Happy New Yeah (To be read aloud in a particularly drawled out Massachusetts accent)

This message comes to you from an undisclosed location in Seoul, Republic of South Korea. I type these words in between large gulps of South American red wine and a belly full of homemade Korean food courtesy of those who shall remain un-named. If this message reaches you in time only know that I have come out on the other side of the wormhole that was the year 2014 and seem to be molecularly in tact.

Actually this post comes to you a few days late. No one should be surprised at this given the lack of discipline I’ve shown blogging for god-knows-how-long. I had most of it written already but was just enjoying myself too damn much bouncing about Seoul and other parts of Korea to sit down and upload it. Oh, well. Here it is.

Christmas came and went without much fuss or fanfare (for me, specifically) here in Korea. Don’t get me wrong – people were partying like it was 1999 all over the place, but as I’ve become more comfortable living in my own introverted skin, I choose to bow out large social gatherings more regularly. Personally, most of the festive nature around Christmas this year came in the form of me dressing up like Santa Claus for the kids I teach and telling each of them in their ears that I know what they really did this year and that receiving presents would not necessarily be a foregone conclusion unless repentances were made as soon as possible. Some responded with fear and distrust, others laughed at my attempt at infusing Catholic guilt into them by saying “James Teacher, I know it’s you. You’re not Santa. Give me my present.” I got my beard pulled off so many times I stopped counting.

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I was invited over to a Korean friend’s house for Christmas eve dinner and I went with a full heart and empty stomach without much in the way of expectations for the evening. I expected more of a cocktail party, but was pleasantly surprised to receive a heaping plate of roasted chicken, mashed taters, brussel sprouts, stuffing and gravy. Even though most of the expected guests cancelled last minute it was great to actually spend Christmas eve with a family, in a real home, rather than the hobbit cave I have come to call my own. Even if I had stayed at my own place that night and made myself dinner (rice, eggs and kimchi has become a staple for me), I would have been content enough. I took my Christmas Eve this year with a particular gratitude.

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It was also nice to call home and talk with everyone once our time-zones lined up and I knew everyone would be in one place together. It’s not my first Christmas away from home and I remember being distinctly sad in previous years when I’d call home and it seemed like everyone was having fun without me, like they forgot me. I’d bite my lip and try not to sound sad and isolated in whatever state or country I was in and say “well I hope you have a Merry Christmas, I should get going..” until I was able to hang up the phone and go be blue.

I laugh when I recall the time I was living and studying abroad in Prague and wasn’t home for a Christmas. I was 21 years old at the time and my friend Max who came from a large Catholic Haitian family was also in Prague with me. We were in opposite phone booths talking to our families and got off the phone around the same time and both were on the verge of tears because of how tore up we felt over being away from our families. We of course coped the best way we knew how, by finding Chinese food and getting drunk with other foreigners and wound up having a fun night.

This year, calling home I had a particular fortification in my heart that didn’t bring any level of sadness to bear. I had learned so much about myself in 2014 that I was actually happy to be standing tall where I was, even though it was fully across the planet. I made a choice to do something, I made it happen and here I was. I had no regrets. I had done right by my family and loved ones as best I could and I honestly had no regrets. I was able to offer my best self to my family and be honest with how I felt — I felt happy.

All of my fellow foreigner teachers took off to warmer climate destinations for vacations this year. Places like Thailand, The Philippines, Vietnam, Japan (maybe not warmer) were on the list and frankly I wanted to just pick one and go myself. When you start talking with people about good reasons to come teach English in South Korea, one of the first things people tell you about is how “cheap” and easy it is for you to travel to exotic locations you’d probably never see living in the Western Hemisphere. While we do get fairly substantial breaks from work, our Winter break being nine days total, I didn’t feel like I had the time, confidence or money saved to make a trip. Knowing myself to be a fairly sensitive traveler who likes lots of time and comfort to get from one place to another, I realized I was going to be on a shorter than preferred timeline trying to get to and from my far off destinations traveling alone and likely confused. Though I was constantly brown beaten by some foreigners for squandering my time off and choosing to stay in Korea, I knew in my head that taking my week and two weekends to recharge from a hectic two months of getting acclimated to Korea would be wise and more enjoyable than others gave me credit for.

So, what have I done on break so far? Well, I’ve slept a lot. I’ve caught up on that good sleep that comes when you have absolutely nothing you must do the next day. I’ve seen some movies at the movie theater that is a 15 minute walk from my apartment, I’ve worked out a bit and have taken a couple trips to Seoul to explore new neighborhoods and meet up with friends. All good stuff.

So what does it mean that it’s 2015? On thinking about how or if I wanted to make any more resolutions this year, I felt truly lucky to realize how far I’ve come in 2014 and that mainly I just hope to continue on the path I’ve set for myself. It’s more of a multi-year plan. Wellness is they key that holds everything together. It’s been a long time, if ever at all, that I’ve been able to look at my life as it stands and not really feel conflicted that a period of time had passed and I hadn’t capitalized on it in a), b) or c) way.

