Thursday, December 29, 2011

Happy New Year!

With only 2 more days left in 2011 (3 more if you're in the USA), it only seemed appropriate to wish you all a wonderful New Year's Eve and Day!

It's been a crazy year, filled with travel, loss, sorrow, adventure, laughs, smiles, many new friends, and nearly 50,000 frequent flier miles on my Star Alliance card. Seriously guys, when are you upgrading me to First Class?

I restarted this blog last December, and since then Adventures of the Orange Sweater has logged nearly 7,000 page views. I want to thank each and every one of you for letting me share this grand adventure with you. It's been a privilege so far, and I hope you've enjoyed the journey thus far.

2012 has plenty to offer as well! For AOTOS, I'll start 2012 with Cambodia and my last couple months in Korea. It promises to be very bittersweet as I come back to the United States, but I won't have too much time to dwell on it. My biggest project yet begins in June, sandwiched between Film Festivals and planning an even bigger project for sometime late in 2012. I can't say much yet, but if everything works out...well, let's just say I might need a whole lot of extra pages inserted in my Passport...

I plan on ringing in 2012 the only way I know how: with friends, adventure, and my 5DmkII around my shoulder. Expect a new post early in the new year.

For 2012, I challenge you to go somewhere new and exciting. Many of us don't travel nearly enough, and we make so many excuses not to do so. I promise you, it's worth it. Traveling opens your mind and gives you perspective. You learn so much when you throw yourself out of your comfort zone. Trust me. Life is amazing...but you have to make it happen! 

Have a safe New Year everyone! I'll see you in 2012!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Thoughts on Filmmaking and Happiness


Working on films is tough. Really tough. They become harder when you're working on them for free, and  even harder when you have a bar set so high that you just can't seem to step back and say "it's finished". There's the common saying that films are never truly finished. You always find things that you can improve on. Eventually, they have to escape the parental embrace of the producers and director so that others can enjoy them.

For my first major filmmaking endeavor to be involved with, this proved to more true than anything else. It was our baby. It still is our baby. We didn't want it to leave the house until it was ready. 

For "Roots of Happiness," that was a period of about a year and a half. The first real work on the production began in the Spring of 2010, and the final edit was completed in December of 2011. This was a project unlike anything else I've ever worked on before. I was working abroad. I had a team that was much more talented than I was. I had a major role to play, and the stakes were high. I wasn't getting graded on this project. I didn't have professors to help me out along the way. I had to give my best effort and do it right, otherwise run the risk of letting not only myself and my team down...but letting the children of Tumaini down.

That becomes hard, because doing that kind of self reflection on a humanitarian project can play tricks on what your true intentions are.

If there's one thing I hate about filmmaking, it's the ego that seems to come with the profession. You are always trying to sell yourself. You need to. That's how you make contacts and get new jobs. In the process, you hype yourself up so much that sometimes you believe that you're always best for the job. There is no room for humility. Admitting weakness can be the kiss of death. You are literally competing with every yahoo with a YouTube account. Filmmaking is democratized now, and everyone thinks they are the next Steven Spielberg.

I was lucky. I came in with the expectation that I would be a Production Assistant. I would learn how to use the cameras and equipment on the ground by observing. I had dabbled in production while in college, but my focus was screenwriting. I knew my level of skill wasn't up to par yet. I had something to prove, but I didn't have that confidence to approach this project with that ego.

All of that got thrown out of the window when we stepped foot into Tumaini. Being with those kids changed my life. Literally. I took a bigger role in the production of the film, but everything revolved around the beauty and happiness of these kids. I would take breaks to play soccer or talk with them. They were so kind and so humble. Whenever I feel down and out, I close my eyes and think of Tumaini, and I smile again. You can't help it. 

That kind of lesson came at the perfect time in my life. I was fresh out of college with a lot to prove. I was finding out what kind of man I wanted to be. They touched my heart when I was most impressionable, and it's affected my career and how I approach filmmaking and life ever since. They purified my intentions.

Now this project wasn't all roses and rainbow unicorns, either. There were rough times as well. When I was asked to write the script, it was months after the trip and at a time when I was unemployed, depressed, and not sure what life had in store for me. I was questioning my writing skills too. What drove me to stay up late and pump out 7 drafts of the script with my director was those kids. I watched every clip and logged every interview, and for 2 months I literally lived in that brief time we were all in Tumaini.

That's when the story started taking shape. As it did, I started to appreciate everything I had and how lucky I truly was. I had confidence in what I did, but that arrogant ego that usually comes with it was dissolved by good intentions. 7 drafts later, my major role on the film was finished.

I look back at the last year and a half, and I realized how much this film impacted my life and how I approach filmmaking. That ego is still there, but good intentions always prevail. I'm less jealous and more grateful.  Most of all, I realized how sacred my art really is. It isn't my job to promote my skills or to entertain to better myself or to score more hits on my Youtube. My job is to tell a story and make you feel something. 

"Roots of Happiness" has come a long way. I can't wait to share this story with you. It's wonderful and touching. It puts a smile on my face every time I watch it. And, with every step we take to getting this film out there to as many people as possible, that dream we had of making a film to benefit these beautiful children half a world away gets one step closer to becoming a reality. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Weddings, Santas, and Lunar Eclipses

Every once in a while a day comes along that, by all standards, is a perfect day on paper. You have a series of events spent with a group of people that creates that perfect storm of awesome and amazing. All week you stare at your computer just hoping that the day comes quicker. Disappointment isn't an option. Everything is too perfect to fail.

This past Saturday was one of those days. The perfect day.

It started early Saturday morning. I had to wake up at 6am to catch the early bus into Seoul. It's December and I'm in Korea, so that means I woke up to ice on my window and seeing my breath inside my apartment. Rolling out of bed was hard, but that shower was amazing. I left my apartment around 6:15 with my camera bag packed and my hair looking perfect. This fohawk is out of control...

On the bus, I was feeling quite nostalgic. I was looking at a calendar this week, and I realized that I have a little under 5 months left in Korea! That time flew by. I also discovered this song by Youth Group that wasn't helping my cause any:
I'm feeling like I'm growing up so fast that, sometimes, I don't slow down enough to realize where I am and how amazing life is. That innocence of my youth was wasted on ideas that happiness came through a career and good money. I'm so fortunate that, at 23 years old, I'm learning that there's so much more than that. Once I stopped worrying about my financial security, things fell right into place. I can feel again, and I know that when I finally leave Korea I will be swept up in a sea of emotions. It was fun while it lasted, right?

Anyways, I met up with my friend Hyeyeong at the bus station in Seoul just in time to hop on another bus heading to Yeongju, Hyeyeong's home town about 3 hours east of Seoul. This town was a spitting image of the town I grew up in. It was small and had this charm that only home could provide. It was so drastically different from the hustle of Suwon and Seoul, and that change of pace was incredibly refreshing.

We met up with her mother for just a little bit, where I continued my streak of impressing older Korean women by spilling a cup of coffee on my pants. Really classy, I know, but I think she found it really endearing. Maybe it was the fact that my face was beet-red as I straddled a heater trying to dry my pants. You can't cry over spilt coffee...no matter how much those 2nd degree burns hurt.

We headed up to the chapel around 12:30 to go to Hyeyeong's friend's wedding. Yes, I crashed a Korean wedding...with coffee stains down my pants and looking like I'm backpacking through the country. I do not know how I get away with these things.

The wedding itself was actually really cool! The ceremony was remarkably western. The bride and groom were in this chapel that reminded me of the bridge on the USS Enterprise. The ushers all looked like flight attendants from space. The walls were white and glowing. It was crazy.

Then the music started to play...

The bride and groom each had a theme song that led them down the aisle. The groom played Sandstorm:
I would like to take this time to apologize to my future wife. I'm sorry, but I will be having this song at my wedding. That, or "Eye of the Tiger". Wait, I'm single again? Eh...worth it.

The bride had something along the lines of Alanis Morissette....did I mention that the groom was led by two flight attendants with swords and a light show?

Anyways, crashing the wedding was great, but my goal was to stay invisible. I did not know these people. Heck, I didn't know why I was there in the first place. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The next thing I knew, Hyeyeong was dragging me to the front of the chapel to take pictures with the bride and groom that I did not know.

