Today I wandered my way back to the place where once, I danced with God–
soft, but firm–
Today I wandered my way back to the place where once, I danced with God–
MAY 1, 2017–I was drowning in a sea of final-week-of-student-teaching grading work, and mildly traumatized by what I still hope was an internet troll’s vicious comment on an anonymous end-of-semester survey that TPP made me give to my students. For both of those reasons and a general lack of sleep/time/energy, I decided not to write a post.
JUNE 1, 2017–I was blissfully lazing about in a cabin on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean somewhere near Anchorage, Alaska, contemplating when we would make another trip to the buffet. My little sister and I were lucky enough to join our parents on my mom’s Taiwanese high school’s 40th reunion trip. I was so physically and emotionally exhausted from the final few weeks of May that I didn’t want to do anything but eat, read (for fun), sleep, and take pictures of glaciers. Also, there was no internet on the ship, something that I was very grateful for.
JULY 1, 2017–“I just moved into my new place in Cupertino five days ago and I am driving down to LA tomorrow” busyness excuses aside, I really had no good reason to not write something at the beginning (or middle) of this month, except writer’s inertia from not having really written anything since April 1. Now it is Wednesday, July 26, and the only real reason I’ve finally found motivation to write this post is 80% because I am procrastinating on continuing to reread Lord of the Flies for my 10th grade class (it’s so dark!!! And all the more so because I already know what’s going to happen this time around), because I am terrified of finishing the re-read and still not having any clue how I am going to teach this novel (or anything else, for that matter), 10% because I have wanted to write for two months now and kept opening up my blog page and then doing something else instead, and 10% because I actually have something to write about, maybe.
This post was titled “mid year check” because I had originally planned to write it on July 1, to reflect on the first half of 2017 and plan how I wanted the second half of it to go. 25 days later, I’m not really sure what I was thinking of writing even just three weeks ago. I think it was a mixture of wanting to share my excitement–from moving to a new place and hoping to settle here for a while… potentially longer than I’ve lived anywhere else–and my determination to not procrastinate anymore (haha) on, well, anything (I tend to set my goals really high so that I can get anything done at all in the end)! More specifically, I wanted to renew my efforts at disciplined regular devotional time in the mornings, to map out how and when I would read all the books and plan all the lessons before New Staff Orientation on Aug 3 (now only ONE WEEK AWAY), how and when I would reconnect with all my old friends in the area, etc.
I find myself panicking because I haven’t really done anything I wanted to do, and there are spiders everywhere (both literal and figurative, in the corners of my house and my heart). I feel like maybe I’ve been in this place before, not the exact situation, but something very similar. I think I do very well when I know exactly what I’m supposed to do, but I panic when the expectations are unclear except for the expectation I put on myself to do it extremely well, whatever “it” is.
I find myself feeling incredibly grateful for the many ways I’ve been blessed this year, whether through my student teaching placement and amazing co-teacher, my temporary living situation at Terhune Rd (tuxedo cat included), new and first-ever job in the Bay Area (teaching 8th and 10th grade English at a private Christian school), housing thanks to family connections, friends from college, high school, and even elementary school who live in the area, family that lives nearby, or the incredibly-hard-to-come-by reunion of myself and S after two years of long distance phone calls.
I remember all the times that I’ve doubted whether I should be where I am or doing what I am about to do, whether I’ll make any friends or do my job well (whether that be studying obscure works of literature or pouring apple cider for wealthy French concert-goers or making laptop registration tutorials for new teachers at a turnaround school in Philly or trying to explain English grammar to Korean country kids in a fun way), and the myriad ways in which the Lord has been with me and reassured me before, during, and after whatever event or new life stage I’ve gone through. I remember the joy that I experience each time when the world does not come crumbling down around me, each time when, on the contrary, things turn out quite well and I am amazed by how much I love whatever and whoever is before me in that season and I wish I could stay longer where I was, do more of whatever it is I’m doing, love whoever I’m with just a little bit more.
I remember all this and still, I worry. I worry that this time, I will still fail. This time, I will be lonely, incompetent, disliked, unwanted, and useless, or simply not good enough. I worry, so I am paralyzed with illogical fears that keep me from planning, because I don’t want to see my plans flounder or fail. Eventually, maybe, the pressure of an impending deadline (like New Staff Orientation or, God forbid, the first day of school) will get strong enough to trigger a LETSDOEVERYTHINGATONCENOW fight-or-flight type response and I will suddenly be able to pull myself together and accomplish the bare minimum necessary to not make a terrible first impression at school or ruin my first full-year students’ lives (insofar as one year of poor teaching in English can ruin their lives), but I don’t know if and when that will happen. Maybe it is happening today. Maybe this post is an attempt to get the ball rolling again on all the things I think I should be doing. I don’t know.
