Thirty minutes before we’re supposed to go out for Halloween, Julia, Sebastien, and I are digging through Julia’s basement to find some semblance of a costume. We’ve exhausted our best trio costume ideas in both French and English, including but not limited to quatre-vingt-dix, third wheeling, and the three levels of government (municipal, provincial, and federal).
I suddenly remember the wetsuit I keep in my car just in case I ever need to go swimming in glacial water, and Julia recalls the dehydrated garlic, dryer sheets, and socks drying upstairs. Sebastien abandons us to become the mayor from Powerpuff Girls, a noble decision that we do not hold against him.
An hour later, wet and dry walk into a bar. It’s the type of place where they’re playing Drake all night long at a volume nearly impossible to hold a conversation. Not that many are going on; everyone’s eyes are kept on swivel, cycling from their friends to Instagram to a fresh sweep of the room with a hunger for someone to make a temporary home out of.
Adorned in a clothesline of dried goods and swimming goggles, we have an armour of social invisibility around us, allowing us to delve deep into whatever creative projects we like without being questioned by men. I’m especially thankful for that tonight, because I really didn’t foresee having to explain je suis mouillée to anyone.
We’ve come armed with pen and paper with the objective of recording observations about people we see. It’s fascinating what people reveal about themselves in social situations surrounded by strangers, and even more fascinating what we unconsciously decide to notice about them.
Julia and I never had the pleasure of meeting each other as strangers. Our mothers met in prenatal birthing classes at the Fort Erie YMCA, their due dates only a few weeks apart. We floated in our respective wombs while our mothers stretched together and talked about futures that they couldn’t have possibly imagined; ones that certainly didn’t involve their daughters doing performance art wearing garlic and goggles during a pandemic.
Yet we grew together, our lives following radically different yet similar paths. As kids we met weekly in the same dance studio, and as teenagers in concert band and on the rowing team. While I gravitated towards the arts in university, Julia moved towards science and philosophy. We’ve both travelled around a lot since leaving home, seeking out old friends and the comfort of strangers, and have each spent the past three years in Francophone environments. We manage to see each other at least twice a year, quite an admirable feat for childhood friends not living in the same province or country.
I read once that most people misunderstand how the butterfly effect works. It’s often misconstrued as a term that explores the idea of leverage in a complex system, one in which a number of small actions leads to one big action. A butterfly flaps its wings in Mexico and causes a typhoon in Thailand.
In actuality, the butterfly effect is the inability to pinpoint an exact moment that did or did not cause an effect in a complex system. It dwells in the impossibility of knowing something precise in a system where anything can be influenced by outside factors. Did the butterfly flapping its wings cause the typhoon directly, or was the ocean already upset because of climate change?
It’s this casual causality that brings me to drive thirteen hours east to visit my childhood friend Julia in Le Bic, her adopted small town in Maritime Quebec. I’ve never driven more than an hour by myself, let alone had my own car.
Perhaps I go because after moving back to Anglophone Canada from France, I missed being able to lose your bearings in language, wanting the privilege of tuning out anything you don’t feel like listening to. It could be that I had developed the inability to stay in one place longer than a month, too accustomed to life on the road. Or maybe it was because being close to someone at a weekly cadence before you are even brought into this world dictates you will follow a similar but modified rhythm for the rest of your life, substituting weeks for months or years.
Julia’s brother happens to be visiting Le Bic at the same time as me. He calls me dramatic. He’s maybe not wrong. Julia was living somewhere cool, and not having seen each other in over a year, I wanted to visit her. It could be as simple as that.
But it could also be much more complex, because that makes for better writing material and stories in which you can intellectualize yourself to strangers who don’t yet know your character flaw as an egomaniacal exaggerator.
It’s not easy to pinpoint a single reason you feel compelled to do something. Doesn’t everyone try to make sense of their lives by painting broad strokes until something fits right with the narrative you want to tell about yourself?
Overall, October is a gentle month. It rains most days, alternating between a casual drizzle and violent downpour that sometimes blows the front door right open, given we leave it unlocked. We still go outside everyday, hiking through tree cover along the mountainous coastline or running down empty country roads. Inside, we work on editing short horror films that we shoot on our second day together, eventually culminating in the establishment of a micro independent film festival (stay tuned for TRiFF 2022).
