Jack of all trades, master of none

My desires are pulling me in a hundred directions and my body is paying the price.

I want to be an expert. In what, I can’t say. But I desperately am craving money, power, and recognition. I grew up being told I would change the world, and now I feel that prophecy hang around my neck like a chain that gets tighter every year I don’t accomplish the impossible. I was supposed to be living a life that made people gasp in awe and run hot with envy.

There is a constant thread of “not good enough not good enough” that runs in the back of my head.

Should I go to med school? But I hate hospitals and biochemistry.

Should I be a lawyer? But I lose focus reading legal papers after half a page.

Should I run for office? I’m no good at shmoozing and don’t enjoy campaigning.

Should I be CEO? Sure, but of what?

I’m supposed to be amazing but I’m only average. I feel the weight of mediocrity, especially when I read about kings and nobles at every Korean history museum, and feel jealousy rather than mild fascination.

I want to be the best, but I don’t know in what.

I want to be the best and I also want everything all at once.

I want to market my skills for a profit, but do I have any? Is it even possible to monetize what I can do? Should I go back and specialize in… something?

I am waiting for enlightenment. Often I’m afraid I’ll wait until the end of time and die never meeting my potential. Whatever “potential” means.

I feel guilty for not meeting a goal whose parameters I don’t even know.

I want to be an entrepreneur and a clothing designer and a TV star. I want to be a cafe owner and Olympian and travelling doctor. I want to be a mermaid and an explorer and a storyteller. I want to be respected and I want financial freedom.

Mostly I want to be wealthy; the kind of wealthy that demands respect, because hyper capitalism only respects money. Who wouldn’t buy power and esteem with money, if one had it?

Being good is not enough. Living well is not enough. I’m supposed to have a single dream that I follow with near manic fervor. But I’m nearing 30 and still don’t know what that is.

I don’t know how far I have to go to be better. I don’t know what it means to be the best, but I want it, desperately.

Psychodidae

In a time before the Warrior was bequeathed with the heavy Knowing, a memorial was constructed to honor the folly of man.

But Man was a fool, and his ill-conceit opened the gates to the immortal world far below. With no concern for his fellows, Man drilled deep into the evil of the underworld. No traps were laid, no sigils drawn, no offerings to honor the goddess Cheuksin. Lines intended to keep humanity safe were tread upon without care. And with such impetuous desecration, the seals were broken and terrible creatures ascended to the human plane.

When the Warrior Knew, a battle unlike any in history unfolded. Demons rose from the first circle in overwhelming numbers, black swarms meant to overwhelm. A stench that only Hades would use as cologne boggled the senses of the righteous and helped lift the creatures from the depths below.

The Warrior could not know peace.

The cry of the slain demons rang silent in the ears of the Warrior: “for you have given me misery, so shall I return this wretched favor”.

Great bellows of poisonous smoke were released into the marble cave. Liquid fire was poured into the tunnels to inferno. Purple beams of staggering light enticed and then disintegrated the hellish creatures.

But there was no end. Clouds of flying clones interrogated the Warrior day and night. They began to make headway into the sacred homeland of the Warrior, beyond the mere mountains and caves along the border.

The Warrior used every tool the oracle advised, and yet the battle raged on. Though hell sustained a great many casualties, the putrid decay of the underworld produced double the troops to replace the fallen at an inhuman speed.

Many months into battle, weakened and weary, the Warrior embarked on a quest for knowledge, and in complete chance unforetold by the prophecy, the Tool was found.

The Warrior rushed back to the homeland with the Tool, full of renewed fervor to win the war.

With an unpracticed but confident hand, the Warrior put the Tool into place at the gaping maw, the black hole of evil. The gates to hell were sealed. All rejoiced.

But the Warrior’s victory was not absolute, for every full moon hell released a mighty belch with unimaginable stench. Demons arose from the first circle, not bested after all.

The Warrior was unarmed, bare to the world, but fought with hands and any weapons within reach to quell the foul creatures and horrid stench.

But in the heat of battle, the Warrior noticed a new foe. A new demon from the second circle. Larger and more menacing than the mere gnats of the first circle, with a promise of disease and plague. A creature that feasted on animal carcass, that threatened a future worse than the Warrior could imagine.

The Warrior bested this beast but looked on with horror.

Though the battle was won, would the war ever end?

I stood in my tiny little kitchen with the leaky sink, making pour over coffee into the mug I painted on a field trip in Seoul two years ago, in an apartment in an small city crescented by mountains that overlooks the ocean on the southern coast of Korea, and then suddenly thought:

How odd that I ended up here. How unexpectedly routine. How serendipitous. How unbelievable.

