the weather was beautiful. She took me on motorcycle sidecars through the wide main streets and the narrow Hutongs. We rode elevators through artificially scented air to the rooftop bars of hotels. We ate spicy soup in basement malls and the best Peking duck on the block. It felt just the same to be her friend despite all that had changed, and her home felt like my home. The voice of a Beijinger had led me to Asia, so I had her and the city to thank for the good direction into this incredible journey. It was nice to feel how much she enjoyed finally showing me the life she fought for in Beijing. I was her first friend to make it there from abroad. It was the first time I felt like someone might need me as much as I needed her. A friend like that is hard to find. We were both were on missions in different kingdoms, but our pursuits of freedom were the same, and we got to see each other through.
She reminded me that I was never broken, but I damaged my engine for a while by pushing it to the gates of death. She never thought there was anything wrong with me. She showed me how I’d be miserable if I’d always done the right things. She coached me to work on the hardest pillar of the personal brand, and to always have a cause greater than myself. It was then that I realized that I’m not going on living my life just for me anymore. She’s in it with me. I have to do this, even if I don’t have a smile on my face all the time, for her too. It makes me seriously question why I have an open curiosity about one last dance with the devil – a dance that would end me – from time to time.
“Because you live life hard, Jack.” she said. “You really get in there and do it hard. You don’t just observe challenging situations, pain, fear, and hopelessness in efforts to be inspired by it. You actually get in there and do the damn thing yourself, and really live to tell the tale. You didn’t just show up with your pen, paper and camera to write about the war. You got in there, lost a leg and fought it yourself. You did it hard, and then boomeranged over to Korea to go try something new. You’re a vibrant and dynamic soul who’s not afraid to go hard.”
I left China without a bruised lung. The days were too short. There was a big hole in the middle of it, the Chinese were building something and I knew I’d be back to see it. “Slowly, slowly come.” She kept repeating it. “Man man lai”. A Chinese expression that pretty much means “Time takes time.” Everything will come. We work for ages in uncertainty to build the foundations for our Kingdoms, and are often unsure of the means or the end results. We will eventually get somewhere, it will look different, the future is generally bright and our expectations can slow down, we can take it easy and enjoy the ride.
I said goodbye to the waking giant that looked like an under construction death-star. I left my friend to fight the Beijing fight in the smoke screen of yellow dust and coal combustion. It was time to go. I missed some things about Korea. I missed the density and the strangeness. I missed the tiny green busses and the softness of the language in what I now called home. I had people to meet, a language to master and hidden temples to discover. It was the first time I realized and gave myself permission to acknowledge that It was happening. I had let go of the wheel, the ship was sailing smoothly and I no longer felt I needed to drive it. The insights from people years ahead of my spiritual path were starting to become possible. For the entirety of that week, I felt my life was in a state of free-fall. I never wanted to land.
Copyright © 2020 Justin Thomas Collection. All rights reserved.