My planned one-week trip turns into four. I carve out a little life for myself in Julia’s corner of the world, complete with new friends, a poetry manuscript, regular workout routine, and fleeting romance with one of the strangers I took notes on during our art observation project. It’s a brief glimpse into a world that could be mine, but as the first snow of the year falls in early November, I make my way back towards Ontario.
In The Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson writes that “sometimes, a journey makes itself necessary.” The cold begins to foreshadow winter; my early fall wardrobe can only sustain me so much longer. Perhaps I have overstayed my welcome in a place I can lay no claim to. Maybe I feel guilty for resting in a single spot for too long. Or more simply, it could just be that my biannual visit with Julia has run its course.
When Jamie invites me to drive down the southwest coast of France from Arcachon to Biarritz, I bring my camera. He lives in a van and knows every road to Spain by heart.
It’s the beginning of a long weekend in May, and there’s no 7pm curfew in isolation. After parking in a nature reserve on the outskirts of Mimizan, we walk towards the beach through a forest littered with old branches. We are surrounded by pines, but the branches lay stripped dry and bleached white, like whale bones. Some have been assembled into well-fortified tipis, by either a children’s summer camp or a strange man who moves in the woods by night. I do not take any photos.
There are some people who are opposed to photography as an art. Typically, the argument is that photography is too easy. Point and shoot.
Technically, that’s correct. But you could make the same case for classic arts like painting: you brush colours onto a canvas. It doesn’t guarantee that your final product will be worth remembering. It just guarantees that you’ll have one.
Without a fresh roll of film, Jamie’s camera rests in the van, which has long faded from view. We climb the dune that separates forest from ocean, sand filling our shoes with every step. Panels of wood forming a hasty boardwalk are draped across it, stopping us from sinking in completely. We pause at the top to admire the Atlantic below us, our hair blowing straight behind us as if it were not there at all. The waves are grey and scatter white all over the place.
Jamie describes it as a mess. I have no idea how to read waves, except that they make me feel small and weak. He explains that when the wind blows east towards the beach, the sea is unable to focus, and tosses itself haphazardly towards shore.
We look at the wind forecast together, a premonition of how as the evening goes on, the little arrow on the screen will begin pointing north. Neither north nor east will allow for neat waves, the kind that make for ideal surfing conditions.
We descend to the ocean, and I take a photo.
Later as rain falls on the roof of the van, Jamie says that he doesn’t care if I sleep with someone else because he’s not attached to me. Our bodies are intertwined under the blankets, his body constantly emanating heat and mine sweating as consequence. My toes touch the baseboard, the only part of me still cold.
The candle flickers on the nightside table, unafraid of the falling blankets. Jamie’s face flashes red and vaguely reminds me of someone I used to know when I was younger. In those few seconds, he is more photograph than person to me. I would take a photo but I cannot see beyond the flame to find my camera. It’s the last thing I remember thinking before falling asleep.
We wake to rain, something I get used to. Our dishes from last night lay outside, cleaning themselves in the falling water. Jamie gets up to make himself a coffee and the steam from his coffeemaker billows in the van, evaporating into nothing. We’re both hungry but lack the energy that is typical of a wet Saturday morning, moving as slow as time permits.
As we travel further south, I realize that there isn’t much to distinguish between the beach towns that line the southwest coast. Everything falls on a gradient of cream white to pale peach, missing the bright colours that adorn the Riviera, and rightfully so. There’s nothing flashy to see on the sand coated miles that stretch from Arcachon to Biarritz. Casinos with blinking lights and sprawling resorts are best placed elsewhere. Fine dining is a far off thought; ice cream vendors and waffle stands pepper every town, nestled amongst surf schools and board rental shops.
Modest families with children who are partial to mild hikes through the pines take up temporary residence on this side of the Atlantic. Car parks are filled with camper vans taking advantage of the long weekend. France’s best surf spots bring forth vans full of mostly men, with the occasional woman among them.
The backroad to Biarritz goes through the same pine forest that we’ve already been following for miles. Occasionally we wind through a tiny town and witness the closing motions of a local market, making me feel mildly melancholic. The occasional forgotten pepper or potato lie lonely on the ground, waiting for the rare gleaner to come across its path. There’s not enough colour left to be worth taking out my camera.
To Jamie, all markets are the same. He feels similarly about the cities we pass, yet drives the same stretch of road several times a year. We continue pushing on through the trees, rain still dripping from above.
