You Don’t Have To

This afternoon I visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. I hadn’t been since June 2001, and even then, it was a brief visit. Today,  I ducked into the Cathedral after crossing the street and fighting tight throngs of tourists. It was nice to sit in the church and take in all of the images and sights I ignored as an 11-year-old: The high ceilings, the shrines, the beautiful altar, and of course, the stained glass windows.

Around us, hundreds of tourists (many traveling in from outside of the United States), took pictures. The time spent of the photographs was often detailed, even with a high quality camera. As I knelt at my pew, I felt the urge creep up in the back of my mind.

“If you snapped a picture of the altar right now, it would look great on Instagram. Especially with the right filter. Think of the ‘likes’ you’ll get!”

As I live and breathe, the very thought crossed my mind. I don’t hide my love for social media. Through Facebook and Twitter, I’ve connected with old friends and friends I’ve never met in person. I enjoy posting photos of my travels, and I enjoy that other people enjoy the posts, too. Likes and hearts are nice.

However, I often find myself under pressure. Pressure to find a perfect Instagram filter, pressure to word a caption just right, pressure to share every event.

But, as I sat in the pew this afternoon, I mentally sat on my hands, thinking,  “You don’t have to document every single event, every single moment. It’s okay to let life fly ‘under’ the radar.”

As difficult as it was (and I struggled), I kept my phone in my purse. I didn’t take any photos at St. Patrick’s today. And the result is clear: I still feel as fulfilled and satisfied as if I had taken a photo, doctored it up with filters, and posted it on Facebook. More the same, while eating dinner at a kitschy new Korean restaurant in Manhattan Koreatown, I sat on my hands. I can eat galbi and bibimbap without posting a picture of it on Twitter. It tastes the same, and I enjoyed it without all of the pressure of “Is this lighting good enough for this picture?”

In conclusion, has this moment of clarity “cured” me? No. I have a picture of a flower and chocolate box window display in Rockefeller Plaza I’d like to post. I may, I may not. We will see. Only time and Instagram will tell.

But…

Next time, when you feel hurried or pressured to post an update or photograph of an event, remember: It’s okay. You can live life in peace, without the worry of likes and external validation.

 

On the Island of Peace: Thoughts

Every July 13th, I remember my Korean host father.

It was the day he died.

When I was a Fulbright teacher, I lived on Jeju Island, dubbed the “Hawaii of Korea” (and the namesake of this blog). One of the highlights of the Fulbright Korea English Teaching Assistantship is that for your first year, you must live with a host family. As I’ve said in past posts of past blogs, I truly hit the host family jackpot. I was seamlessly knitted into the fabric of my family, and I was welcomed into every aspect of Korean family life. Chuseok (think Thanksgiving), New Years’, Christmas, birthdays, I was present. Unlike other teaching assistants, who were sometimes pushed to the side during the year, I was blessed with a warm home.

In August 2014, as I was moving into my new apartment in Western Kentucky, I received a KakaoTalk message from my host sister saying that her father had died. I was stunned, as if a pile of bricks had hit my head. Just some 400 days earlier, my host father (whom I called Bruce), had dropped me off at the Jeju International Airport so that I could meet my connecting flight in Seoul back to the United States. While I won’t linger on the shock and aftermath in this post, you can read more about it if you click here. Today, instead, I’ll ramble for you.

I had lost family members before, sure. It hurts. For example, I still think of my paternal grandparents each and every day. But, when I found out that Bruce was gone, it was unbelievable. Young people die, but not young people that I know. That is far from fair, and not the life I planned. I imagined reunion upon reunion in Korea, and now, that is but a dream.

The family I lived with has shifted dramatically. The house I stayed in for my year is no longer occupied by my family. Last June, I stood outside of the house, wondering who lived inside.

Now, my host brother is now serving his mandatory 2-year military service. My host sister and host mother have moved to a large city, about 50 miles outside of Seoul. As for Bruce, he rests on Jeju Island: where he born, where he lived, and ultimately, where he died.

Sometimes, when I’m using Google Maps or Naver (the Korean equivalent), I’ll use street view outside of the house. I’ll see Bruce’s truck, or my host mother’s car. Often, I’ll just smile when I see the little island on the map. It reminds me of a time of goodness and love, a time that I’ll never get back. In a way, I think that’s a very good thing. I treasure my time on the island, and with my host family, even more. Maps are good for that nostalgia.

Today, life is different. It moves on, rather we want it to or not. Sure, the home stay is empty and my host family is gone. But, in my heart, Jeju is the island of peace. It’s where I formed lifelong friendships and bonds. It’s where Bruce’s life touched mine, if but for a single moment in eternity. And for this, I am perpetually grateful.

