Hey there, I'm Jimin.

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The First Three Days

If we count by the hour, then it’s officially been three days since I arrived in Seoul.

Or should I say, since I arrived home?

The change in diction hasn’t been as black and white as I initially thought. Korea is my motherland, yet there are moments when I feel so incredibly and unmistakably foreign— and not just because Korea is probably one of the most homogenous nations in the world, ethnically, linguistically, normatively, culturally, etc. (It’s funny: to a certain extent Seoul offers a contrast to the mosaic of Hong Kong, and yet in both places I feel like a foreigner. I call myself ‘rootless’ for a reason.)

It begins on the outside, with what I wear— or rather, what I don’t. When my aunt came to visit on Sunday, she looked and me and asked if I ever use make-up. In a land where every young female has pale, pale skin dabbled over with shades of pink and red and beige, my tan skin — my most visible souvenir from Brazil — and absence of make-up makes me an anomaly. Stylistically, I definitely don’t wear the edginess of the girls who sport their cool fabrics and pant-cuts and patterned hairbands, all of which can be found on the streets and metro stations of traditionally ‘hip’ neighbourhoods. To tell the truth, I wouldn’t know how to pull it off, and so I stick with my minimalist maxi-skirts and cotton shirts.

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So edgy! So hip! So… not me!

So there you have it: an image of me, a tan, make-up-less, not so fancily dressed young female on the street. Take me to a store or to any situation of human interaction, and you’ll notice the next sign of my foreignness: the Korean language.

To clarify: I can speak, read, write and understand Korean. Fluently. I live in a very Korean household and I communicate with my parents exclusively in my mother tongue. But like most third-culture kids who grow up speaking their native tongue solely in the home environment, I may be able to use conversational Korean but not necessarily its formal counterpart. I’m fine in a convenience store or in a simple passing interaction… but I find my vocabulary is pretty lacking when it comes to politics, the environment, the economy, technology, medicine, the terms and conditions for pre-paid data plans and the like. Which is frustrating to say the least.

It’s frustrating because I’m legally an adult, but I don’t feel like one. I always feel like I need someone else to help me navigate what should rightfully be my own business, with this ‘someone else’ more often than not being my mom or my dad. Yesterday I went to get a medical check-up for college, and encountered several instances in which someone uttered a barrage of medical terms only to receive an uncomfortable silence in response. Then one of two things occurred: either they then repeated their question in ‘simple’ Korean, which was obviously a little ego-damaging, or my mom had to step in and continue the formal-speak. Both instances definitely left me feeling very, very small and ashamed and, most upsettingly, plain stupid.

A medical check-up is done on my body. This is the body I’ll live in for the rest of my life. How sad it is, and how profoundly absurd, that everyone else understands what kinds of tests will be done to my body when I don’t. And how exceedingly bizarre it is — and downright frightening — that the person who speaks on behalf of my body is not me. 

Losing agency is a really demeaning process. Suffice to say, after an hour of consecutive tests (one of which required me to swallow a bunch of stuff and be moved around on some tilting machine) (and another of which involved withdrawing blood… my biggest fear! Ack!) I was so exhausted and simply done. It didn’t help that, later that afternoon, I found myself at a phone store trying to purchase a phone plan with Nicole, a friend from Hong Kong who’s spending the summer in Seoul. Not only did we stay there for an hour without getting any SIM cards, but the man on duty was also the most condescending person I’ve met thus far, constantly asking the question ‘Did you… under…stand what I… just… said?’ in a mocking baby voice when yes, I understood, even though I may not speak Korean in the same way everyone else does.

It seems the theme of linguistic disconnect seems to haunt me everywhere I go: in Hong Kong, my inability to speak Cantonese was always a little humiliating; in Brazil, I struggled a lot initially to get basic ideas across, and now, in Korea, I’m facing the same problem. And gosh, what I’d do to feel the comfort of being completely and wholly understood and respected as a human being, like I was towards the end of my time in Brazil, or I guess how I feel (but not especially… a story for another time) in the US.

But in spite of the cultural hiccups, there are elements of my first three days that remind me there’s a reason to why I’m here. I may be the prodigal daughter who has returned, somewhat repentant, to re-learn the history and culture I inherited, yet in many ways Korea forgives me and reminds me that all hope is not lost.

Eating wholesome, Korean foods with family is muscle memory to me. Sitting around a grill eating kimchi and tofu and lettuce wraps and octopus with my aunt and her family felt so familiar. Watching my parents turn red from the soju felt so normal too. From walking down red-bricked streets to breezing past convenience stores selling the crackers of my youth, there are things I do that evoke memories from when I was last here. Whenever I get on a bus, I look around and marvel at how familiar everyone looks, and feels, to me— which is why I find it a bit eerie that strangers never exchange greetings (suffice to say, my time in Brazil has made me want to bellow the equivalent of E aí? or Bom dia! to the wayward passerby). I think having lived overseas, where fellow Koreans always share a certain unspoken camaraderie, has trained me to think all Koreans are pretty chummy with one another. Entering a reality where that isn’t the case has been kind of strange, to say the least— but I guess it’s something else I’m growing to learn.

Although things are moving pretty slow (and understandably so — we’ve just moved our whole lives to another country!) this first week, I’m pretty content to just sit back and observe a little. At the moment, I’m trying to find some odd jobs so that I’m forced to navigate the city on my own and get to know other people. We’ll see how that all pans out in the days, and weeks, ahead.

The Sentimentality of Things

I’m a sentimentalist, but not a hoarder.

I don’t feel particular attachment to stuff. If anything, the process of moving out has proved that I’m a little ruthless: as drawers and cabinets are opened for the first time in months, the plastic trash bags bloat and beg to be emptied. Before that, however, my mother — the original sentimentalist — scours through the depths of items deemed obsolete (in my eyes, at least) and yells at me for having put aside that half-used notebook she could potentially use in Korea, that empty CD she believes has a purpose, the dulling, unused pair of earrings she thinks could be gold, but she isn’t sure, so we should keep it.

Ugh. Moving demands so much patience. 

Granted, I used to be a hoarder myself / still kind of am. I’m particularly fond of things that were handmade or handwritten by myself or people I know. I’m not attached to yearbooks, but I’m stubborn about keeping my old birthday cards, journals (even the Korean school ones) and portfolios I had to make in primary school.

