Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Calendar Days

Well, April's almost here. It seems like just yesterday that I'd been preparing for my move to Korea. I have been in this country for just over seven months, with only five more left in my contract. I'm amazed at how quickly time has gone by.

Saying that a lot has happened over these past seven months would be a grand understatement. It's all that and so much more. I've grown in more ways than I knew possible, learning from experiences I never thought I'd have. And looking back on all the positivity and negativity, I can only say that I'm grateful.

Most people don't have the chance to do this in their entire lifetime. My friend here tells me the story about her grandmother, who lived in China till she was 80. After never having been on a plane or to another country for all those years, she ended up moving to America to be with her family... having to adjust, at that age, to a whole new life in a whole new world.

I've been lucky.

I've met some amazing people on this journey, so far. These are friends that I truly believe were brought together by fate and chance. They come from all walks of life, from different parts of the world. And yet, we all exist, here, as a family. We take care of one another.

When people ask me what life is like as a teacher in Korea, I can't really be honest with them. The only people who truly understand what a parallel universe this is, are the ones who've experienced it themselves. Sometimes I find myself sharing stories with friends back in Canada, and they usually respond in disbelief. "Not possible!" or "That didn't really happen... did it?" are the most common reactions.

Chances are, I'm telling the truth. That it did happen... and I've probably only given you the rough sketch of the story!

OK, and I'll admit that not all of these experiences have been brilliantly positive. More than once I've found myself in situations that I wish I could erase... but I guess life doesn't work that way. All I can do is learn and grow from them.

So, here's to the next five months. Here's to Spring flowers and Summer adventures. Here's hoping that time doesn't move so quickly that I'm blind-sided when August hits... but not so slowly that I sit here staring at the clock. I want to savor all of everything as it happens. This is a special chapter for the memory book, and I want to look back on it fondly someday and say, "Yeah, that really happened!"


Monday, 29 March 2010

Take a rest

I've been falling asleep no later than 10:30 p.m. for the past few weeks. Ever since I got back from Thailand and dove head first into the new school semester, I've simply been exhausted. I remember nights when I'd make myself stay up, despite being tired, for no real reason. But these days, I look forward to bedtime.

Part of this exhaustion stems from the weather. It's been an absolutely brutal and long winter, here, in Seoul. Apparently this isn't normal for the city, which usually experiences 'flash snowstorms' - they come and go, and usually there's no traces left of it ever happening.

This year, however, it seems never-ending. We get a couple of days, graced with sunshine, and then, it's back to a bitter cold that sinks right to the bone. And it's the 30th of March!

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we've also been getting yellow dust from Northern China and Mongolia. This has caused my classes to sound like a symphony of coughs and sneezes... only about 25 per cent of it coming from me.

I've had students dropping like flies in classes. One minute they're up and about, and the next thing I know, they're out cold on the table. I worried at first, thinking it had something to do with my 'boring' lessons... (trust me, these are tough kids to break!). But as my co-teacher so eloquently put it, "The dust... it gets to them this time. Let them take a rest."

Fine by me. I too was asked to 'take a rest' for a couple of days last week. And that I did. Didn't help with the desire for prolonged sleep, however.

But, short of sounding like a 'Debbie Downer' I will say that the weather seems to warming up... slowly but surely. And it's making a world of difference. People seem to be more cheery (when they're not ill from the dust), and are starting to get into their spring wardrobe.

Tights, minis and heels 2010, anyone?

More sunshine, jusayeo!


Thursday, 25 March 2010

Where in the world?

I decided to take a page from my friend B's blog, and answer her Question of the Day:

"Where would you choose to live if you had to leave your country?"

It's something I spend a lot of time thinking about, actually. Although I am currently removed from my actual 'home' - Toronto - I can't help but think about other places on this planet where I'd love to take up residence.

Leaving India for Canada was a leap for my family. But leaving Toronto for Seoul was a huge step for me.

I have to admit that Seoul was never top on my list of places to live in. I knew a lot of people who had moved to Korea for work and school, but the idea of coming here never really struck a fancy with me. But, somehow, life dealt my cards and now here I am... living and reveling in all the experiences this chaotic and cultural city throws my way. It's definitely been one fabulous chapter in my life, I must admit.

But, I always imagined that I'd someday move to the English countryside.

A quaint English cottage set in a small hamlet in the UK.

Yes, my love-affair with BBC's Pride and Prejudice might have something to do with it... but I've continuously been drawn to the images of lush, green meadows and acres of land you see in travel magazines and online. The idea of a quaint, brick cottage, nestled in a simple garden with an iron fence, sends warm-cozies through my body. Who wouldn't want to live some place that's described as 'charming'? There's something absolutely heartwarming about living in a country that's so rich with history and old-world ambiance.