 

 

 

 

Vacation Sandwiches

I’m currently working on a post about my conversion to Catholicism. It’s taking a while to get from my brain onto the page. For now, enjoy a post about the finer delicacies in life.

For those who travel often: you know the feeling. The suspension of time, the bluer skies, the world is on pause. Also, your taste buds are heightened. The things that you love outside of the space-time continuum of vacation are suddenly even more delicious. Heck, even foods you may not like, for some reason, are infinitely better while away from home.

I, personally, know the power of vacation taste obscurity. Throughout my life, I have been haunted and delighted by vacation sandwiches. First, I am no stranger to sandwiches. I was raised on sandwiches, my first memories of the kitchen table are of eating sandwiches after church for lunch. Sandwiches, while good, are not at the top of my list. Take it or leave it, it’s a sandwich.

But, on vacation, sandwiches are top of the line. The filet mignon, the Queen of the Food Pyramid, top notch vacation food. What is it about the vacation sandwich? Is the Miracle Whip? Is is something about the way the vibe of the hotel mingles with the vibe of your stomach? What makes a pimento cheese sandwich 100 times better while on vacation, as opposed to life at home? Or, is it just me?

As I write this, I am sitting in a Microtel in Gatlinburg, TN. It’s my first time here in over four years, and may I say that the sandwiches are as wonderful as ever. In true fashion, we brought a cooler with us packed with lunch meat and homemade pimento cheese. Paired with mini King’s Hawaiian buns, homemade pimento cheese is glorious, vacation food paradise. At home? It’s good. On vacation, it’s delightfully amazing and soul wrenching. If you’ve never had your life temporarily wrecked by a pimento cheese sandwich, I cannot recommend going on vacation soon enough.

Happy travels and amazing sandwiches.

During Dark and Daylight: The Story of a Tokyo Denny’s

Last summer, while barreling over Russia and the Pacific Ocean on a return trip from South Korea, I was engrossed in After Dark by Haruki Murkami. With a clock counting the hours between 1:00 AM and 6:00 AM at the beginning of each chapter and typical Murakami surrealism, I regret that I’ll never be able to read this book for the first time ever again. Like all good things, After Dark begins in a Denny’s, like my own Japanese adventure in the infant days of 2013.

I don’t know if we were hungry, jet-lagged, eager to get out or a combination of all three. But, in the cold New Year’s Day, Alley and I bundled up and made our way around the corner. In all it’s familiar glow was the blockish-sign with hazy red, suspended in the neon darkness that was Tokyo. After eight hours waiting in the airport, subsisting on thin wheat cookies, I was in relief.

You see, I don’t travel to places to try the food. I just don’t. I like the sights, the sounds, and the culture. But, I don’t particularly care for an authentic culinary experience. I’m the world-traveled American, who at the end of the day, just wants the comfort of Taco Bell. On this New Year’s Day, as per usual, I wasn’t leaning towards a bento box or authentic sushi. I wanted to familiar, and that familiar was a Denny’s.

Our meal began with ordering drinks – rich, savory Coca-Cola. In the States, a soda at a sit-down establishment may cost you up to $3.50, with free refills. In Japan, the world is different. You can order a Coke, but it’s just one Coke. It will cost you around $6. Yes, $6. Or, if you’re a high-roller, you can order unlimited Cokes for $12. What did we do? Order unlimited Cokes. I was thirsty and Coca-Cola in Asia has a magnificent taste.

I scanned the menu, smattered with Japanese characters and pictures. No English. Traditional pancakes faded into spaghetti with raw egg on top, strange salads, and other pastas. I love pasta, and I was ravenous. I didn’t want a burger, but rather the dish with fettuccine noodles and white sauce topped with steamed crab meat caught my eye. We ordered, and I took in the view.

In one corner, a Japanese woman in a mint green kimono sat with her two children. This was not a flimsy, tourist kimono, but an authentic kimono. Her hair was tied up in a bun, and she ate with chopsticks while her children fought over french fries. I tried not to stare, but among the chrome and the neon, there was this traditionally dressed woman with a serene aura eating in a trademark American restaurant.

Even further down the row of booths sat a legitimate sumo wrestler. A group of teenagers bustled in, heads buried in phones and thumbs texting away wildly. I watched the cooks in the kitchen slide french toast and burgers and raw squid in salad into the window, waiting for the servers.

Everything that one would image you’d see in Japan, I saw in the Denny’s. Our food finally came, I savored the thick sauce and chewy crab meat. I drank the most expensive Coke I’ve ever purchased. I struggled to wrap the long noodles around the cheaply made chopsticks.

