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The Economy of Silence

“Don’t tell me things I already know.” — somewhere in Tove Jansson’s Fair Play 

Yesterday, I thought a lot about silence.

It began in my comparative literature lecture, in which we discussed Swedish-speaking Finnish writer (cum graphic artist) Tove Jansson’s Fair Play: a short yet brilliantly rich novel that features quiet vignettes illustrating the relationship between its protagonists. One of the defining elements of the book is a profound silence that punctuates the characters’ conversations: there are no filler words, no stock conversations, no needless how are yous. In their stead you find utterances that sometimes make no sense when uttered alone, but that are understood nonetheless; conversations laced with emotions one rarely finds in trite conversation, like disappointment, frustration, exhaustion; and small, but heroic, moments of choosing not to speak when speaking is an option.

Because — oh boy! — is speaking an option.

One thing I’ve come to realize, and detest, but nevertheless internalize, is that small talk comes part and parcel with life here in the USA. As someone who generally doesn’t like awkward silences or hellos left unsaid, I’ve found it to a culture not too foreign to what I’m used to. Yet this also means that how are you? is a question that slips so naturally past my tongue, even when I know what’s next in the script: I’m good, how are you? 

And that’s exactly what Tove Jansson opposes in Fair Play: the incessant tendency for people to follow and verbalize ‘the script’, even when it is clearly a chore for all parties involved. Instead, she argues that it is worthwhile to choose silence when there is a mutual agreement between parties, and that practicing the economy of silence is an act of generosity, of giving “artistic, intellectual and emotional space” (my lecturer’s beautiful words) to those who need it.

“There are empty spaces that must be respected — those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.” — somewhere else in Tove Jansson’s Fair Play 

In a culture of excess, verbal excess included, it’s a challenge to practice silence. Yet it’s something I want to experiment with as a way of being more mindful of gauging how people really are — if I really do care, that is. One thing I’ve tried to practice is ask better questions: instead of how are you?, opting for what has been the highlight of your day? has led to a faster leap into the kinds of conversation that might actually enrich your day: like talking about a good meal, a friend you haven’t seen in a while, a particularly invigorating class. I encourage everyone to try that too.

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Fun fact: Tove Jansson was the creator of Moomin!

Before the day was over, another incident led me to mull over the significance of silence. After my lecture ended, I quickly scurried over to a nearby building to attend the film screening of a new Brazilian film entitled VazanteI don’t really know how to describe it, but it’s a film that comments upon the history of slavery that was pervasive throughout Brazil (specifically in the 19th century, before abolition in 1888).

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A still from Vazante, where (very young) Beatriz gets married to (not so young) Sr. Antonio.

The movie was two hours long, and I’m pretty sure the dialogue, combined, would have only taken up ten minutes.

(The rest, as you might’ve guessed, was silence.)

At first, I was a little bored, and found myself getting antsy whenever characters would stare at each other for a really long time. Several times I wanted to walk out, and the only reason why I stayed was because I really wanted to ask why the director had chosen to produce the movie in black and white — and why there was so much silence.

Unfortunately the questions weren’t really answered in a way that I found clear, which was a bummer, but I had some interesting thoughts nonetheless. Perhaps, as is the case with Tove Jansson’s book, the characters were acknowledging a shared script not only between themselves but also with the audience: Brazil’s history with slavery is a communal one, and all Brazilians carry with them their consequences. For that reason, perhaps there was an expectation for the audience to understand the dynamics that were at play between the characters.

Or perhaps the director wanted to give people the “artistic, emotional and intellectual” space to create the dialogue for themselves, and thus personalize the issue of slavery. Maybe the reason why I didn’t find the movie terribly exciting or moving was because I didn’t exactly feel the cultural pull or the connection — maybe I need some time to understand the script, especially when left unsaid.

And that’s okay. I sat in silence for two hours and watched.

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Fall Break

A week before fall break, I remembered the existence of my summer’s most glorified purchase: a round-trip ticket for the long voyage between Newark and Los Angeles, bought on StudentUniverse for the wonderful week in which October would become November.

Up until then, I hadn’t planned a thing. I have time, I thought. My essay thought the same, so we conspired together until the week was up, midterms were over, and I was lugging my potentially oversized carry-on to the Dinky and thinking, damn, is this too big? I should’ve Googled this. 

The only thing I’d planned was a budget, and it was unwilling to part with the twenty-five bucks Virgin America charges for check-in bags.

***

Thankfully, the bag was fine. Less thankfully, I was still woefully unprepared. Upon arriving at LAX, I boarded a shuttle bus and proceeded to spend three hours passing cacti and Chinese convenience stores and brown suburban homes and wondering how on earth this country could be so big. I should Google this, I thought. Then I remembered how much I enjoy bragging about my spartan nine-dollar-a-month phone plan. It doesn’t come with data.

***

Upon arrival in Pomona, I was almost toppled over by my excited best friend, who, after the initial exclaims of disbelief regarding my physical presence, proceeded to inform me about all the cool things she had planned: dinners with her closest friends, a sculpture class, DIY pizza in the Claremont Village. I should’ve Goog— I thought, but then I stopped, and smiled, because if there was anything that could absolve me of my planning sins, I genuinely believed that thing would be spontaneity.

Ah, spontaneity. What a spunky word.

Over the next few days, however, my lack of foresight woke me up each morning with a punch in the face: it was cold in California, and I hadn’t brought any winter clothing. My shorts and tank top collection was so miserable I wore the same pair of borrowed khaki pants for the rest of the week.

***

One day, I decided to head into downtown LA. Without the aid of Google Maps, I asked around for guidance until I ended up on a fifty-cent ride heading to the heart of the city. I felt old-school and cool about it, until I happily observed the proximity of my destination and, not so happily, my inability to make the bus halt. I think I must’ve looked flustered or something, because the lady behind me pointed to a long yellow wire stretching from pole to pole, and when I pulled it a voice boomed on the loudspeakers and soon I was exiting the vehicle and wondering what would’ve happened had I stayed looping around Los Angeles forever.

***

But there is an art to it, this act of being so unprepared it seems somewhat ironic — or even wonderful. It is wonderful to stand beneath a persimmon tree on a random dirt path, discovered — or, more accurately, stumbled upon — within a campus you do not know. It is wonderful to hold a single, hard persimmon in your wind-bitten hands and think of the times you used to scoop out the orange flesh with a spoon.

It is wonderful to stand at an information phone booth and ask the lady on the other end for directions from Union Station to Little Tokyo. Although you understand none of the city lingo, you stay on the line anyways just to hear her bid you a good day, and best of luck, which you wear like a charm for the bus rides and long walks.