Purchased physical objects, however, offer a different story. Why? Minimalism: the art of having less stuff, or rather, maximizing what you do have so that less becomes more.

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Image credit: http://i.imgflip.com

I can’t call myself a minimalist at this stage: I still own various versions of various things, and my room is closer to cluttered than it is minimalist. Yet it’s a concept I’ve been thinking about with greater frequency as we grind through the move, and certainly something I want to practice in the years ahead.

To a certain extent, my nine months in Brazil inspired the change. Living out of a backpack shows you just how little you actually need in your life. I ended up buying more clothes, but in the end I the outfits I recycled were more or less sourced from 60% of that wardrobe. I left a lot of things in Brazil before coming home.

My time in Brazil also showed me how much happier I am in less cluttered environments. I mean, I’ve always known that I’m neat, but being in a room where everything I owned could fit inside one closet was such a refreshing feeling. I feel more creative in spaces where I’m not constantly distracted by little heaps and messes, and the time I’d otherwise spend cleaning can be spent doing other, more rewarding, activities (like writing and reading, which I did a lot in my room in Salvador).

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Upon returning from Brazil… 

I grew up as an indiscriminate consumer and never thought of being otherwise. I totally bought in to advertising and found myself wanting things simply because people subliminally told me to, or because I thought it was a cool thing to do. In middle school, one of my favourite hobbies — no joke — was shopping at H&M, ‘because it was cheap’. Whenever I ‘needed’ something (like a water bottle), I’d go out and buy one even when I had a bunch of water bottles lying around at home (‘oh, but they’re not the type I want’). You get the idea. 

But as I get older — and, in that process, as I get exposed to different lifestyles and life-philosophies — I’m realizing that consumerism isn’t really my cup of tea. I derive more net frustration from objects than I do joy. I don’t find myself wanting much anymore, and when I do, I think of ways to make it myself with what I have (for example, my crochet bucket hat — which, ironically, I haven’t really used since making). I derive a lot more pleasure from being creative with what I have, and being more mindful of the decisions I make and the impact it has on the environment and on my own psychological well-being.

So, with the express goal of living a more minimalist lifestyle, I’m intent on making small changes in my life — a process I’m willing to document if not for myself, then for others who may be interested in a similar endeavour. On top of the awesome benefits minimalism has for the environment, I also think it’s a great practice in self-care, and creating mental and physical space that would otherwise be taken up by valueless things. 

Little things I’ve done so far to get one step closer to being a minimalist (as expressed in list form) (how minimalist!):

  • I’ve donated* a lot of things I probably won’t need or use in Korea. If I feel like an object won’t add value to my life, but would bring greater value to someone else’s, donation is a simple win-win. The sorting and transporting may require a little more effort than simply throwing things in the trash, but trust me — it makes the tedium of moving so much more enriching. (For more details on donation, I’ve written about some cool HK-based resources below.)
  • I’ve changed my souvenir-buying habits. I used to think that I had to get souvenirs for friends and family whenever I travelled; but, thinking about it, how extraneous is it to buy something for the sake of buying it? Besides, after too many trinkets and charms thrown in the trash, I now know that there are many other ways to commemorate an experience with a loved one. The really minimalist version (and personally, my favourite one) would be to not get anything at all — or rather, not feel obligated to get anything — and share stories in a more intimate context instead. But if you’d like to bring back something for others, which is fine, why not bring back local foods or candies instead of non-perishable keychains or magnets? I brought back a bunch of paçoquitas from Brazil and everyone I’ve shared them with so far have loved them. I’m also planning on making a meal of moqueca and feijão (com farinha) for my parents once we settle down in our new home!

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    The best little lembranças ever!

  • I make an attempt to purchase local or second-hand (if I need to buy something to begin with). Minimalism and environmentalism go hand to hand so intuitively: when you consume less, you impact the earth less. When your options are reduced, you naturally grow more conscious of the decisions you do make. And consciousness makes a difference: whenever I buy groceries, for example, and find that the only cheeses available have all been shipped from Australia, I re-think my perceived ‘need’ for cheeses and get something else instead (if anything).

When it comes to lifestyle changes, it’s impossible — and inadvisable — to change everything at once. Inevitably, contradictions may arise. For example, I can’t really be a ‘minimalist’ if I’m intent on keeping every Christmas card anyone has written to me ever. But for now, when I’m not in the emotional position to start sorting through these piles, it’s fine to live with said ‘contradictions’. You don’t have to make your life harder by thinking in boxes (and I don’t say this only because of the hellish process otherwise known as moving). One day, when I’m ready, I’ll probably try and fit the letters that mean the most to me in a single shoe box; and until then, I’ll develop in other ways. Like with minimalist clothing, furniture, etc.

Having said all that though, I cannot end this post without mentioning the most poignant part of our move. Yesterday, my dad and I lugged two bagfuls of stuff to our nearest Salvation Army Family Store, where we donated a lot of toys, books, bags, accessories, stationery (notebooks, etc) and miscellaneous re-sellable objects (like plastic containers, bike pump, etc). We wanted to take one of our big bags back, so the lady on duty emptied the entire horde — which happened to include my dolls — into smaller baskets.

Seeing the sheep doll my aunt bought me when I first moved to Hong Kong made my heart hurt a little. The same happened when I saw the owl my parents bought me when I spent my birthday in Singapore’s Jurong Bird Park (I remember crying because I wanted the flamingo). Then there was the cheetah toy I used to sleep with, and my sister’s tiger counterpart…

But before I could run back and take them all back in my arms, I took a moment and thought about it. I’ve committed to this thing called ‘growing up’, which includes embracing new reflections and philosophies that may help me live a more enriching life. Back in the day, the dolls were what gave me joy. Over the years, I’ve changed — and that’s okay. I’m sure the sheep and the owl and the cheetah would’ve been proud of me too.

***

*If you find yourself de-cluttering / moving out of your house (or even Hong Kong!), here are some resources that will help you make the process a lot more sustainable and meaningful.

As mentioned above, my dad and I took a bunch of stuff to The Salvation Army. The process was super simple: we took our two bags of stuff to the Family Store closest to our home, delivered them to the staff working there that day, and that was it! So easy. You can find information on what they do and don’t accept / where the collection centers are here.