My dad gave a sermon recently at my aunt and uncle’s church in San Bruno about a sermon we heard together on January 1, 2017. The sermon that drove me to start writing here again. The main message was this: Having no plan is akin to planning to fail. It is the total opposite of my usual illogical fear-frozen procrastination “plan.” Yet I am too often immobilized by the sheer thought of “all the things I have to do” so that I cannot even plan to do a single one of the items on the list, cannot even bring myself to make the list.
I have a feeling that no amount of worldly accomplishment or praise from other people is going to make me believe that I can do it, whatever the next “it” is. I just have to go do it. Sometimes I am confident in who I am and what and whom I love and what I want to do with my life, and I am infinitely thankful. Other times I am endlessly insecure about every single thing in my life and the only thing I want to do is get to work because I know that once I start it will be okay and I will be able to do it, but at the same time there are a million other unproductive things that I find myself doing instead.
I don’t really know how to end this post, because as much as I would like to write an uplifting conclusion, I feel like I should just stop and go back to reading Lord of the Flies. There is a darkness inside all of us that manifests itself in different ways. Currently mine is telling me that my success/goodness is a façade that is too tiring to keep up, is something I never really had anyway, is ill-defined and confusing and confused. I trust that God is still watching over me and will get me through this strange transition phase, as He always has.
Later (maybe tonight) I will edit and publish a poem that I wrote on my last day at Pton (sometime in early June). There was an unexpected moment of real thankfulness, and fond recollection, and trust for the future, and closure for this past school year in spite of all the ups and downs. Going over that again might help me with this cloud of fear-ennui.
Thank you for reading. I think it helps me to just have written this honestly, and to know that some of you will read it, as you always do.
“Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.”
My current status: 9 weeks into student teaching, up to my ears in student papers to grade, totally sleep deprived, but also totally fulfilled.
I look up from a student’s autobiographical piece about her difficult relationship with her overly demanding mother and her resulting debilitating insecurities which she has learned to overcome through creative writing, and I cannot help but exclaim to myself: Teaching is such an amazing profession!!!
Why? You get to look deeply into and become an integral part of the lives of 80-100+ individuals every year, and see them and know them more closely than you would most of your regular acquaintances or even friends. The range of people you meet and come to know in this way is an incredible mix (in terms of cultural/family background, life experiences, interests/beliefs/ambitions/fears/struggles/etc.) that you could never have chosen or found for yourself.
You get to pour into their lives and are challenged to love and help them unconditionally every day, even though they may never reciprocate, or worse, even if they begrudge you for not doing enough or for being too strict, or simply give you attitude and don’t do their work. Still, you get to see most of them grow and change, some in little ways, some in unbelievable strides.
You get to learn from them and see the depths of their kindness, their delight in little things, their frustrations and loneliness, their insecurities, their strengths and resilience and unbelievable maturity. Fourteen years old, and yet they have already gone through so much more than you can imagine. Your heart breaks at the injustice and unkindness and unexpected trials they have had to face, but it warms at the little connections they like to make from literature to life, and the optimism and grit they show on a day to day basis. They do quirky things like buy jewelry to commemorate a book they like and you think it’s hilarious, but you also rejoice in their apparent interest in what you’ve been teaching. They write outrageous similes and metaphors that make you laugh and cringe alternately (e.g. “The door to the high school creaked open like a screaming child” or “My mom is a warm, freshly baked muffin”), but in the end you are just proud of them for trying.
They are at the same time somehow both more and less than your family and friends combined: you love them like your own children (as far as I can imagine), you talk about them constantly and think of them as your kids, and every waking moment is spent trying to figure out how to get Will to pay attention, how to get Angie to turn in some homework, or how to get Ying to publish her amazing work; yet after this one year they may never come back, never really recall much of what you’ve said to them, never consider you as anything more than one of the many teachers they’ve encountered on the long journey through their obligatory education.
But it’s still so worth it to see the smiles, the eyes lighting up, the ecstatic “Yes!” of a girl who worked really hard on her last paper and achieved the results she desired, to hear the Chinese girl (an English language learner) who never spoke at all confidently presenting on a complex topic in front of a large class, enunciating each syllable of the four sentences she painstakingly crafted during break with your support. It’s worth it to finally see Chris come to class, to see Emma proud of something that she’s written, to see Yur make a friend. It’s worth it for the realizations that strike a few of them here and there that good things can come out of the bad, that yes, 9th grade is difficult, but that nothing that happens here will be the end of the world and that life’s challenges can be overcome gradually. I love seeing them realize that they can connect to other people and break out of their shells of insecurity and fear, to share their stories with one another and to find that everyone is almost equally scared and in need of a friend.