And it is wonderful, at the end of it all, to board the flight back home, only to realize you’ve downloaded none of the readings and movies you were supposed to read and watch before the week ahead. So you decide to watch a mediocre coming-of-age movie about a boy growing into his skin as an employee at a waterpark, and your complimentary in-flight napkin is soaked by the end because it reminds you of your summer of plate-clearing and order-taking and how validated you felt in that space. How much you miss home.

***

Days later, I sit in an armchair in the Rocky common room, half-asleep and desperately trying to capture my fall break in words. I could choose to write about the good food, the conversations, the long and languorous evenings spent too quietly for my own good.

But in the end, what sticks out are the moments of mindlessness. And in the same spirit in which I endured them, I write them.

 

Oh, poetry! How I’ve missed you.

There is a folder on my desktop named, and very creatively so, ‘Writing’. Inside you’ll find folders of prose and poetry divided up by the years in which they were written. The first folder, 2012, features a prolific total of one poem, which happens to be the gushy, lovesick kind one writes at the age of fourteen. You’ll notice that the number and quality of the poems grows over the years: 2015 is especially stuffed with an assortment of works inspired by places all over the world (I travelled a lot that year), whilst 2016 is full of pieces that I’d consider some of my best.

2017, however, is a little slim. The truth is, I haven’t written half as much this year as I did the last, and the year before.

It’s not a fact that’s been completely lost on me. Many a time I’ve stopped and wondered why I’m no longer writing like I used to. Am I becoming jaded? Have I lost the ability to create beautiful lines? Will I ever be able to write in the way that I have in the past?

Suffice to say, it’s a tiring mental process that, ironically enough, doesn’t inspire me to write anything. Frequently I toss the matter aside with the common diagnosis of ‘writer’s block’, and convince myself that poetry will come back someday.

Besides, in lieu of poetry, my blog posts and various assorted articles have kept my fingers flying over the keyboard — and I thought that as long as I was still writing, that would suffice.

Until one day, poetry came back.

It began with an essay I had to write for my Portuguese class. At one point, I decided to use the word ‘ephemeral’ — or efêmero in Portuguese, for those interested — to describe the relationship between two protagonists in the text we were studying. Just to make sure I was using the word correctly, I searched it up in the dictionary and stared at the definition for a while.

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And for some reason, I thought: wow. This word is so beautiful. It reminded me of a wonderful dinner conversation I’d shared with a new friend a few evenings before, and the fleeting — ephemeral, you could say — joy I felt on my way back to my dorm. (Fleeting not because our friendship went downhill from there, but rather because my mind then had to focus on other, more banal, things).

So I wrote a poem about it.

And due to some fortuitous alignment of the stars, it seems that poetry has returned to me. The past two weeks have been a fountain of ideas and feelings that have given me that great and breathless compulsion to capture something intangible into something real and seeable and visceral, and I am so excited, so relieved, so happy. 

Last night, I had dinner with the same friend who inspired that first night of writing, and I talked to him about my experiences with poetry.

“Poetry,” I told him, “is a way in which I punctuate my life”.

(Incidentally, he found that phrase pretty poetic.)

But meta-poetry jokes aside, it’s true. If you go through my Writing folder, you’ll find references (both obvious and cryptic) to people and places and experiences that have touched or moved me to some capacity. For some, the poems might just seem like a jumble of words. To me, they are memories, markers in my life that reflect the times that made me who I am. (This includes all the gushy love poems, although gosh — they are embarrassing.)

I’m glad poetry is back. It might not be here to stay — and I’m fine with that. We all need times of coming and going in our lives, of being present for others then taking time for ourselves. Maybe my move to Korea, then to the US — both of which involved building a new life elsewhere — was a lot more emotionally taxing than I thought, and perhaps that’s why poetry — which requires deep emotional investment and thought and time — rested for a while. But now that I’m settling into a new routine and a new identity, things are different. Looking upwards. And I’m excited to write.

***

I thought it’d be nice to close this entry by recounting the one instance that sparked off this entire thought train. Let’s go back to the Portuguese essay and the word ‘ephemeral’.

After writing my poem (which I called ‘ephemera’), I proceeded to drag the Pages file into my Writing folder — and decided to stay. Out of curiosity, I re-read the poems I wrote this summer in Korea and came across one I wrote about moving in to a new space.

It was unfortunate that I was in a dead silent library, because after I finished the poem I found myself in tears. I missed the summer, I missed home, and, more than anything, I missed writing words like those. Poetry does that to you: it makes you feel like you’re living an experience all over again.

***

Back to the Old House

In those days we sat in empty space, our stomachs full

of summer melons sold by the yellow bagful. When the rain fell

we talked about how loud the wind was, and how strong.

Meanwhile, the tomatoes spent weeks sleeping

under the cat’s watchful, and wondering, eyes. We ate

from newspapers spread out on the wooden floors

that pounded whenever we stepped— umma would say

be quiet, the neighbours will hear you walk.

 

Then the house became full.

One day the things came, crawling up a ladder that reached

skywards until the room where the sun lay, resting. Soon,

books crept across the shelf we bought the other day.

Paintings found homes on the walls. The warm smell

of baked sweet potatoes greeted the morning, as if saying

it’s been a while, my old friend! How good it feels

to thicken and grow sweet.

 

In those days the house was a structure

of open doors and empty cabinets. It was the sound of rain

whispering throughout the evening, the two porcelain cups

huddled together by the sink. Today the house

is a collection of things that we brought across the sea.

A mix of who we were and we are. A home.

What Keeps Me Grounded

These push-and-pull days feel like tidal waves: when one task leaves another comes, straddled gallantly atop an endless to-do list of invigorating tasks diluted, unfortunately, to something common. When there are so many things to do, and to do well, it’s easy for the most interesting things to become yet another chore.

Easy, but melancholy. I’d hate for these incredible four years to go to waste. And so I do what I can to punctuate my life with moments that ground me: conversations or tasks or movements that remind me how lucky I am to be where I am, but that this fortune should never come at the cost of what makes me human.

I. The Orange Apron

After a summer of clearing churrasco and championing financial independence, I decided, upon my arrival at Princeton, to join the ranks of the Dining Hall staff. Once a week I don a notoriously orange apron and spend three hours re-stocking the cafeteria that feeds up to 900 mouths a night. Twice I’ve worked in the dishwashing room, where the industrial dishwashing machine swallows and spits plates and cutlery at a pace that I, a newcomer, have never been able to keep up with.

At times I enter my three hour shift with a niggling sense of doom: here, where time is a commodity, the idea of spending three entire hours shifting plates and pans seems like a call for impending overload of work. Time spent waiting for plates to be cleaned is often tinged with anxiety.