Now think about this for a moment: you just had the most important day of your life. You get back from your honeymoon and the photographer contacts you about your pictures. You're excited to see them and share them with your family. When you take a look at them, you see everyone you love standing in front of the chapel....and then there's me in the background, photobombing the crap out of your wedding picture. It would be one thing if I was standing with the guys too. I would blend in. No, I was on the girl's side. I'm about a foot taller than all of them, and with my fohawk you can add another 3 inches. I did not blend in. I was not invisible.

Thank goodness for Hyeyeong, as we got out of dodge just after the reception and traditional Korean stuff (they dress up the bride and groom in traditional clothes and give them A TON of food). After a lovely cup of coffee and learning more about her hometown, we hopped on the next bus back to Seoul.

This is where the night gets kinda weird...

I had my camera gear on me to take some pictures of a bunch of foreigners in Hongdae dressed as Santa. It's called Santacon. Every December, the foreigners in Korea get decked out in their Santa gear and roam the streets of Seoul drinking and having a good time. It's the reason why most Koreans think we are crazy, and it was completely worth it.

My friend had me stand on the 4th floor of this building to take pictures of the 300 or so Santas that came out to spread holiday cheer through the streets of Hongdae. It was weird man...most of them were clutching bottles of soju and beer, and half of them were smoking and looking like the Santa Claus from the metro shopping mall in Newark. Whatever...my job was to take pictures and have a good time.

It was something of a pub crawl, so our first pit stop was the Ho Bar (get it?) to get some alcohol flowing. Upon getting to the bar, I noticed something read and blinking in the corner near the dance floor. It was none other than Party Rock Robot Santa. With impeccable timing, the DJ cranked up Party Rock Anthem   just as I noticed him. I handed off my camera to my friend and told him I had some business to take care of...

The next 3 minutes was a shuffle-off between me and the Party Rock Robot Santa. I crushed him before the dance break, as he couldn't even do a proper running man. Take the robot head seriously...

Shortly after, the Santas began to migrate to the nearby park to wreck havoc on the streets of Hongdae. Before we could get there, though, a lone voice screamed "stoplight dance party" just as the streetlight turned red. Two hundred of the Santas in the vicinity sprinted out into the crosswalk during the red light to have a 30 second dance party in the middle of the street. Taxis and cars were honking. Koreans were taking pictures on their cell phones. Me and my friend Warren were shooting pics and video from a nearby streetlight. It was nuts. They did this for a good 20 minutes before we arrived at the park...

Hongdae is famous for the musicians that take their music to the streets every Friday and Saturday night. This night, a Distrubed-wannabe Korean band was situated on the playground and putting on a show for the growing crowd of drunk Santas. Moshing ensued, and for a good hour we stood around in the 15-degree winter night rocking out to some band we just so happened to mob.

At around 11:30pm or so, everyone stopped dancing. They were all looking up at the sky. I looked up too to see a total lunar eclipse starting. It was such a strange feeling. The park was nearly silent. 500 people I didn't know dressed like Santa were staring at the sky watching the eclipse. I half expected to see the real Santa fly across the moon, just to shock and awe us even further. We didn't need it. That moment was something strange...I just can't seem to explain it.

The night ended early for me. Hyeyeong caught the last bus home, and me and my friends went to the local sauna to rest for the night. I spent the early morning hours in the hot tub talking with a new South African friend about UFC and investment banking. I hopped on the early train home to Suwon to rest.

As I stepped off the train, I felt somewhat victorious...like I had won something. Every all-nighter in Seoul seems to end with me stepping off the train and feeling as if I had achieved something. Maybe it's a reminder that I am alive...that I'm still able to do things like this and enjoy life for what it is. Maybe it's just a sense of relief, that soon I'll be in my nice warm bed and sleeping my Sunday afternoon away. Either way, you can't help but want to raise your arms up and cheer on the new morning. The perfect day!



Or, in my case, you can leave your smartphone on the train and watch it as the train takes it to the most southern point in Korea. I'm really going to miss that phone...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Party Rock!

One of my favorite things to do with my kids is to break down boundaries and get them to do things they never thought they could do. Not gonna lie, that backfires...alot. Sometimes though, I can get them to do cool stuff like this:

Wawoo Middle School Flashmob - Party Rock Anthem by Ryan_Abella
Education wise, this breaks all the rules...probably because we're having too much fun. I thought about it for a while, and I realized that these kids are my friends. They are friends that, whether I like or not, I will have to leave behind in 5 months. That's hard to think about because as their teacher I've developed a relationship with them and I can say, with all my heart, I love each and every one of my students. Tears will flow I'm sure, but until that day I'll push them to do things like this. I've learned way more from them than I thought possible, and that's something that sticks with you forever. I'm hoping they feel the same way.

Oh yea, and I have a fohawk now. Party Rock!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Listening is an Active Skill

I'm not a big fan of Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, or any of these 'revolutions' that spawned in the last couple years or so. I like change. Change is good. Change doesn't come from idealists, though. It doesn't spawn from selfish motives but out of wanting better for the person sitting across the aisle. That's what these people are missing. The reason why the Civil Rights Movement worked was because people like Martin Luther King wanted mankind to benefit from desegregation...not just the African Americans.


To tell someone that they are being selfish doesn't really help much, so I decided to write in to my hometown newspaper and call from people to just listen to one another. I encourage you to do the same.


Letter to the Editor:


When I was in elementary school, we were always taught to listen. Kids would try to talk over the teacher and she would always tell us to 'listen'. After a while, we would get the message. You can't learn if you don't listen. You can't understand if you don't listen. Most of us learned this when we were young. It's one of our most fundamental life skills, and I'm really concerned that we might have lost it.

As a man in his early 20's, I'm consistently told that my opinion doesn't matter. I'm told that I "haven't lived long enough to understand." So…I listen, and all I hear is white noise. No matter where I go or what I do, I'm faced with some kind of verbal shootout that always ends in finger pointing and disappointment. 

My generation likes social discourse and our arguments are based on an emotional response to an issue. You decided to raise the cost of tuition? You better prepare yourself for resistance, even if the cost is to help improve our education. The presidential election is coming up soon? You better believe that we'll voice our support for a candidate, even if we don't know completely what he or she supports. The entire Occupy Wall Street is an example of an emotional response: we don't have jobs, so we are angry. Instead of retraining or looking elsewhere for a job, we'd rather protest. It's a young person's mistake.

But now I see this same kind of emotional discourse in the very people I'm suppose to look up to and respect, and I can't help but think we've taken a giant step back. I read the news and hear the voices telling me that I need to pick a side and start fighting. All our problems are rooted in a political arena, and it isn't just the members of congress that are fighting.

We are fighting with one another and, more importantly, we aren't listening. You want evidence? Take a look at the opinion section of the Kingman Daily Miner or listen to conversations on the street. People are fired up over issues but would rather shift blame than find solutions to our problems. These problems are big, and we can only solve them if we work together. It's hard to do that when we don't even try to listen and understand one another.

This is more than just you and me, or even America for that matter. It's a fact that every decision made (or not made) in the USA will affect the entire world, and that world is watching us. If you don't believe me, get a passport and travel for a bit. You'll see what I'm talking about. They watch us and cannot believe how petty we've become. We live in a globalized world, and Americans just can't seem to accept that. It's always about 'me' when it should be about 'us', and we will pay the price for that kind of antiquated mentality. Greed and selfishness is destroying America, not politics. 

There are no simple answers to any the problems we face…but a good start would be to stop blaming and start listening. I would say to grow up, but it's the grown ups that messed things up in the first place. We had it right in elementary school.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Kiwi Chronicles - The Legendary Stories: Easter Weekend, Part 3

This is a 3 part story of Easter Weekend in New Zealand. To view the first part, go here.



So it's been what....4 months since I started telling this story? I feel like Ted Mosby, cept less interesting because my voiceover isn't done by Bob Saget. Regardless, here is the last part of my Easter Weekend story in New Zealand. It was a doozy.


