If you’ve spent half as much time as I have backpacking in Asia, you’ll understand this. It’s the short film I made when I was working in Korea as an English teacher.
Well, it seems I’ve spent most of my recent time being busy trekking through Nepal, teaching people how to dive, and failing to write anything here or be at all productive really.
So, to get started in a nice and lazy way, I thought I’d post an article that my friend Michael Fraiman wrote about me for Busan Haps, a local Busan expat magazine. I’ll have a link up for the film that was mentioned in the article soon!
The friendly greetings of “Hello, how are you?” and “Where do you come from?” had long since ceased – probably somewhere around the 1,000 metre mark. Now with every Korean hiker I passed, I’d hear phrases such as “Be careful!”, “Good luck!”, or “Fighting! Fighting!” being shouted into the wind.
It was my last long weekend in Korea, and in the weeks leading up to it I had been feeling steadfastly determined that I would use it to see Seoraksan National Park, the last of all the spots in Korea that I’d been highly recommended to visit. I didn’t want to leave any major stone unturned before the end of my one year of teaching there, and I thought a hiking trip might do me some good after all of the overfeeding of the holiday season. And besides, after a year of trekking all over the country and leading hikes for Busan Daytrippers: Guided Mountain Hikes (an expat Facebook group), it would be a shame to miss the most famous hike of all.
It sounded like a great idea from the comfort of my pleasantly heated apartment, but after hours of sinking into knee-deep snow, slipping and falling all over myself despite putting on some crampons, and facing temperatures below – 20 °C (and with a windchill of nearly – 40 °C!), I was starting to have second thoughts.
It started out pleasantly enough. There had just been a major snowfall when I arrived, and the mountains looked nothing short of epic, covered in a thick layer snow. On my first day I did some easy day trips in the park, walking up Ulsanbawi, watching kids making snowmen, and enjoying the relatively balmy 0 °C temperatures. The scenery was absolutely spectacular! The snow covered, jagged, rocky mountain faces made me feel like I was thousands of metres high doing some serious mountain trekking, despite only being several hundred metres above sea level. It was pretty great, and entirely effortless!
The next day though, as I’d climbed higher and higher up the mountain, things started to change. The temperature started dropping at a steady rate. Every once in a while you’d take a wrong step and be literally up to your hips in snow. And after spending one night sleeping in a mountain shelter over halfway up, things had only gotten even more ridiculous! All of the staircases were completely covered with snow. My water bottle had frozen solid within half an hour, so I was fresh out of drinking water. Finally, by the time I finally got to the peak at 1,708 metres, I was literally clinging to the rocks, as some of the strong gusts of wind at the top would literally knock me off my feet!
I must admit though, that by the time I’d finally started my descent I was absolutely just giggling like a madman! Who would have ever thought that you could find such an adventure right here in South Korea! It was absolutely the most satisfying, and really one of the only challenging hikes I’d ever done in the country, and it totally held up to some of the best hikes that I’d done around the world.
So, if you’re sick of your typical Korean mountain scenery, and feel tough enough to make it through the cold, you should definitely find the time to head up to Seoraksan before the winter’s over for what is easily the best mountain hiking that the country has to offer!
Leaving a place that you’ve lived in for a long time is a violent process – even beyond the self inflicted violence against your brain cells that comes with all the boozy farewells!
Essentially, what you’re doing every time you dismantle a part of your room, visit a place for the last time, or say one more goodbye to one more person is slowly killing off part of what you have considered to be your ‘self’ over whatever stretch of time you have lived in that place. I’m not saying that you will lose all of the changes that you’ve undergone over the course of the year, or that your experience will be dead – but that entity that people refer to as “Chris”, “Gyeong-Mo”, “Captain Jack”, or whatever your name happens to be – built up from and defined by all of the habits, surroundings, work, and friends, that you’ve surrounded yourself with all year is very rapidly ceasing to exist.
Whether you’ve loved a place or hated it, have been dreading your departure or longing for it, it’s absolutely impossible to leave without feeling sad, like something is disappearing. That thing that’s disappearing is you. You can always see the friends that you’ve made again in the future, you can always come back to the same place, maybe it won’t have even changed so much, but it won’t be the same. Because ‘you’ are gone. That guy that you once were when you lived there is now nothing more than a story that you remind yourself of; a memory residing in the minds of the people that you’ve known.
Today I gave my Global Leader Class a new assignment. We were practising using the phrase “I have never..”, so I asked each of them to write out ten sentences about things that they have never done, but wish that they had. The first five were supposed to be things that are possible and that they expect to maybe do one day, while the second five were supposed to be impossible things that they wish they could do, but never expect to.
I couldn’t help sharing some of the highlights!
I have never…… (Possible)
Eaten a coffee bean made from cat shit.
Loved a western girl
Made a fantasy chicken
Drank non Korean alcohol
Raised a tiger
Picked up money on the street
Gone to the moon
Dated a girl
I have never…… (Impossible)
Had a harem
Met Almighty God
Read everyone’s mind
Upgraded my IQ to an infinite number
Dated Emma Watson
Had a Samsung company
Married famous Korean talent
Made counterfeit money
One of my co teachers just put forth a rational argument as to why one should not marry for love based on the song Gangnam Style.
First of all. I’ve been asked to teach a Gangnam Style lesson. A two part Gangnam Style lesson. And, seeing how I have to teach each lesson 36 times over the course of three weeks, I was looking at spending a month and a half teaching a class on Gangnam Style. Maybe you can forgive me now for not posting over the last month!