We also had two old, broken laptops lying around the house. Since I found it somewhat fishy to throw two electronic goods into the regular trash, I searched online for a computer recycling center and came across the Environmental Protection Department’s Computer and Communication Products Recycling Program. Basically, technicians either refurbish working laptops and donate them to those who need it, or — in the case that the device doesn’t work — the computers are dismantled and useful parts recycled. It turned out that one of the collection centers was right next to my house, so I went over, handed them the laptops, got a receipt and voilà! Again — super easy. You can find the list of collection centers here.

 

Meditations on Moving (A Country Away)

After fifteen years of mountain trails and double-decker bus rides, my family’s time in Hong Kong has almost come to an end. In a few days, my parents will board a one-way flight to Seoul with our cat as a carry-on, and in a short week or so I’ll follow.

***

The news was unexpected, but unsurprising. There was always going to be a journey back. And what better time is there than now, after I’ve spent an entire year marvelling over the way many Bahians are so sure of their cultural and social identity?

I’ve never known a ‘home’ in the way others have. I’m Korean, but I couldn’t tell you about my ancestors’ pasts. I couldn’t tell you about the music and the art and the dance that make my culture what it is. Heck, I couldn’t explain half of it in the language to begin with!

What I could tell you, however, is how much I’ve always wanted to know what it feels like to completely and unconditionally identify with a place and all of its historical joys and sorrows. To live in a place where I can interact with everyone in their mother tongue, with the added knowledge that we share a common heritage that brings us closer somehow.

To a certain extent, I regret not having been able to do this with Hong Kong. Sure, I’m not from the city, but I often wonder what my experience would’ve been like if I’d spoken Cantonese and spent more time with local people— like the way I did in Brazil. I regret the complacency I feel after fifteen years of living in a bubble, and I regret how difficult it is to come out of complacency once I am within it.

So, even though I’m technically moving to the US in the fall, I’m hoping this summer will be my chance to finally know something I’ve wanted to know my whole life.

***

For now, I live in uncertainty. The only certainty lies in the piles of boxes that grow taller by the day, and the evenings my parents and I spend in a living room that becomes emptier and emptier, eating the same meals with ingredients that need to be finished before we leave.

I find it to be a great lesson in patience. Without the silence of my own space, I learn to share spaces with others. I learn to prioritize the process instead of focusing on the end goal. Sure, I can’t wait until I’m back in a room of my own, decorated with the photographs and the colors I envision for myself. But for now, what matters are the morning promenade walks with my mom when she wants to take a break, the afternoon hikes with my dad when he wants a break, and the time I carve out for myself to write when need a break. And from this process of taking care of oneself and others, I realize that ‘waiting around’ isn’t the redundant ‘in-between’ I often deem it to be. As cheesy as it sounds, this ‘waiting around’ is also known as ‘growth’, if you let it be.

***

And of course, waiting around also comes with its fair share of precious moments.

The other day, I took all my books down from my bookshelf and decided to categorize them in various piles. There’s a belief that you can tell who a person is by looking at her bookshelf. In my case, the tallest stack consisted of fiction, whilst the second — surprisingly — were books in Spanish.

After coming home from Brazil, I’ve admittedly grown a little lax about my Spanish; without a doubt, it partially stems from my newfound love (and somewhat obsession) for Portuguese. But seeing the pile of Spanish books was a humbling reminder that Spanish has meant a lot to me before, and — I realize now — still does. After all, it was Spanish that built the bridge between myself and the beautiful sing-song nature of Brazilian Portuguese, and it was Spanish that got me hooked to the art of learning language.

Coming across old photographs, journals and Christmas letters has also been a treat. The other day I came across my first travel journal, which I wrote when my family visited Paris and London in 2008. Once upon a time, my favourite kind of hat in the world was the beret, and I thought my Legoland-issued drivers’ license was the best thing in the world.

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Even today, the process continues. Outside, it rains and the city feels quiet. In moments like these, I wish I could write an ode for Hong Kong, yet my current self cannot muster the energy to produce something fantastic.

It is important that I remind myself that things of beauty take their time to grow… and that, perhaps, their expression isn’t always intentional. If I could collate the individual moments that most characterize my years here — from the playground days of primary to late-night, post-graduation tram rides — I’m sure that the resultant collage would create something I never intended to be wonderful, but in the end has turned out to be the best goodbye I could give.

And so, these memories and conversations and lights and energies are what I’ll take with me, and what I’ll speak of in conversations as the years go on. And at college, when I face the inevitable question Where are you from?

I’ll obviously respond: Korea. 

But after that, there’ll always be a spotlight on Hong Kong.

 

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A shot taken during our backyard hike to Tai Fung Au (Mount Parker).

 

I’ve written about not having a ‘home’ in a previous post, which is entitled ‘The One Thing I Want (But I’ll Never Have)’. This post was also semi-inspired by my original ‘Meditations on Moving’, which I wrote when I moved in to the house we’re about to leave. 

Same, Same… But Different

A week has passed since I entered Arrivals Hall B at the Hong Kong International Airport and ran straight into my mother’s arms. In the days between then and now, I’ve realized that being home hasn’t been half as exhausting and exasperating as I thought it’d be. I expected I’d need at least five days to physically and mentally recuperate (read: stay at home resting, eating well and listening to Brazilian music) before announcing my presence to the world.

In the end, a day’s rest was enough: on Sunday I met up with 3/7ths of the jovial Bridge Year China group, with whom I went to what was my fourth (or my fifth) June 4th Vigil in Victoria Park. Of course, the idea of being home was eased somewhat by the company of fellow Bridge Year kids, who could share in the experience of having been away for so long. (Besides, it meant I could talk about all things Brazil-related and not feel slightly redundant or obnoxiously ‘gap-yah’-esque.)

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With Jack, Nikhita and Stephen from BYP China! 

But what I’ve found comforting is the fact that the transition hasn’t been so hard — in all kinds of settings. A thought that simultaneously relieves and worries me.