We had met up with our friends Emma and Emily and, with some help, secured a hostel for the night. I would like to point out that you should never leave a place without knowing where you're going to stay the following night. That being said, I've done it so many times and it's always led to some crazy awesome stories. It isn't for the faint at heart...but I'm still alive, so that's got to count for something.
After putting our bags up and getting all settled for the night, we all took a walk down the road to get our grub on at what was self-proclaimed as the "World's best fish and chips" shop. I had an unhealthy addiction to fish and chips while in New Zealand. It was cheap and delicious, and it was literally sold everywhere. That wouldn't fly now, as my metabolism has finally caught up to the years of abuse I've put it through.
Emma and I nourishing the soul and punishing our digestive systems.
Turns out, that was the best fish and chips I've ever had. Perhaps it was the location. We were on this dock overlooking one of New Zealand's many inlets. You could hear the seagulls begging for some leftovers. It might have been the Steinlager I was drinking as well. Nothing goes better than Steinlager and fried foods. Note the grease stains on the paper.


On a sentimental note, I look back on this picture a lot when I'm remembering my time in New Zealand. It was a great time in my life. I was sitting at a table with some of the best friends I've ever had, having a beer and just experiencing the joy of travel. We all went our separate ways now, but I'm alright with that. That's something you gotta get use to when you make friends on the road: eventually, you will have to say goodbye. You probably will never see them again. Seriously...enjoy the moments you have with them while you can.

We put a couple beers back and, in true college fashion, bitched a bit about how expensive the beers were. We also didn't understand why we were drinking there when we still had 4 cases of beer in the back of our car (mind you, we started off with 10 or so about 2 days ago). They teach you problem solving in college, and 20 minutes later we found ourselves back at the hostel drinking warm beer from the trunk of our car.

I know I've praised the beauty of New Zealand over and over and over again...but I really can't stress to you how awe-inspiring this country was. In my time there, I hiked volcanic mountains and surfed legendary breaks, hitchhiked through the hills of Waikato and experienced the cities of Wellington and Auckland. This place is diverse, and each locale is just as impressive as the next.

Mangonui was no different. Our hostel was on the waterfront, literally built along the edge of this large inlet. Sailboats dotted the landscape, and behind us the hills went on and on. A thick forest separated Mangonui from the interior of the Northland. The main town was about a kilometer down the road that ran along the water, and from our hostel you couldn't see the from town. It was quiet and peaceful before we came there. I loved it.

We must have spent an hour or two on the trunk of our car drinking, because the sun finally set behind the mountains and the moon was casting this eerie glow off the inlet. The water was so still. You could see fish jump every once in a while to catch a meal. I remember vividly throwing rocks into the water and watching the ripples play with the moonlight. 
Around 8 or so, we polished off our remaining beer and started to trek into town. Aside from the fish shop, Mangonui is a one-bar town. That means, on a holiday weekend, the locals are partying it up like it's 1999.


No, literally: they were partying like it was 1999. Most of the people there were 10 years our senior, and they were dancing to music I haven't heard in public since I was in middle school. Spice Girls? BSB? Eiffel 65? Walking into that bar was probably our best choice of the night, as it set up everything that would happen afterwards.


About an hour into the night, the local band came on. I remember the lead signer vividly. She was this 50 year old lady wearing a pink cowboy hat and boots singing covers from just about every genre imaginable. She owned that stage, and for the next couple hours myself, Emily, and Emma danced our shoes off.


While this was happening, our friend Nick was up to something...


He disappeared for an hour, but when he came back he had two Kiwi girls with him. Apparently, there was one more bar up the road that was better than this one, and they offered to take us all there to enjoy the rest of the night. I was a bit emotionally attached to my girl singing, but we all happily obliged to embark on a little adventure.


When we stepped outside, a hay truck with its engine running was waiting for us. The girls hopped in a taxi and told us to get in the back. The driver was their friend and he would take us to the bar. Red flags were going up in my head, but apparently I was the only one with dissent. Maybe it was the fact that there was 6 of us and 1 of him, and if he tried anything we could jump him. He probably had friends waiting for us...all armed with axes and broadswords (this is Middle Earth after all). It was the makings of a horror film, and I was the only ethnic guy of the bunch. You know what that means...


Still, we hopped in the back for our 'short' journey to the bar down the road.
That's fear in my eyes.
I tried mapping this out a hundred times, but to this day I still have no clue where we ended up. All I know is that we rode 45 minutes in some stranger's truck to go to some bar recommended to us by two girls that took a separate taxi to get there. Frankly, I'm just glad to be alive.

I can't regret it that much though, because we ended up at this awesome little bar on the oceanfront. Inside, a Maori band was jamming to some awesome covers. The bar was filled with friendly locals playing pool and chatting louder than the music. We spent the rest of the night dancing and singing, and at one point a conch shell and a monkey wrench made some guest appearances. It was an awesome night.

Uhh....it came that way?
We didn't really see those girls at the bar either. I never got the full story, but I imagine that they disappeared once their friend dropped us off at the bar. Perhaps they thought we were crazy enough to hop in a stranger's truck and drive up the coast for a good time. Their loss...

After Mangonui, we finished up our time in the Northland at the Bay of Islands. The girls went a separate path, and they hitchhiked the rest of the way home. Our road trip was coming to an end, and we all had school in two days. 

When we returned the car, it was a dirty mess. Mud from Ninety Mile Beach was still caked in the well. Sand and dirt was everywhere. The guy at the rental place just looked at us and smiled. Unlike America, the Kiwis are cool with that kind of stuff. We didn't crash it. We didn't dent or scratch it. All we did was get it a little dirty.

I don't know what it is...but we have this obsession over keeping things clean and tidy. I mean, I'm not saying that you should have a dirty office or purposefully leave your socks and underwear out on the dinner table. It's good to be organized. But what's the point of keeping your pretty new camera clean by not taking it out there and taking pictures? Why should I keep my shoes tidy when, eventually, they'll get dirty and break on me? Everything you own...everything is replaceable. Things that are new now won't be new in the future. You can't be afraid to risk your equipment so you can get the shot. That's Photography 101 right there. 

That goes for life too. Your body will get beat up over and over again as long as you keep stepping out that front door. Scars and wrinkles are beautiful: it shows me that you've lived a little. We can't take this body with us after it's all said and done. It doesn't work that way (unless the Egyptians were right, in which case I'm screwed because I really hate cats). Take care of your body and be healthy, but don't sit on the sidelines and not play the game out of fear of getting hurt. 

Take a road trip when you get the chance. Go anywhere, and drive as far as you can. Get things dirty and experience an adventure. It might be an American thing, but I think we are all born to drive. It's one of those universal symbols of freedom. I can go wherever I want so long as I have gas in the tank and a road to drive on. I'm in control of where I go, and as long as I have a friend in the passenger seat and some tunes on the radio, I know I'll enjoy the journey no matter where I go.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Spontaneous Moments

It's been a while, hasn't it? Here's the thing with me: if you don't see a blog post for an extended amount of time, that usually means I'm off having crazy adventures. Don't get me wrong, I love sharing my experiences with you. You're a wonderful group of readers, and I'm grateful for the 5000+ hits you guys have given me over the past year (did I mention that I broke 5000 hits?). Sometimes, I just gotta live life so I have some stories to share with you. It's not you, it's me.

That being said, I did have a wild and crazy night in Seoul over the weekend that included silent discos, a horse and a wizard, and at one point a secret underground club inside another underground club. I love that city.

My best moment, however, was looking at my camera on the train ride back home the next morning. I had taken some crazy pictures throughout the night, but had one that really put a smile on my face.
I'm a sap for spontaneous moments, and they don't get much better than that. One girl wanted me to take a picture of her and her boyfriend, so I happily obliged. Before I knew it, she grabbed his chin and gave him this kiss that made all the girls in the region (and myself as well...) swoon. I was lucky enough to capture that moment and do it some justice.

That is what photography is all about: capturing spontaneous moments. I'm not the best photographer...I just am good at capturing a moment. 

My film work is staring to reflect that same mentality. Like I said, I'm not the best filmmaker. I'm good at capturing my moments. Ever since I got my 7D (and shortly after, my 5D), I've been logging my travels with literally thousands of clips. I took a hard look at them, and in the sea of files I had a demo reel waiting to be edited. It started off as a demo, but quickly turned into a tribute to the beauty of travel. It was the perfect reminder of why I do what I do.

Here's the video below, with music by the lovely Kelsey James.