When I look out my window, the individual rows of pines thud one after the other. The Landes forest is entirely man-made, a regional project ordered by Napoleon to rescue the area from its swamp-like state and harvest the wood that would be available for years to come. Pines were the sole type of tree planted; at exactly two meters apart in rows that span as far as the eye can see, they are easily prone to forest fires.
I take a photo with a slow shutter speed, watching them burn together as we drive through.
Approaching Bayonne, we find rolls of film in a supermarket off the highway and are ecstatic to refill our cameras. Jamie loads his camera in the parking lot and fires the first shot of me in the passenger seat, smiling awkwardly.
In John Berger’s essay No More Portraits, he writes that the era of significant portraits has ended because there is no longer the need to encapsulate one’s greatness on a single painted canvas. We have cameras now, and an endless amount of ways to frame ourselves. The act of representing oneself is no longer a privilege held for those of high social standing. Since the democratization of photography, we are both artist and subject, gazing and being gazed at.
Jamie pulls the van over into a clearing in the forest, a brilliant green in the wake of rain. We wade into its heart, our pants streaked with the water that brushes off the plants we stride through. Our cameras are clutched close to our chests, keeping them dry from the water that drips off the branches above.
With fresh rolls of film, we see everything in a new light, as if our gazes have been altered. We now look at everything and question whether it’s worth remembering. If it is, we raise our cameras and press the button. If it’s not, we choose to forget it.
We come across a hidden stream, its water the colour of copper. I look at Jamie twice and choose to turn away. He takes one shot of me, my yellow raincoat pulled over my head, unsure of how to pose.
There is always an exchange between photographer and subject. Unlike drawing or painting where the artist is given full creative autonomy, the subject has a level of control over how they will be portrayed.
I ask Jamie to take off his clothes and streak through the field. Without questioning it, he finds a dry patch of earth under a tree and throws everything into a pile. He steps gingerly through the tall grass and I put my camera lens between us and listen to the sharp click.
We make it to Biarritz in the late afternoon on Saturday, a few hours before curfew sets in. The rain has just cleared and the boardwalk is crowded with families strolling hand in hand. The waves here are nicer than in Mimizan, allowing crowds of surfers to bob in the water. A few brave groups of friends sit along the wet beach, dark sand sticking to their jeans as they rise. The sidewalk is narrower than one would imagine of a bustling coastal city, and snippets of conversation float around our ears as we pass by.
We don’t take any portraits in Biarritz. Despite it being the objective of our trip, we only end up spending a few hours there, turned off by the crowds of people that flood its streets and beaches. It’s the exact opposite of Mimizan’s barren landscape, and is hard to take a photo without catching several strangers in the background.
We walk the sloped path along the Atlantic under the constant threat of rain, feeling like the weekend could last forever. We stop on a hill and look at the water below us. I’m not sure which way the wind is blowing, but I don’t think it’s towards us.
I put my camera to my eye. Jamie, dressed head to toe in black, stands out in monochrome against the grey-blue sea. According to Berger, in a photographic portrait we are exposed to the likeness of a person, but we remain “highly conscious of the fact that nothing can contain itself.”
With his back turned to me, Jamie could be anyone. Portraits are maybe better that way, lingering in anonymity. Perhaps that’s the best thing about photography; its abundance allows memory to live in fragments, representing quiet details rather than aiming for grandeur.
I take in the ocean, the rocks, the grains of sand caught in Jamie’s hair, and the space that stands between us. I press the shutter button and realize I have no film left.
Physical labour is not something that intellectuals concern themselves with. I would know, as I have spent the majority of my adult life reading books by diverse authors, sitting in cafes with my Macbook Air, and alternating between a tight black turtleneck and a baggy black turtleneck. When proving myself aesthetically as an intellectual was not enough, I moved to Paris to focus on writing and lived out my finest struggling artist fantasy until the pandemic turned the city and my mental capacity to dust.
Going into France’s third confinement, non-ironically binge-watching The 100 had become the highlight of my life. I have never experienced such a strong subconscious cry for help before, but therapy was too expensive and moving back to Canada meant having to live with my brother. So, I did what any intellectual would do and quit my job, sold all my belongings, and became an unpaid farmhand in the south of France.
My interest in agriculture is the direct result of a white woman assuming that I, a young Asian living in the heart of old money Paris, was a maid. As everyone was forced indoors during the first confinement, a rich lady who lived in my building asked me to do her ironing because she couldn’t bear the thought of doing her own domestic labour. I said yes under the condition that she paid me per hour, which allowed me to triple the time it took to iron her bath towels.