I’ve returned to a routine I feel comfortable in: eating oats for breakfast, going hiking on Mount Parker (a much missed walk), seeing people who I’ve seen frequently for the past several years of my life, etc. In most, if not all, of these contexts, I feel like the same person I was before — which is comforting, as I don’t feel ‘misplaced’ post-Brazil, but slightly befuddling as it makes me wonder how Brazil has changed me.

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From a hike up Mount Parker with my dad!

Is that important?

To me, yes: I believe that to give an experience justice is to let it change you or the way you think about certain things.

And, to a certain degree, Brazil has changed things. Whenever people ask me the (somewhat dreaded) question How was Brazil?, one of the reflections I offer always has to do with how I’ve ‘become more mellow’. Mellow is but a word, and giving one-word responses has never been my favourite. Yet it’s true — I think I’m a lot calmer when I’m without guarantees for how I’ll spend my time, I’m a lot less stressed out by previous stressors (e.g. my parents) and I’m generally more OK with giving myself me-time and not doing anything in particular.

(Alright, maybe that’s a bit optimistic. In recent days I’ve grown a little antsy over my self-perceived lack of productivity, which has included my inability to write a blog post post-arrival… so I guess I’m debunking my own claim with these very paragraphs. Oops.)

I’m also certainly more conscious about my environmental impact. Whenever I shop for groceries, I spend ages looking at where the products are from and/or how much packaging is used. I find myself in conundrums when a locally produced good comes in more plastic packaging than a non-local one (I’m hoping Quora will answer this doubt). I try to take public transportation as much as possible, I still carry around my insane 1L water bottle, and I haven’t bought any material goods since coming back home.

But then again, there are moments I find myself becoming complacent. Sometimes I feel like I create excuses for myself. For instance — my parents still buy mineral water in bottles, which I tried to talk them out of. I suggested a filter, to which they responded that they’d rather not. But instead of arguing further, I always relent under the assumption that it’s their house, not mine (for very long at least). I also find myself waiting around to start a lot of cool projects (like making DIY cosmetics, planting, etc) because my family’s moving pretty soon, which is a fairly good reason but certainly disempowering after my initial drive and conviction.

So — that is the state of things. I’m mostly happy, but also feeling a little complacent and very tired… all of which is understandable, but frustrating. I want to be able to express more of my philosophical changes in my life beyond the colorful headbands and funky earrings, but for now I feel slightly put on-hold. We’ll see where I am by the end of the summer.

 

Tchau, Brasil!

After what felt like an infinity of full, dawn-to-dusk days, this day is my last. This morning was the last time I woke up with the knowledge I’ll fall back asleep in this country. This afternoon will be the last stretch of hot sun I’ll experience in Bahian fashion, full of chattering pedestrians and funk music and the sound of buses cruising past with their cobradores peeking their heads out the windows. This evening will be the last time I’ll dance shamelessly in public, with the effervescent music of Brazil — the forró, the MPB, the regular hits — playing into the long, long night that sits ahead.

Today will be the last day I’ll have Jordan, Asia, David, Alejandro, Leo and Conor unconditionally and constantly by my side, to share in the moments joyous or frustrating, full of banter or full of tears. It’ll be our last chance to slip Portuguese words like vontade and saudades into conversations without their being out of place, and the last time we’ll talk in English and never quite be understood. It’ll also be the last time we’ll head into separate rooms with a boa noite, and, even more strikingly, an ate amanhã, which we won’t hear again until we meet in three months.

The gravity of nine months hasn’t hit me like I thought it would; surprisingly, I’m not the sentimental wreck I normally am. Over the past few weeks, parts of my mind have already begun the 11,000KM migration back home, where the life I once lived awaits. It has already made lists of people to meet, places to go, foods to eat, and things to do… with an exception: the ways in which it’ll never be the same.

How could it?

Nine months is a long time. It would be impossible to capture the gravity of our time through words alone: the people we’ve grown to love, the places where we’ve laughed and cried, the cultural quirks we’ve griped and giggled over. I was lucky enough to meet two mothers who showed me a mother’s love is not necessarily biological. I was lucky enough to find places where in turn I found myself; a cheesy statement, but true in the context of the reflections I’ve made and the changes I want to make in my life back home. I was lucky enough to meet characters eccentric and benign, loud and quiet, with life experiences from across the world or from a certain neighbourhood alone… their universal quality being the willingness to allow another to enter into their lives.

And now, my life back home sits waiting for me with a certain kind of comfort — yet not without a certain anxiety.

I can’t wait to be in an environment where I am no longer conspicuous: where I can cross roads and enter stores without being looked at, and constantly be asked to explain why I am where I am. Yet it bewilders me to think that when I talk to strangers, I’ll no longer be interacting with them in their mother tongue. It saddens me somewhat that I’ll rarely have the random, drawn-out conversations with strangers that happen so frequently in Brazil, and experience the feeling of having heard a most interesting story in the most unexpected way.

I can’t wait to be in my own space again, and live without having to re-pack things or recycle an outfit too many times. Yet I don’t know who I’ll reach out to whenever I want to share an interesting thought or an emotional heart-to-heart, when those who’ve shared them with me no longer live next door. It is easy to be loved when one is the best version of themselves, but I don’t know who’ll have the patience when I am at my worst — as my fellow companions have learnt to do. 

And of course, there are the little things. I can’t wait to reach the point on my favourite hiking trail where the uphill becomes the descent. But I’ll remember the times I talked about re-climbing Mount Parker, and realise with a certain heaviness that I can’t use the same prefix — so easily, that is — when it comes to Brazil. I can’t wait to see kimchi in the fridge, have yum cha with my parents and potentially indulge myself the salad of goodness (and much expensiveness) at my favourite vegetarian spot. Yet I don’t know what I’ll do when I start craving the savoury crunch of acarajé, or want to find a simple slice of cake that won’t cost me a fortune.

The other day, my instructor Hanna told me that you have to leave in order to come back. All these questions and don’t knows will only be resolved once I enter the plane to go home, the place in which I’ll be able to gauge how Brazil has made me who I am — and the place that’ll kindle the important urge (or, as I say here, vontade) to return.

Arguably, the act of returning home is the most important thing I have on my list of things to do, and, like I was for the past nine months, I’m eager to do it with hope and courage and a lot of laughter.

And keep the faith that I’ll return to Brazil yet again. I don’t think I’ll stay too far for too long.