How lucky.

Land of Opposites

Sometimes I am surprised by the mundane familiarity that Korea offers. I drive a car, I go to Costco, I have insurance.

I know that it can be unintentionally condescending to feel shock at “Western” amenities but a lifetime of “foreign = exotic” still gives me surprise when any country operates at all like the US.

I drive my car with my postpaid toll card to and from department stores and automatic parking lots and feel wonder less and less at what are perfectly normal global occurrences.

And yet.

When it first started to get warm, I turned on my AC and later went to my veranda to put up laundry only to step in a giant puddle. I wondered if my gifted responsibility, I mean flower, from Jack was leaking and so I wiped the spill up. Only when I came back later, the puddle had somehow reformed and I realized that the seemingly innocuous clear tube sticking out of the wall was actually a drainage pipe for the air conditioner. The legitimate intention of the plumbing, by actual human design, was for water to drip onto the floor and drain into the grate 5 feet away.

Thus, I drive home in my little car with the technology to an apartment not ten years old with such Korean-aesthetic plumbing that I have to catch the water expelled from my AC into a sacrificial salad bowl and then physically empty that bowl into a floor drain five feet away once or twice a day like I live on an old farmhouse.

The pink bowl is my plumbing modification.

My bathroom sink is lacking a back cover as though someone is wearing an apron with no clothes underneath, and the sink hose dangles into an open black maw in the floor. A never ending stream of drain flies and horrific smells of decay waft up from the abyss below into my bathroom. I often wake up to dried moth flies littered over my floor and I curse my landlord’s cheap plumbing decisions.

I’m not actually sure why they’re dead. Was it the smell that killed them on their bid for freedom?

Luckily, I found a kit specifically for shoddy kitchen plumbing to “keep out smells and bugs”. The packaging promised installation that is “so easy anyone can do it”.

And then yesterday, after fighting with an Internet explorer plug-in, all the problems were solved at once and I easily booked an appointment for the first and second doses of the COVID vaccine.

I look at the drain on my veranda, or the open pipe in my bathroom that is the entrance to hell and the drain flies lair and I think to myself, Korea is a country that can hold two disparate, seemingly incongruous ideas in the same hand.

As you quickly learn in your first three months in Korea, industrialization and globalization hit the country like a high-speed train, which it also coincidentally has, to launch it from one of the world’s poorest countries to one of the world’s richest in less than 100 years. There are huge, amazing buildings. There are tiny, overrun fish markets.

Stores go in and out of business and seemingly swap places in a matter of days. Meanwhile, the pothole on the sidewalk out front remains for years.

Uh, this does not bode well for the blind person who relies on the yellow brick road.

There’s nowhere that I cannot receive data in Korea. And there’s also nowhere that has a bathroom where the shower is physically separated from the toilet. Do you want Wi-Fi? Do you also want everything in your bathroom to be wet all at once and forever? Because apparently you can’t have one without the other.

There are bathrooms with signage that sternly direct me to throw used toilet paper into the wastebasket and never the toilet itself. There are bathrooms with signs that scream at me to throw used toilet paper into the toilet and never into the wastebasket. (The conclusion is, Korean plumbing is the worst.)

In a way, I find it charming. Korea is modern but still has elements of Asia Time that excite and infuriate. It lacks a lot of the red tape of my home country, although red tape seems to show up in very unexpected and strange places. If you don’t like the answer whether it be from immigration or the bank, just try again another day and you’ll find that the reply has changed.

Just when I think I’ve seen it all, there’s another surprise. The Korean surprise, as some expats say. It’s a land that retains the best and worst of both the past and the future.

Becoming who I am

I don’t think living abroad is a universal experience for the average Floridian. Sometimes I myself can hardly believe that I am overseas.

And yet all the foreign people I know here share this singular experience that seems so impossible back home.

I remember at my friend’s wedding that the bride suggested I talk to a guest. He had taught all over the world and was currently stationed in Russia. I felt myself go hot with jealousy.

But hey, look at me now.

This month was my two year Korea anniversary. Can you believe it? It’s not only the anniversary of me moving here but moreso of me finally listening to my gut and casting off the old skin I thought I must wear.

When I think about it, I have made, in my own way, great strides. I moved within a foreign country on my own, I bought a car and do maintenance on it on my own, I set up banking and jobs on my own. There is no fallback. Jumping was the only way to realize what I am fully capable of.

Becoming who I am is not easy. It’s never straightforward and rarely does the modern world give me a pat on the back for the decisions I’ve made– but my cheering squad lends me a hand and pushes me upright when the road feels too steep to keep going.