Recently though I had the staggering good fortune of having almost the entire final week’s worth of classes cancelled! When she found out, my other co teacher approached me saying “You hate Gangnam Style now don’t you?”. I couldn’t deny it. “Whenever you listen to a song so many times,” she continued, dying of laughter, “You will hate it by the end. That is why you should never teach your favourite song! Hearing something too many times makes you hate it!”
But it didn’t stop there. “That is why you should never marry someone that you love! Eventually you will hate that person! Better to marry someone who has money and you are comfortable with. Love should be short and stay in your memory!”
The next time that she called me over to talk, she could hardly speak through the laughter, as she wanted me to see some pictures of dogs whose facial expressions resembled members of an administrative hierarchy.
I was reading through some of my journals from India, and I stumbled upon an impression that I’d recorded that made me happy.
The first time that I unexpectedly wandered into sight of the Taj Mahal in Agra, from a quiet spot across the river behind it, the first thought that my brain felt like pushing to the front of my consciousness was: “Wow, it looks just like it does in Commander Keen 2: The Earth Explodes (a computer game I used to play when I was maybe 5) when you see the pictures of the major earth landmarks that the Vorticon Mothership is targeting.”
Sometimes I really wonder what the hell is going on down there in the depths of my mind.
It might be a good idea to think twice before packing a ‘Mr. Cool’ shirt as one of the only five shirts that you decide to bring to India.
I don’t know what it is about it, but it seems to have some sort of mysterious power over Indian men that compels every single one of them who is capable of reading English to joyously shout “Mister Cool!” as they pass by.
One day I was out for a walk in Dharamsala with Joanna, a tall, blond Swedish girl that I’d been travelling with for a short time, and after about the ninth “Mister Cool!” that was shouted at me that day, one of the men passing by yelled out “Mister Cool… and Mister Hot!”
He paused a second, embarrassed by what he realized that he had just said, and then quickly corrected himself, continuously yelling “Mrs. Hot!” after us.
When we finally got home, Joanna noticed for the first time that my shirt said Mr. Cool on it.
“Oh, your shirt says Mr. Cool! That’s why they were all yelling that at you.”
No, I always get that actually. Something about me just happens to conjure the exact phrase “Mr. Cool” to the tongues of dozens of men that I pass every day. It’s just a coincidence that I happened to be wearing a shirt with those same words on it that particular day.
Well, it’s October 11 and I’m still alive!
For over a month now students all over Korea have been fervently insisting that October 10 would be the day that the Chinese came to Korea to feast on human flesh, issuing dire warning that one mustn’t walk home alone or take a taxi under any circumstances. It wasn’t just students either. Facebook was full of posts and comments insisting on the event by 20 something year old Koreans as well! I never managed to unearth any more details beyond that – everyone stood firm that it was real, it was happening October 10th, and that the Chinese are all cannibals, but no one could explain the reasoning behind it or give any details about what was going to happen at all.
I can’t help but wonder whether it might have anything to do with the incident earlier this year where the Chinese were caught smuggling thousands of capsules filled with powdered human fetuses into the country. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2140702/South-Korea-customs-officials-thousands-pills-filled-powdered-human-baby-flesh.html
But one way or another, if you’re reading this blog, congratulations! You’ve managed to survived the Chinese cannibal invasion!
The other day, my co teacher finally got around to springing the “when are you going to start saving money to get married” question on me, and it ended up leading into a conversation on what one ought to do with one’s life. Based on this, other conversations, and the better part of my experience here in Korea, it seems that life here is generally perceived as a task with a very clearly defined set goal.
First you need to get a good job that allows you to save enough money to afford to get married. 27 (Korean age – which is one or two years older than your ‘international age’ would be) is the age at which one is expected to have started saving, as one is 20 when one graduates high school, a university degree takes 4 years to get, and you have 2 years of compulsory military service. After several years of saving from the age of 27 onwards, one is to choose a husband/wife, of suitable practical compatibility, and soon afterwards produce children. It is essential that children are then raised and educated (studying in a private school after regular school til as late as 10pm every day) to a level that ensures that they will be able to go on and repeat the cycle themselves, so that that they’ll one day take care of you when you’re old.
For bonus points, be sure to appear to work harder (or at least longer) than everyone around you, conspicuously consume expensive items frequently in public, and for God’s sake, make sure no one ever sees you with a hair out of place!
Ok, have you made it? Let’s check. Are you old and financially established, with offspring to look after you? Congratulations, you have won at life! Why not reward yourself with a trip to the Norebang?
Wouldn’t life be so much easier if it actually had a defined aim? I’ve met all sorts of people who have created a plethora of different criteria against which to judge whether or not they have won at life.
Some want to find their true love, some to hook up with as many people as possible. Some to amass wealth, some to become famous. Some to visit every country in the world, some to never leave their house if they can help it. Some to attain salvation or enlightenment, and more than a few fall in with the Korean model that I just outlined – though we may be less obvious about it back in the west.
I personally love the Dalai Lama’s conjecture that the purpose of life is to be happy.
I recently told my friend Adam Brown that he will officially have won at life once he can play a ukulele while he’s riding his unicycle.
I’ve always struggled with the fact that I have no idea what I should actually be doing with my life on an almost daily basis! After a bit of thinking, I’ve managed to form some sort of guiding statement that seems to work:
Follow your enthusiasm, and light this place up everytime you find an opportunity!
Ok, that might not be the most practical statement in the world, but maybe life just shouldn’t be that practical? Maybe the trajectories of our lives are meant to be changing liquid things. Perhaps the best strategy is just to adapt, meet each moment in good faith, and see where you get swept off to! It’s certainly worked so far and taken me to some pretty goddamned interesting places!