Yet Another Goodbye

In three days’ time, we’ll don our backpacks and finally board our flights home. At the moment, I don’t know what to write; there are so many things to think about, and — for now, at least — not enough space or time to express it all. The past few days, however, have been spent at a beachside house where we’ve done a lot of reflection about our time in Brazil, what it meant to us and how we’ll bring it back home.

Whilst I find the right words to close the experience, I thought I’d share a poem I wrote after my first real goodbye: when we found out we were leaving Candeal and, soon after, Salvador. I wrote it one rainy morning after an early walk to the gym.

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Walking Through Candeal at 5:50AM on the 21st of February 2017

Today the world woke up with
      light-bursts and thunder-cracks and

rain running through the streets like
      your tears fell down your

Thursday morning cheeks: desperately,
      and not knowing where to go.

The sky sits like the cat watching
      its kittens scavenge in the trash.

Down the road the bricks in the fountain
      have cracked and no-one comes

to fix them. Who are you but
      a passerby with a capacity to love

passing things? Stale water falls
      from metal roofs in a melody. This morning,

someone is singing. The man waits
      outside the market to buy bread, which will

be made again and again like
      a memory. Someone blesses the day.

The concrete is calmed by the storm.
      It is quiet and grey, but today

it asks to be different. Wet. Perhaps
      wonderful.

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Candeal at first sight. (October, 2016)

In Sun, Sand and Silence: The Sertão

“Unless people become natural people, there can be neither natural farming nor natural food. In one of the huts on the mountain I left the words, “Right Food, Right Action, Right Awareness” inscribed on a pinewood plaque above the fireplace. The three cannot be separated from one another. If one is missing, none can be realized. If one is realized, all are realized.” — from Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution

I’ve been a little quiet these days, both online and in person. The only traces of regular activity can be found in my journal, which has been fattening with words, flower petals and cacti skeleton amongst a motley mix of other things.

A lot of it is because I’m absolutely spent. Physically, it’s been tough: for the past few weeks, we’ve been alternating between opposing climates and altitudes with hardly a break in between. After leaving Palmeiras, we first went to the hilly town of Rio de Contas, where we rode trucks into mountaintop communities and climbed the second highest peak in the Northeast; then, we went to the dry, sandy region of the sertão, where we worked on permaculture-related activities; and now, we’ve settled into — and we’re just about to leave — the balmy, beachside town of Praia do Forte, quite close (yet so far!) to our dear home Salvador. The constant shifts have left me feeling a little under the weather, and so a lot of my mind-space has been consumed by thoughts of how to stay sane and healthy.

But mentally, it’s also been tough — in both good ways and bad. As someone whose primary mode of self-recharge is rich and productive solitude, I find it difficult at times to constantly have to be in sync with a group. Not being able to control simple variables, like personal spaces and routines, has also been tough, and so has the burgeoning homesickness for both the homestay experience and the family that waits back home.

Yet it’s also been rewarding. With long journeys come long moments, and it is in the generosity of these instances that important reflections are made. For me, the most self-enriching of these times were discovered in the sertão, where the isolation and quietude of the days made way for some re-considerations on how I want to live my life.

So with that, I thought it’d be worthwhile to share some of these thoughts in this space. (My fattening journal thanks me for this act of mercy.)

***

In the sertão we stayed at a permaculture site called Marizá Epicentro, which is around an hour’s drive away from the main city of Tucano. Marsha Hanzi, the creator of the bio-dynamic* site, essentially turned a patch of sand into a verdant agro-forest littered with desert plants, edible plants (like beans and pumpkin) and the wayward flower.

It is quiet in Marizá. Internet was limited to a single PC in a small room, lest the network interfere with cosmic energies that pass through the earth. The only noise you hear in the mornings is the animals waking up. People ride around on horses, and the paths between neighbouring farms are just stretches upon stretches of sand.

In the sun, sand and the silence of all things city and human, I thought. During mealtimes, I thought about what I’d read in the Epicentro library, and talked to Marsha and others on matters such as spirituality. On the final day, I cracked open a khaki-colored copy of Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution, a permaculture classic I first encountered when I worked on a farm last summer. When I came across the quote that opens this post, I realized it offers great structure to what I was thinking at that time:

Right food 

Over the course of six days, I skimmed my way through three books all related to healing through nutrition. The first was on natural diet changes for self-care and healing illness, the second was on ‘blood-type diets’, and the last was on fruit therapy (a kind of therapy in which the nutrients in fruits are used to heal). Some of the content was what mainstream society would deem pseudo-scientific, and after some online research I don’t entirely disagree; certain statements, like the claim that certain fruits contain protein levels similar to animal sources, just don’t match up with the nutritional facts. Yet the main message I gathered from all three books, however intuitive, was greatly motivational: that food plays an important role in the workings of our bodies, and that fuelling ourselves with wholesome, nutrient-dense foods (and getting exercise, of course) is the best preventative medicine around.

What with my being a health nut, being in the sertão was an excellent experience. Everything we ate was sourced locally, was processed minimally (if at all), and was absolutely delicious. I woke up in the mornings feeling strong and well, and the problems I had with fatigue previously in the year diminished greatly over the week — which only motivated me more to eat cleaner. The day before we arrived in the sertão, we’d gone on a near twenty-four hour journey in which the only foods we ate were road snacks (crackers, chocolate, greasy buns at bus stations, etc) and upon my arrival I felt sick. My gut wasn’t happy, my skin broke out in a rash, and I didn’t feel too fresh. Four days later, however, I felt a new vigour I was eager to maintain throughout the rest of my time in Brazil — which is why, when we got to Praia do Forte, I cooked most of my own meals and essentially ate enough micronutrients to last me a lifetime.

Something else I thought about was the consumption of meat. Beyond the suggestion that people with blood type O (like my meat-free self) eat a primarily animal protein-based diet (which again I found a little dubious, but still have to research into), Marsha’s belief on the importance of eating animals was interesting. The sertão is a land of animals, she claimed. Farming in the region wouldn’t work without the presence of livestock that offer rich manure and regular cropping. In the bio-dynamic spirit, which is all about equilibrium of natural and human elements, Marsha believes it is beneficial to eat animals in the sertão (with these animals having been raised ethically). Since I’m mainly opposed to the industrial cruelty towards animals and not the concept of eating meat, I found this to be a fair point. For a while, I even considered going back to meat. Yet in the end I decided I probably wouldn’t, in the city (i.e. my home) at least, as the process becomes a lot more opaque and it becomes harder to find ethically-sourced animal products. If I were to live for an extended period of time in a place like the sertão, however, maybe things would be different.

