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 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'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. 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.