Learning to be Proud

So last weekend I made kind of sudden plans to get approximately eight months’ worth of social outings in. To be honest, I didn’t really even make plans. But I ventured.

It was what I want to call Seoul Pride but is actually called the Korea Queer Culture Festival and on Saturday afternoon there was a parade. I had never been to anything of the sort and figured it would be a different opportunity as my first out thing to do. So I thought I’d go down, check it out, and go home. Hour, hour and a half probs. In the event, I was there like four (it may not sound like much to you, but it was ages for someone whose maximum socializing is typically under an hour daily).

The first thing was that it was raining. Raining to the point where I abandoned the idea of taking my raincoat in favor of only an umbrella, which I typically abhor (because I’m a Washington snob). So I get to Seoul Plaza, where everything is happening, and it’s raining. Good thing I have an umbrella. Then it’s raining really hard. Because monsoon. And the nature of crowds+Keegan+umbrellas is that I get soaked because there are so many umbrellas and most of them end up stabbing me in the neck at some point and gushing rain down my back and shoulders. But whatever, being soaked meant I wasn’t too hot (which I definitely would have been otherwise). By the time the parade started, about two hours after I arrived, it mercifully stopped.

The second thing is that I ran into a coworker and her friends. As I said, I had made no plans and didn’t really have any expectations. There were some booths, a pretty good sized crowd, and loud music. Not really my scene, was planning on making an appearance and jetting. After I had browsed all the stalls and picked up a rainbow fan from France (I think it was the embassy handing them out, there were several Western countries in attendance) I was heading back to the subway when, in the middle of the crowd, I saw someone I knew. So I attached myself to their group for a while, did some more browsing of the stands, and ended up– surprise– marching in the parade.

The third thing is that there was a protest, though it was admittedly small in accordance with the event in general. As we slowly made our way from Seoul Plaza onto the street, there was a large-ish stationary float thing and the first protest signs I had seen in both English and Korean. I recognize that I say this from a place of great and multifaceted privilege, but I felt strangely wonderful when I saw it. I can’t really describe it, I just smiled and almost laughed. I felt kind of giddy. I’d never been personally protested before and I didn’t expect that to be my reaction. But I guess that it just felt good to know so deeply, with truly every atom of my being, that loving Jesus and loving myself is good and right and complementary.

Overall, I think it was an excellent experience. I didn’t really know what to expect, both because I had never been to anything of the sort and because we’re in Korea. But my general feelings were that it would probably be smallish and restrained-ish but that if there were any out queer people in Korea, they’d be there. It was a decent crowd, I guess, though the parade only blocked off half a street along its little route. It was enough to make it into a Huffington Post video and article, so that was kind of cool. There are plenty of other little details I want to fix in my memory (for example, the zillion dragonflies hanging out) not really because it’s a memory I want to cherish (I was underwhelmed) but because it’s a memory I want to remember.

The reaction to last week’s post was not what I expected. Well, to be honest, I wasn’t sure what I expected. There was a part of me that figured other people would get what I was talking about but another part of me somehow imagined that I was the only one, that somehow the stream of life had stranded me in some wayward eddy.

I am relieved that the latter was not the case. Hearing from a number of people how much they identified with what I wrote felt empowering, in a way. I’ve had a couple conversations with different people in the past while talking about similar topics–the difficulty of finding friends, of feeling like you belong, the fear of being left out. I confessed to an adult in my life that I often feel like I’m better friends with people than they are with me, if that makes sense, and she responded by saying that she felt that way too sometimes.

It’s liberating to realize that there is some element of universality in our experiences. I don’t want to dwell on it too heavily here, perhaps at some later date, but I did want to take a moment to recognize how important it is to talk about things that are hard to talk about. When we share ourselves with others, I think we will often find that the sharing doesn’t end with the self.

In stating a similar sentiment, with much sincerity, John Green addresses his love for fiction by saying,

I understand in the abstract that I am not alone but reading good fiction helps me feel un-alone in, like, the deepest ways. It makes me feel like even my inexpressible fears and demons don’t separate me from humanity.

That also neatly sums up my views on reading.

If my post last week could help you feel any of that, in any small measure, then I am honored.

And as for the rest of it… here, queer, not alone.

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Long in City Pent

I kid you not, our guide on Jeju was a Russian from Vladivostok. His name was Viktor, which was also my name in Russian class. Obviously, I’ve gotten way ahead of myself but I had to tell you about him straight away since I was literally taking about Vladivostok in last week’s post. Anyway. Allow me to backtrack a sec for you.

This week I have some family visiting: my younger brother, step-mom, and her mom who is Korean but has been living in the US basically since the Korean War. So we’ve done a bunch of touristy things (including a number of things I’ve been meaning to do but had been to lazy to do alone). It’s been great so far.