Right action 

Of course, all this conceptual thinking does no good unless brought into action, which is why this next step is great. Besides, with my return home less than two weeks away, it’s a good time to think about how my life back in Asia will change dependent on my experiences here in Brazil.

On our final day in the sertão, we watched the documentary No Impact Man. As its name suggests, it follows a man and his family who decide to go ‘no impact’ for a year — meaning no electricity, all locally sourced foods, no waste, etc. What the family does is extreme, but it proves that living a low carbon-footprint life is a) not that difficult and b) actually quite rewarding.

Needless to say, I was inspired. I was also inspired by the sheer amount of natural products I encountered during my stay in the sertão, and how they matched up to — or even exceeded — their conventional, chemical-laden counterparts. For instance: when I had a bad rash the first day, I calmed it down with fresh aloe vera and a paste made out of some kind of plant. I washed my hair with a natural shampoo that, despite its very watery consistency, allowed me to go several days without my hair smelling and with it generally looking fine.

I’m wary of setting too many high-handed goals for myself, because realistically I probably wouldn’t achieve them all. But what I have been considering is pretty simple, and I’m excited about it: when I return home, I’m planning on cooking more for myself using locally produced and seasonal ingredients (which means less, if any, imported fruits and foods all year round); learning how to make my own cosmetics (like deodorant and soap); stop all plastic bag usage once and for all; consider biking; get most of my clothes second-hand / reduce consumption to begin with.

Right awareness

This is where the spiritual side of things come in. After various conversations on zodiacs, reincarnation and alternative healing practices like Reiki and Ayurveda, I’ve begun thinking more about spirituality than I have before.

Previously, I used to equate spirituality with religion, which I’ve realized wasn’t fair at all — I now believe that spirituality is simply the practice of humility and deep understanding of oneself. One needs to be humble to seek within themselves spaces for growth, which is what leads us to seek out things or concepts that are greater than us. It is in this spirit that humanity becomes more open-minded and willing to learn from itself, and spirituality often provides the vehicle for learning.

Some people are quick to dismiss ‘alternative’ therapies for their pseudo-scientific spiritual aspects. But many ‘new age’ practices are developed in such a way that highlights the importance of self-awareness / self-care, and I think being aware of the self is an admirable task.

At the moment, I’m still unsure as to where I stand on the spirituality spectrum. I wouldn’t call myself a spiritual person (at the moment, at least), but it’s something I’m willing to look into. In some way, I think it might complement the previous two elements in Fukuoka’s three-piece mantra, and I’ll continue to ponder it until I figure it out.

***

Many thoughts, and such a hectic time. In less than two weeks, I’ll be back home… and we’ll see where things go from there.

*Bio-dynamic agriculture is an alternative form of agriculture in which elements such as soil fertility, animal raising and plant growth are all interwoven ecologically and spiritually. It is similar to organic farming in many ways but introduces the aspect of ‘energies’ that interfere with the earth, like energy from the moon cycle, astronomy, etc. 

Vale do Pati: Moments

Three nights ago we returned to Palmeiras, sweaty and exhausted, after a four-day trek through the rolling hills of Vale do Pati. Three days later, I lie in bed with a slightly sore foot and the bittersweet feeling of the present gradually becoming the past. Before the echoes of our trek completely leave my body, I thought it’d be worthwhile to capture, in words and photos, some of our finest moments deep in the wonder of the Chapada.

***

The trek began and ended with sleep. On the early morning van ride to Guiné, our starting destination, I remember the van falling quiet as members of our troupe compensated for the 5AM wake-up call. On the ride back to Palmeiras, I fell asleep watching the headlights illuminate the indents on the dirt road, a bottle of green juice nestled in my lap. When I woke up, I saw my homestay mom in the near distance, walking home.

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***

We walked — a lot. The first day we walked twelve kilometers from Guiné to Seu Miguel’s house, which is nestled deep in the verdant hush of the valley. At our first viewpoint, I remember stumbling into the view and simply feeling stunned. I wondered how the trees in the distance were so violet. In the background, Joás, our eccentric guide, sang a song about feeling saudades for Pati, and each time he sang it it seemed to have a different tune.

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***

There was a lot of singing involved: wildlife imitative singing, Disney song singing, renditions of Hallelujah, attempts at a two-part, earth-loving hymn. The lattermost we sang at the dinner table each night. Dinner was always a fun process; on the final night, after scrapping our idea of paying for a pre-made meal, the whole group spent three hours in the kitchen whipping up (re-)baked pasta, farofa, and a godó de banana made from some green bananas Joás found, and cut, on the hike that day. Joás’ godó was certainly deserving of his exuberant ‘bom demais!’ (too good!). The repertoire of his culinary improvisation — which included oatmeal made with tea — was certainly something to learn from. Jordan’s improvised oat cake, however, probably (pun certainly intended) took the cake with its ingenuity of utilizing all the extra food we brought.

***

Sitting on the top of Morro de Castelo, Jordan, Asia and I got a kick out of playing my favourite simile game, an I Spy… variation which involves the statement life is like… followed by one thing in the near distance which had to be justified in the context. For example: life is like an eavesdropping lizard on Morro de Castelo — it creeps up on you. 

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***

The next day, we went to Cachoeira dos Funis, where I promptly soothed the physical consequences of an all-black outfit with a dip in the ice-cold water. Trying to catch my balance under the roaring waterfall was terrifying; the water was so loud. Later on I climbed up the first waterfall to find a second, next to which I lay on a bed of flat rock thinking of calm things and feeling the taste of a wild berry on my tongue. I only left because a bee sat on my right leg and refused to move, which made me nervous.