And as B said in her blog, so long as I'd have the means of transportation to get me to and from my quaint escape, I'd be happy as a clam!

How about you, lovely readers? Where in the world would you move, if given the chance?


Image courtesy of Google Images

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Yellow dust over Spring

I'm sorry for the lack of posting, dear readers. It's been on heck of a few days since I last had a chance to write.

As some of you know, the new school semester is well underway, here, in Seoul. And with the start of a new school year comes a new schedule and different responsibilities. I happened to fall into both these categories, with a packed schedule, after-school classes and responsibilities that include creating speaking tests for every child at my school. Needless to say, I spend every moment outside of teaching, either nose-high in lesson plans, or banking in sleep hours. Would you believe me if I told you I've been falling asleep no later than 10 p.m. everyday?

Last Saturday was a first for me. Already feeling quite under the weather, I decided to spend the weekend in my neighbourhood, with hopes of getting ahead on some lesson planning. S came over for breakfast and we both agreed that the day, being dull enough with promises of rain, would be better spent indoors. We decided to go across the street from my apartment, to our usual hairstylist, hoping that a cut, wash and color would brighten our moods on yet another bleak weekend.

Later on that afternoon, back in my apartment, we looked outside to see a sky lit up in shades of yellow and pink tones.

"It looks kind of cool, doesn't it?" S said. "It's almost got a pinkish hue to it."

It did. I thought it was pretty as well, because everything seemed brighter. And after having had bad weather for the past few days, this almost seemed refreshing.

Little did we realize that the yellow hue was actually the infamous yellow dust that had blown into Seoul from Northern China.

We'd been warned about this in our earlier months in Korea. We were told that once springtime came about, we'd be hit with bouts of this yellow dust, which was guaranteed to make us ill and catalyze any underlying allergies or colds we were already carrying around.

However, with the weather still feeling like winter that day, we didn't think of this and continued to admire the sky by sticking our heads out the window.

Yellow dust (or sand) over Seoul on Saturday, March 20, 2010

Waking up the next morning with a sore throat, swollen throat glands and a pounding headache was all the reality check we needed of what had happened to us. That, and the link posted on Facebook by J, noting that this was the worst yellow dust storm Seoul had seen in recent years.


Flash forward to today: Me, lying in bed, trying to cough up a lung, soup, Tiger Balm and Tylenol on hand, with BBC's Pride and Prejudice as entertainment.

My bad.

So, it turns out the weather is playing a bigger role in affecting my moods and health, here, in Korea, than it ever did while I lived in Canada. It can't be helped -- one day we're battling hazardous dust storms from China, and the next we're dealing with hail and ice storms on what promised to be a 'sunny' day.

My only hope now is that Spring rears its head just in time for Easter. I can't imagine battling a snowstorm on Easter!


Image courtesy of Yonhap News Agency (Google Images)

Friday, 19 March 2010

Eat, Pray, Love - the movie

Well, we finally have a date! After much anticipation and excitement, we can now count down the days until Eat, Pray, Love - the movie - hits the big screen.

For those of you who don't know, Elizabeth Gilbert's masterpiece is one of my recent favourite books. I've somehow managed to share stories from it with anyone willing to listen, while tying quotes from it into my writing.

And now, we get to see the beautiful Julia Roberts play the author, as she travels to Italy, India and Indonesia, searching for truth in her existence, and something we're all looking for -- Happiness.

Also, did I mention James Franco and Javier Bardem are in it as well? Yum!

Here's the trailer for the movie, set to hit theatres on August 13. I'm peachy pleased with the timing of this release and can't wait to check it out.


Saturday, 13 March 2010

Alive in Ayutthaya

There's nothing quite like walking through centuries-old ruins to help you realize just how small you are on this planet.

After spending three busy days in Bangkok, we took the train just over an hour north of the city, to Ayutthaya. Our goal was to get that small-town experience in Thailand's old capital, while taking in the sights of this ancient city with a colourful past.

My main purpose for this leg of the trip was to see the Wat Mahathat in person. I remember flipping through issues of National Geographic as a child and seeing spreads dedicated to these ancient ruins. I knew I'd find myself among them someday; I just never knew when. And now, a few months after living in the Land of Morning Calm, I can gladly say that they're more majestic in person than any photograph or painting I've encountered.

In Thai, "Wat" means "temple". Wat Mahathat simply means, "Temple of the Great Relic". If you're curious as to what that great relic is, check out the photo below.