Yet I end each shift with a welcome calm that I can’t fully achieve elsewhere. There is contentment to be found in little things, which eventually amount to a lot: greeting friends who have come to dinner and laughing with them in the middle of work; sharing conversation with my colleagues over heavy crates of cups; entering the underground corridors of industrial fridges and freezers where no other students really go, or getting half my daily step count and feeling a well-deserved sense of exhaustion post-work.

The best part? For three hours I’m no longer accountable to piles of work. I’m just another cog in a machine, eager to be helpful somehow.

II. Dinner Conversations

The beauty of living in a closed campus is the access you have to everyone. It is no secret that all humans need to eat — and hardworking students more so. Over the past couple of days, I’ve attempted to schedule lunches and dinners with people who I want to get to know and enjoy spending time with.

Last Friday I had dinner with Camila, a wonderful individual with whom I shared a room back at Bridge Year orientation and whose nine months in India I was very eager to hear about. For almost two hours we talked about the things that went very right and very wrong on our respective years, our mutual difficulty in answering the question ‘Where are you from?’, and various other social and identity issues that had been bubbling within me since my arrival at Princeton.

Suffice to say, it was an incredibly refreshing experience — and a meal I’ll never forget.

III. Movement

For a long time I thought I was forever destined to be a dad dancer and only a dad dancer. In other words, that person who pulls the embarrassing moves at clubs and parties. Well, here at Princeton I have found that this, thankfully, will not be the case: after a year of joking around with Asia about joining Raqs, Princeton’s belly dance troupe, I can now proudly say that I have, indeed, done so.

Suffice to say, this is a different experience: I’ve never identified myself as a ‘dancer’. Yet whenever I’m at a rehearsal with a group of girls who are as unique as they are talented, I feel like I am capable of being anyone I want to be. As someone who has struggled  — and is currently struggling — with body image, I find it empowering to see myself in a mirror and observe myself in harmony with my own body and those of others.

After watching a yellow-skirted, red-shoed dancer doing the lindy hop this summer, I realized that all bodies are extraordinarily beautiful when in movement. The specific aesthetic of one’s physicality no longer matters when the capacity to harmonize takes center stage.

V. Here, in the Hamilton Courtyard

I cannot end this post without mention of where I began: seated on an inclined deck chair positioned haphazardly in the center of Rockefeller’s Hamilton Courtyard, the sun illuminating each individual dust mote on my neglected laptop screen. The fall cold is chilly on my bare fingers and toes, but the brightness of day — and the prospect of lunch — is warming enough.

This was a moment I never anticipated would be a part of my day. After several hours spent watching video lectures, however, I decided to take advantage of the noontime sun and the green spaces that make Princeton so exquisite.

There is room for spontaneity here, after all; it is waiting, longingly, to be filled, and all one needs to do is find it.

And when one does, the result is sweet: like the green of a sprawling lawn against the blue October sky, idling lazily up above.

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Hamilton Courtyard at sunset. Spot the deck chair!

 

College, Clichés and Challenges

Hello blogosphere! How long it’s been since I last checked in!

Here in the warm vastness of Princeton’s Firestone library, I find it appropriate to write about where I’ve been. Closing my life in one place and starting anew in another is a feat both exhilarating and exhausting, and recently it’s been a little skewed towards the latter: yesterday I attended my first, very sweaty and sugar-filled Lawnparty, and the rest of the week has been filled with scheduling and shuttling to meetings and shows and classes.

But prior to flying to the United States, I set myself a goal of writing at least one blog post a month about college. I have so much to write yet not much at all, as I — a lover of cute categories and fittingly alliterative titles — can’t really think of a theme to begin with.

So I guess I’ll start with what’s been the challenging parts of my experience. A little clichéd, but somehow I’ll make it my own (plus it’s good for the alliteration).

***

The first great challenge of college is meeting people. At very few points in your life are you thrust into a massive community in which everyone is vaguely lost. The upside of this scenario is that everyone is willing to make friends; the downsides are the generic conversations, the constant need for energy, and the occasional, ironic feeling of being lonely in a big crowd.

Coming into college, I was lucky to have around me a community of familiar faces from Bridge Year, high school and other motley identity markers of my past. This didn’t exclude me, however, from the same overwhelming feeling of wanting, yet failing, to know everyone around me.

The orientations were tiring, and what remains with me are two things: first, a general intolerance for lackluster conversations that include the question ‘What’s your major?’, and second, a handful of special moments shared with friends both old and new — like taking a long walk by the tow path with Gilron, my Israeli neighbour, during international orientation; dancing in the room next door with my sweet roommates, and walking to Hoagie Haven after a night on the Street (i.e. an avenue of suburban mansions-turned-clubs) with some fellow Bridge Year friends.

What I’ve found is that there is only so much emotional energy you can expend in the first few weeks of making friends, and you might as well prioritize making special moments with certain people as opposed to spreading yourself too thin.

***

Another, greater challenge has been the courses. Classes started last Wednesday and I’m already finding them kind of hard. Coming into college, I believed I’d be fine; academics in high school are straightforward and pretty much fit on a checklist of key words and spoon-fed facts.

In college, I can already sense that it’s different. Classes exist to truly test one’s intellectual rigour and curiosity, and there is no individual guidance: you are given the resources to take advantage of as you please. The independence is challenging as I often find myself wondering how best to interpret the readings and lectures I am given. Whenever I catch myself trying to memorize certain concepts, I always question: so what? Simple memorization won’t suffice. What is the importance of these ideas?

I’m hoping that the intellectual demands of college will help me ground myself. My whole life I’ve felt like an outsider looking in: whenever I read the news or learnt about certain subjects, I felt like an observer who was purely absorbing the information for no concrete good. Here, the challenge is to understand how the information I am receiving can be directly applied to my daily life, in the hopes of one day serving the world.

I guess that’s what I owe with this very expensive and privileged education. What I’m scared of, however, is over-intellectualization: I don’t want to run the risk of hyper-analyzing concepts to the extent where I become a machine of academic jargon. I don’t want my education to be exclusive, and I need to find a way to make it applicable. 

***

My classes in themselves have raised some pretty interesting reflections about myself, my learning style and my character. This fall semester, I’m taking a sociology class on the relationship between languages and national identities, a Portuguese language and culture class, a comparative world literature class and, finally and most dauntingly, an introduction to computer science.

It’s pretty obvious what I’m interested in when one looks at the selection above. For me, the most difficult choice was (unsurprisingly) the CS course, as I’ve never ever coded anything in my life. A part of me took the course because the language-lover in me has always wanted to adopt the language of code and the world of opportunities that come with it. Another part took it because of my sister (who is a CS major), in the hopes that her explanations of interesting personal projects will finally make sense.