As our one-sided friendship progressed, she began to order seasonal produce for me from an organic farmer, and the cottagecore spirit took hold of me from there. Expensive and high quality produce allowed me to escape the walls of quarantine to the countryside, a kinder place where you could live in freedom with the earth and all that you can produce by hand. I also got really into snakes, but that’s another story that I can’t explain for legal reasons.
Fast forward several existential crises later, and I am now working as a farmhand on a biodynamic vineyard in the Bordeaux wine region. Biodynamic farming is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture and food production, which is overseen on the vineyard by Virginie, the momager of the Chateau.
Much like homeopathic medicine, biodynamic farming works best if you believe it does. Some biodynamic practices include burying manure-stuffed cow horns twice per year to enhance soil health, which I have not yet had the pleasure of partaking in. Others involve sprinkling a kombucha-like infusion out of a 20-pound metal backpack onto the soil, which I unfortunately have partaken in.
Working at the repetitive rhythm that is required of farming is not something that I’m used to. But after a year of agoraphobia in Europe’s COVID capital, it’s refreshing to move in a wide open space.
In the morning we wake up to mist and eat fresh bread before going outside to attach vines to their wires, encouraging them to grow in the proper direction. We move slowly down the line, removing dead branches from the past harvest and piling them in lines for the tractor to pick up later.
After a two-hour lunch when the sun rises high in the sky, we gather shiny blue-shelled bugs by hand to be burned in a funeral pyre at the end of the week. They are swept into a large white bucket that emits a sweet putridity when opened. Their ashes will be scattered around the vineyard to warn their brethren away from eating the vines.
I like to pretend that each bug emits a warning to its friends when I snatch one from its leaf, but then I feel too much like a colonist, and erase the thought from my head. At least we aren’t using pesticides.
Naturally, I now work much harder than I did in Paris. As an au pair, my job was gaslighting rich 7-year-olds into making new friends at the park so I could settle on a bench with my phone. On the vineyard, I labour in the fields for five hours per day in exchange for room, board, and the thrill of sharing a shower with thirteen people.
One of those people is Kateri, who is the Native American version of me. Both being retired au pairs, we have replaced childcare with looking over the newly hatched ducklings, who we take for a two-minute swim once per day. As a farm couple, we’re nestled somewhere between George and Lonny from Of Mice and Men and Oliver and Elio from Call Me By Your Name.
Together, we are learning how to take up space in a place that is not our own. Living in a house full of confident farm boys who mock you constantly for your accent and lack of practical skills requires us to unlearn making ourselves small. Thus, we spend the majority of our free time creating a secret sign language to tell each other when the coast is clear to binge eat chocolate chips in the kitchen.
There are days that I miss the freedom of having a space to call my own and wearing something other than the same pair of wind resistant khakis every day. But sometimes girls just wanna walk around in communally-shared rubber boots and further inflame their scoliosis with repetitive bending motions caused by pruning Cabernet Sauvignon. It matters not that I spend a majority of the day smelling like a four-week-old kombucha scoby, but rather that I know what a four-week-old kombucha scoby smells like. You just can’t get that salt of the earth experience by living in a cramped studio surrounded by layers of concrete.
The only downside of being a volunteer farmhand is that I live with no employment or financial security, but living the authentic experience of a John Steinbeck character is enough to keep me going. Nothing really scares me anymore, except for being asked to drive the tractor. I live in permanent fear of accidentally running over the vines and ruining the entire year’s harvest. I suppose that’s where I differ from an actual rancher; professional farm workers don’t have a dichotomy of work that interests them because they like vegetables versus work that they politely decline because they’ve deemed it too labour intensive.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m appropriating agricultural labour just for the fleeting sense of peace that accompanies the cottagecore aesthetic, given that I am a city girl with zero practical skills except the ability to “think critically”. I write about being a volunteer farmhand in the late afternoon while full-time agriculture workers give their whole bodies to this type of work. Behind the gold-filtered photos of wine tours that populate Instagram is permanent back pain that can’t bear taking a day off, nor enjoy the occasional yoga break that some of us might take. No matter how happy or convivial the atmosphere may be, everyone seems to be suffering some degree of fatigue.