Famous Buddha head trapped in a Banyan tree

Yes, this is the Great Relic, dating back to the 14th century -- the head of an ancient sandstone Buddha statue, trapped in the roots of an old banyan tree. You've probably seen this photo in magazines, on TV, or even in posters. But please, if you ever get the chance, try to go see it in person at some point in your life. It was one of the most humbling and beautiful experience I've ever had.

The story goes, the statue, built in the style of the ancient Ayutthaya period, broke off during the many wars and conquests during Thailand's past. Over time, and despite bad weather, the banyan tree began to grow around it, safely enclosing the head in its roots. Now, whether this was done on purpose or by accident is something we might never know. But it's a fascinating story, isn't it?

The roots of the tree continue to grow a little more around the head, with each passing year. When you choose to take a photo with the relic, you're asked to crouch down so that your head is lower than the Buddha head, as it's a sign of respect and tradition.

There are several other statues around Wat Mahathat - all Buddhas, many, with their heads broken off. There's security personnel everywhere to ensure that people, regardless of being tourists, continue to respect and honour these sacred grounds.

At Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya, Thailand - 2010

As I wandered around in awe, taking in these fragments of a time long gone by, I couldn't help but count myself blessed for having had the opportunity to encounter history face-to-face.

I hope that someday, you'll have the chance to as well.


Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Finding my smile in the Land of Smiles

It's almost the middle of march and it's been snowing in Seoul for the past couple of days. I woke up from a nap yesterday evening, only to pull open my window shades and see a mixture of rain and snow fall from the sky. I quickly pulled down the shades, turned up my heater and proceeded to fall back to sleep, while willing myself to dream of a tropical getaway I'd traipsed around, just short of two weeks ago.

Bangkok, Thailand: colourful tuk tuks and motorcycles on hand.

Thailand stole my heart from the minute I stepped out of the airport in Bangkok. Perhaps it was the adrenaline pumping through my system after finally having arrived at my destination... or perhaps it was the shock of actually standing in a warm country; winter jacket tucked safely away in my backpack (it was snowing in Seoul when we left earlier that day). Whatever the reason, I was in sweaty, humid heaven.

Over the next few posts I'll share some specific experiences and pictures with you about my time in the Land of Smiles. And it's called that for a reason. Though Thailand is known to be a hot tourist destination for visitors from across the planet, there's something to be said about the locals, who radiate a warmth I never realized I'd missed while living in Korea.

From the moment we stepped off the plane we were greeted with the traditional "Sawatdee Kaa" (hello), gentle joining of hands at chest level, and beaming, genuine smiles.

This continued on throughout the trip, (well, minus the joining of hands, used mostly for formal greetings). This was such a refreshing change from Seoul, where a smile from a foreigner (especially one like me) ignites stares and 'deer in the headlight' looks from native Koreans.

Ayutthaya, Thailand: A serene view from the guesthouse we stayed in.

I was glad we'd left Korea at the 'end' of winter and just before the start of the new school year. It was therapeutic and rejuvenating to escape to a country where downtime included digging my toes in the sand, letting the fresh sea air sweep through my hair, and watching people from all over the world, as they too indulged in their tropical getaways.

Thailand is definitely not short of scenery. It doesn't matter whether you're in fast and heavy Bangkok, or lounging along the Krabi coast -- just a quick look up or into the distance promises cliffs, centuries-old temples, palaces and traditional markets that can't be matched by any other part of the world, I think.

This trip was of the healing kind for me. It had been so long since I'd been in an environment where people were relaxed, easy-going and worked to live rather than lived to work. My soul was grateful and my mind relaxed.

Now, I'm sure some of you will argue that I avoided scuttling through a lot, in terms of the impoverish pockets in Bangkok or other parts of the country. I'm very aware of all that lacks in this part of the world, but it wasn't the focus of my visit. I was simply looking for all the beauty it had to offer. I wanted it to engulf me and beam through my entire body as I boarded the plane back to Seoul. And it did.

Krabi, Thailand: Ao Nang beach, close to sunset.

It's amazing what a few days in the tropics can do to a person. I kept asking my travel companions why everyone was so much nicer and relaxed. They told me that it definitely had to do with their warm climate and 'island vibe'.

I've always said I'm a tropical girl at heart, though I live in Canada and have now experienced one of the worst Korean winters in over 70 years. I don't think this will ever change. Something about the pace, the heat, the tropical beauty and culture of this part of the world agrees with me. It's where I feel most like myself. Whether it be Goa, India, or Krabi, Thailand -- smiles just come more naturally to me in the tropics.

More soon!