The course is incredibly challenging, and there have been times in the past few days when I’ve considered dropping it. But I find that studying it is a true test of willpower and character; besides, the added incentive of getting to know my sister better adds a soft, human element that assuages the theoretical confusions I encounter. At college, I’ve found that it’s important to stay human despite the constant scheduling and responsibility. Doing things that’ll last beyond one’s academic year is what will ultimately be most rewarding, and so I see these tasks (such as writing this blog post!) as equally important as doing well at school.

Portuguese has also raised some interesting thoughts. As I’ve never studied Portuguese in an academic environment, reading about Portuguese grammar in a textbook feels very surreal. Sure, I have a lot to learn, yet I can’t help but feel a certain kind of sadness when my mind tries to wrap itself around concepts and grammatical specificities. I miss the days when learning Portuguese was just conversing with a street vendor about Korea or delicious Bahian food, and I miss the easy flow with which I used it without necessarily worrying about the correctness of the language.

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And they say Bridge Year is like a cult… 😉

But I know, in the long run, that this is worth it. By learning a more academic form of Portuguese, I’ll be able to tap into Brazil — and the rest of the Lusophone world — in a more intimate and meaningful way… which I guess is my ultimate goal.

***

Lastly, but probably most significantly: the independence. I now understand why being an adult is so hard. Somehow I have to juggle more intuitive college things like studying and taking part in extracurriculars with minor yet important tasks like laundry, scheduling, getting around, earning money, eating well, being punctual, etc. At night I like to mentally go through my day, and I’m constantly shocked by how jam-packed it was.

The independence can be great. I can leave my table an absolute mess and no one will shout at me for it (sorry, mom). I can eat cake after dinner every night if I want to. I can spend as much time with friends as I want, I can wear anything I want, I can choose to go to any event I want without anything but conflicting commitments to stop me.

Yet I’m still learning the ropes. Ideally, I want to develop better room-cleaning habits so the space is a little less cluttered (I can’t even begin to imagine what a mess my space would be if I wasn’t an aspiring minimalist). I also can’t wait to develop a better sense of what my on-campus activities will be, so that I can schedule accordingly.

***

As for the rest — I guess we’ll wait and see. 🙂

 

Becoming Strong Again

This week, I’ve decided to take a break from the gym. As I write this post I’m eating a hearty breakfast and not feeling guilty about it, even if I did eat two-thirds of a box of Krispy Kreme donuts, by myself, after work last night (bless my parents, who surprised me after a month of daily donut cravings).

And I feel good. I’m feeling calm, content and no anxiety to ‘compensate’ for indulging: a state of being which I wouldn’t have imagined possible a mere three weeks ago.

Because three weeks ago, things were very different. After coming home from Brazil, I was itching to do a lot of things I’d wished to do during our last month of routine-less travel: I wanted to try ‘tracking my macros’ as I’d seen people do online, I wanted to go to the gym on a regular schedule, and I just wanted to feel more comfortable in my own skin.

There’s a really powerful Sylvia Plath quote that goes as follows:

“If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at once, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.”

In a nutshell, I’m pretty damn neurotic when it comes to my body. Sometimes I think I don’t have enough muscle (which is somewhat true — I don’t have much of it), in which case I want to build myself up. But at other times I think I’m too ‘big’ and wonder if that’s why I can’t see the (non-existent) muscle to begin with. And so I cut myself down.

At the beginning of the summer, I was in the ‘cut myself down’ kinda mood. Like really, really intensely in that mood. And being the kind of person who is very goal-oriented, I gave myself a numbers-based goal to reach before I started college.

And thus began a process that, although regretful, has led me to where I am today.

In the beginning, I used macros as a fun tool that helped me great creative. I’d come up with different recipes and foods that I liked making and I’d know all about their macronutrient content. Going to the gym was something I genuinely enjoyed, and craved — there’s something wonderful about the endorphins that come when you move a lot and lift heavy things, and the calm you feel after you’re done.

I continued doing pretty much the same thing, sans the macro counting, when I got to Korea. The macros were gone not because I wanted to stop tracking, but rather because I couldn’t when the weighing scale was on a boat heading my way. I continued to mentally count calories and macronutrients however, and also experimented with something called ‘intermittent fasting’: I wouldn’t eat either breakfast or dinner to make sure I was falling into the ‘calorie range’ for my ‘goal’.

When the weighing scale arrived, the macros continued. When I ate communal Korean-style meals with my parents, I’d weigh out my banchan (side dishes) separately and get overly worked up about my bowl of rice. Sometimes my parents would start eating without me as I took too long to measure and track everything to the gram. Whenever I ate out I would always mentally calculate my macronutrients and calories, which meant that whenever I was eating something deemed too ‘calorie dense’ I’d get anxious and lose my appetite. The worst part was when I was eating with friends and family who mean a lot to me — I couldn’t bear the idea of not being emotionally and mentally present for a loved one because my mind space was too occupied by food anxiety.

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Yup. The family contrast is real. (And not worth it, unless I’m really craving something fresh.)

Throughout it all, I was working out at the gym 4-5 times a week. In the beginning it was really great to get my body moving, but at one point I began to get, well, bored. And easily tired. I’d get dizzy whilst lifting weights lighter than what I’d lifted before, and I wouldn’t feel too good afterwards. I continued this all while struggling constantly with food-related anxieties, and the combination of the two just hit me one day — quite like a truck, one might say — and I realized that I was doing something very, very unhealthy.

I thought that a condition for me to ‘grow tough skin’ was to endure a demanding physical and mental process to help me reach an ideal goal. But I realized that regardless of how I looked, I’d always find something I wanted to change about myself. Part of it is because I am image-conscious, but I believe it goes deeper than that. As someone who’s a stickler for control, I wanted to prove to myself that there was one pillar in my life I could have total control over. Throughout the whirlwind of the transition to Korea, fitness and nutrition were two things that I knew how to tailor and tailor well.

Having this realization was perhaps the biggest eureka moment of my summer. I understood, for the first time, that the most beneficial thing was not to exercise discipline, but to let go of it. What would make me happy with my body — an ultimate goal — was not reaching a certain ‘look’, but rather not worrying about how I look at all. Eating intuitively as opposed to eating with anxiety. Working out because I want to, not because I ‘have’ to. If I could achieve this as a homeostasis of sorts, my default way of being, I knew I’d be a lot more content to be who I am — and not feel the need to always be ‘fixed’.

Besides, feeling terrible for the sake of looking good is really just not worth it. 

So for the past three weeks, I’ve been trying to achieve a greater sense of balance. I’ve used a food measuring scale maybe once. Bathroom scale? Never. I’ve eaten out as much as I wanted to, and I’ve let myself eat whatever and whenever. I decided to take advantage of the renovation happening at my apartment gym and take a week off.

Sure, some things are difficult: there are times when I get antsy because I feel like I’m missing something. Sometimes I still feel a little guilty after eating too much of something, or eating really late at night after I finish work. Calorie counts still filter in and out of my head, and I sometimes worry about whether or not my fitness journey — something that gives me a large sense of purpose — has pretty much come to a dead end.