Unlike Mari, the main character and Denny’s patron in After Dark, my evening did not spiral into a mystical journey across Tokyo’s seedy underworld. It ended with me tucked into my bunk bed at the hostel, only for us to arise and return to the same Denny’s. While I can barely tell you the other meals I ate in Tokyo, I can tell you about going to Denny’s. And I can tell you about the woman in the kimono and the endless stream of Coca-Cola, punctuated with a foreign chatter.

Double Happiness: Thoughts on Chinese Buffets

I am convinced – from all of my travels and culinary experiences – there is nothing more homey and comforting than a Chinese buffet. Think about it: savory noodles, fried crust with soft fillings, hodge-podge sushi, and hot soup varieties found nowhere else. In a world of blandly familiar options, with coffee shop express lunches and tepid fast-food iced tea, Chinese buffets are warm haven from the norm.

Throughout this year, I’ve traveled back-and-forth to New York vising my boyfriend. As new-found custom dictates, we almost always visit a Chinese food buffet on Long Island. Throughout my adventures in Chinese buffets, I’ve found them all to have the same fare. Yet, when I bask in the neon glory of a Long Island Chinese buffet, I find slight contrasts from the buffets found in the South.

First, let’s talk crab rangoons. This delicacy, the Queen Mother of All Chinese Buffet Foods, is a delicate golden triangle stuffed with cream cheese and (probably artificial) crab meat. It’s a collision of warmth and deliciousness, and New York Chinese buffets have not received the memo. My first experience at a northern buffet left me shocked. I scoured the rows for crab rangoons, many times over, thinking I had overlooked them. But alas, no. Simply small, cheese wontons with their puckered tops and merely-stuffed bottoms. Eaten and forgotten in one brief bite at every buffet as crab rangoons stay forever in my heart.

As I move from the row of fried and baked foods, I’m approaching salads. In my years as a connoisseur of buffets, I have not run into salad/cold bars at Chinese buffets in the South. Rather, these smaller restaurants often opt out of salads in favor of warmer foods. Even in the smaller buffets in the Empire State, there is almost always a salad bar. Bright lettuces of the romaine and iceberg variety, sliced vegetables, beets, and pasta salads wait eagerly in the bed of ice. Dressings, too. With your chicken lo mein and fried dumpling, you can even out your plate with a salad drenched in ranch. It’s quite beautiful and much different from my norm.

Finally, after a pile of noodles, chicken, and rice, dessert is looms ahead. In many Asian cultures, China included, fruit is an acceptable dessert. In the West, we typically eat cake, cookies, or chocolate to cap our meals. When I lived in Korea and visited China, I ate more Asian pears, watermelons, and apples than I had in my whole life. In California Chinese non-buffet restaurants, fruit is brought to the table after a meal. At a Northern buffet, fruit reigns in her throne adjacent to red and green jellos. Often, I’ll opt for orange slices up North, which seem like an appropriate complement to the orange and honey chicken I’ve devoured minutes before. It’s wonderful and it’s sweet dessert.

I often think, as I sit among the din of chatter and the scent of soy-drenched chicken, that Chinese buffets are truly a tradition. My first interests in Asian culture were sparked as a I looked at an exaggerated painting of the Great Wall and a dragon. Even in the differences, with orange slices and a lack of crispy rangoons, any Chinese buffet anywhere in this country is a culinary miracle that I hold dear. As I live and travel, the two different styles of buffets will always provide double happiness.

The Happiness of Goals

While I was in Korea this summer, I read Chris Guillebeau’s The Happiness of Pursuit. While I thought the book would focus primarily on travel, Pursuit reveled in the joys of setting goals and working towards those goals.

Like Chris, and the others in his book, I am an avid goal setter. I love setting a mark in the future and working towards it. Just like I believe that the act of traveling somewhere is 75% of the fun, striving towards a goal is very similar. I receive immense happiness from planning, structuring, and doing. Maybe it’s my Type-A personality, or maybe it’s that goal-setting is a wonderful habit that I’m addicted to.

On the other hand, lots of people don’t know how to set goals. They don’t know how to structure their days. Some may not even know how to set a goal. Goal-setting brings me immense happiness, so allow me to help.