So here’s to you. Here’s to your new year. Here’s to your last year. I hope the passage of time hasn’t been too fast or too slow or too uncomfortable for you and if it was any of those things, I hope it was in tandem with some amazing growth and self-realization.

Cheers!

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Naked and Unafraid

This past week after work one of my coworkers asked me if I wanted an “interesting experience” with a mischievous grin. I was tired from having hyper children crawling on me all day while I tried to teach them English and my first impulse as an introvert was to go back to my apartment and re-charge for the following day. However, I figured I owed it to myself to at least try something new, even though I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I was told it was a “spa” and that it was unlike anything I had ever done before. I was advised to keep an open mind and that it might not be for me. I was more intrigued after being warned of the weirdness so I happily agreed with a “how bad could it be?” mindset.

So, we walked about 20 minutes from our school to a neighborhood that I had never been to in Cheonan. I probably couldn’t find it by myself if I tried right now, or maybe I could trust blind faith. Either way, we showed up to what looked like a typical gym. We paid at a welcome desk, about $4 USD per person and my coworker smiled and said “here we go.” He lead me into a locker area and after a confusing ritual of taking our shoes off, putting our shoes in one locker, walking to another locker room, I was told, “time to get naked.”

What ensued was a typical male gym locker room experience. Hell, it was a typical after-phys. ed. experience at my all boy high school too. You strip down and head over to the showers. Except, there was an entire self-service spa here. It’s called a jimjabang. Yes, it’s pretty much a bath house. Now you might be thinking, is that the same sort of place the singer George Michael got bagged for soliciting another young gentleman back in the 90’s? Well, hell if I know.

Essentially what you do here is open up the pores in your skin by alternating between hot tubs of various heat level, steam room, sauna, icy baths, swimming pools and ice cold showers. I’ve done such things while staying in a friend’s cabin in the northern woods of Wisconsin in the dead of winter. I’ve been blessed throughout my life with pretty good skin so exfoliating has never really been something I was too concerned with. However, I’m a sucker for a good hot tub, especially if it’s just a few marks below scalding. Luckily these hot tubs are very hot and big enough so you’re not too close for comfort with the other buck naked dudes splayed out getting their skin treatment on.

I think the series of events that unfolded were as follows: first you’ve got to shower before you go in the spa area, so you just wash up with soap and water. Then, you dunk in a hot tub for a bit and soak for a while, which leads to a steam room. After steaming for me was an unquestioned amount of time (think somewhere between discomfort and unconsciousness), you walk to an industrial looking shower that pours ice cold pressurized water on you. Hampton Beach Innie Club. Then, you go back to the hot tub area to the hotter tubs, which are, even by my standards, hot as hell. Then from there, you get into a lap pool which seems really cold as well and do some laps to get your blood flowing. Then, back into the fire; a 130 degree sauna for say 10 minutes to death. After the sauna you go lay on cold bricks and marble flat on your back until your heart rate normalizes and you start to come back to the real world. Then, it’s one last dip in the special hot tub which looks like a kiddie pool that a dirty dog just got out of. Apparently it’s a specialty soil bath that is very good for your skin. I reserve judgement.

After your repeated scalding and cooling in rapid succession, you head over to a separate shower area again and scrub the skin off of your body with a body cloth that feels like it’s been dipped in commercial grade sandpaper. You just lather and scrub, lather and scrub and lather and scrub until your skin starts to either bleed or feel clean. For whatever reason, I can take the super hot water, but rubbing my skin until its raw turns me into a weakling, so I just finished up a little early and headed back to the locker room with my co-worker.

At the end of it all, I felt good. I felt like my skin was clean.I also felt like I lost at least a quarter inch of epidermis too. At what cost? Well, at just $5 USD, I think it was a fair price for such an experience. Would I recommend it and do it again? You betcha. As long as you don’t have too many body self-esteem issues (there are dongs literally everywhere) and you don’t mind putting yourself through dramatic shifts in body temperature, I think it’s a fine experience to re-invigorate just about anybody.

For the ladies curious about jimjabangs; yes, there are jimjabangs available just for females too. I hope to be invited to review one of those someday as well.

Until next time, stay weird and righteous.

Cheonan or Bust!

OK, here’s the update. I just accepted a job offer teaching in Cheonan, South Korea at a school called ILS (International Language School). It’s pretty close to Seoul, the water and a bunch of city life that I’m excited to explore.

I start November 3rd, so I’ll be hanging around the USA a bit longer than I originally planned, but patience is a virtue. Hoping to be productive, get some more freelance work and maybe travel a bit domestically in the meantime.

I must say, I’ve been very lucky to have a lot of advice given to me along the way by people who have been there and done that with the ESL teaching thing. I wouldn’t have figure it all out on my own in time, I’m sure, so thank you! You know who you are!

If anyone’s interested in checking out ESL teaching jobs in South Korea, I’m pretty much an expert at the process now, so feel free to ask me!

Anyways, that’s my news for now. I’ll be updating more as time goes along.