But when I look at the big picture, I know I’m on the right track. This is the healthy, motivating goal I needed all along. When I went to visit my aunt in Gyeongju, food played a big part of our reunion — and I enjoyed all of it whilst being completely present for her and her husband and her beautiful home (not to mention, her adorable dogs). I’ve been going out to see friends for dinners or lunches where I’ve been focusing more on conversations and generally having a really good time.

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My aunt, my uncle and their dog Hun at their local bingsu (shaved ice dessert) spot! It was delicious!

However quixotic this may sound, I think I’m becoming better at treating myself like I treat others. I’m a lot more patient with myself than I was before: one stressful evening, after eating a lot more snacks than I anticipated, I just told myself you should rest, cleaned up, promptly went to bed, and woke up the next morning and continued on as usual. In the past, this ‘slip-up’ would’ve left me paralyzed with guilt and the need to compensate for my lack of self-control. This time, however, I felt a strange, yet welcome, sense of calm. I knew that worrying about things wouldn’t make anything better — and that ultimately, my goal was to treat my body fairly. In this circumstance, I knew that I was going through a lot of stress and that my body was probably very, very tired, and for that reason I made a mental effort to not compensate, to not fast or go to the gym, and just be. 

Being is both physically and mentally liberating. After many, many years of struggling with food and body image, I know it’s time that I stop beating myself up for something that’s actually quite insignificant. The only significant part is the root of it all: the need for control. This is something I’m still struggling with, but by cutting off one unhealthy habit at a time I hope I’ll eventually get better.

I know that there are lots of people out there who can relate. And if you’re one of them, I just want to say this: that being interested in your health and fitness is great, but you should be wary of when you grow fatigued, unmotivated, and feel not-so-optimal. Remember, your health — both physical and mental — come first. You have the rest of your life to work hard on whatever goals you may have, but what matters before it all is getting into a healthy head-space that’ll make the process sustainable. We can do it together. 🙂

From One Dreamer to Another

A few weeks ago, I told my mom I wanted to go on a solo backpacking trip. I’d like to visit Germany, I said, and Canada as well. My goal was to do so before graduating college.

My mom’s reply was blunt, somewhat jolting but not at all surprising. She said: sure — but only if you pay for the entire trip on your own. You see, my mom doesn’t want me to travel alone, and so she sees no reason to pay for a journey she doesn’t endorse.

Which makes sense. If you’ve worked hard to earn whatever money you have, you have the right to do what you want with it… because it’s yours.

It was in that moment that I decided the following: I want to be financially independent by the time I finish college. If I want to have agency over my own life experiences — in other words, if I want to live in the spaces that enrich me most, with the people who inspire me most and doing things that I love most — I need to be able to afford my lifestyle choices.

Thus, I decided that, this summer, I would begin this journey to financial independence. Whether I’ll actually reach the aforementioned goal is somewhat dubious, as my current savings don’t look too promising thanks to my money-related ignorance throughout my adolescence (which I now regret).

Several weeks into the summer, however, I thought it’d be interesting to share my progress with the wider world. It’s definitely not a get-rich-quick kinda set-up, but it’s certainly a this-is-worthwhile-so-you-might-want-to-consider-it kinda deal. Because beyond experiencing the freedom that well- (and honestly) earned money brings, becoming financially independent opens doors to many, greater journeys, like understanding a city or a place better than you would’ve otherwise, becoming more empathetic and self-aware, and understanding that once you see the human faces of ‘scary’ adult concepts like investing and saving, they don’t seem so scary after all.

***

 

I’m very lucky to say that he most rewarding part of the journey has been the work itself. Working at Tabom has exposed me not only to the sheer diversity of Korea’s non-Korean population, but also a series of faces and names — namely, those of my colleagues — that give me a sense of home. Nowadays the work feels like muscle memory, and in place of the previous stress there exists a certain rhythm that keeps me rooted despite the uncertainties of a new city.

But all work isn’t made equal. I recently started a teaching job that hasn’t been the easiest — the preparation and expectations involved have required a lot of mental and emotional energy from my part, and of course it’s very draining. It’s important, however, that I understand that the reality of money-making is that it’s hard. That’s why they call it earning money, and why each dollar spent deserves some acknowledgment of what was endured to earn it.

So here’s where the difficult part comes in. I think it’s important to be mindful of where money comes from, but there’s always a risk of being overly mindful. After the first week at Tabom, as I was getting into the groove of using my own well-earned cash, I started getting very anxious about how I spent even the smallest quantities of money. I’d pick up a Coke at a convenience store and put it down again because it’d cost me twenty minutes’ worth of work at the restaurant. When I ate out, I’d try to find cheaper locations — and never feel fully satisfied, as I always ruminated over the option of a) something cheaper or b) something more soul-filling. When friends or family suggest I do an activity of some sort, I’d always hesitate if it involved spending money.

To make a long story short, it was unpleasant. But on a minimum wage, it was inevitable — and I only got out of the anxiety once I found my second job. I’d made budget sheets and everything for my first job, and I was set to end the summer with a fair amount of savings only if I’d continued as I’d done. Which just goes to show that, again, making and handling money is difficult. Truly understanding this fact not only on an intellectual level, but also on a visceral, day-to-day level, is an important skill I think all teenagers should have.

And speaking of important skills, I think financial literacy is so, so underrated. It’s problematic that we don’t learn how to do things like save money at school, let alone learn what investments are, how to create budgets, learn about financial risks, etc.

Because the truth is, the earlier someone starts saving, the more money they’ll have after a certain period of time versus if they’d started later on in life… which means more opportunities to do the things that you love, and less stress when it comes to emergencies. I could explain this concept in more depth with information on interest rates, time value of money, etc, but all I’ll say, for now, is this: take advantage of the internet and educate yourself!

There are lots of awesome free online courses that teach you the basics of money management, and it’ll do so much good in the long-term. I started my four-week Coursera course ‘Financial Planning for Young Adults’ as someone who didn’t even know how credit cards worked. After the course, I can’t believe I didn’t learn all of it earlier — and I want, more than anything, to spread the word that these courses are available and accessible and so, so important for everyone. Besides, good courses will teach you that concepts like mutual funds and interest rate formulas are not scary, alienating topics reserved for the financial geniuses out there. They are intimidating buzz words, but beneath them all are simple human experiences — like being able to go on a vacation, or pay for college — that provide the empathy that makes this whole process worthwhile.

It’s also worthwhile to take advantage of other technological tools that make money management so much easier and less stressful. One thing I’ve been doing is using an app to track my expenses. I can use it to see how much I’m spending on certain things — like eating out, transportation, leisure — per week or per month, which can then help me prioritize how I want to spend my money. Tracking things on an app is much easier as it’s visually and systematically easier to navigate. I’m currently using an app called Dollarbird, but there are tons of other free options online that you can peruse.