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***

Seu Miguel has a cat called Mingau that is all too eager to share his love. One morning I woke up at 6.30AM to feel something move against my left leg. It took me two minutes to muster the courage to look down and see what it was… and I was pleasantly surprised to see a little, curled-up body pressed against my own. He later came up and nestled in the crook of my arm for a while, but migrated to the next bed when its inhabitant began to stir. It didn’t help with my cat-related trust issues.

***

The final day was a twenty-three kilometer long struggle, but we got there in the end. We overlooked incredible, sprawling vistas with honey-soaked oat cakes and cold sandwiches in our hands. We talked about things from sibling dynamics to funny love stories to childhood quirks. At one point we shouted as loud as we could, only to hear our voices echo back so clearly from a distance.

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Ten hours after our early morning start, we finally entered the van, our legs exhausted and our spirits drained, but high. We hardly felt the saudades creeping in.

***

But now, on the first day of our last month, boy do we feel it.

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Privilege and the Little Things

In four days, my fellow Bridge Year companions and I will be heading off on a month-long adventure of our planning. First we’ll trek the Chapada’s breathtaking Vale do Pati trail, and then we’ll be spending a few weeks in the Amazon (and possibly the dry sertão region of Bahia as well). Our planning started much later than usual, which left us with some last-minute meetings filled with disconnecting phone calls and the occasional cake; but thanks to the classic laid-back jeito we’ve picked up in Brazil, we all work with the consolation that things will (probably) work out just fine.

In any case, one can’t deny that we’re incredibly lucky to have the opportunity, and the resources, to travel. We joke about throwing all our plans aside and blowing our budget on fancy dinners and paradisiacal islands, but we’re also very aware that, regardless of what we do and how ‘rugged’ our experience becomes, a lot of our choices are granted to us because we’re very, very fortunate. And definitely privileged.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: I’ve had my privilege checked many times here in Brazil. Coming from a socioeconomic environment where international travel was the norm, I sometimes feel embarrassed by the fact that I’ve seen more of the world than most teenagers — and for no other reason than the arbitrary birth lottery. Yesterday, I went to an English class taught by Conor’s homestay dad, Marquinhos, in which one of the prompts for class conversation was ‘where have you been in the world’? The class wanted to hear the full list of places I’ve travelled, and so I gave it — at the end of which my homestay sister, who spends hours of her days reading about places she’s never been, said (in English): ‘I’m sad.’

She said it jokingly, and everyone laughed. But I was a little sad. I didn’t deserve to see the world any more than the others in that room.

The same phenomenon occurred during a conversation with my homestay mom the following night, as I was eating dinner. She asked if we’d finished planning our trip and where we were going to go. I told her we’d be hiking the Vale do Pati, after which I asked você ja foi? (Have you already been?). The hike starts an hour or so away from Palmeiras, and my homestay dad was a trail guide, so I thought it’d be an appropriate question to ask. My homestay mom said she hadn’t been — and I realized that that wasn’t entirely unexpected. The trail is actually pretty darn expensive, if you include the costs for the guide, accommodation, food, etc. It’s a ‘rugged’ experience, but it doesn’t come without its privileges.

When I talked about the Amazons, I felt the same way: most people I’ve met here in Palmeiras haven’t been to the Amazons, let alone many other Brazilian states — unless it was to find work.

Yesterday night, in light of these reflections, I found myself talking with Alejandro about the idea of looking forward to things. The act of looking forward to things, I said, often comes with a lot of privilege. When we left Candeal, we had the privilege of looking forward to future adventures that buoyed us through what was a very difficult time. Still today I can’t help but wonder how our homestay moms must’ve felt. This whole year I’m looking forward to doing something — like going home, then starting college — and a lot of it is due to my ability and my resources to move around freely.

To Alejandro, however, the best part of looking forward to things is found in the smaller things. And upon thinking about it, I realized that something I’ve learnt in Brazil is how to appreciate the small stuff as much as their bigger counterparts.

Over the past four weeks, I’ve settled down and created a routine for myself here in Palmeiras. Granted, ‘routine’ in Brazil means something entirely different from ‘routine’ in Hong Kong, as I’m in a place that is so culturally and linguistically different (and has a deadline). Yet whereas my routine in Hong Kong was often a source of boredom / mild frustration with the static nature of things, my routine in Palmeiras is one that inspires little surprises or events that make me look forward to just being.

Things like:

Going to Jordan’s house early Friday morning expecting to spend some time conversing with Dona Toinha, but instead tasting some homemade canjica do milho and learning how to make crepioca (tapioca-based crepes) with Jordan’s homestay sister Johama. Playing basketball in the evenings and shooting an unanticipated goal, and afterwards hearing someone shout: Coreia! and feeling triumphant that they finally know I’m not Japanese. Sitting in the praça with friends conversing about various topics, waving to familiar faces as they pass by in cars, watching a Korean drama with my twin sisters, lying in a hammock at the pousada… really simple things, but always meaningful.

(And I know, I could probably find the same amount of inspiration in Hong Kong — I think the complacency of having been there for fourteen years caused otherwise. But if there’s one thing I’ll be taking home, it’s the realization that I can take ownership of my time to do things entirely spontaneous and super rewarding.)

In any case, I definitely cherish my small change of psyche, and I’m interested to see how it’ll carry on when I go home. For now, it’s a real shame we’re leaving Palmeiras so soon. Our four weeks here have been more invigorating than what any of us expected, especially after the tumult of leaving Salvador behind.

***

Yesterday, we went on a historic tour of Palmeiras and ended up on a hilltop overlooking a small panorama of the city. I looked across all the landmarks and was taken aback: like that, I could see my favourite memories and pastimes in Palmeiras mapped across the landscape, and it felt so warm to know that here, I’ll always find a home.

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A Tale of Two Cities (Part 2): Service

“Your own self-realization is the greatest service you can render the world.” — Indian sage Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950)

Excuse the Goodreads quote, but I feel it perfectly captures what the service element of the program is all about. Before coming to Brazil, I saw ‘service’ as something done with the obvious and superficial intention of ‘doing good’; it was a conscious addition to day-to-day life rather than a part of it.

Another conception I had of service was that it wasn’t entirely selfless. In an educational environment where service was a quantifiable tool that was correlated with the metric for ‘success’, I grew skeptical about the meaning of service and why people chose to do it.

