So, it’s all finally coming to its end. The year and a half that I’ve spent in Asia has been reducing itself to its final months, weeks, days and soon hours, before I embark on a 24-hour plane ride back to New York City.
It’s difficult not to reflect or try to remember certain themes or occurrences, even when I am in states of not being attached to the fact that it’s really happening. I’ve been traveling throughout Southeast Asia for about six months, and it’s gotten to the point where it’s become my reality, and doesn’t even feel like a trip any more. Perhaps it will feel more like traveling when I’m not actually here.
Of course there are many things I’ve learned, about myself and the places I’ve seen. I’ve gained new perspective even on being American and the United States itself.
This has been the longest I’ve traveled at once. After a year of South Korea, the weather was headed towards fall, where I decided to skip the cold this time around. First stop was Taiwan, where we motor-tripped around the perimeter of the island, and that was followed by an island-hopping adventure in the Philippines.
From Manila, Philippines, we flew to Singapore, quite possibly the cleanest city I’ve seen. When I was younger, my impressions of Singapore were that you’d be arrested for chewing gum or littering. When I got there, however, I did not see one cop the whole time, and people were even jaywakling. I only spent two days there before heading to Malaysia and into the cities of Malacca and Kuala Lumpur, learning about the multi-racial aspects of what makes the country what it is.
Ten days of Sumatra, Indonesia, involved wonderful lake views, volcano trekking and hot springs. It was then we flew back to Malaysia to Penang island, then to the Cameron highlands, a low-temperature tourist spot full of green tea plantations and other assorted temperate agriculture.
A few weeks in Vietnam was a mixed experience. Then it was through Cambodia, stopping in its biggest city, Phnom Penh, then making it up to the provincial towns on the northern route. We then spent a week in Laos, starting from the south on the river island of Don Det, then the provincial city of Pakse and capital city, Vientiane. Vientiane was very laid-back and hardly a bustling metropolis, and it somewhat reminded me of Binghamton, New York, being full of empty buildings and pedestrian-less streets.
We ended up in Bangkok for a week, a wonderful city of canals, cats, markets and street food. I traveled on my first sleeper train before a brief excursion to Koh Lipe, an island in the sea in the south, before making it back to Malaysia.
Anyway, most people can acknowledge that it’s not about the biggest list of places you travel or how many sites you’ve seen versus how far you got away from the tourist trail, but what you get out of it, whether at the time or during a session of reflecting. Of course I’ll emphasize the good and the adventurous when I look at pictures and tell others stories, but there have certainly been periods of downs during my travels, whether it’s sketchy food, allergic reactions to bug bites, lies and rip-offs or air conditioners breaking on boat rides where all the people are packed in like sardines.
There are of course big things I will miss about Asia. For one, I’ll miss the casualness of everyday life. In America, I feel as if there is too much officialdom, that I’m always being watched and that I always have to consider the legal consequences of simple actions. Asian food will never be the same when I return, whether spiced incorrectly or just not being up to substantial quality. I’ve consumed many different versions of rice and tofu that I’ll certainly wish to eat again. I’ll miss riding a motor scooter without repetitive visits to the DMV, and checking into a place to sleep without having to give a form of valid identification and copy of a credit card before I even pay the enormous fees.
And, there are of course things I have missed about the US. It will be pleasant going back to where I can truly speak English the way it is on my mind, without modifications to people of other cultures. People, places and food are of course a big factor, but there is also the general feeling of truly belonging to a place and being part of it. There can of course be problems when you’re expected to keep up with the expectations of your society, but this is a standard that any local living in their own country has to acknowledge, whether or not they choose to follow these norms.
Perhaps I’ll return to Asia one day. Maybe I’ll make it to the places I’ve missed in the countries I’ve traveled, or go further on into new places like China, or Burma, or Nepal. But, for now, the time is coming to leave this travel experience as what it was. While it will likely affect me in the future in ways I may not even realize, it is an experience that is meant to have a designated start and finish.