(Wow, this post is sounding almost ad-like, which feels a bit strange. But it’s for the greater good!)

***

I may sound confident and knowledgable about this whole money-management affair, but the truth is quite different.  To this day, there are still many financial concepts that I have yet to understand, and there are times when I’m still anxious about doing things well. Am I saving enough? Am I using the tools that I can take advantage of? And so on and so forth, the anxiety continues — and it doesn’t really help with the other stresses going on in my life (like sometimes working two jobs a day).

But at the end of the day, it’s important for me to take a step back and have patience for myself. The journey to financial independence is a steep and difficult one, and I deserve self-appreciation and respect for even taking the first step. This applies to most other personal projects, and it is necessary that I commend myself for even the smallest things. This is the first time that I’ve ever prioritized making and saving money for myself. This is the longest length time I’ve lived my life without much financial support from my parents. And I’m doing it all in a country I’ve never lived in before as an adult.

Choosing not to be anxious about certain things is also important. If my primary goal was to save as much money as possible by the end of the summer, I’d probably tell myself that it was necessary to undergo this level of overthinking. But with my primary goal being to do the best that I can whilst taking care of myself, I’ve made the conscious decision that I’ll allow myself certain joys without worrying — like eating out at places I really want to try, with people who mean a lot to me. (Of course this comes with a level of privilege, which I wholly acknowledge and am grateful for.)

And again, as stated before, this whole money management thing is a very human affair. It’s not all figures and diagrams and fancy words. It’s about the freedom with which one lives their life, and I find that incredibly uplifting.

On that note, I hope this post inspired at least one person to embark on a similar adventure, because it is so very worth it. If you decide to do so, then I’d love to hear about it. 🙂

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Found a cute picture of these two (Ju Young and Won Hwa, who work with me at Tabom!) on my phone, and I thought it’d be appropriate for this post 😉

Omnivore’s Guilt

After three and a half years of pescatarianism, I have returned to eating meat.

And it isn’t easy to share. I think the biggest reason why I’m ready to share it now, as opposed to three weeks ago when I ate meat again for the first time, is because of my new commitment to being honest and open with myself especially with matters that make me uncomfortable. As one can imagine, my contemplation regarding my lifestyle change hasn’t been without its struggles: compounded with all the other doubts I’ve been feeling towards myself in recent weeks (more on which I’ll write throughout the summer), my straying away from a philosophy I care deeply about — and which consequently forms a core pillar of my identity — had me think that perhaps I was not the selfless person I wanted to be, and, even worse, that my capacity to become this person had been suddenly compromised by the ‘selfish’ act of making a dietary change for the benefit of no other being but myself.

But before I share further thoughts — both positive and negative — that I’ve ruminated over in my mind, I think a little context would be appropriate.

***

Throughout the past few months, I’ve experienced almost daily episodes of intense fatigue. I noticed my episodes of light-headedness, dizziness and general fatigue became particularly frequent in Brazil, which is why I was ceremoniously meme-fied as ‘the deficient’ one in the group of able-bodied, college-age kids. I mean, I’ve always stayed active — as many know, I like to lift pretty frequently and have been doing so ever since I returned home — and I’ve always gotten by. It was just exhausting, both physically and emotionally, to feel exhausted all the time when there were so many things I wanted to do… and I didn’t have a single clue as to how I could remedy it.

I would take naps, and the fatigue wouldn’t fade. I’d spend time at home, as opposed to walking around all day — still tired, even when I didn’t exercise. The final factor was perhaps the most intuitive, but one I was afraid of taking seriously: my diet. I wondered if things would change if I became an omnivore again.

I visited the doctor for a general pre-college check-up and talked to her about what I was going through. I found out that I felt weak and dizzy most likely because of low blood pressure and a lower-than-average heartbeat (oh, my poor heart). The doctor, however, also suggested I try eating meat again — including red meat, which I was reluctant to do — and taking iron supplements.

And so I did.

I find this difficult to admit for several reasons. Firstly, it might give off the impression that I pursued pescatarianism without a genuine conviction— a claim far from the truth. Still today I have a strong desire to reduce unnecessary animal suffering and the damage my consumer choices can do to the earth. (For a deeper insight into why I chose to not eat meat, you can read my post on it here.)

Secondly, I feel like my situation might mislead some into categorizing dietary changes — specifically ones that don’t include meat — as universally detrimental to one’s health, when it isn’t. Every body is as different on the inside as it is on the outside. I want to emphasize that just because I personally returned to eating meat for health reasons doesn’t mean that vegetarianism inherently affects one’s healthThere are many marathon runners and cross-fitters and super epic athletes who live a vegan lifestyle, and they feel better and stronger when they don’t consume animal products. On the flip side of the coin, there are women whose periods stop after a month of not eating meat. Every body is different, so a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t appropriate in this case. The general rule of thumb then becomes: you do you!

For me, I think the reason why I started feeling especially weak (I’ve always had dizzy spells in the past) is because I’ve been doing more weight training in the past year. Perhaps my body needed other kinds of nutrients in order to combat the extra stress or assist in the changes in body composition, and my feelings of weakness were a sign that something was missing.

(One could say that this pastime is a little selfish, especially if it does affect my consumer choices in this manner. Yet it’s something that helps me feel a sense of accomplishment, focus as well as physical strength and relaxation, and I think it’s important that people are able to do what helps them live their life feeling good and present.)

To be honest, eating meat and taking supplements haven’t changed things tremendously. There are still days when I feel fatigued and lethargic and light-headed. But it has reduced the frequency and intensity of these episodes to some degree, and I think if I started eating more (and if I stopped being so anxious about food) (more on which I’ll write later in this series!) I’ll feel better. It also probably has to do with how much stress I’m putting on my body, which is a lot more than at the beginning of this summer / in Brazil — working as a waitress and being on my feet for so many hours is really, really tough.

Lastly, the biggest reason why this ‘confession’ is so hard is because, well, I haven’t been going about the whole ‘Return to Omnivorism’ business in the way I want to. Personally, I’m not against the idea of eating animals; I disagree with the inhumane methods (e.g. factory farming) that are used to kill animals, and the consequent perception that livestock are mass-produced entities as opposed to actual lives. I believe in ethical omnivorism, which directs consumer dollars towards — and consequently increases traction for — ethical animal raising practices. This might include free-range farms (the real kind, not the miserable-patch-of-grass-beside-dingy-cages kind), antibiotic-free feed, certified sustainably-farmed practices (in the case of fish), etc.