I love helping my students to connect literature to their lives, and to find their own voices in a world that is confusing, stressful, and often intimidating. Some of them already have, and some are still developing, incredible, unique voices with which to tell their stories, and an astounding depth of reflection and optimism with which to write the next few pages of their lives. If I can touch those pages with just a hint of hope, love, and confidence, I will have done my job well.
[If you want to know more details about what I’m doing week to week as a student teacher, go to my school-focused blog, schooldaydreams.wordpress.com]
Forgive my terrible pun and the forced brevity of this reflection (Ha! Just kidding, I don’t know how to be concise). It is past eleven pm on a school night and I have not slept more than five and a half hours yet any weekday night this week or last. I am bursting at the seams with thoughts about my student teaching so far (that I will share on schooldaydreams when I finally get to writing them, God-willing), but my mind is also constantly barraged by ideas, reflections, regrets, and revisions of the lessons that I have been and will be teaching! I feel like there is not a spare moment in my day when I am not thinking about teaching–it is an unrelenting cycle of questions and concerns about what I’ve been doing well or doing poorly and what I can do tomorrow to make up for my mistakes today, and which student was absent or looked lost and which students do I need to check in with and how can I make time to talk to them discreetly while the others are doing group work and what group work and how long will it be, etc., etc., etc.! says the King in The King and I! That’s all I remember from that movie, actually. That and something about ballroom dancing.
I know that this level of work and stress is really normal at the beginning of any teaching experience, and I have to remind myself that it was actually far worse last year during my first week teaching in Andong. Still, my heart is so ambitious and I want to do so many things for my students that it is frustrating when time runs out, when the conversation is going so well and then one student offers a response that is COMPLETELY wrong or besides the point and I have no idea how to get back on track without shutting him down, or when I spend a whole ten minutes discussing the meaning of a metaphor and at the end the students look more confused and unconvinced than at the beginning.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m actually really enjoying my student teaching experience and classes have gone well enough for the most part, but I am putting a lot of pressure on myself to teach perfect lessons every day and every class and we all know that that’s just not reality. So in the midst of my own unrelenting pursuit of perfection, I need to remind myself to listen to what I tell the students–you don’t have to be perfect! Just try your best!–and essentially, chill out. Go to sleep. Stop overplanning and then being frustrated when you don’t get to all the things you had planned to say or do!
It is very fitting that today, my third day of taking over the class, my first day of feeling like I’m not really sure how long I can keep this level of planning up!, is the beginning of March and the beginning of Lent! My goals for Lent are first to stop watching so many YouTube videos (and by so many I mean I need to stop watching them entirely during this period so that I can actually control my senseless addiction to clicking on video after video with ever diminishing returns…), and to take that time I would have wasted and to channel it into much more important and productive activities, such as prayer, reading my Bible, and SLEEP. I need to re-Lent and relent a little on my crazy self-judging battle plan for teacher perfection. This is probably not entirely coherent, but it is now eleven thirty pm and I am going to sleep.
Every year I am surprised by how many new beginnings there can be in a single year. To put it more accurately, every year I am surprised to find how many times I can give myself a fresh start, a clean slate, a blank page upon which to scribble all my newest (or oldest) hopes and dreams. There’s New Year’s Day on January 1st to make new resolutions or revise old ones; Chinese New Year to remind myself of the new years’ resolutions I’ve forgotten already; my birthday in March as the real start of a new year in my life, where I’ll inevitably learn to follow my resolutions; the beginning of Lent, where I reflect on my idols and distractions and resolve to be a more humble, more faithful, more restful, more diligent, all around better human being; Easter, where I realize that I cannot do any of those previous things well at all and am awed by the grace that saves and loves nonetheless, and I resolve to be all those things still through grace, God-willing; the beginning of the summer, where I resolve to be productive; the first day of the school year, where I resolve to be productive; and… let’s be honest, by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, I’m counting my losses, stuffing my face, and waiting for the next New Year to give me another chance at meeting all my resolutions.
This isn’t the first time I’ve reflected on this personal cycle of renewing promises made to myself; I’ve consciously or unconsciously followed this cycle for many years, and I’ve occasionally joked about it with friends. In all seriousness though, I am glad that there is no limit to the new beginnings I give myself each year. It reminds me of my tendency to fail, but also of my persistence in the face of repeated failure. I need these new beginnings in order to push myself to continue doing or trying to do whatever difficult new task is before me, to tell myself that it’s never too late to start again. Each time this happens, a little bit more gets done, and by the end of the year, after my nine or ten false starts or discontinued attempts, the progress inevitably accumulates and I can look back on something I did not expect to accomplish or create, something of which I can be proud. Pieces of writing, for example, in the form of blog posts or poems or crazy fragments of dreams (I should publish those someday). This is my first (already-strained) attempt to keep my resolution of writing on the first of each month. Perhaps I have rambled a lot about almost nothing, but it is something that I will be thankful for later, and maybe it is something that will resonate with others as well.