Life is out there just waiting to be lived. Go make some spontaneous moments happen. Trust me, those moments become memories that last a lifetime. I've been truly blessed. I've had a lifetime's worth of memories, and I still have so much more living to do. So what are you waiting for?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

So You Wanna Teach English In Korea....

I've been getting a lot of people asking me about the process of becoming a teacher in Korea. There's a ton of resources online, but many sources contradict each other and the whole process can be overwhelming. It's one thing to apply for a job back home, but preparing yourself emotionally and physically to come here shouldn't be bogged down by the logistics of it all. Getting the job should be the easy part, leaving home is the one that people should struggle with.

So, for those of you wanting to go teach overseas (or just are curious about the process), I've compiled a guide on getting a job in Korea. This is all from personal experience, and so things may vary depending on where you apply or what country you go to. Comment below if this is helpful or (for my fellow WayGooks) if want something added. 

Before You Go...

Paperwork
This is the most crucial step in the application process and, most of the time, you can start it before applying to Recruiters (I'll discuss them later). It's a time consuming and convoluted process and, if you don't know about these documents from prior experience, it can be a headache getting everything right. Here's a list of what you'll need, how you obtain them, and some of the problems you might encounter along the way.
  • Passport (USA ONLY). This is kinda obvious. You need a passport to go abroad. If you don't have one, go to any post office in the USA and start the application process there. You can also go to the State Department's website here and start filling out all the paperwork. You'll need passport photos, which you can get at any Walgreens or photo studio. Once all of that is collected, find your nearest 'acceptance facility' and they'll help you out from there. Most of the time, your post office can submit your paperwork on your behalf. Fees will run you about $135, and a passport lasts for 10 years. A great investment.
  • Passport Photos. Everything you submit will require photos of yourself. This includes ID cards in the country you're visiting, Visa applications, and most schools want to see your face on your application. Get about 10 copies or so just to be on the safe side. 
  • School Transcripts. Yes...they are going to look at your grades. My co-teacher asked me why I got a D in Astronomy, and it's funny to explain that you were busy making money on ChaCha instead of paying attention in class. Your school will help you with that. Order 2 or more copies, and ensure that they are SEALED copies. If they are opened, you'll need an Apostille (which I will explain later) to ensure that they are valid. Photocopies are also not acceptable.
  • Diploma. When you are applying to Korea, they will ask for a photocopy of your Diploma with a Notary and an Apostille. I've heard of schools asking for the original, but the Korean Government doesn't require your actual diploma. For most universities, you can have an official diploma printed for $35 or so, so if you want to send one, you can. It'll still need to be notarized and Apostilled.
  • Letters of Reference. Like any job, you'll need some Letters of Reference. 2 is the standard minimum, but if you can get more that'll be advantageous. Try to get one from a professional source and one as a personal reference, and make sure you get multiple copies of each letter.
  • FBI Criminal Background Check. If there is anything that you should start early rather than later, it's this. Your CBC can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months, and you WILL NOT get a job until you have this document in hand. You can apply for your CBC here. Fingerprints are required, and most police stations will gladly do those for you. Also, when you are applying, try to have the FBI Apostille your CBC for you. This will save time. The CBC should come back with the FBI seal and signature. If it doesn't, make sure you fix it through the FBI before you proceed.
  • Proof of Residency. This isn't required, but highly encouraged. As a US citizen, you aren't required to pay Korean taxes. To get this tax break, you have to have the IRS validate that you are, indeed, a tax paying citizen of the USA. You can get Form 6616 (sounds ominous, right?) here. You can get up to 10 copies for $35, and you can have those copies validated for different countries (like Japan, Thailand, China, or wherever you want to work).
I mentioned that you'll need an 'Apostille' for the copy of your Diploma and your FBI CBC. When I first started this process, I had no clue exactly what an Apostille was. It's basically the international version of a Notary. If you think about it, this makes sense: just about anybody can notarize a document. Korea shouldn't have to recognize something that was validated by a bank teller or a secretary at the district office. 

That being said, I wish Apostilles were easier to obtain. To get an Apostille, you have to mail your documents to your state's secretary office. This can take days, and if you mess up the paperwork they will send your documents back and ask you to do the process all over again. To save time and the headache, I would recommend going in person. The secretaries there will help you fill out the paperwork, and they can make the photocopies themselves (which is to validate that this is a true copy of the original). Also, the FBI CBC can be Apostilled by the FBI themselves. Doing this will save you time and money.

Certification
Experience teaching isn't necessary, but jumping into a classroom with 38 Korean students should require some kind of battlefield experience. Nothing can prepare you except for experience, and getting thrown into the deep end forces you into sink or swim mode. I personally perform better under that pressure. Some people hate it...

Regardless of which you prefer, I would suggest getting your TEFL or TESOL certificate before applying. Both certificates are qualifications for teaching English as a foreign or second language. They are nearly identical, but check with your school first and see which they would prefer. Also, make sure you take the 100-hour or more course, as most schools won't recognize anything less than that.

If possible, take your certification in a formal class setting. I took my TEFL course online and, while the information was useful at times, I didn't learn anything substantial that'd help me be a better teacher. Having that class setting, you can talk with your peers and discuss what makes a great teacher. Networking is a plus as well.

Most TEFL online courses can be found for under $500. Mine was only $200, and the certificate is intentionally recognized. You also get a pay bump with most contracts, so the certificate pays for itself in a couple months.

Recruiters
Ok. You have your paperwork ready to go. You're fresh out of your TEFL course. Where do you go to get a job?

Some people (the really brave ones) will just leave for a country and try to find a job on the ground. While it's nice to get a feel for the country before accepting a job, you'll run into a slew of Visa problems and you run the risk of blowing all your money before hand. Also, your plane ride there isn't covered, and that $1000 is definitely nice your first month here.

The easiest way to find a job is to go through a recruiter. A recruiter basically works with a list of schools in their given region and matches them with a teacher. The schools pay the recruiter a bonus, the recruiter helps the applicant with the Visa process, and then you fly here and jump right into the classroom.

Another benefit with a recruiter is that, if you have a solid application, you can be selective with where you want to teach. Do you want to teach Elementary or High school? Hagwon or Public (we'll cover those)? If one falls through, the recruiter will help you find another school. They want the money and, if you choose the right recruiter, they genuinely care about you and want to help. They are the liaison between Korea and your home country, and so they are always trying to impress.

Choosing a recruiter is tough, as there are so many of them and none of them will tell you if they are one of the 'preferred' recruiters or not. There's a short whitelist in Korea that most schools hire from, and it is those recruiters that you want to work with.

I personally went with a group called Hands Korea and I give them my highest recommendation. I went through 3 schools that, through scheduling conflicts and other reasons, things just didn't work out with. Throughout that whole process, Hero and Joseph (the two guys I primarily worked with) kept in contact and helped me with my Visa application while I was in Thailand. Great guys, and they continue to stay in contact with all their recruits while we're in Korea. Oh, and they are on that 'whitelist' too.

If you are at any University in the USA, you can probably find a list of recruiters in the English department of your school. I know that GEPIK (the public school governing body in my area) likes to hire straight out of college, essentially bypassing recruiters. Look around and research. More importantly, trust your gut. If a recruiter seems shady or asks for something that you aren't comfortable with, stop! Common sense will get you where you need to go.

Hagwon vs Public
This is one of those pivotal choices that can define how good your time teaching English will be: whether to go teach at a Hagwon or Public school.

What is a Hagwon? Hagwons are the private academies in Korea, and 95% of the students here go to one after they are done at school. Hagwons usually operate from the early afternoon till 10 or 11pm, and teachers can expect to work those hours as well. Yea...6 year olds here are going to school from 7am to 10pm. Stop complaining about your 8am classes.

Because hagwons are owned privately, they are different everywhere you go. In general, you get paid more at hagwons than Public Schools, but you work much harder and the environment is (from what I hear) much more stressful. Class sizes are significantly smaller: public schools hover around 35, while hagwons have 20 or less. You also teach more lessons during the week than a public school teacher.

The most crucial different I found is the stability of the job and all that it entails. Because Public schools are regulated by the government, things like pay days, your apartment, airplane refunds, pension, health insurance, and everything associated with the job is guaranteed to you. If you have a problem with any of them, you will either be compensated or you can petition to the Board of Education. Most public teachers I talk to are very happy with their situations.