The truth is, ethical omnivorism is hard. Sometimes it’s facilitated by certain markers — for instance, at our local supermarket there’s a special range of free-range eggs with clear certifications and the names of the farms from where they were sourced — but at other times the process of sourcing one’s meat can be muddy. It isn’t impossible: one can find one, or two, reliable supplier(s), research into them and buy their meat. This would make eating meat at restaurants hard, but you could always eat vegetarian when you go out. Having said that, however, I’m living proof that this is easier said than done.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been quite an indiscriminate consumer in recent weeks, partially because of the new excitement of eating Korean foods I grew up with and haven’t had in a while, and partially because I was developing a level of food-related anxiety that really hurt my emotional health. One thing I’ve consistently tried to do, however, is eat meat that was raised locally, because at least that reduces my overall carbon impact — even if it is greater than if I ate vegetarian.

I admit I’m ashamed; and yes, I know I can be trying harder and doing better. But in the spirit of this series, I have to remind myself that it’s okay to take my time when I make certain lifestyle changes, especially in the interest of my mental and physical health. For now, my focus is returning to a balance where I feel physically strong and mentally able to eat (and do anything else, really) without overthinking and ruminating. When I start college in the fall, I’m planning on developing certain habits that make my meat consumption sustainable and ethical in the way that serves both my body and the earth best.

Until then, this summer is one of experimentation and learning to take care of myself. It’s important to remember that the act of self-care is never selfish; as an act that can often make you feel comfortable enough to be present for others, arguably it can even be selfless. In my situation, there’s also a lot of gratitude involved as I think about the lives that contribute to fuelling my body, and the ‘welcome home’ that flavours the traditional foods that family and friends offer me with love. There are so many things to be grateful for.

***

If you want to know more about my meat-free experience, I’ve written several posts about it in the past. I’ve linked one of them above, but I’ve also written about why and how I started, the ways in which it changed me and tips I wanted to offer omnivores. 

The Summer of Growing Tough Skin

I’ve debated writing this post for the past week, and only now have I decided to make it happen. It is with a nervous yet hopeful heart that I write what will perhaps be one of the most vulnerable posts I’ve shared on this blog, and the wider internet realm in general.

It begins with a simple premise: these days, I’m not very happy. The past few weeks have been really tough for several reasons, all of which contribute to one another such that they form a vicious, messy web that only grows and grows in a cycle fed by positive feedback and confirmation biases all pointed cruelly and accusingly at myself.

Those are just words. What I mean is waking up after many hours of sleep and still feeling incredibly tired. Feeling physically drained for a large portion of the day and not knowing why… talking to doctors and juggling potential what ifs that confuse more than clarify. Living and working in a super homogenous and exclusive society where I physically look like a local, but don’t talk, dress, or speak like one, and consequently am seen as something ‘other’ when all I really want is to feel appreciated and belong for the first time in years. Not feeling appreciated as a complete human being in any other circumstance, least of all by myself. Feeling generally uninspired to write or create; not feeling the urge I used to feel for writing about beautiful moments or sensations or things, and wondering if it’ll come back. To make up for it all, trying to seize control of every minute of the day in order to ‘maximize’ the pseudo-virtues of productivity and perfectionism… and ending up struggling with bouts of anxiety when it comes to the smallest of things, even basic things such as not knowing what I’ll eat for lunch or not being able to write a blog post. Not being surrounded by people or things that particularly inspire a want to change. And, when the next day begins and things are still the same, constantly thinking that it’s my fault, that I’m not doing enough, that I don’t know if things will change and that perhaps I won’t ever be the creative and prolific person I once was.

And trust me, for a control freak like myself, that thought is terrifying.

For those who know me well, it’s not a surprise to hear that I’m incredibly strict with myself. I may be very generous in my dealings with others (in the act of, say, giving advice or consolation), but very rarely do I offer the same patience to my own way of being. Having high self-expectations is the sharpest, ugliest kind of double-edged sword: on one hand, I can easily attribute many of my ‘success’ and achievement to my tendency to always out-compete my previous self, be it in the gym, in the prolificness of my artistic expression, in academia, etc. I work really hard, but — damningly — I rarely give myself time to rest… which leads to feeling a constant sense of anxiety over whether or not I’ll continue to perform at a high level, not only in tangible areas like writing but also in intangible areas like relationships with others. If my sister or a friend was going through a hard time, I’d tell them to have compassion for themselves and take their time. For me, after a day of anxiety I’m already scolding myself for pitying myself too much and not ‘getting on with it’.

Because this sense of control has done me so much good, I’m unable to shake it off and embrace a more spontaneous, less high-strung / achievement-based lifestyle. I guess you could say it’s kind of like unhealthy dieting for someone who wants to look a certain way: although the method is dangerous and inadvisable, one is tempted to continue on because the tangible outcome looks so ‘good’.

It’s tough, but I’m trying to wean myself out of it. Why? Because I’m rational enough, at this point, to prioritize my long-term well-being. I know that if I let the mental habit fester, I’ll only dig myself into a deeper hole that may prove to be even more difficult to climb out of later on, when I’ll have a bunch of other real-world issues (i.e. adulting) to worry about.

And so I’m taking myself by the hand and trying to help myself, one step at a time. One of the ways in which I’ve been doing that is by expressing my vulnerability with more candour — yet this process hasn’t been without its ups and downs.

I think it’s important to be vulnerable and to be able to talk about your fears and weaknesses. This is what makes us human, after all, and to be relatable is one of the biggest services you can do to a world where many feel like they matter less because they’re not ‘enough’, and consequently are unable to flourish and contribute to the world in the way they could. Yet during the past year, whenever I talked to one of my Bridge Year peers about my perceived flaws, I always felt like I was unnecessarily down-talking myself and painting myself to be weak and flawed to others, which meant that they would see me in that way, which meant that it would essentially confirm my initial doubts and thus make me even weaker and more flawed.

If a tree fell but no one heard, did the tree fall? Likewise, if someone was hurting but no one knew, did the person hurt at all?

Of course they did. But we live in an age of constant judgment and scrutiny, in which for many, if not all, people, there’s a lot of pressure to be doing well, and being honest about not doing well can sometimes be hurtful for your self-image and how others perceive you. And so sometimes we think it’s the better option to stay silent and just deal with it, because then at least you’re still ‘achieving’ in the eyes of others.

Well, even if publishing this post means that someone could hypothetically see me as more flawed and weaker than they thought I was, I’m happy with my decision. I think there’s strength in honesty, but even if there wasn’t, then this is me, and I think the first step to getting better is embracing all of my highs and lows equally as part of who I am.

Besides, I think it’s fitting that I start considering these ideas now, just as I’m about to head off on one of the biggest (and probably most daunting) adventures of my life: college. I’ll definitely be alongside some pretty amazing and accomplished people, and I know for a fact that I’ll sometimes slip into the old ways of comparison and wanting to be perfect all the time. That much is inevitable. But what I can do now is start teaching myself that it’s okay not be okay, and that this summer is a good example of that.