Yet, I highly doubt that farmers spend time critically analyzing the class politics of labour idealization when they’ve got a farm to run. While Virginie and her family spend sunup to sundown working on either the physical or business side of the vineyard, I retreat to my laptop on a sunny table in the garden to do my “intellectual work”, as they’ve deemed it. Between tending to the vines, animals, garden, house, wine, and sales, there’s always work to be done, so it doesn’t really matter if a stranger helps you complete the task.
While I am content to spend the rest of my twenties floating between various gold-speckled properties in search of low-skilled farm work with absolute strangers off the internet, I’m sure I’ll go back to the city eventually. This is partially because I accidentally awakened the Antichrist by making Jesus jokes in a farmhouse that has a large crucifix in each room, which resulted in the lights angrily flickering on and off, and now I can’t be alone past 7pm. Alas, we repent and learn, but for now I’m thriving in the middle of nowhere.
With all the open space and repetitive motion that puts your body on autopilot, I’ve had plenty of time to think about writing my first movie script. The farm family has already green-lighted their vineyard as the shooting location, but I have yet to tell them that it is likely going to be a psychosexual thriller involving aliens. As it turns out, physical labour is not completely separate from intellect. Time and balance allow both to flourish, but no one is truly obliged to one or the other.
Since moving to the farm, I haven’t read any books, and I only wear turtlenecks to stay warm after dinner. Yet, I have begun playing piano again, and have revitalized this three-year neglected blog.
The vines are beginning to blossom, and their grapes will be harvested in the last days of summer. I’ve never missed anyone the way I miss my osteopath, but in a place where time is marked by seasonal vegetables and I am potentially the hottest girl for at least twenty-five hectares, I’m in no rush to move on.
I wake as we descend upon Lisbon, cutting through the clouds in the minutes before sunrise. Below, the city is a collection of reddish rooftops, illuminated by streetlights that dot its avenues, guiding early-morning partiers home despite the soft colours that envelop the sky. Someone on the ground flicks a switch, already anticipating sleep after a long night shift, and all the lights are extinguished. Lisbon plunges deeper into its orange palette, its citizens left to rely on their own eyesight.
The plane soars over the ocean, and across its blue stretch I fall back asleep.
“Lisbon is not like other big cities,” says Hugo, leading us down a steep hill. I have already walked these streets the night prior, but learning the history of a place makes travel feel a bit less like glorified sightseeing.
“In Lisbon, you go to a cafe or restaurant and you already know who will be there. You see the same people every time. In other big cities, like Paris, London, New York, you are more diverse. The people you see in bars and restaurants you will probably never see again.”
Yet, Lisbon does not entice me. I feel no charm in its streets, even when I walk far out of the centre until I do not hear English anymore. Despite thousands of years of history, everything seems to revolve around the influx of foreigners lining up to ride the tram and eat pastel de nata. I don’t want to be catered to. I want the blanket of anonymity. When I tell people I didn’t like Lisbon, they are shocked, as if it is not possible to board a plane and find nothing worth staying for.
The day I leave Lisbon, I pack my bag in the hostel at nine in the morning. Everyone in the room is awake, lounging about in their bunk beds. The Australian surfer in the bed beside mine groans and complains about a chiropractor, like he has every morning. He tosses his blond mane to the side and says to me, “I can’t tell if I like your dress or not.” For a second I almost appreciate his honesty. “I think you would look better without it.” He smiles. “Could I have a kiss?” Every eye in the room stares. I start laughing, and do not stop laughing until I am on a train to Sintra later that night.
From the tallest point in Sintra, I can see all the way to the ocean. Hiking back to the town, I begin to cry. My body is filled with a lot of sadness and I don’t know how to get it out of me.
I didn’t plan a beach vacation, but I find myself at the ocean an hour later. Cascais, a small beach town filled of tourists sunbathing in bikinis while the Portuguese sport knit sweaters, strolling on cobblestone in the sunny October weather. The beach is tiny and makes me feel as if I have slipped into the background of a sun-stained photograph from the early nineties. Everything feels oversaturated. The water is glass on my skin, but I dive in anyway and scrape my stomach along the sand.
“This is the best day ever!” A child screams as he runs into the water with his sister, splashing everyone in their wake.
This year has been the longest summer of my life. I will have to relearn the cold, and how to thrive in it.