  1. Start Small. Good goal setting requires small steps. Want to lose 100 pounds? Try losing 10 first. Want to travel abroad, but don’t know where to start? Try a guided tour to a nearby destination. For example, I am learning Mandarin Chinese. My exposure to Mandarin Chinese prior to beginning my lessons was limited to ni hao and a variety of food names. While I would love to wake up one morning with full fluency, I know it’s not idealistic. Rather, I take each day of Mandarin instruction one day at a time: Pinyin practice, speaking practice, and vocabulary review. I use Yoyo Chinese, and this helps with my scheduling. In just a month, I’ve been able to hold small, basic conversations with my boyfriend. It’s fun, and I don’t stress out because I’m not fluent after three weeks. Small goals = big victories.
  2. Think Ideal. Goals are even better when they’re ideal. Want to run a marathon, but you’ve never ran a mile in your life? Think ideal: Maybe run a 5K first. Want to climb mountains, but live in Middle-of-Nowhere Flat Prairie, Kansas? Take a vacation and do some mini-climbs. I don’t know anything about mountain climbing, but I probably wouldn’t try Everest first. Another example: I lived in Korea for a year. Within the first week, I wanted to take public transit to the little town where our teacher orientation was being held. I had never used public transit. For this goal, I grabbed a transit-literate friend and we took the bus together. Small and ideal goal = public transit victory.
  3. Do it! Too often, the hardest part of goal-setting is getting started. Here’s a tip: Just do it. Want to learn water aerobics? Find a schedule at a local fitness club and go. Want to start saving for retirement? Start saving a bit at a time and talk with a reliable financial planner. Want to see Istanbul, Tokyo, or Buenos Aires? Book your ticket and fly. Want to talk to that cute girl in your class? Do it. Want to finish your degree? Talk to an admissions counselor. Granted, “Do It” isn’t a catch-all solution. Can you simply hop on a plane to Tokyo? No, but it takes planning, and you should do the planning as soon as possible.

Goals are great and wonderful motivators. They add purpose and planning to life, and add a sense of accomplishment when we reach the end of our path. I’m not a goal expert, but I enjoy reaching goals and helping others do the same. Have you ever reached a major goal? How did you do it? What’s your strategy? How do you pursue happiness?

See you soon.

 

Travel Daze: An Update

Hello.

On June 7th, I blogged that I was about to enter a massive travel daze. I had wholly intended to blog my adventures, thinking that on a daily basis, my readers would know how my travels were proceeding. Boy, was I ever wrong. Let’s recap for a moment.

In early June, I traveled to Long Island to visit my boyfriend (known as BF for the remainder of this post). We had a wonderful time and I was so sorry and sad to leave. One of the downsides to a long-distance relationship is the fact that eventually, I have to say goodbye for an extended period of time. We prowled Manhattan utilizing the Big Bus Tours, a hop-on hop-off tour service.

For a quick reference, I highly recommend Nice Green Bo Restaurant in Manhattan Chinatown. I had Shanghai-style dumplings, lo mein, and a glazed beef dish. Oh my, it is delicious and full of Shanghai-style cuisine. (How many times can you use Shanghai-style in a blog post?).

Also, a visit to Long Island is not complete with a tour of Flushing, which is the largest Chinatown in the NYC area (though not officially designated a ‘Chinatown.’). I love visiting Flushing because I have an affinity for Asian and Chinese culture, but also for the food. Most of the time, BF and I visit a hot-pot restaurant (think a boiling pot of herbs and spices with meat and veggies thrown in), but last time, we visited the wonderful Joe’s Shanghai. I ate like a horse, and I have no regrets. I love Shanghainese food.

After the visit, we decided that I couldn’t stay away much longer. Against the advice of BF and the ones I love, I booked a round-trip Greyhound ticket to and from NY. It was cheaper than a flight and changing my flight date, so I did it. The things you do for love. Long-story-short: it was horrible. Broken seats, fighting couples, gross bathrooms, and and inability to sleep. On the last leg of my trip from the Port Authority Terminal in Manhattan to Long Island, I nearly vomited from the nausea and sleepiness. As a result, I booked a one-way flight home from LaGuardia Airport. I tapped out. I couldn’t do it. After purchasing the ticket and my Greyhound fare, I could have just changed my initial departure date. On the other hand, good decisions do not make for memorable blog posts.

Two days after NY Part 2, I jetted off to Korea for 13 days with my parents. This was my fourth visit to the Peninsula, but their very first to both Korea and Asia. I was so excited to share the place where I lived for a year. It was hot, humid, and all-around sweaty. Yet, we loved it. In Seoul, we stayed at the Hongdae Guesthouse. I had stayed there before and the wonderful owner, Mary, had given me a discount for our stay. We did a taxi tour of Jeju Island (Quelpart), met with my host mother and sister, and visited Seoul for one more night before heading out. Because there’s so much to say, I will save Korea for another post.

Now, up to date. Two days after we arrived home from Korea, BF and his friend came to visit us in Kentucky. On Thursday, I headed out with them back to New York. So, as I write, I’m in New York for my third visit in two months. I will return home in about two weeks, ready to begin the new school year. This time, I have my laptop and I’m working on school year preparations and wrapping up the summer.

What a wild summer it’s been.