For those who may’ve read my blog for a while (which I really appreciate, thank you so much!), you’d know that every year I like to write different kinds of series — for instance, last year’s series on my European travels, my Scandinavian series, etc. This summer, I’d like to start a new series that’ll hopefully inspire and motivate me to take care of myself better. Let’s call it The Summer of Growing Tough Skin. I’d like to write once or twice a week about, well, my life as it is, positive habits I’m developing, things I’m grateful for and other small but hopefully interesting topics. At the end I hope to have a collage of a summer dedicated to self-love, after years and years of summers and winters and autumns and springs dedicated to overachieving and expecting myself to exceed my own expectations.

I’m excited to see where this goes!

To end, I’d like to write a few side-notes (out of love). In no ways is the intention of this post to receive pity, nor is it to cry for help. Instead, I’m trying to do two things: first, by writing this post I’m essentially both subconsciously and consciously convincing myself that what I’m experiencing matters and I need to take a step back to address it (i.e. that I need to take care of myself instead of distracting myself with other things); and second, I’m trying to emphasize the importance of compassion, especially for yourself. And in that spirit I hope that whoever reads this post understands that a lot of people, even those who like to write about their cool life experiences in upbeat and flowery language, go through tough times and that ultimately, it’s okay. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.

And I guess that’s why I decided to write about all of this in a blog post as opposed to a journal entry. I’m a regular journal keeper, and so inevitably I’ve written a lot about this summer’s struggles in the ol’ pen and paper fashion. Yet when I write on the blog, I feel like I’m talking to someone other than myself, which I find beneficial in this circumstance. It tells me that I’m not alone.

And that, for a moment, makes me a little bit happier. 🙂

P.S. How fitting is it that, on this day last year, I donned by backpack and headed to France? It seems July 15th is a day of many adventures. 

A Baiana Coreana

“Eu vim da Bahia cantar, eu vim da Bahia contar tanta coisa bonita que tem na Bahia, que é meu lugar…”

So go the opening lines of Gilberto Gil’s Eu Vim da Bahia, a song Alejandro sang — and consequently memorialized as a Bridge Year classic —  at our farewell party in Salvador before we left for Palmeiras. The song illustrates the visual beauty and joie-de-vivre that characterize (an idealized) Bahia and the baianos that make the region what it is.

I may have left Bahia, but Bahia certainly hasn’t left me. Less than a week after my move, my saudades led me through Seoul’s Itaewon — a neighbourhood known for its cultural diversity — searching for a way to stay connected to the people and language I’d grown to love. In a country that loves its unlimited bulgogi and other marinated meats, it wasn’t a surprise that I came across several churrascarias serving Brazil’s answer to Korean barbecue.

Lo and behold, I lucked out: not only did I get to speak Portuguese to various Brazilians that evening, the next day I received a phone call to let me know I’d landed a job as a waitress.

Over the past four days, I’ve worked daily six-hour shifts at a churrascaria named Tabom. I’ve learnt that waitressing is no easy feat: it’s a complex choreography of knowing where to go and when, how to interact with different people and how to manage multiple tasks at once whilst maintaining incredible stamina. I’ve learnt how to work cash machines, explain wines, serve beer from the tap, navigate a crowded kitchen, set tables, greet customers and all the usual things, sometimes doing all the above in very quick succession when the night is busy.

(I’ve also learnt that it’s a good idea to look in a mirror every once in a while — towards the end of our busiest night, I went to the bathroom and discovered half my braid had fallen out and that my baby hairs were a mess… and I’d been rushing about, serving customers, in that fashion. Now that was embarrassing.)

As cheesy as it sounds, I feel the happiest I am in Korea when at Tabom. It helps that I work alongside a loving Brazilian family that offers me everything from caramelized slices of pineapple to cheeky brincadeiras (jokes) on nights both busy and calm. Taeho, the only other Korean, sings loudly and shamelessly when making caipirinhas and explains the restaurant trade with patience. When all of us are together, conversations are a melting pot of Korean, Portuguese, and English — to varying degrees of fluency, but with consistent camaraderie.

Truth be told, I’ve found the transition to Korea a lot harder than I thought it’d be. I think I’ve cried more times in the past week than I have in the past two months, and a lot of it has to do with how I still feel like a foreigner despite, ironically, having returned ‘home’. I left Hong Kong hoping to learn what it’d be like to have a sense of place, in a country where I’d live with people who share a mutual language and history. Instead, I’ve found that people don’t see me as one of their own. Many a time I’ve been asked where I’m from, and when I stumble in my Korean — for example, when trying to figure out bank accounts and such — people talk to me in English, often condescendingly, as if I don’t speak Korean at all. Surprisingly, just because you share a common culture with someone doesn’t mean they become friendlier. In my case, I’ve found that it creates the expectation that either you’re in or you’re out. And as an outsider, I can’t help but feel like a sore thumb.

Which is why a lot of me misses Brazil. I mean, I was always conspicuous in Bahia— yet I never felt like an anomaly, largely in part because everyone was unique in their own way. Besides, even if I’m not Brazilian, neighbours, friends and even strangers would claim I was basically a baiana; or, more frequently, of a hybrid identity: afro-coreana. Like that, people were willing to accept me as part of the culture even if I wasn’t fully part of it linguistically, historically, spiritually, etc.

I find the contrast with Korea startling, and kind of heartbreaking. But I am who I am, and the individual I am, it seems, does not belong to any single nation, but rather a collection of places and cultures that cannot be placed in a single box.

And I’m learning to tell myself that that’s okay. And this is yet another reason why I love Tabom: when I’m at the restaurant, it is okay. I’m all the more useful — and interesting — for the fact that I hail from a variety of different places. In four days, I’ve interacted with customers in English, Portuguese, Korean and even Chinese. When all of us in the kitchen don’t share a universally mutual language, it matters less what languages we speak, and instead what matters are our characters, the way we laugh through a particularly busy shift, the way we converse over dinner when the buzz dies down, the tales we tell about our little intersection of Korean and Brazilian worlds.

(Of course, the whole Brazilian hospitality / acceptance stereotype still holds true. Everyone in the kitchen claims I look like a baiana, thanks to my many-colored maxi-skirts and headbands.)

So there you have it: the story of a baiana coreana waitress. I’ve only done four shifts, but I already feel like I’ve done many. Perhaps I won’t ever feel completely ‘at home’ in Seoul. But it consoles me that there are little pockets tucked away in its many neighbourhoods in which I feel appreciated for being who I am — a mix of many things, often wonderful.

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Well, the bathroom walls were yellow and green…