Hagwons can be great places to work, but you sacrifice a lot for those smaller classes and higher paychecks. Shop around. You're going to be here a year, so make sure it's worth it!

Interview Process
Yes, you are applying for a job. They will want to interview you to make sure you are a good candidate for the job. Most of the time this is done through Skype or some kind of video conferencing, although I had a couple interviews over the phone.

The best thing you can do to ace that interview and secure a job is to be honest and to be yourself. Be upfront about what you expect from the job, your previous experience, and what your fears are when you get there. Ask questions! You have a right to know what the job is like. Often, the interview process will be done with the Native English teacher that you are replacing, so ask him or her plenty of questions if you get the chance.

Remember: the fact that you got an interview in the first place means you're doing something right and that they are interested. Don't stress out too much. Sometimes a school won't hire you just because you're a boy or a girl or maybe your personality doesn't fit that environment. Don't worry! You'll get a school. There's a demand for teachers here.

Getting ready to go!


The Contract
Ok. You got a job offer. A contract just got sent to you. This is critical: READ YOUR CONTRACT! Know what you are expected to do by law. Read everything so that there are no surprises and that, if a school tries to change something, you can refer back to your contract and protect yourself.

There are nuances that might freak people out, like the housing deposit of $900 or the 22 'mandatory' teaching hours per week plus Saturday classes. If something doesn't look right, get in contact with your recruiter or school. Ask those questions and make sure everything is crystal clear before you sign.

Mailing your Documents
Once you read your contract cover to cover, your recruiter or school will request that you send all your Visa documents (that long list of documents I mentioned above) to Korea. This is standard practice, so don't panic that all this information is being sent to a foreign country.

The easiest way to send all of this is to go to a UPS or FedEx store and ship all the documents with a tracking number. This will give you an ease of mind and you can see exactly when your recruiter or school receives your paperwork.

Once your paperwork is recieved, it'll take a week or two for immigration to process everything. Your recruiter or school will notify you if there is any problems. If everything is fine and dandy, you'll receive a Visa Confirmation number via email. This number will allow you to go to the Korean Embassy in the United States (or your home country) and apply for an E-2 Teaching Visa.

Visa Process
In the United States, all E-2 Teaching Visas are issued by the Korean Consulate that resides over your region. There are many consulates, so find the closest one here. You can also find more details on the required documents for your Visa here. You will need your Visa Confirmation Number, so make sure you have that handy.

This process can take anywhere from 24 hours to 3 days, so plan accordingly. Some allow you to mail in your passport and apply that way, while others will want you to apply in person at the Consulate. If you can, I would recommend going in person. The clerks will help you with making sure your paperwork is in order and you won't run the risk of delaying your visa because of a problem with the Postal Service.

Once everything clears, they'll give you a shiny Visa sticker in your passport. This Visa will allow you to reside and travel in and out of Korea for 13 months. Congratulations! You can legally hop on a plane and start your job as soon as you're ready!

Packing
Oh yeah...it's getting real now. You have to pack a year's worth of stuff and fly to a foreign country to teach English. Are you scared yet?

Packing, for me, wasn't a big deal. I was just getting back from a trip to Thailand, and so I was basically packed and ready to go. I travel a lot, so I'm use to living out of a suitcase. For some teachers, this is where everything started to seem really daunting. How the hell do you stuff all your belongings into a suitcase?

Well remember...you are flying international. That lets you take up to 2 pieces of luggage at 50lbs a pop for free. There aren't any of those pesky baggage fees. I had to check in a 3rd because they didn't recognize my camera gear as a carry on, and that only cost me $100. Don't fret about not having enough room.

At the same time, you want to travel light. You can pick up most of what you need here, and if you forget something you can have Mom and Dad ship you some winter coats or pillows in that care package they intend on shipping you the first month you're away.

Here's a list of things that I brought (or that I wish I brought) in my luggage. Obviously, tailor this to your own personal needs.

  • Clothes...unless you like Korean fashion. Bring jeans, as they are expensive as hell here. Also, it'll get cold during the winter. Very cold. Bring that winter gear as well as some thermals.
  • Shoes. Also expensive as hell here. Converse is really popular here, so if you like those shoes you can pick up a pair for a reasonable price.
  • Toiletries. You can buy things like soap, razors, saline, and shampoo at the supermarket. They do not have stick deodorant, so bring a year's supply with you. Also, they don't have American-brand toothpaste like Crest or Arm and Hammer. I'm particular about that, so I also brought a ton with me.
  • A towel. Besides the obvious "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" reference, the towels here are small. Super small. Bring one really fluffy one with you.
  • Paperwork. Make sure you have your shot record with you. They take a blood test when you land, and proving to them that you do not have Hepatitis A can save you the headache.
  • Blank checks. This will help you when you want to transfer money between your Korean and American bank accounts.
  • Electronics. This is a tricky one. They use the European-style plugs, and everything is at 240V (where in America we use 120V). Most modern electronics are rated from 100-240V, and the easiest way to see if you can use something here is to look at the power adapter. Read that fine print under 'Input'. If it reads 100-240V, that means your plug is rated correctly and all you need is a plug adapter. You can pick up universal ones at most electronic or travel stores for under $20.
  • A camera. You want to capture those memories, right?
  • English books. They don't sell many books in English here, so unless you have an Amazon Kindle with you, finding books can be a chore. Keep these to a minimum though, as that is a lot of weight to carry with you. Seriously though...if you like to read, just pick up a Kindle. It's cheap and will be your best friend on those long days spent on the train between your house and Seoul.
  • American Candy. The candy in Korea is sub-par at best. Definitely bring some Resee's or your favorite candy with you, just in case you can't find it here.
  • A present for your co-teacher. In Korea, your co-teacher will be your liaison to everything for the first couple weeks or months. They will also probably become your best friend. Start things off on the right foot and bring a present for them...something distinctly American. If you can, try waiting till you can do duty free shopping in the airport. I had my present confiscated by customs in Korea and felt pretty silly when I came here.
  • Whatever you need to make your apartment feel like home. For me, I brought a small box of knick knacks and pictures of home as well as all the flags I've collected from my travels. It made my barren apartment come to life. You'll need that when the culture becomes overwhelming and you just want to feel like your'e home again.
  • Currency. Bring money with you! You might have to wait an entire month before you get paid, so bring about $500 with you to survive. If you can, order Korean Won from your local bank. That will give you the best exchange rate. You can also exchange it at the airports, but the rate isn't always the best.
  • Skype. Download Skype. It's the easiest way to call home.
  • A Korean Phrasebook.
Buying Your Plane Ticket
Your bags are packed. Your Visa is in hand. Now all you need to do is buy your plane ticket.

Your plane ride to Korea is reimbursed...not provided up front. That means that, on your first month's pay check, you'll get your plane money back. This is hard for some, as a one-way ticket can cost anywhere from $500-900. Think of it as you signing your contract: this is you letting your school know that you are serious about teaching.

As for finding a flight, I would suggest using Kayak. Kayak searches all the other travel sites for the best rate, and their user interface is easy to navigate. You want to fly into Incheon Airport in Seoul, and you want to buy a one-way ticket. Remember: you are getting reimbursed for an economy ticket. Choose the best flight out of convenience, and don't save money by having a bajillion layovers.

Make sure you print off  a couple copies of your itinerary, and leave one with your family at home just in case. You will also need to save your boarding pass to get reimbursed when you get here.

Also, it would help to confirm that you either have someone picking you up at the airport or that you know exactly where you are going. It's a 12 hour flight, and the last thing you want to do when you land is to be stranded at Incheon or get lost in a country that you don't understand.

Spend Time With Family
This is obvious. You won't see them for an entire year. Enjoy your time with them before you leave.

Congratulations! You're off and away!

If you have anything else you would like to add, or perhaps you are unsure about something teaching related, sound off on the comments below. Good luck, and 한국에 오신 것을 환영합니다.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

But Teacher, Why Don't You Have All the Answers?