Doing service work in Brazil has taught me that I was both right and wrong in my conceptions. I was wrong to think service was something distinguishable from the quotidian; even day-to-day activities can offer the kind of moral benefits (like solace and inspiration) and the practical improvements we attribute to effective service.

Yet I was right in that service isn’t entirely selfless. Sure, it requires acting for others, but service is also very much about acting for yourself. Service, as Ramana Maharshi purportedly claimed, is really all about self-realization. Of building yourself into a stronger person so that you may leave the world a stronger place.

***

In Salvador, I spent six months working with a movement called Canteiros Coletivos. Put street art, recycled products, urban planting and social activism together and you’d more or less get an idea of what Canteiros is all about.

Yup, this environmental-cum-social-cum-political movement was as badass as it sounds. Every morning I’d head over to Débora’s house, where I was greeted with an explosion of colour and life. As I watered the myriad plants growing out of tires, milk cartons, and old paint cans, I’d often be stained yellow by the stem of the tomato plant, or have my fingers turn fragrant from the hortelã, the basil or the rosemary. No two waterings would look the same: sometimes I’d spend more time watering the plants that looked a little exhausted, and when it rained I’d only do a quick check-up of the jasmine and the pineapple plants that sit beneath an overhead covering.

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The headquarters of Canteiros Coletivos.

Sometimes I spent the day painting recycled detergent bottles to use as vases on the streets. A few times, Débora, Thiago and I, along with whichever volunteers were around for the day, spray painted lampposts and decorated them with plants and reminders to love the spaces in which we live. Walking to work and watching the plants grow — a sign that they were being cared for by the surrounding community — was always a treat.

I could go on about the other stuff we did, like planting fruit trees by a busy roundabout in Gantois, holding gardening workshops with little kids at alternative fairs, and planting beans and pumpkin and sunflower saplings on the roadside in Vale do Canela.

A part of the reason why I wanted to work with Canteiros was because my real mom has a mini-garden jutting out from our living room window at home. I was entirely indifferent to it, thinking that gardening was beyond me. Yet Canteiros has taught me that planting isn’t so hard, and in fact rewarding in ways other than harvesting the end product (like delicious cherry tomatoes): it teaches lessons in patience, selflessness and the beauty of watching great spaces — when treated right — create important interactions between people. Upon returning home, I’ll undoubtedly help my mom with her mini-garden, and I’m also thinking of doing a few street installations myself. There isn’t a sight more heartwarming than seeing a busy passerby stop to admire a lamppost decorated with painted vases and a whole load of flowers. Besides, public streets are called public for a reason: they’re ours to care for, and ours to respect.

It’s important for me to mention that the other volunteers made my experience doubly rewarding. Every day I’d have at least one other volunteer with me at Débora’s house, and we’d tend the plants together as music echoed through the space. I always enjoyed talking with Lucas, whose famous homemade cakes made several appearances throughout the year, and whose compassion and warmth I’ll never forget; Victor, whose love for insects, although beyond me, always impressed me; Lhaís, with her fun Couchsurfing stories and enviably chic wardrobe; Mariana, with her conversations on all topics from Carnaval to bottled milk. It’s incredible to realize that there are so many like-minded people to meet in the world, and that Canteiros is just the tip of the iceberg.

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Ending my time at Canteiros with a little gathering.

***

Here in Palmeiras, my days doing service take on a slower pace. Three mornings a week I visit Dona Toinha, who is incidentally my and Jordan’s homestay grandmother. At eighty-eight years of age, Dona Toinha is an incredibly dignified woman who has lived a long life of dancing, singing samba de roda songs, selling spices, and generally being active and present for everyone she knows. Her Alzheimer’s makes it hard for her to converse with me — sometimes she says she wants to say something but the words don’t come out right, and other times she forgets who I am — but she always smiles whenever she hears a joke, or quietly sings a traditional samba song every once in a while.

When I sit with Dona Toinha, showing her my paintings, my crochet or asking about her life, I feel focused and present in a way I rarely do. Three hours fly by, and the hospitality of her family (i.e. Jordan’s homestay family) makes me feel like a part of the family itself.

Recently, Dona Toinha became especially weak and spent several days lying in bed. I wasn’t sure what to do during that time, not only as a foreigner but also as someone with little practical knowledge of how to work with the elderly. When I raised this concern with Hanna, our director, she talked to Dona Toinha’s daughter and main caregiver, Maria, to ask what I could do. Maria said that having me sit beside her mother was enough, regardless or not we conversed. Ever since I’ve thought a lot about the meaning of service, and it strikes me to think that even bringing a different energy into a space can be considered meaningful ‘work’ — although I hesitate to call what I do with Dona Toinha ‘work’, as it feels like a regular part of my day to visit and be with the family.

Two other days a week, I work with my homestay mom, Neide, at the environmental organization GAP. On Wednesday mornings I go around Palmeiras pushing a rubbish cart, picking up recyclable trash that residents leave outside their homes. Tiring it may be, the work is relatively relaxing when done beside Neide and her friends, Terezinha and Yvonette, whose laughter is always contagious. In the afternoons I sort through the trash and sometimes get to work the Wall-E machine (i.e. the garbage press machine) to create very visually satisfying blocks of material. Although the work is exhausting, it does feel pretty cool to be able to sort things really quickly and through them into buckets basketball-style — especially when my homestay dad is involved.

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With the aluminium cans!

Perhaps my job at GAP isn’t as glamorous as my work at Canteiros, and perhaps I have nothing more to offer than an extra pair of hands. Yet the lessons I learn about recycling and consumerism are, though intangible, things I can carry back home and apply to my life there. I’ve never really thought about how recycling works in Hong Kong, or at Princeton, but I’m willing to find out — and I’m more than willing to be conscious of how much waste I produce, and whether or not the consumption of their constituent materials is entirely necessary.

***

So, perhaps the work I’m doing won’t solve Brazil’s corrupt political system or end poverty. But service doesn’t always have to be done with the intention of a lofty goal bigger than oneself. In fact, service may start with enriching oneself, which may incidentally happen through the process of enriching the life of another. And if we all engage in this thing called service by making it a part of our day-to-day, we may even start a chain reaction that ultimately makes humanity happier to be where we are, when we are, and with the people we are with.

And I guess that’s the biggest gift you can give.