I take a bus west to Cabo da Roca upon the insistence of my hostel owner, a kind old man with perfect English. He claims it is the most beautiful sunset you can see in Portugal. The bus winds through green hills and eventually deposits me at a lighthouse. Tourists armed with cameras dot the rocky cliffs, ducking under fences with warning signs in search of the best photo-ops.
A sign reads that this cliff is the “most occidental point in continental Europe.” I walk away from the crowd and scale down some rocks where I meet a kind Korean girl named Jin. I ask to take a photo of her and she takes one of me in return. She can’t speak much English, and I’m too embarrassed by the few Korean lines I remember. She offers me some chips and we both write in our journals while looking out at the setting sun.
Waves crash below. How slow they roll in, foaming white and swirling around the rocks, resulting in a melodic dissonance. Wind whips my hair around as I look west, sitting on the edge of the continent. There was a time when the people here thought this was all there was. Looking out into the yellow-white haze, I myself have trouble believing there is something beyond the horizon. Not a boat in sight, the line is blurred between sea and sky so I do not know where one ends and one begins. Like balls of yarn, like headphones in my pocket, like lovers or friends entwined in bed. Some things don’t have a start or finish, and that is okay with me.
These are the very cliffs that once held the ambition of the Portuguese empire. The steep drop was the only thing stopping them from sinking at sea. Christopher Columbus, who sailed for years with the Portuguese, set off the shores of Europe in the fifteenth century with the intention of reaching India. He stood on a cliff, or maybe on sand, and looked out at the flat horizon and its yoke-like palette, imagining everything he could sink his name to. Several months later he landed in North America instead. In his version of the truth, we still refer to native inhabitants of North America as “Indians.” Is the truth really so terrifying? Columbus reached America, brutalizing the land and its people. We know this. That doesn’t stop us from re-working the story in new ways to better suit our personal narratives.
Centuries later, millions of foreigners land on the shores of Portugal via land, air, and sea. At this point, we know that something exists beyond the horizon. We know the Earth is not flat. We have faced God’s wrath at the edge or we have not. In truth, we still speak in abstract terms. We sit, oriental tourists, facing the occident on the westernmost point in Europe. There may be a metaphor here, but if there is it does not need explaining.
The sun beams down on Portugal for the last few minutes of the day. Everything on the coast is bathed in gold; gold that we feel was our right for choosing to sit here at sunset. Nothing is our right but when the light begins to slip away, we claim possession. When everything feels like gold it is easy to want it to belong to you. Cliffs splashed in gold, ocean splashed in gold, skin splashed in gold. Everything belongs to the sun.
From memory I have known calmer seas. Mid-January, an island off the coast of south Vietnam. Swimming in a sunset with water rippling like pink cellophane. Being held, skin on skin burned deep gold, newly minted and browned. It is okay to remember this. The memory belongs to me.
Eventually, everything will be taken away from us. Gold ripped from mines, from skin, from cliffs, from teeth. Eventually, we will be left in the dark with nothing to hold. Slipping memory into something or someone physical to get us through the night.
Everything will become more pointed in hindsight. Yellow haze will be shaved away and there will be a burning ball of orange. Hundreds of years later, we know that Columbus did not discover America. Nothing is what you thought. White light on the horizon saturates to a more welcoming rose. We know the Earth is not flat. You start to think maybe, just maybe, there is something else out there. Something that just slipped away by mistake. Another horizon, another beach, another sky. Something cannot become nothing. There are some who may dispute that, but the truth is not so terrifying.
The lighthouse casts a weak glow on everything it touches. Its visibility tells me it is time to catch the last bus.
The sun returns close to eight in the morning when I am on a northbound train to Porto. It peaks through buildings and momentarily blinds everyone whose eyes are not glued to phones. The train has Wi-Fi, and I message people who are not in my time zone until my battery dies.
Porto settles in my imagination as what I’ve always pictured industrial revolution London to be, its river smothered in a constant cover of mist, smoke, or smog. I love this city. From the raised platform of the Dom Luís I bridge, the Douro River is spread out below me, ripples visible only with my glasses on. The sun burns a pink hole in the grey sky. I wonder how long it would take to fall.
A woman in her late forties stands beside me, looking down at the birds flying in a broken V, just a foot from the surface. Perhaps she wishes to join their formation. Out of the corner of my eye, I see her body lurch forward and hear shouting from behind. A man, followed by four police officers, grabs her. He yells in Portuguese and wraps his arms around her, hugging her tightly. She keeps staring straight ahead at the nothingness that exists over the rail of the bridge, her body betraying no reaction. The police lead her away with their hands on her shoulders while the man, presumably her husband, trails them closely.