On a related note, today is not only the beginning of a new month, but also the beginning of my stay in a new house with a new family (I am renting a room in a family’s house near the high school where I am student teaching this semester), and the third day of the beginning of my student teaching experience! I am incredibly thankful to be here, to be blessed with a great school where I can learn to teach better, to have found a place where I can have my own room and a desk to work at (Finally! Oh how I have underappreciated free college furniture in the past), and to get to know a lovely new family over the course of the next four months.
This is a new beginning. I know it will not be all roses and sunshine, as I am already so tired and it is already past my suddenly-so-early bedtime. However, I am optimistic that when I look back on this two, three, four months (summer!)–or more–in the future, I will smile and say, If only I’d known at the beginning how far I would come! How happy I would be! How much I would live and love and learn! I say this now to myself to brace against the waves of busyness and exhaustion and negativity that are bound to come: Remember yourself on the first Tuesday night in Andong, having taught your first “Terrible Tuesday” and moved into a foreign household, feeling utterly incompetent, lonely, tired, and having no idea what the next day would hold or how you would survive the next four months before Christmas, and crying yourself to sleep. Remember that ten months later you cried inconsolably because you could not bear to leave that place; you loved it so much. That even now you wish you had told those around you more often that you loved them.
In this new beginning, with new students and colleagues and homestay-like family, I want to love harder and regret less, speak up and show up, go the extra mile in every opportunity to serve and hold nothing back.
A New Years’ Decision: I have decided to write a blog post on the first day of every month this year, however unpolished or messy or imperfect my thoughts may be.
The following thoughts are a scramble of new year’s eggs that I am just going to throw out there because otherwise they will rot in my basket and I will never be able to commit to anything (maybe that’s a little melodramatic but I feel this quite strongly right now, at least about writing).
Failing to plan is the same as planning to fail.
This morning at church, the pastor quoted this catchy aphorism and related our general lack of precise planning in keeping New Year’s resolutions to our lack of intention in pursuing a closer relationship with God. How often do we say, “This year I want to know God better!” and then continue on for the rest of the year with our same habits and lack of discipline? It was a simple message but one that I very much needed to hear, not only for my spiritual walk but for my life in general, for all the decisions that I plan to make without really planning how to get there. I often excuse myself for these tendencies by saying, “Oh, I’m just a big P (as in, Myers-Briggs personality type P vs. J),” brushing off any seemingly unnecessary responsibility in my life because in reality, I’m just a lazy perfectionist with a huge fear of failure and inadequacy. What I really need to learn is to have a growth mindset (the one that’s being touted in all my educational psychology and methodology classes, and apparently in all the fancy new design-thinking/entrepreneurship circles), to see my imperfections not as a judgment against my quality or character as a person, but as markers of opportunity to challenge myself and get better, smarter, wiser, kinder, whatever it is I’m currently lacking.
Every holiday season when my family is all back together, we have a great time, because we love each other and eat lots of amazing food and take a million happy photos and post them all over social media to prove to ourselves and others that we are one big happy family. However, every holiday together also inevitably winds up being incredibly stressful, full of conflict and resolutions that don’t seem complete, bitter jabs at each other person’s intentions and tone, something that didn’t strike me the right way, you just don’t understand me, you’re ruining my plans, you’re so inconsiderate, I just want to be heard, we’re all egomaniacs, etc. etc. This season is no different from the others, and I know, conflict is natural and often necessary for smoothing out rough edges and getting us to all understand each other better and to grow closer as a family, yet it seems a little different coming at the end of such a rough year.
I don’t think anyone will be surprised if I say that the year 2016 can be summarized, for me, perhaps most aptly, with one word: Conflict. I don’t mean that in an entirely negative way; like I just said, conflict is often a necessary good masked in angry evil robes. Still, so much conflict is inexplicable and maddening, from global events and trends that I feel powerless to change–war in the Middle-East, race relations in America, the crazy presidential campaign, terrorism and terror and other acts of violence all around the world, bullying in schools–to personal struggles that are equally real and difficult to control–frustration with administrative bureaucracy and unfriendly coworkers, cultural differences and misunderstandings, interpersonal conflicts with friends and family, figuring out where to go, what to do, whom to live with, whom to date or love or marry, whom to talk to, what to say and how to say it, what to buy and what to save, what to eat and what to share, when to assert myself and when to compromise, what I feel and what I need and what I want and what I believe–all these conflicts, external and internal, have shaped an incredibly challenging past year of my life. Of course, many of these difficulties existed before 2016 and may very well continue to exist in 2017 and beyond, but I think that they seem particularly large in my mind because it was also my first full year as an independent adult, post college graduation, out here in the ‘real world.’ I think that I have felt lost and confused and lonely more often in the past year than I have in most, if not all, of the 23 years that preceded it, partly because the world in general seems like a pretty crazy place lately and partly because I had to choose this particular historical moment to pop my head out of the lovely orange bubble of school and take it all in and foolishly, perhaps futilely, try to make sense of it.