There’s a quote I read a long time ago that went, “I would make the same mistakes, only sooner.” I didn’t understand until now.

I wonder what kind of person I would be now if I had been braver, then. If I had had the courage and the clarity to follow my instinct.

When I was a kid, I thought as an adult I would have all the answers. Now that I’m well into adulthood, I’m most disappointed to learn that isn’t true– there is no magic age of clarity, no clear answers, very few signs from the universe. Life is in the gray spaces.

I also feel that modern life doesn’t have a space for me, for people like me. We’ve dug ourselves into our own holes then threw the shovel up and over. Like my MO in Sims, we built a pool, removed the exit ladder, then jumped right in. (I did this because I liked the aesthetic of having a graveyard in my Gothic Sim Mega Mansions and also cared little for the Sims themselves, apart from trying to use hacks I found on AOL to look inside the shower while the Sims were bathing).

I thought when I reached 20, 25, 30, a beam of light would descend upon me and all knowledge that I needed to proceed with surety about life would shine upon my being. But existence continues to be gloriously messy.

I know people look at the ups and downs of my life and wonder why I can’t just be still, be satisfied with a steady life, work my way up in corporate. Other people sometimes misunderstand this as dissatisfaction, depression, flightiness.

For me, I’m glad I have that itch. I’m glad I’m awake enough to ask the questions.

To quote someone from a message board who once nearly floated out to sea on an inner-tube in Japan, “I feel like I’ve lived ten lives”.

There is still a small, but luckily getting smaller, part of me that says that I don’t deserve to be comfortable. If I’m not run down and dog tired then I’m not working hard enough. If I’m not changing the world through science then my potential is wasted. If I’m not maxing out my retirement account or buying a house and instead am thinking of when I can surf again or the first country I’ll hop to after the pandemic or what interesting people I’ll meet next, then my real life is simply on pause. There is still that workism-obsessed American piece of me that tries to prove misery is the only authenticity.

But I’m getting better at ignoring her. Misery loves company, after all, and I’d rather throw in my lot for a good time.

Glennon Doyle said “the braver I am, the luckier I get.” I want to keep living bravely even if it’s hard because that’s how I grow and change. That’s how I stumble upon opportunities I could never have imagined. Remember when I modeled for Busan tourism?

Being brave means taking risks, it means following your own path, it means not always fitting in, it means confusing and disappointing others to be honest with yourself.

I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself; if you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul; if you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.

Oriah Mountain Dreamer

I am a new butterfly fighting her way out of the cocoon. It’s not a graceful process and we shouldn’t expect it to be.

I can’t change what people want to see, what they have been trained to see, what they have learned to see. For me, feeling stifled is the worst kind of torture.

I want so much that I’m bursting. I know so little that I’m blundering. I am a black hole of want and wonder. I am human in all that I do.

The trick for people with the Campaigner personality type is to take advantage of this quality, this wonder with the magnificent breadth and detail in the world, and to use it to propel themselves further and deeper than others are willing or able to go.

ENFP

Some people are comforted by stability. I am discomfited by routine. Not an easy adjustment in a modern world of 9 to 5.

I don’t have the answers. I don’t have any answers, really, but I am content in the gray spaces. Our time is so incredibly limited and thus I won’t limit myself.

I just want to keep growing and knowing and collecting unbelievable experiences.

Bitterness

I think we are only bitter about other people’s joy in direct proportion to our commitment to keep joy from ourselves. The more often I do things I want to do, the less bitter I am at people for doing what they want to do.

Glennon Doyle

Nostalgia

In between what often feels like long stretches of isolation and endurance, I realized the bad is not so bad or so long.

Since I bought a car, I’ve regained a sense of freedom that floated away at the beginning of COVID along with a number of other things and have been inspired to think back upon my time here.

I’ve known such joy and also such disappointment, betrayal, wonder, confusion, excitement, and disbelief. I have been tested and squeezed and stretched to limits I didn’t know I had.

I miss my Seoul uni friends and our time together so much my whole chest aches.

Kang Ho Joon, the faithful security guard, was so kind to me at the elementary school. I imagine what he’d say if I went back to visit.

“Hello!” I’d say and bow deeply.

He would gasp in delighted shock then emerge from the security hut to ask where I live now and what I’ve been doing.

I’d ask C to meet me out front for coffee, and say hi to the subject teachers, even the man. Our tea times were something special, after all. I wonder how part time guitar teacher is doing and if I’ll ever run into him and his pretty, delicate hands again.