My skin is crawling. I look down, the city and the river seeming farther than it was before. Porto, a city full of life. Lights flicker on, people walk. On the opposite bank of the river, rowers rig their boats, preparing for or returning from the water. Birds everywhere. City stacked on top of itself. Every five minutes a plane descends from the west.
The sky erupts into flame. A city on fire. Red laps across the clouds, striking me in its path. It is desperate to say something. Couples admiring the sunset fall into the same desperation, each stopping the nearest pedestrian to ask for a photo.
Half an hour later, the sky is charcoal, everything burnt out. I go off in search of a bar and notice an ambulance and several police cars are parked at the top of the bridge. The man from earlier, presumably the husband, is standing a few feet away from the vehicles, staring at the ambulance without blinking. The flashing lights from the police car cast his face in orange as they revolve like a lighthouse. He does not look away.
I buy a floral blouse, eat pastries, go to a museum. Walking along the river, which is technically the sea because of how it connects to the Atlantic, I take a deep breath of salt and wind. There is so much one sacrifices by living in a city. I feel like I have not breathed since moving to Paris without inhaling everything that is toxic.
Summer ends in the early morning hours on the last Saturday of October, before the city even knows it is a new day. There are no trees around to tell me that it is already well into autumn.
When the first rains of monsoon season fall, I walk into school looking like I have spent all morning wading in the lake. The principal asks if I used an umbrella, but I don’t have the words to tell her that I can only shrink myself so much under its cover. Water squishes out of my socks with every step as I trudge up three staircases to my office.
Inside the school, it is always raining. Clouds line the ceiling of my classroom and pour down until a child asks in broken English to open the windows. The class, up to their necks in water, the small ones already submerged, let out a collective sigh. We drain out slowly enough that the humidity creeps in, settling over the class with an unconscientious greed.
During lunch, I ask my co-teacher how long the rain will last for.
“I don’t know,” she says, looking out the window. “Maybe a month. Last year the season was very short, so maybe this year will be the same.”
I read once that running in the rain only absorbs more water. One could stay drier by walking calmly between buildings instead of dashing across courtyards. During monsoon season, it rains an average 11 inches per day in Daejeon, which is better measured by pizza deliveries per week and hours spent in bed. There are some cities that might be worth braving the rain for, but Daejeon is not one of them. Even in rainy season, the KTX still operates across the country with speeds of 305 kilometers per hour.
After lunch, I walk up to my office where I’ll stay hidden until it’s time to go home. My umbrella is propped open beside my desk, a wet omen that refuses to dry. Walking to and from work used to be a battle with the heat, annexing me in layers of sweat by the time I reached school. Summer brings a new struggle, taking the form of a relentless rain that does not care about white shoes or weekend plans.
A common trope in dramatic literature is for a woman to slowly walk out into the ocean, dripping in grief and weighed down by a flowing dress, until she is never seen again. Take Shakespeare’s Ophelia, who gathered flowers around the mountain of white that hung off her body until there was no need for her to float anymore.
A student, no older than seven, knocks on the office door and cracks it open. Water rushes out into the hallway, and he wades into the room. His hair is matted to his forehead, whether from rain or sweat I cannot tell. His legs make strong strides to my desk, where he lets out a long string of words without taking a breath. I decide that he must be doused in layers of sweat. He repeats the same string of words as rain begins to assault the roof above our heads. Words tumble out of his mouth in the silence between droplets of rain, but I only understand the words “English teacher.” My co-teacher floats over to answer him in Korean, give him a candy, and send him wading back to the door.
“Does he not know who you are?” She asks.
“I’ve never seen him before.”
I spend the rest of the day folding old crosswords into flowers and placing them around my classroom. I run out of paper quickly, so I print out several hundred more and watch as raindrops run the fresh ink off the paper, dripping letters into the half-submerged room. When the room is finally a soggy mess of paper balls, I stuff the rest into my pockets and close the windows, watching the water rise.
On the second day of the monsoon, I wear shower shoes to work. The sidewalk is a gridlock of pastel umbrellas, ensuring everybody will be late behind the first graders who lead the pack. As the road curves up the hill, the colours bob together in unison like a caterpillar inching along in the rain. Koreans usually opt for monochrome tones ranging from charcoal black to pearl white, yet appear to express themselves through the twirling clouds they hold above their heads from late June through July.