We started on Monday with a pretty full schedule of running around Seoul and seeing as much as we could. We visited Gyeongbokgung Palace (the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty), a number of mountains around Seoul, Namdaemun market (where I had actually been before), and a variety of little sights around the city. Lots of driving. Like I said, very full.

Now they had booked an actual tour deal, but it was just us. This meant basically that we had most of our time fairly scheduled, but that we got a cool, personal guide. It is very different from how I usually travel–I also usually travel alone–but it was great. Our guide in Seoul is rad and it’s nice to have someone who knows where they’re going and can take you there witout much ado.

On Tuesday, we flew out to Jeju Island, which some have called the Hawai’i of Korea. It was absolutely lovely. As I’ve stated, our guide on the island was actually Russian, do that was neat. But mostly, Jeju is just wonderful. We visited natural wonders: waterfall, lava tube, cliffs, crater, beach ect. We also saw a wonderful temple (all the way from the 1980s!), historical governor’s palace thing, a stone park with lots of cool rocks and stuff, and a traditional folk village. We had some tangerines, for which the island is famous, and some fried chicken, for which it is not. I got sunburned (thankfully not too badly) and we climbed a mountain in torrential rain and strong wind.

Nothing we did was actually super impressive or absolutely amazing (not to disparage it at all) but the thing I loved most was just being out of Seoul. It was astounding how much I reveled in being surrounded by green. I guess not astounding because of course, but still. Sea breeze. Trees that are actually true green. Everything so, so lush. Driving along country roads with the windows down.

Everything was made of black volcanic rock. There were some columns that looked like a baby Giant’s Causeway, some cliffs that reminded me of Carrick-a-Rede. There was a crater on the coast that, from a distance, looked like Howth, even with the little low-lying isthmus connecting it to the main island. So basically I was in a hot, Korean Ireland.

I truly had a wonderful time there, in all the different weather. It really felt like a vacation. But I’ve just flown back from Jeju tonight, a couple hours ago, and I’m sort of pooped. So I’ll write more next week, I promise, and maybe include a few pictures. Tomorrow we’re going to the DMZ and I probably won’t say much about that, but we have a few more things to see on Saturday, and my brother and grandmother are leaving on Sunday and my step-mom is leaving on Wednesday.

Anyway. I know I talk a lot about city/nature but golly. I really needed this green. If you have green around you, please appreciate it on my behalf. I won’t be leaving Seoul (at least not for more than a day or two) until March. So read some Keats (that’d be the title) and nature as much as you can.

The Cheese

This Wednesday was another day off and I was determined to enjoy myself. So, naturally, I decided to climb a mountain. Just for reference, I will continue to say mountain here but I fully acknowledge it to be a Seoul ‘mountain’ (similar to an East Coast mountain) as it is only 338.2 meters tall–that’s about 1,100 feet for us Americans. Also, in the common fashion for Korean mountains I’ve seen thus far, it’s very steep. 인왕산 (Inwangsan) is pretty close to my apartment. Just on the other side of Ansan, where I’ve been many times. So I figured it was a good candidate. The rub was that Google Maps gave no indication as to how to get onto the mountain. I could see it, a big brownish blob with no roads, but couldn’t find an access point. But how hard could it be, so I decided I’d just wander around until I found something going up.

As luck would have it, there was no difficulty. Long before I got to my best guess for a trailhead (though still after about half an hour walking along the side of the mountain) I saw a sign that indicated this road went up the mountain. Good news. So I walked up this road for a while, going steeply uphill, but was still among apartment buildings and was wondering when the park part would start when suddenly it started. I’m still not sure what to make of the ‘park’ qualification so let me tell you a bit about what I encountered.

First, it is not marked as a park like Ansan and other places I’ve been. Not in Google and not in the real world. However, the signage was essentially the same. The major difference was that this one had gates and, it appeared, was not open all the time. Additionally, there were police guards and watchtowers quite regularly all along the trails. This was to ensure that no one took pictures facing certain directions. I discovered, reaching the first of like three summits, that there was some kind of (military?) installation, very small, running along part of the ridge. No idea what it was about, but no pictures of that. Also no pictures looking out toward the city in the direction of the river and one of the main palaces. I learned today that apparently from that one angle, you can see the president’s house and they weren’t taking any chances.

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One small glimpse

The view was spectacular. The haze wasn’t particularly bad yesterday so I had a decent line of sight across the city. I could see all of Ansan park, Seodaemun-gu, Jongno-gu, and the truly picturesque Bukhansan park in the distance. The trees and rocks were gorgeous and the sky was blue and the air mostly smelled of flowers and pine, for once, instead of city. And, I nearly forgot, the old city wall of Seoul, which has huge chunks still intact across the city, goes straight up the mountain and the trail follows it a goodly way. Parts of it have been restored over time, but I think a reasonable amount of it is original and, like in Exeter, you can clearly see the different phases in its construction spread out over centuries.