I will make my return home this weekend. Though I’m full of anticipations, wonders and predictions, I’ll really only know what it holds after I arrive.
It has been strawberry season in South Korea for a few months now. I have enjoyed these little bursts of sugar and vitamins for the duration of time they’ve been out, conveniently packaged and ready for washing.
But this weekend, enjoying these little red fruits was especially indulgent.
I was fortunate enough to explore the behind-the-scenes action of a Korean strawberry farm. In Korea, the fruits and vegetables have a bit of a different season than what I’m used to, as many of the crops are set up to grow in these white covered domes around the countryside.
While in one of these domes, I had a lot of fun picking the strawberries, as well as partaking in on-the-spot taste testing. It was a crisp day on the outside, but inside, the farmers are able to simulate a rather warm and humid ecosystem.
Once the strawberries are taken from their source, it is time to sort and package them. I got to go into this behind the scenes action as well, where we put stickers on lids and covered boxes of presentable strawberries to be sent off to a popular supermarket.
These large strawberries were considered to be the most attractive, as they are later shipped to the more expensive consumer havens, while the smaller, less fully-formed specimens are packaged separately and sent to usual markets. However, they taste the same.
I sure love working at the strawberry farm for a few hours!
To get into the forest of Ulsan, you must first start at a university, wander around the campus, and climb a hill to get to a giant satellite dish.
Once you enter the forest, if you can read Korean, you may also learn about how hiking can benefit your feet.
A few miles on, up one of the less major peaks, you may see some slopes and bare trees.
Along with rock formations that glisten under the sun’s rays.
Finally, upon ascent to the highest peak, you can emjoy fine a view of the whole city, onto the shipyards and East Sea.
Further down from the peak, you can enter the grounds of a lovely temple complex.
After a couple months of being in South Korea, I finally made it out to Gyeongju. I had planned to go in Fall to see the foliage, but ended up going there during the cold winter. Being up in the hills, it was a bit colder than elsewhere.
Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla dynasty, which ruled Korea from the 7th-9th centuries. Today, it is a small, rather sprawled city packed with various indoor and outdoor historical attractions.
The first stop in Gyeongju was the National Museum. This place is a good way to start a day in this historical city, as it will give you an outline of the different periods that have been excavated, and will show visitors some objects and explanations for the outdoor places they are about to see. The museum is divided into several different houses, and the outdoor part is a courtyard that also contains the oldest-known bell in Korea.
I liked this museum because it was focused and mainly about one thing, rather than being extended all over the place so it is impossible to take everything in. Many of the artifacts in this museum were from the burial tombs of kings, which gives you a good frame for when you go check that out later.
Buddhist art also makes up a big part of this museum, and one building contained an assortment of related statues and paintings.
Another great part of Gyeongju is Bulguksa Temple. Upon arrival, the outer area of it looks somewhat like a giant ship. Inside this temple complex, a few different houses are scattered throughout, each full of grand golden Buddha sculptures, candles and monks tending to their houses of worship.
Some of the artwork was very intricate, as you could look at what appeared to be a single drawing, and then get lost discovering the thousands of different little parts that make it up.
There were also some national images in this park. At this statue, Dabotap, my Korean friend pulled out a 10-won coin and showed me that it was imprinted on the back of it. Otherwise, I would have taken that for granted.
After Bulguksa, we drove down through the hills around a lake, and passed an amusement park with several nice hotels located nearby. Though a historical village, it also had a taste of the present.
I was also happy to find out the duck boats had made it to the lake in Gyeongju.
Part of the reason I enjoy traveling is the ability to learn about history and its relation to today. Even though none of this history is my own, and a town like this has nothing to do with my own ancestors, it is still an interesting component of my understanding of living in Korea and interacting with people, even in current times. Being from a country less than 250 years old, I find it fascinating to be able to step out and examine aspects of cultures that range back for thousands of years. Though the town today may contain the carefully-placed remnants of this ancient civilization sectioned into fenced parks and institutions, it is still powerful that this much has been carried through the years.