Maybe I’d see a former student. And maybe they wouldn’t remember me— save Jeongyeon and my daycare boy, I don’t think they could forget. I got so close to those students and now I don’t know a single unmasked face of my current 500.

If I took a walk around the neighborhood, would I see that lone chicken? H is pregnant with another baby, I’d have to visit her too. Obviously I’d meet S after school for dinner with her son.

There were tough times in Seoul, really tough times, but when I think about it now my body only remembers the good.

The Chinese market with cheap hot pot ingredients; having picnics with my classmates; sneaking into the school gym for free; shopping at the massive flea market; finding a Korean American at a local tap house; asking the local whiskey pub bartender for help with my homework; seeing commercials shot at the shopping complex every other week; riding line 2 over the river at sunset; eating chicken nuggets at 3am on Halloween night with a guy in a dinosaur costume; the excellent thrift store near school whose owner always gave me tea; the little mountain I could hike in a dress; eating fried chicken gizzards and drinking tankards of cheap draft beer in old Seoul; getting an autograph from a handsome actor in a musical.

I feel this way because I feel corona finally rounding a corner, however misguided that may be. I see the light. True freedom is near and my soul has been ready for months.

Homonyms

“What’s headache in Korean?”

“두통.” [pronounced like doo-tong] The sixth graders shouted. They love shouting…

“두 as in 두 for two?” I asked because Korean is mostly phonetically spelled but not always. Plus my ears are still being tuned to similar sounds and thirty masked twelve year olds yelling at the same time doesn’t help.

“No,” they shouted with conviction, “두 as in 頭 for head. The Chinese 두.”

I don’t know Hanja but I had some idea where this was going so I asked one student to write it in Korean for me. The spelling?

두통.

That’s right— I asked if the spelling was 두 and they said no, the spelling is 두.

Why on earth they would think I’m asking about the etymology of the syllable is beyond me, but hey at least I learned something. 두 (particle for two) and 두 (Chinese descended word for head) are homonyms!

Here’s the same situation in English:

“How do you spell ‘bat’? B-A-T as in baseball bat?”

“No, B-A-T as in bat like the animal.”

“Those are… exactly the same. B-A-T!”

Another fun homonym that my German classmate pointed out when we attended level 3 Korean class is 차례 which can mean ancestral memorial rites or… a sequence.

I’m glad that Korean also has homonyms, though. They’re kind of fun!

Curriculum Challenges

Month 2 and I still find I just don’t have the time or resources to teach my students all that they should know. Planning for my travel school has become an exercise in frustration.

Here’s an example—

At my travel school, I teach one of the three classes fifth and sixth graders have per week. This week sixth grade starts chapter 3. Chapter 3 has vocabulary like “Earth Day, field day, concert”.

Oh, and the kids are also supposed to already know all twelve months and the ordinal numbers first to thirty first. Was there any chapter that taught that? No. Did they learn months and ordinal numbers in fifth or fourth or third grade? Also no.

This book assumes the students already know the months or assumes that I can teach the chapter vocabulary along with the twelve months and the days of the week across one chapter. More likely the former is true and this book series assumes all the students attend private English classes and thus doesn’t bother to go over the basics. I had the same problem in Seoul. I remember when the vice principal told C and me that “the kids are not good at English”. Of course that really meant, “the kids don’t attend private classes to they aren’t on level with the national curriculum”. Isn’t that rather a reflection of us as teachers? I thought at the time. Teachers at other schools have echoed the sentiment and as someone from a country where all learning takes place at school, I find it sad that students are expected to take additional classes just to be at level.

That any curriculum would assume prior, private learning outside the national public curriculum is a disservice to all students.

At my travel school, I have one 40-minute period with these students for chapter 3, and a majority of them can’t read. What in the world am I to do?

The curriculum is so frustrating.

A similar situation plays out in my main school, but nearly all the students have attended private English classes since they were young. At private academies they learn grammar rules and vocabulary which is something neither school book series does. The school books are written on sentence pattern memorization. I’m surprised my sixth graders knew how to even make a sentence with a pronoun outside of “I’ since the books gloss over verb conjugation for he/she/it/they/we/you.

I joked with my friend Rachel that the textbooks are written like: day 1, ABC. Day 2, Go straight then take a left at the grocery store.

I struggled with this in Seoul and I struggle with this here. With one 35 to 40 minute class per week with my students, I’m at a loss of how to improve this situation when really the national curriculum needs to be changed.

Since I am not the government, I’ll do my best to expose students to native English and make classes that leave them with happy memories of English– they’ll need that for the future when the college entrance exam prep sucks all joy from learning a language.