All told, with a quick nip into Paris Baguette on the way home, it was a four hour excursion. I would call it an unqualified success, which is something of a rarity for me. So I went home and just basked in the lovely day. There remained something irrefutably (and sometimes inexplicably) urban about everything and I couldn’t help but wish that I was on some other mountain, far away from Seoul, and the view was only of further mountains and wilder forests. Nevertheless, the fragrance of certain flowers and the texture of hearty bark under my hands did assuage, in some small part, all the city unpleasantness.

Now for this week’s thoughts from Keegan.

Quirkily, I’ve been singing The Farmer in the Dell kind of often since coming to Korea. In the metro, there is a little song that plays when a train is approaching and the beginning sounds just like it. I don’t ride the metro all that often, but the song has wormed its way back into my brain and it plays ad libitum, ad nauseam.

It’s a strange sort of song. As a person who is very much interested in and appreciative of cheese, the final verse is of particular note: the cheese stands alone.

And I’m not the only one entranced (haunted?) by that line. Robert Cormier, writer of controversial young adult novels like The Chocolate War, wrote a novel entitled I am the Cheese based on the concept of the main character feeling alone. It sounds hilarious but the blurb is very serious, sort of a teen spy mystery thriller vibe is what I was picking up.

But why does the cheese stand alone? I always picture a hefty slice of Swiss sitting regally on a little hillock in the bottom of a lushly planted valley, a few farm buildings in the distance. Who would see such an alluring enticement and just pass it by? In what universe is the cheese not the main character of the song? In an effort to avoid the grimness of last week’s post I will not suggest that the reason is because this universe is just a dark cesspool of poor, unfortunate souls. Nevertheless, the mystery is confounding.

Then again, maybe it’s not such a problem that the cheese stands alone. I often have difficulty describing to parents or other concerned parties that I don’t mind being alone for extended and repeated periods of time. I feel like I’m almost inundated with Buzzfeed posts or articles on Facebook about introverts and I guess I assumed that people just generally got it. But it is not so.

Introverts don’t mind being along for extended and repeated periods of time. We’re not anti-social, just differently social.

So there you have it. Who’s to say cheese can’t be introverted. Maybe the cheese likes standing alone. Maybe it’s having a great time just so. Maybe I am the cheese, too. Wow, I hope so. What a life. And what a great mantra.

I am the cheese.

I am the cheese.

I am the cheese.

Are you?

Peak Bloom

So I mentioned last week that I didn’t post this because I felt I was being too impatient. Impatient I may be, but it is what it is. I remain impatient. And so.

My friends back in D.C. experienced ‘peak bloom’ recently, a term referring to the maximum beauty of the cherry blossoms that blanket the district each spring and provide an incredible backdrop to monument, festival, and school alike. Here in Seoul, as best as I can determine, we did not.

I have finally found where Seoul has been hiding all the flowers, but they were not…exactly…there. Some were freshly tilled beds awaiting spring planting and others were bulbs that had just breached the surface of the ground. The cherry blossom area as designated on signs in the park totally eluded me. We’ve had decently warm weather and the Spring Equinox was last week so

Certainly, I will readily admit how very little of Seoul I have seen and so I will not say the city only has flowers in flower shops, but it’s not been great on the flower front thus far. At home, even if we have a late spring we’d have daffodils up early, with whichever other flowers following on their heels. I don’t know, I’m confident that I’m just looking in the wrong places (when I manage to actually get out and look). But still. I’m not used to having to look. Also, Seoul’s cherry blossom season is supposed to be next week or the week after, so things should be looking up. But there are flowers other than cherry blossoms.

I’ve alluded to this fact before, but Seoul is a city of over ten million. The greater Seoul metropolitan area is home to approximately 25 million people (yes, that’s half the country and the fourth largest metropolitan area in the world). There is some nature here, but it’s urban nature even beyond the likes of Phoenix Park or Rock Creek Park. And definitely not in the same league as Penrose Point or Sunset Beach. I’ve never harbored any doubts about not being a city person but if I had they would be put to permanent rest.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to like. And this is 100% not an invective against Korea generally, rather cities generally. Dublin and D.C. managed to be okay because they’re neither one very city-feeling. Seoul is extremely so, even in relatively sleepy Seodaemun. Like I said, there are some truly beautiful things around here. Very picturesque mountains and trees that very much put me in mind of those classic East Asian watercolors with ruggedly steep and rocky mountains draped in leggy evergreens and silky streams. I’d post some pictures, but the haze doesn’t allow my minimal photography skills to do them anything like justice.