There may not be any better time to experience all the conflict or confusion of the ‘real world,’ however, and every historical moment probably seems pretty crazy to the people who happen to inhabit it. What matters most is the decisions that we make in light of all the crazy, the conversations we have, the actions we take, the relationships we invest in. I don’t have any solid answers to so many questions that have arisen over the course of the last year, but I do know that I want to turn 2017’s key word in another direction. 2017 will inevitably have its conflicts as well, but I hope that this year I will not simply be a passive receiver or observer, but really make the efforts needed to gain a deeper understanding of the global issues all around us as well as of the inner turmoil of my personal thoughts and feelings. 2017 is, by nature of the chronological order of life events in my particular moment in history and culture, a year that will necessitate many important decisions such as where I will start my first long-term job as a teacher, in middle school or high school, on the East coast or the West coast; whether I will get married in the near future (and by “near future” I mean in the next three years, so don’t worry, I have no big secrets), and to whom; whether I will adopt a cat (you might laugh or roll your eyes at this but it is a very serious consideration for me), and the list of things I may have to decide but don’t know about yet that goes on and on.
I have always joked about being very very indecisive, but I think that, similarly to the line, “I’m just a terrible procrastinator,” it is simply an excuse to avoid responsibility and potential failure in my own eyes. This year, I want to make a habit of decision. That is, I want to make decisions boldly, whether for large or small things, and to do so without so much fear that any one decision is going to ruin the course of my entire life, because it’s simply not so. Of course, I want to make decisions wisely and carefully, but the point is that I want to make them, to have plans, to follow through, and to look back only to see how I have grown and where I can continue to make amends.
My first New Year’s Decision is to do all the things I keep putting off out of fear, like writing.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1, NIV).
If God does not condemn me, then why do I continue to condemn myself?
In 2017, I want to stop worrying and waiting and telling myself, “Whatever, it was never that important anyway.”
In 2017, I want to start writing and working through my worries and telling myself, “Yes, it is worth pursuing, and yes, I will do it, and yes, it will be okay.”
On a brief note related to the post I just published, this morning I went to see “Finding Dory” with the ‘kids’ in my host family (aka little sister and cousins). The movie itself was more of a touching melodrama than a lighthearted comedy like its predecessor, and there were many “aww”-worthy moments throughout. The part that got to me the most, however, was the line when Nemo asks Marlin, “Does this mean we have to say goodbye to Dory?” and also the general idea that Marlin and Nemo are as much ‘family’ to Dory as her real parents that she lost long ago, because they are the ones who took her in and accepted her when she had no one else to go to. I choked back tears at that line because I couldn’t help but think about having to say goodbye to this Korean family that I love so dearly, not knowing when I’ll get to see them again, unlike my biological family that I love and miss as well but can always look forward to reuniting with.
In spite of how sad I feel about saying goodbye, I am simultaneously incredibly grateful. I know that to love and be loved to the extent that I feel this strongly about parting is a huge blessing. I also know that Imo (host mom) would make fun of me to no end if she knew that I cried while watching an 애니메이션 (animation, which in her mind is a cartoon for babies, no matter how much her niece and I tell her otherwise) about fish. #20대에 (twenties’ life)
This is how I want to remember my Korean host family. These brief sketches don’t do full justice to the wonderful people that they are, but hopefully capture the essence of their kindness to me. I am truly grateful for how deeply I have come to know and love them over such a short span of time (only about seven months at the time when I wrote this, now almost a year), thanks to their amazing acceptance of me into their family.
*I refer to all people in this post with general titles, or else I have changed their names*
Noona, Onni, Agassi–Names my Host Family Calls Me
[Sister (of a boy), Sister (of a girl), Young Lady, respectively]
“She’s coming on Friday. You have 24 hours to decide.”
I cannot imagine the conflicting feelings of curiosity, doubt, excitement and anxiety that my host mom must have felt that fateful Wednesday afternoon when she hung up the phone. My school’s host family arrangements had fallen through at the last minute, and in a desperate attempt to find me a new place, one of the teachers had called up her sister and given her this crazy proposition. Imagine this: a total stranger and foreigner who may not speak your language will come live in your house with you and your family for a year. You will have to share your personal time and space with her, cook for her, allow her to interact with and influence your children, and probably deal with not only logistical but also any physical, emotional, social or psychological problems she may have while adjusting to life in Korea. Sounds fun, right?