Thursday, 4 March 2010

Just another Sunday thought

A few weekends ago I got thinking: It’s amazing how sometimes in life you get more than you bargained for. Some days, you might feel as though you’re in complete control of your present – your ‘here and now’. You have all your ducks lined up in order and you are conscious of all your next steps. But then, something happens that throws you off, and all of a sudden, everything you set out to do or planned, either ends up on the back-burner or destroyed all together. It just goes to show, you can never be too prepared when it comes to life.

John Lennon said, "Life is what happens when you're making other plans." I guess he wasn't kidding. When we plan our lives, we create it in our view of perfection. We take steps, measures and precautions to ensure that by the end of the journey, we’ll feel the least amount of hurt as a result of those around us. We build bridges to those who make us feel loved, strong and happy, while creating walls, closing us away from those who make us feel pain, hurt and anger.

In some cases it’s a defense mechanism, but for others, it’s just the way they’re built. Some are born with the ability to compartmentalize and disconnect emotions from reality, while others need to learn the techniques along the way.

But what are we to do when someone builds their own bridge to you, sneaks past the wall when you’re not paying attention, and ends up hurting you anyway? Or, what are we to do when we don’t build bridges leading us towards the ones who will undoubtedly make our lives better?

I guess, that’s the ‘life’ part, isn’t it? You can’t really ever know these things, or when they will happen. It’s the risks and gambles we have to take when we play the game.

Sometimes the risks we take come at far greater prices than we bargained for… but we take them anyway, because we think, “Let’s live a little and make this journey a bit more interesting...” And because it’s a risk, we know from the beginning that the outcome can end up in one of two ways. But isn’t it funny how we’re never prepared for the negative one?

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, said that people come into our lives with purpose. In knowing them in time and place, we are forever left changed. And this change can be for better or worse… and we usually don’t figure this out until it happens.

But I suppose the point is to embrace it all – the goodness, the negativity, the pain, the happiness, the anger – all of it, in hopes that we can grow and understand a little more of ourselves, through the experience.

Life is an ongoing journey, and it’s not always a steadily positive one. Sometimes it’s pretty accurate to say, “Life just sucks!”

But the point is that if we can get through the experience, for better or worse, and come out on the other end (which, we usually do – give or take a few scars and bruises), we can grow in understanding that this is what it means to truly feel alive. That, despite the walls around us, or the bridges to our support systems, we can allow ourselves to feel pure happiness, pain, joy and sadness, and still be OK.

The only goal is to ensure that we don’t become slaves to our feelings, and let them run our lives. Because when that happens, we’re not living for ourselves… we’re living for those who ignited the feelings in us. And doing that, well that would really make life suck!


Monday, 1 March 2010

Back to the bubble

After just over two weeks of backpacking through Thailand, I find myself back at work, staring wistfully out the window. Today I'm wishing I was back with my feet in tropical sands, while sweating with the rest of the locals in the land of (genuine) smiles.

It's a strange feeling, taking a vacation while living in a country that's not really your home. Flying out of Bangkok on Sunday morning, I felt as though I was headed back to Toronto -- not Seoul. But reality checked in pretty quickly once I reached Incheon airport, had to fill out a health-check form, and saw all the signs for the quarantine rooms at the terminals. It's such a contrast compared to Thailand, where people are pretty relaxed about all sorts of issues, it seems.

But, I digress. The point is, the past couple of weeks were an amazing reprieve from my everyday. Spiritually, physically and emotionally, I needed this getaway more than I ever imagined possible. A lot of people thought coming to Seoul was a means of getting away from my life in Toronto. It's quite the contrary actually. I look at what I've built in Seoul as an extension to another part of myself. I've seen and done things here that I never would have had the chance to experience, had I still been in Toronto. But it's definitely come with a price-tag. I gave up a lot to be in Seoul, away from family and friends who mean the world to me. I gave up a job in an industry that's absolutely difficult to get back into, once you've been away. But I'm coasting with hope.

Thailand helped me reevaluate a few of the choices I've made, and strengthened some of my goals as well. It's amazing what a change of scenery and tropical weather can do to a person.

I have just under six months left in Seoul, and I hope to make the best of what's left here. It's the start of a new school year, and I officially begin classes again tomorrow. I've had a chance to meet a few of my new students, and even some of the parents who insisted on speaking with me. My co-teacher is different from last semester, and the teachers who sit around me have been shifted too. It looks like it's going to be a busy few months.

In the meanwhile, I hope to entertain you with stories of my recent trip, along with some photos as well. Look for them in the coming days.

Until then, Happy March! I hope this month will bring sunnier skies and brighter smiles to all of you!

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