Part of me is still just adjusting to the idea that I’m going to be living here for a year. As the times comes to put away my winter clothes, I have to keep reminding myself that I’m not actually done with them here, just waiting until winter comes again. And it’s weird. I have not spent this much time consecutively in one place since I got on a plane to D.C. on 16 August, 2012.  (I’m like 92% certain it was the 16th. Maybe the 17th). When I was in Ireland it was close, I was there for pretty much exactly one calendar year, but I had almost an entire month home for Christmas which meant I had to pack things up and get settled then pack up and leave again. There will be no such break this year. I may spend a few weekends away, but that’s it.

As it is, I am adjusting. And that’s what counts. On Sunday, I spent some time reading in the sun up on the roof. Expectedly, it was not perfect, but it was good. I will return there often, I hope, and perhaps find a few other good reading spots for the heat of the coming summer. Ups and downs or, as we talk about in class often, pros and cons. Benefits and negative effects. Good things and bad things. As in life, so in Seoul.

In the meantime, take a look at the cats. Or cat and demon spawn, it’s hard to tell.

You may recall back when I first arrived in Ireland a phrase that I used to cheer myself up about a less-than-ideal circumstance. Things here aren’t so bad, but the little plants I bought this week will not fill my flower quota. So I will repeat it now as a mantra for new places which, even having been here for a month now, this still is.

Bloom where you’re planted.

서대문구

First, a quick overview of how the Korean language works (written Korean, that is) because you know I like language. The most basic misconception is that it’s like Chinese, written in characters. In fact, Korean has an alphabet with letters. The difference is that those letters are combined into one-syllable blocks. So while ‘s’ is just ㅅ and ‘u’ is ㅜ, the syllable su wouldn’t be written ㅅ ㅜ but rather 수. My name, written in Hangul (the name of the alphabet) is 키간. The title of this post is Seodaemun-gu, the district in which I’m now living.

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This is not in Seodaemun, but rather Gangnam (as you might have surmised)

So on Friday, we had our final assessments in the morning which, thankfully, I passed. Then I got in a van that drove me across the city to my branch (I feel bad for people who actually were leaving Seoul, a 45 minute journey was all I was up for). I stayed in a little hotel across the street from the branch while my apartment was being prepared. There was a little bit of confusion about the apartment which meant that I didn’t actually move in until Monday night, after teaching, but I’m here now and it’s grand. On that note, a bit about my actual job.

So. Firstly, I teach English to Korean students after school. Two three-hour classes a day, 4-10 and arriving at 2 to make it a normal eight hour work day. That’s the basic set up. The way my company works is that it divides students into levels based on skill (pretty straightforward) and then has different courses that students can take. Usually, students take two concurrently, so I’ll mostly have the same four classes twice a week but have different material. One course I’m teaching is sort of content-heavy where we do readings and listenings and stuff. The other is more discussion-based with a project every other week. The ages of my students range from maybe 8 or 9ish to I think 14ish, with levels ranging from barely conversational to reasonably okay.

Teaching is hard. This is not news to me, having grown up with educators and with tremendous respect for the profession, but actually being a teacher is a different experience. Some classes, some students, some lessons are better than others and I will obviously continue to learn a lot over the course of my time here. One week of whirlwind training is hardly acceptable for such an important job, but it’s better than many other English companies here provide. Anyway, I’m managing alright thus far and hopefully will continue to learn techniques and methodologies, acquire fun new skills, and develop the general everything necessary for teaching.

I know that there is a large number of teachers and educators who read this blog. If you feel so inclined, know that I would welcome any advice you have to offer, perhaps by Facebook message or email. Of particular interest to me at the moment are like vocabulary games I could play and ways to get silent classes talking.

There are a million other things that I want to talk about in this post, but a million is a lot and probs no one would read a blog a million things long. I have a year here (excepting unforeseeables) and that is plenty of time, I hope, to tell you all about it. It’s not a million posts long, but I’ll do my best. I was going to talk about triangular kimbap and Paris Baguette and Seodaemun and my apartment. I was going to tell you some of the things that have caused minor freak outs and other things that have provided unexpected comfort. Alas. You’ll have to rest assured that there are such things and hope I include them in future posts. Living in suspense of every detail of my life as I’m sure you do, this may be difficult but I ask that you bear with me.

Also, small Korean experience of the week. You may be familiar with cat cafés (which I have not yet visited, shame) but apparently there are many different kinds of interesting cafés here. For example, I briefly visited a sheep café (the sheep were in a little pen that you could go into) which was across the street from a raccoon café (which people tell me also has a few small dogs). So I guess there are cafés for a range of tastes. I’ll look forward to checking them out, I guess, though I’m not convinced the cat ones are as magical in reality as they may seem at first blush.

Anyway, that’s all I have for this week. I’m still adjusting to my new get-off-work-at-10pm schedule but if I could adjust to start-work-at-3:30am, I think I’ll be fine. Happy March.