I am, by all accounts, a terrible teacher. I don't follow the rules. I am friends with my students. I mess up and fall on my face, in front of 38 teenage Korean students, on a weekly basis. I have a certificate and a degree and I still don't know what they heck I'm doing...and this is month 6. My coffee intake has jumped to 2 cups a day just to keep up. I'll be the first to tell you that I don't know what the hell I am doing. I'm a filmmaker teaching English in a foreign country. That doesn't make much sense.

However, over the past couple of weeks, I've started to notice some fundamental changes in my work ethic and character. That's what's going to make all of this worth it.

I come in every Monday morning just knowing that, sometime during my day, I will fail miserably. I've forgotten flash drives, broken lesson plans in half, fell down stairs, stuttered in class: you name it, I've done it. What boggles my co-teachers and peers is that, in spite of all this, I still keep my perfectionism and work ethic running on all cylinders. If something isn't working, I stay and fix it. My contract states that I work from 8:30-4:30, yet I find myself coming in at 7:45am and leaving at 5:30pm all the time. I'm constantly reading books and taking courses to get better. It's something strange for someone who intends to stay at this job for only one year. Why would you want to train if you're just going to be doing something else come April?

Well...even though I lose all the time, I hate being a loser. I'm a winner. It's in my heart and soul. If I suck at something, I refuse to keep sucking at it just to get a paycheck and bounce out of there. That's not me. I got to get this right.

It wasn't until this week that I realize that, in a way, I was getting it right all along.

I was giving speaking tests to my 3rd graders (9th grade). It was my first round of speaking tests of the new semester. For the most part, the process is mind-numbing. Testing 200+ kids individually with the same script is boring. I started to notice, however, how much I really care about these kids. I'm not talking about hoping for their success...but truly loving these kids for who they are. Names are tough for me, but I know each and every one of my kids. Some I know better than others, and some kids I've developed great friendships with. I can't wait to see what they make of themselves, and I think this was that golden moment that teachers always look for in their careers: that moment when you care for your kids more than yourself.

I also noticed how my lessons were starting to stick, and after some honest self-reflection I realized that I've been a great teacher all along. With no experience and no formal training, I was forced to teach what I know. Turns out....I know a little about a lot and a lot about a little, and both have helped me create some pretty good lessons. I also opened myself up to my students because I am learning to be a teacher at the same time as they are learning to speak English. They speak more, and I'm seeing improvement.

That's critical. Language learning has the nuts and bolts to it, yes, but it ultimately comes down to communication. They're communicating with me. That's the best way to learn, and you won't find that in your TEFL certification course.

Maybe I'm a teacher after all. I'm still learning every day, and I know there's so much that I don't know. I'll say it again: I don't know what the hell I'm doing.  Most 23 year olds don't. Heck, most people don't. What defines maturity isn't figuring everything out...it's knowing that you'll never have it figured out, and you being ok with that. I'm starting to like it because, no matter what I do, life will continue to surprise me.

I'm a teacher learning how to learn again. How ironic is that?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The New and the Familiar

One of the questions I get often is how different life in Korea is compared to living back in the States. You figure that, living in Asia, everyday life would be dramatically different than back home. I mean, you're not on vacation here. You aren't consuming culture 24/7 for a couple weeks then going back home to tell people how awesome your trip was. This is home for an entire year, and that mentality is completely different from that of the average traveller. 

Next month marks 6 months for me, and in the first half of my Korean-English Teaching adventure I've begun to compile an introductory guide for anybody wanting to teach English in Korea. It's been getting a bit lengthy, filling up the better part of my handy dandy notebook that I carry around everywhere (maybe a book in the future?).  I started to separate my jotted notes into two categories: the new and the familiar. Here's a sample from my notebook...something to take a look at and get a better idea of how my everyday life in a foreign country goes.

The New

 - Language. This is the first one that scares the living bejeebers out of me when I travel. You truly never realize how important language is until you're surrounded by one you barely understand. It affects everything that you feel and think, and basic tasks like ordering food or shopping becomes exponentially harder when you're trying to decipher the native tongue. The Asian cultures are even more difficult in that they don't use a Latin alphabet. This makes identifying brand names or places even more difficult in that you have to rely on photographic memory or pictures. All that effort to understand and be understood takes a toll on you, and for the first couple of months (and even now) I was mentally exhausted.

- Transportation. Like at home, you have to figure out the local transportation system. Most of the time you can figure this out in a week or two, but combining that with a huge language barrier complicates everything. It's ok if you're fine with getting lost every once in a while, but don't plan on making every scheduled event on time for the first couple weeks.

Another problem with transportation in Asia is how long it takes to get from Point A to Point B. In Korea especially, if you're in the city you're fighting literally millions of other people to go somewhere. If you're in the country, some busses don't run on a consistent basis, and I've often found myself hanging out at the station for 20 or 30 minutes to get anywhere. An iPod, book, or some kind of game will become your best friend, as it'll make that hour long trip into the city feel less like a waste of time.

- The food. Ok, so this one isn't so bad. Who honestly doesn't love to eat? Korea is home to literally thousands of different dishes and combinations that will throw your tastebuds for a spin. If you aren't that adventurous when it comes to food, at the very least learn to love the Kimchi. It's served with everything, healthy for you, and once you get over the hump of 'oh God, I ate fermented cabbage', everything else seems like a cake walk.

- Xenophobia. I'm going to try to avoid the term 'racism', as we tend to think of the negative extreme when it comes to a sensitive topic like race. Korea is a country that is 99% Korean. That's huge. It's only in recent years that foreigners have started calling this place home, and as a culture Korea is still getting use to seeing people from other countries share their home with them. Most of the time, this is met with a hospitality that cannot be beat. Many Koreans will invite you to eat at their home, or take you out and show you the town. They are excited to meet you and, hopefully, you're excited to dive in and experience Korean culture as well.

You do run into the occasional awkward moment, however...but it's all about how you interpret the situation. For example, when I'm on the bus, every available seat will fill up before someone sits next to me. It's disheartening at first, but understand that they are uncomfortable too. Greet it with a smile and all that tension will dissolve in an instant.

- Shopping. The prices for goods and services in Korea will vary, and at first I was confused by it all. I could get a free smartphone, unlimited data, and no cancellation fees for $45 a month, but a can of Peanut Butter will set you back $10. You do not tip people, but you are also expected to not be a demanding guest at the restaurant. Soju (vodka-like alcohol) is literally cheaper than water. You'll learn by trial and error at the super market. Be prepared to make sacrifices in terms of what you normally purchase back home.

- K Pop. Addicting as hell. Still don't know why.

The Familiar

 - The Food. You'll find your McDonald's and Pizza Huts here in Korea. On every corner there is a 7-11, Baskin Robbins, and Dunkin Donuts. KFC and Burger King are very popular here as well. They make western food regularly, sometimes serving your burger with Kimchi on the side. Mexican food is scarce, however, so load up on burritos and tacos before coming over.

- Movies. Most major English releases will come to Korea, and Korea has a booming film industry to boot. They will have subtitles, but 95% of them keep the original dialogue. All the theaters are state of the art, and a ticket will set you back about $7 or so. Popcorn and a soda are fairly cheap as well.

- Style. Koreans like to think that they are stylish. To a degree, they are. There's a weird obsession with backpacks and rain boots, but outside of that the fashion of Korea is a rehash of Western style. Chucks are popular, as well as the thick rimmed glasses and ripped jeans. As long as you don't dress too crazy, you'll fit right in. Just don't buy aviator goggles when you're drinking...trust me, they don't look nearly as cool as you think they do.

- Electronics. I'm a nerd, so shopping in Yongsan is like Christmas for me. If you like video games, computers, phones, and consider yourself pretty wired, then Korea is the place to be. The 100mb/s internet is worth the trip alone!

- Routine. Yeah, believe it or not, living in Korea is just like living at home with a job. You work 9-5 on the weekdays with a break for lunch. They like to party on the weekends. Restaurants, banks, government buildings, shops: they all keep hours that are very similar to the US. 

- Morality. I won't touch on this too much, but Koreans (and most of the world for that matter) share most of the same values as you. What's right and what's wrong is basically the same. Trust your gut when making a decision...most of the time it'll be the right one.