So I received my visa number today, made an appointment at the Korean consulate in Seattle for 10:00 AM on Thursday.
I am arranging my transportation to Seattle, and my recruiter called me and told me to send her my visa confirmation so that they can research cheap flights to South Korea. So unless anything comes up between now and then, it is happening. These details are basically just a formality, from my understanding. I will be moving to South Korea to teach English for one year.
It is strange when things actually fall in place and happen. You have a plan, and it is executed, but between then and now, so much happens, and your perspective changes so much. But this is a broad statement that can be applied to anything.
I was pending on going to do this two years ago, but it was not the right time I suppose. I have memories of researching the EPIK public school program while I was working my first official ESL teacher job back in the Bronx in 2008. I didn’t wind up in Korea at that point, but in Southern California. And then Israel, then Egypt and Jordan. Then I moved to Portland, Oregon, for about a year and a half. I stayed put sometimes, working as a freelance writer or substitute teacher, but other times I ventured off, to Washington, to California, to Mexico, to Canada and back.
Right now I’m finishing packing up my room. It’s beginning to look less and less like my dwelling. My boyfriend already moved out.
I went to New York for a few days to drop off some of my informal clothes and pick up some warm weather/teacher clothes. Said bye to the city I was born for an indefinite period. Back here, I’m just tying up loose ends now, counting off the days, while taking care of the boring paper work and other errands.
I will miss Portland, I really will. I’ll miss riding my white Schwinn bike, which was the first bike I really learned how to ride with. I’ll miss the coffee, the air, the bridges, the concerts, the house I lived in, the cats in the streets, the 24 hour tacos and food carts, the creeps on the bus and the endless rose and vegetable gardens. I’ll miss my friends visiting me and going on adventures. I’ll miss my lifestyle. I’ll miss Oregon, the hot springs and the breezy coast and green forests and mountains. Maybe I’ll even miss the rain.
It is definitely time to move on. I’ve wanted to do this for a while. My contract is for one year, so I’ll certainly be there for that long. The future after that is uncertain, but I hope to determine some of that when I am there. I have many vague ideas, but nothing for sure. Right now, I’ll just hang out here in limbo and wait for things to work themselves out before I board the plane.
Lately I’ve been having a lot of phone interviews for positions teaching English in South Korea. I think this is an interesting way to learn about a place I have never been.
For instance, yesterday I learned that the country code of South Korea is 820 based on a call to my cell phone.
I had another interview about four days ago from a man who originally lived in Virginia who is currently in Daegu, South Korea. He told us that to get there in the first place, you must take a plane to Seoul, the capital city, and then take a four hour bus to Daegu. He informed us that all of the signs there will be in Korean and we won’t be able to read anything when we arrive. He also told us that if we get sick of Korean food, there is a plethora of bad American food options, including McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Dominos. He also mentioned Costco more than once, and said how there is a movie theater on the top floor there that plays American movies with Korean subtitles. I am not sure if this is quite the experience I wish to gain while being abroad, but it is nice to know that there are comfort nostalgia zones for others. It reminds me of when my Taiwanese students would show me their 711 cards full of Asian characters and cute, colorful cartoons. Globalization…
I am also having another phone interview later for Daejeon, which is the fifth largest city in the country. Having never heard of this place, I looked it up on Wikipedia, and found that it was a place full of math and science institutes. It also has a subway. I was unaware of all of this information.
I also heard from another interview that the weather in Korea is humid year round. Being from the Northeast, I always thought that humidity was a summer factor that did not carry into the cold months, but apparently this is possible. Learning how to feel new weather is always part of the traveler’s journey.
Normally I find job interviews fake, boring and perfunctory, but this time around, I am having an interesting learning process.