In what I can only imagine as a moment of spontaneity and tremendous grace, my host mom (or “Imo,” as she asked me to call her) accepted. I knew before I met her that Imo doesn’t do anything half-heartedly. Having accepted the challenge of welcoming me into her home three days before my arrival, Imo immediately directed the full renovation of her son and daughter’s shared room from floor to ceiling, redesigning it to the best of her ability to fit the unknown tastes of her new host daughter, including replacing half of the furniture. She chose green for the walls and white for the furniture, making the room feminine but not too girly. She selected a white bed and matching vanity desk and stool. A white carpet and white slippers added a nice touch of warmth to the room, and a little white cloth shade hanging over the door frame created an aura of privacy and welcome at the same time. A rolling chair with a firm back was also ordered to meet the needs of a new teacher’s busy lesson planning after school hours. Imo’s final touch was a soft, bright yellow blanket, patterned with big white hexagons, making the bed look something akin to a giant beehive. I imagine the yellow blanket was intended to make anyone feel like a queen bee coming home to sweet dreams at the end of a long day.
Besides moving my host siblings out of their childhood room, Imo also got rid of almost all signs that they had ever lived in it, presumably to really make the space feel like my own. She was reluctant only to take down the framed baby pictures that hung on the walls, I know, because she must have put them back after the re-papering. She mentioned at one point later on that I might take the baby pictures down and replace them with my own, but looked relieved when I told her I didn’t mind; actually, I rather like them because they make me feel connected to the family at all times. Moreover, they are a constant gentle reminder of the history that the family has had before I came and imposed myself on their lives, giant suitcase and emotional baggage and all.
During our first week together, Imo went very quickly through the phases of familiarization that were necessary to accept me fully into her life. First, the pleasant surprise that I was not so alien as she had imagined: “You know, I was worried about living with a foreigner, but you are like neighborhood lady!” Second, a comforting affirmation that I was a welcome presence in the house: “At first when I said ‘yes’ to having you come stay here, I was very excited. Then, I became very anxious, very worried. Now, I know I made the right decision.” Third, a crossing over from the polite refrain of acquaintances to humorously correcting my over-exaggerated “Korean” mannerisms: “You are so polite. Too polite! Like Joseon Dynasty woman.” Finally, we reached the positive declaration of friendship: “You have been here for just one week now. But it feels like I’ve known you so long!”
Over more time, I came to love her, but it happened first by allowing her to love me. I remember so clearly the day I came home in early November, distraught because of a frustrating day at school on top of the heaviness of homesickness that had just started to seep out of the seams of my pretended perfection. I had a sort of meltdown as I sat at the kitchen counter, sobbing through mouthfuls of pumpkin tteok, trying to catch my breath and explain five things at once, hardly understanding my own emotions.
My host mom cried with me. She spoke many words of reason and comfort, but what I remember the most is this: “I understand. You miss your mom. I have a daughter, and I am a daughter. When you are here in my home, you are my daughter too.”
Her unconditional acceptance of me, a total stranger for the last twenty-three years, as her daughter, even just for this year, shattered the walls I kept up between us out of politeness, or reserve or fear. I understood from that moment on that we were family.
Imobu [Uncle/literally Imo’s husband]
My host father, Imobu, is not a man of many words, but the few he does speak to me are always accompanied by a big cheesy smile and an even bigger effort to be understood through his thick country accent. Every night, just before going to bed, I inevitably catch a glimpse of Imobu stretched comfortably on the living room couch watching TV, and we exchange a friendly “hello” and “goodnight.” On weekends, I join him in front of the screen and we watch a program called “King of Mask Singer,” in which Korean celebrities don ridiculous masked outfits and compete in a singing contest. We guess who will be the winner in each round. Imobu is always right.
Imo told me from the beginning that “Imobu is allergic to English,” but that has never stopped him from trying to communicate with me. When the family took me to see Dosan Seowon, a historical Confucian academy near Andong, he used all the powers of body language and sheer optimism to convey to me that the walls were made with special materials, a clay tile of some sort. When I went home for the winter holiday, Imobu asked me repeatedly if I missed my dad and would be happy to see him again. In his question he showed that he understood a father’s love and empathy for a daughter far from home, and in his actions I understood how unreservedly he took on the role of a surrogate father for me while I could not be with my own. The weekend that I left Korea for home, our apartment elevator was under renovation, so Imobu woke up at six in the morning to carry my 50 pound suitcase down eight flights of stairs, and then drove me to the bus terminal, telling me all the while to enjoy my time with my appa, my “Daddy.”