There's a small snapshot of what my life's like at the moment. It's not always exciting and glamours, and every weekend isn't always story worthy. That doesn't stop me from enjoying every moment here, even the moments when I want nothing more than to hop on a plane and see my family. This isn't a vacation...you're here for a job. You're here long enough to settle into a routine and even call this foreign land home. 

There will be a time when I slow down...when I settle for good, and only have these stories and this chapter of my life to look back on. A year is a long time, but in the grand scheme of things it really isn't that big. Make the best of the time that you have, because it's all temporary anyways. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Video Blog - Mt. Fuji

I turned 23 years old this summer...so what did I do? Hike Mt. Fuji. Yeah...no sign of slowing down yet!


Monday, August 22, 2011

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Octopus

I'm pretty laid back when it comes to learning about another culture. I can embrace and learn to even appreciate the weird and absurd...even things like taking shoes off before going to business meetings or the small pleasures of using a bidet over toilet paper. But, since I started living in Korea, there has been one issue that I have taken a strong and vocalized stance against. That, my friends, is the consumption of anything with tentacles....especially octopus.

To put it graphically, here's my argument: how can you take something like this -


And defile it to this - 


It's wrong. It's cruel. I can't do it. My hate for this dish knows no bounds. I would starve over eating anything that resembles this majestic creature of the sea. Mostly though, the thought of eating it repulsed me to the point of gagging.

What I didn't know was that this inner hate was actually stemming from a resistance to Korean culture...or any culture for that matter. I was upset with my current living situation, and instead of lashing out I focused all of my anger on this staple dish that is literally everywhere. I'm not kidding...you can find this at street vendors on half-abandoned subway station platforms near my city.

This was a textbook case of culture shock that I was (and, to a degree, still am) suffering from. I've traveled more than the average person, but even I am subject to this paradigm. Consult the diagram below:


If you go to any study abroad office, included in their packets is a graph similar to this illustrating the phases of culture shock that everyone goes through. Let me repeat that for emphasis: everyone who spends an extended period abroad will go through this. It might not be that intense for some, but you will experience these highs and lows. Stop pretending like you're tough and just accept it.

You start off with that 'Honeymoon' phase. Everything is new and awesome. You're meeting people. You're hitting the scene. You are invincible and awesome, the envy of everyone back home. Facebook is spammed with messages like "OMG I'm soooo jealous" and "You are so lucky!". It's an awesome feeling.

Then comes that first stage of shock that slaps you across the face. You realize that you aren't going home for months or even a year, and everything goes wrong over night. That kimchi doesn't taste as awesome as you had previously thought. Bus rides were cool, but instead of looking out the window you're now playing games on your iPod. The language barrier hits you again, and you feel overwhelmed. You can't talk to anybody, mostly because you don't want to. It sucks.

Luckily, you have your envious friends and family. At this point, they are still into your adventures and can sweep in to save you with words of encouragement. They tell you how lucky you are, and how you should travel while you're young and blah blah blah...either way, you feel better and you adjust. That adjustment comes quickly. Suddenly, you know how to order stuff off the menu. You have a routine, and you now have friends who reside in the country. Maybe you buy some furniture or something to make your room look like home. You start to settle in, and life becomes normal again.

The next stage, mental isolation, is the one that makes or breaks a trip. Everything hinges on how you react and get through. It's not uncommon for people to pull 'runners', literally packing their things overnight and booking it for the airport. I've seen it happen.

I was, and in a way still am, at this stage. You adjust just fine, but underneath you aren't completely whole. When you think of home, all you can think about is all things you are missing. You're missing weddings, birthdays, parties. You see friends who are sharing jokes and hanging out with each other, but you aren't there. They still love you, but you aren't the center of attention anymore. They are use to you living abroad, and suddenly you feel alone. It's a scary feeling, and it's self inflicted. You made the decision to come here, and in a way you feel like you gave up on all your friends to go.

So what do you do? You shut down. Everything becomes all dark and depressing, like some kind of Tim Burton movie. You'd rather stay inside than go anywhere. Inside is safe, it's your little den. You start 'nesting', and it's not uncommon to trash your apartment or give up on personal hygiene.

More importantly, you shut out your host country completely. It sucks and is inferior to you because it isn't America. It doesn't feel like home, and why should it? You weren't born here. You have very little stake in its future. Why should you care?

This is where the octopus comes in. I love my job here in Korea. Most days it drives me nuts, but I love it nonetheless. I love the people that live here. My co-teacher and her family is, in a way, my family. For that, I am eternally grateful and couldn't ask for a better situation. As for the country and culture, part of me didn't want anything to do with it. I was resistant to integrating. Give me a double cheeseburger and a slurpee, and I'll wear shoes where I please!

This was before I went to Japan. I escaped Korean culture for a week, and when I came back I felt...different. Not inspired or necessarily motivated...just different. I was adopting my old self again, the guy that I left back home in America. More importantly, I finally unpacked my orange sweater and hung it in my closet.

I'm still not out, but I'm getting to that point where I can call Korea 'home'. Everyone goes through these phases of culture shock, and even a veteran traveller like myself is subject to this emotional roller coaster. It takes time, but if you push through, you'll end up on top of that 'Acceptance and integration' phase. I've been there before, and it is the best feeling in the world...well, at least until you come home and you go through these same phases again. Best part is: when you get home, you'll have this amazing experience to share with your friends. You'll bask in their envy, and it is palpable. And, hopefully, you'll be able to manipulate that envy into action and inspire someone else to buy a ticket and take the ride. Gotta keep moving, right?

Oh, and I willingly tried octopus. It's chewy, salty, but hardly disgusting. I don't really remember why I hated this food in the first place....

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Typhoons, a Mouse, and the Twinkling Lights of Tokyo


I apologize for my late post this week, but in true AOTOS fashion my latest adventure has taken me spontaneously to Tokyo, Japan. Originally I had a vacation planned for Jeju Island in Korea, complete with beach time and lots of lounging around. When Typhoon Muifa decided to slam the Korean coast, however, it threw a wrench into my plans and I had to reroute. It consisted of me and my friend sitting in front of the departures board in Incheon Airport, choosing a city, and booking the flight. I'm telling you…if you want to go somewhere (and you have the money and time), just book the ticket and take the ride. Nothing gets better than that.

But that's a whole different post for another time. The past 3 days have been full textbook 'having the trip of a lifetime' moments, complete with cultural analysis and emotional catharsis. Tokyo is a beast of a city. It isn't that big, but it has an entire life of it's own. It isn't like Seoul or any other city I've visited. You can walk down the street with flashing LED boards and technology that would blow your face off, then turn a corner and find a Shinto shrine nestled between two buildings. Space is a luxury here, so things like rooms and sidewalks and 'personal space' is consolidated to cater to the sheer amount of people in Japan. This city is old and new, and it truly breathes and changes on a consistent basis. I'd honestly live here just to see where this place goes next.

We also had the opportunity to show up all my Disney friends and go to Tokyo DisneySea, which is another microcosm of the Japanese culture and experience wrapped in Disney magic. Detail is the name of the game here, and this park is themed to perfection. I love Disneyland in California, and I grew up going to those parks as a kid. That being said, what Tokyo was able to do with DisneySea blows those parks out of the water. It's still new, so they are expanding attractions left and right. But the stuff they have now and the world that is created for them is so comprehensive that I can't wait to come back in 5 years and see what they've done with the place. 

What really sold me on the park, however, was Fantasmic 2.0. For those of you unfamiliar, Fantasmic is the nighttime show in Disneyland that embodies everything that Disney is about. The music and majesty is pure magic, and so when I heard that Japan took this already amazing show and redid it…I was intrigued. I waited with all the kids, giddy with joy for the show to start. Twenty minutes later, my jaw was still on the ground and my imagination was in overdrive. I honestly couldn't put into words how amazing this show was. It took everything good from the original, cut the slow parts, and upped the ante on everything else. It is worth noting that this is a brand new show, but it was as if the entire park was built for Fantasmic. Between the soundtrack, moving platforms, 3D projections, use of spotlights scattered around the park, a dragon that shot fireworks out of its mouth, jet skis, and a 60ft LED Mickey Hat that moved and incorporated video, the show showed me that Disney is still the best out there. 