Halmoni is the boss. She’s the proper matron and patron of the family all rolled into one robust, curly-haired package. While the idea of an American grandmother is typically that of a cute little old lady sitting on the back porch knitting for her grandchildren or her cats, my Korean grandmother is a true force of nature. She dies her hair jet black and wears clothes that are undoubtedly more fashionable than mine, often getting mixed up by Imo in the laundry. At dinnertime, Halmoni eats and burps with the gusto and unapologetic manner of a teenage boy. She runs the household with her presence alone, not needing to say a word or even be here most of the time for the magic to happen.
In spite of her youthfulness, Halmoni values tradition, and blesses the family with her culinary hand. She is the reason we have a very traditional jjigae (Korean stew), rice, meat dish, and at least three or four different side dishes every night for dinner. Our house is one of the only ones in the ever modernizing Andong city to still have huge stocks of homemade doenjang and kanjang sitting in big brown earthenware pots on the balcony, soaking in the natural sunlight to help them age properly. I regularly come home to see Halmoni fiercely peeling chestnuts faster than my host sister can eat them, or sitting smack in the middle of the kitchen floor, legs spread in a wide ‘V’ and surrounded by mushrooms that she’s preparing for market. Halmoni has more friends than Imo and I combined. She is always out with them, exercising or making traditional snacks by hand or buying fruit to take home by the crateful. In November she even traveled to Japan for ten days, and we ate nothing but kimbap and sandwiches while she was gone.
Despite my ability to communicate fairly well with the rest of the family in Korean, for the entirety of the first semester I had no idea what Halmoni was saying to me most of the time or whether she was even addressing me at all. This was partly because of the heavy country dialect she speaks, and partly because of her big presence and resounding voice, which together often make it seem like she’s addressing everyone in the room at once. Still, I appreciate how often Halmoni makes an effort to talk to me whether I understand her or not. I recall one morning, when Halmoni pointed her chopsticks at a small dish of chopped green peppers that I was about to taste, and said something that I interpreted as “spicy.” I nodded and smiled patiently, “I know,” assuming that like many other well-meaning Korean ajummas I had met, Halmoni was simply being considerate of my foreignness and the correlating inability to tolerate spiciness. I proceeded to pop a piece of green pepper directly into my mouth. In the resulting crisis, I was almost late for school. For the next ten minutes, I downed half a bowl of white rice, two full glasses of water and a glass of milk, all to no avail. As I fanned my burning tongue in anguish, Halmoni simply chuckled and repeated, “spicy.” Now I understand; even if I think I know better, Halmoni knows best.
Namdongsaeng [Younger brother]
Young Ho is the quiet but hilarious brother I never had. In the beginning, our interactions were limited because he was a middle school third grader who spent all of his time studying at hagwon or shut away in his room playing computer games. I’d see him every day for about five minutes as he emerged from his lair to swallow his dinner whole before running out the door. On weekends, I watched him wake up at two in the afternoon, walk straight to the kitchen in his leopard print pajamas, down a bottle of soda and put ramen on the stove. Then he would wander sleepily back to his room, presumably to continue gaming. After a month of living together, I had spoken more words to his cousin at a single family gathering than we had exchanged the entire time.
Slowly, however, I got to know my brother without ever really having a conversation. Like his dad, Young Ho spoke sparingly, but he was always bluntly sincere without being mean-spirited, and his face was forever telling stories. He made me laugh at dinnertime, pulling exaggerated faces while declaring the food to be too hot, too spicy, too unsavory (masi-eopta) or all three at once. Despite all his complaints, he still ate more than anyone else and thanked his mother afterwards. He blew me away with his patience, gentleness and self-control. His little sister sometimes bragged about her grades and teased him for not being as smart, or drew comics about him getting into trouble with their parents, but Young Ho never spoke a mean word or even showed any annoyance toward her, which is more than I can say for myself. One day in October, the furniture in the living room was rearranged. When I asked, Imo told me that Young Ho had asked to have the computer removed from his room because he wanted to study harder. In December, we got a kitten that for some unfathomable reason hated only Young Ho and bit and scratched him viciously. No matter how much it mistreated him, however, Young Ho loved the cat and was always playing with it, taking pictures of it and even trying to kiss it.
This year, Young Ho started high school, and I see him even less because he returns from hagwon after I’ve gone to bed, and leaves for school in the morning before I’ve woken up. Still, in the brief moments that I see him, he never fails to deliver that self-deprecating laugh and shy “Hello,” which somehow always brightens my day. On weekends he shares not only his ramen but also his precious free time, patiently explaining words to me from his old picture books, and never asking anything in return.