Tonight, however, really brought some meaning and a bit of catharsis to a core reason why I love traveling. We met up with Danielle's (my travel buddy) Japanese friends that she met at NAU, and we had some drinks on the 25th floor of the Washington Hotel in Downtown Tokyo. Wine glass in hand, we chatted for hours above the skyline of Tokyo. Maybe it was the ambiance that really got me thinking…I mean the scene was beautiful. The lights twinkled outside our window. A huge, sprawling city seemed so far away up here.

The epiphany that I had was one on the concept of friendship. I was sitting here in Tokyo, drinking wine with a group of Japanese people, turning strangers into friends. It's something that is so natural when you get abroad. You are so far away from everything familiar to you that, naturally, you cling to the one thing that makes sense: humanity itself. Humanity is ultimately companionship. We weren't made to go through this journey alone.

There is always the chance that I may never see these people again. There's always the chance that I'll never see some of the friends I've made over the years again. It isn't done on purpose. We all have our own path to take, yet we shouldn't make the mistake of turning this into a reason to end a friendship or to stop one from forming in the first place. The way that Danielle and her friends lit up when they saw each other again (after 3 years) is proof that friendship can be maintained through the years and in spite of distance and cultural barriers.

There are some really amazing people in this world. In fact, I would argue that there is 6 billion amazing people out there. There's something amazing about each and every one of us, and we always gravitate to one another. We can't fight it. And, although you can meet these amazing people anywhere….it's only through traveling that you can really appreciate what friendship and love for one another can do for you. It's the greatest feeling in the world, and you don't need to be sitting at a bar staring out at the twinkling lights of Tokyo to feel it. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Kiwi Chronicles - The Legendary Stories: Easter Weekend, Part 2

This is a 3 part story of Easter Weekend in New Zealand. To view the first part, go here.


Also, to those who want to hear stories from my time in Korea: it has been raining for nearly 8 weeks here. Yes, for the past two months it's been cloudy and boring in Korea. Combined that with my teaching certifications and work, and you have a fairly boring two months here in Korea. Luckily, the sun came out today and my vacation starts in 5 hours, so expect more Korea stories here soon!


Note: Sorry for the formatting issues....Blogger and my Korean ISP aren't getting along at the moment :)


Day 2 of our road trip in the Northland began on a high note for us. We had found a McDonalds in the middle of nowhere, had a good night's rest (in spite of the absurd amount of alcohol we drank), and were geared up and ready to go bright and early the next day. Our car, now considerably lighter, had a new life to it. You can feel it when a car is going to have a good day...


Our first stop of the day was at Ninety Mile Beach. It is the stretch of coastline along the Western side of the Northland, and the name of the beach kinda gives it away: it's ninety miles long. If you're from the coast, you know that most beaches stretch for a 10 miles or so, then face cliffs and rugged terrain or merge into other beaches. The first thing we noticed is that, leading into the beach, there's a 100km sign. It's very oddly placed speed limit sign, and it's purpose is unclear. Is the speed limit for driving on the ramp 100km? Are you only allowed to exit this place if you're going 100km? Is this like Back to the Future, and if we drive fast enough we can travel back in time?


If we were observant, we would have seen the big sign right in front of it:
The key phrase here is "Many vehicles have been lost to the tides..." As it turns out, not only is Ninety Mile Beach a beach...it's a highway. A full fledged highway. Where you can travel 100km (around 65mph for you Americans) up and down the sand. Kiwis are crazy...


In classic fashion, we drove our car on the beach a ways and parked it in a flat area to enjoy our breakfast. As we were making sandwiches on the top of our car, I went out and started filming the awesome beauty of this beach. Most beaches are very loud, with the waves crashing and the birds chirping. For some reason, I remember this place to be oddly quiet and peaceful. You could see how turbulent the waves were out at sea. It wasn't a calm ocean. The noise seemed to be absorbed by the sheer size of this coastline. It was the one instance where I felt like the ocean was dwarfed by the landscape.


Naturally, I was in heaven. I love the beach. I love the sand between my toes and ditching my flip flops at the car. I love sitting in the surf and having the water lick my knees. I grew up in the desert, so I grew up fascinated by water. Any chance I have to play in the ocean, I take it.


I think it's a human thing too. We're so self-centered, focused on our lives and our place in society. Yet when we are staring down something as awesome and huge as the ocean, we can't help but feel small and humbled. You learn to respect your place on Earth, and how precious this place really is.


Anyways...it was all very poetic for early in the morning. We had an agenda to meet, and so by 8am we were on our way back up the coast.


On the way here, we had seen some sand dunes in the distance. It was foreign to us because, for the past 2 months, we had lived in the Shire. We were use to seeing rolling green hills and trees...not the Sahara desert. And, since we were a car full of guys, we had to investigate.


When we arrived, what we saw was the greatest playground any guy could hope for. It was a 5 km wide and 10 km long stretch of sand dunes right along the sea. Apparently, the winds from the ocean push all precipitation away from this area, and so a small desert formed.


These dunes are famous for sand surfing, and it was an obligation of ours to give this sport a shot. You rent a body board from a little hut near the edge of the dunes and make your way to a giant hillside off in the distance. It's pretty straightforward from here: climb to the top, jump on your board, and hold on for dear life.


What I didn't realize was how much sand could hurt. You think that, just because your sandbox was friendly to you, that a giant sea of sand would be comfortable and nice. It really isn't. I suppose we did deserve it though. There were caution signs telling us that we shouldn't get a running start or that we should avoid the small cliffs that looked like naturally-made jumps.


We didn't listen, and we paid the price.


On one run, I got a running start on one of the jumps. I was in control and everything was going smooth. The sand was zipping by me like water, and as I hit the jump I lost my focus...and my board. I was going so fast that the board ditched me at the jump, as if to say "you're on your own pal." I hit the sand after falling for a couple feet and proceeded to roll down the hill. There was no blood or broken bones, but my eyes and mouth and respiratory system (as well as some other places...) were covered in sand. I was coughing up mud for the rest of the day, yet bragging about how awesome it was. Don't ask. It's a guy thing.


After taking a dunk in a stream to clear my face, we made our way up to Cape Reinga .

View Larger Map
Cape Reinga is, literally, as far North in New Zealand as you can go. The road there is a treacherous stretch of gravel going along the spine of a mountain, but in the end it is completely worth it...
The crew chilling, overlooking the cape.
You park your car in a parking lot about a kilometer away from the cape itself. It is always windy as you walk along the mountain to the cape itself. Once you hit a green field, you know you're close. We took off our shoes and walked the rest of the way barefoot. You take a couple steps over the hill, there before you, is Cape Reinga.


We all had to sit down to take in the beauty. That green field we were sitting on is about 500 feet above the oceans, with cliffs jutting all the way down. You could hear the waves crash on the rocks and see the water crash up the cliffside. Little beaches would be nestled in between different rocks. A long cape ran to the left and into the sea. 

It was the bluest ocean I had ever seen, and off in the distance I could see something people rarely get to see: the colliding of oceans. To our left was the Tasman Sea and to our right was the Pacific Ocean. Both have their own currents and ecosystems, and it was here at Cape Reinga that the two oceans collided. Out in the distance, you could see the currents as they met each other. It was a swirl of white water and, occasionally, you could see a fountain of water shoot up in the air. It was something out of Fantasia, when Mickey is conducting the water. You couldn't hear it, and  I'm sure up close it is something much more frightening (this is shark territory after all). But, from up on our cliffside, we didn't feel like we were on Earth anymore. We were just observers of something much grander than us. Naturally, we spent a couple hours on the cape just absorbing everything we could. We left there around 3pm and started to make our way south through the Northland.

This is where things started to get interesting. We hadn't planned where we were going to stay, and so we had no idea where the hostels were or where we should stop for the night. Luckily, we knew of a couple other travelers that were in the Northland right now. Our good friends Emma and Emily were hitchhiking throughout the Northland, and a couple phone calls later we had a place to stay at their hostel in a place called Mangonui. It was a small fishing town on the east coast.

That night was one of the best bar nights of my life, and that's where Part 3 will begin. 

Trust me, I know how lucky I am. Some people get to see this kind of beauty maybe once in a lifetime. There isn't a day that I don't feel grateful and blessed to see how beautiful our world can be...and how many adventures one life can have. Buy the ticket, take the ride. It's worth it every time.