Yeodongsaeng [Younger Sister]
Ji Eun is my best friend and my biggest burden. Ten years old, she is an endless fountain of warmth, chatter, and creativity. Raised on Disney channel and her mother’s determination, Ji Eun speaks English with more confidence than my top middle school students. We banter daily about a wide range of topics, from the “boyfriend” she’s too embarrassed to talk to at school to the incredible tales of her Lego friends, to the stickers she collected when she was “young.” She runs to the door when she hears me punching in the code to enter our apartment and squeals, “Victoria sister! I’m waiting for you!” She hugs my legs and I laugh, half-pleased and half-wary that she expects me to spend the next two hours playing with her when all I want to do is lie on my bed in peace. When I do make it to the bed some days despite her puppy eyes and not-so-subtle Do you have times and What are you going to dos, she asks me why I sleep so much and I respond, half-joking, “Because I’m exhausted from playing with kids like you all day!”
Because she is the person that I talk to the most in all of South Korea, sometimes I forget that she is only ten years old, that she doesn’t understand many things and that I have to be patient. Sometimes I am surprised by how well she understands, by how instinctively she gives me a hug when it looks like I’ve been crying, how hard she pounds her little fists into my back when I say I’m sore after too much computer work today, how comforting her presence is when she quietly sits on my bedroom floor reading comics while I lesson plan. She begs me to teach her English but cannot sit still for more than five minutes; she promises to read a whole page but gives up on the second word. She makes me laugh more than anyone else with her ridiculous high-pitched impressions of Pororo’s friends—one of whom she insists is my boyfriend—and general excitement about everything life has to offer. She makes me proud when she talks nonstop about the book of dog-hero stories I got her for Christmas and when she understands that she did something wrong and quietly apologizes. Ji Eun is the only person who makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time, as she twirls around my room in a pink princess costume, one moment delightedly declaring that this room will be hers after I leave, and in the next sighing in regret that I won’t be around when she turns eleven.
Hanguk Gajok [Korean family]
My homestay family means so much more to me than a place to sleep and three meals to eat, or even a unique cultural experience, though I am grateful for all these. When I’m frustrated by miscommunications at school or in the convenience store or taxi due to the language barrier, I am encouraged by Halmoni’s persistence in talking to me despite my probably non sequitur seeming answers. I can go to school day after day with a smile on my face regardless of how well I get along with my co-teachers or how poorly my students behave, because I know Imo will always welcome me home with a smile and a plate of fruit. I am never bored for a second because Ji Eun is always thinking of something for us to do together and parading it before me whether I asked her to or not. On the longest of days I am amused by the quiet comedy of Young Ho’s facial expressions as he commiserates with me over the cruelty of schoolwork. When I stay up late at night working, I am comforted by Imobu’s presence in the living room, his kind greeting reminding me of my own dad, who used to stop by my room every night and ask when I was going to bed. My host family helped me get past my initial homesickness and taught me to love Korea by becoming my hanguk gajok, my courageous, generous, thoughtful, patient, loveable, irreplaceable Korean family.
We still have a few months together,* but I am already starting to miss them.
*Now the countdown is ten days. I have no idea how to say goodbye. I want to cherish every moment we have left together.
does it matter
where we were
if I can no longer remember the
places become images
like the teal green dome
of the church of that saint
covered in stars
I would say speckled but
that sounds too easy
stars golden and six pointed
pin perfect painted
onto the ceiling or is it real gold
carefully set in place
and how do they keep it there?
what if it fell on us in little sparkles as we sang
sprinkling golddust on our four-part harmonies
the basses catching it down below
as in a deep blue bowl
st. anthony (or is it theresa) would have been proud
to see, to hear the echoes of
our brightest amens resound
from arch to arch
lasting longer than the mist
the notes created before our noses
as we watched the priest reach into that
behind the curtain
wondering if it was proper
for us to sing as if in worship
in a language we don’t know
in a place whose name we have
is it sacrilege
to sing as
in a place of worship
when you don’t think God speaks
and when we step out of this space
to sweeten ourselves with sworls of gelato
and cioccolata waxing thick
in a cream-white cup
will it matter?
[I found my Italy poem! Turns out I did write one after all, a couple of months after the choir trip, on 2 April 2013. I had intended to continue writing more and to edit what I had here, but never got around to it. It was originally haphazardly titled “5 minute memory (Italy attempt 1).” I think I had intended to write multiple short poems about “snapshot memories” in 5 minutes, but then got busy with life. I’ve made some very minor edits here, but this is basically the original, and reminds me of that one place and short performance during mass that we had in a really fancy cathedral. The feeling here describes really just one moment in time, the lingering wonder that I felt listening to our voices echo in that foreign yet familiar setting. And of course I knew that God can speak Italian, but intuitively in that moment it was like we were speaking a language no one could understand, not even the angels. And I wondered what that meant, though in the moment all I knew was that it was quite beautiful. Maybe that’s all it will ever be, a snapshot of beauty and hesitation that I hope I’ve captured even just a little with this poem.]