My first three classes proceed as usual, but after lunch everyone is weighed down by the humidity that has taken over the school. The rice we eat everyday balloons in our stomachs as the rain continues to fall. The air is a wet blanket that no sixth grader can sit still under, so we opt for a lesson outdoors.
My students complain even more outside, now exposed to the earthy smell that arises from the ground. From the west entrance, we can look out at the courtyard below, where younger grades are practicing flood evacuation drills. In the distance, the Gyejok mountains look as if someone has coloured over them with a gray crayon.
“Teacher, what are we doing?” Asks the class leader.
“Naming the raindrops.”
“In English raindrops have name?”
“No. We will give them names.”
Half of the class doesn’t understand. The higher level students shout over each other to give each droplet the best name. The first raindrops that fall outside the school are named after K-Pop idols, fruits, Spongebob characters, and farm animals. It doesn’t take long to exhaust those possibilities. It is monsoon season after all.
The next round of raindrops is random English verbs. Run, jump, eat, drink, play, study. The whole class understands by this point. Low level students opt for the conjunctions. And, but, so, for, or.
“I’m fine!” The class leader yells. “I’m happy! I’m tired! I’m bored!”
We shout names at the sky until our throats are hoarse. Something must be listening, because the rain lightens up for a minute and then stops altogether. The bell rings, signalling the end of the school day.
“Good work today,” I say with a smile on my face. “We will work on this again tomorrow.”
While my students run off to their after-school activities, I linger in the humidity, looking up at the grey sky. My clothes are dripping with sweat and water. I’m half expecting the sun to come out, but instead a black fly buzzes across my nose. On the first day of the rain, a downpour followed every five minutes of clear air. Defenseless without an umbrella, I head back to my office, where I will wait until the next rainfall.
When I initially imagined moving to Korea, I envisioned myself strutting through a mega-city in a black face mask with clean pores. I would be the pinnacle of Korean fashion, dressed head to toe in the latest one-size-fits-all jumpsuits and a firm understanding of ten-step skincare.
Instead, most of my free time in Korea has been spent covered in sweat and grime on a ~stylish~ hybrid bike with nonexistent brakes. My trusted bike has taken me along four rivers, up five mountains, through countless cities, and to one hospital.
I’m not entirely sure how I conceived the idea of cycling across Korea, but it had something to do with enhancing my body’s physical capacity as much as intellectual capacity. Instead of joining a gym or something normal, I insisted on trying to bike coast to coast despite the fact I had zero cycling experience. In recent years, the Korean government had created an extensive coast-to-coast bike trail, stretching from the northwestern tip at Incheon, running diagonally down southeast to Busan. If that wasn’t fun enough, the trail is lined with red telephone booths roughly every 80km where you can stamp the location in your very own bike passport. Collect all the stamps for one route and you are bestowed with the highest of honours: a gold medal with your name engraved, worthy of bragging rights for years to come.
At the mention of being able to flex on the degenerates in our teaching program, my most loyal friends Shane and Dallas wasted no time in forming Korea’s most dysfunctional bike gang with me, AKA Shitty Bike Club. As soon as Chuseok vacation hit, we were soon soaring from the start line, our sights set 650km ahead of us in Busan.
The first rule of Shitty Bike Club is to never discuss our glaringly obvious faults until after we’ve already made a foul mistake. All the lessons we gained from our first disaster ride to Boryeong dissipated from memory, as we failed to properly adjust our bike seats and complete any training whatsoever, both of which led to my tragic downfall. Our logic was that each 120 kilometer day was training for the next 120 kilometer day, which only had to be repeated five times in a row until we reached Busan. Anyone with common sense could have foreseen the major flaws in this plan and opted for spin class instead, but we have never claimed to be all that rational.
If you research biking Korea’s cross country trail, you will find lots of blogs that insist the journey “isn’t hard” and “anyone can do it.” I will be the first to tell you that this is a blatant lie. Most of the people writing these blogs are experienced cyclists, not a couple of random fucks who bought $100 bikes off Gmarket, $1 bike accessories from Daiso, and $10 bike shorts from a Chinese warehouse that are two sizes too small and make my legs look like sausages ready to burst from their casing. It took us seven months, two painkiller addictions, and one torn Achilles to realize this, but when we did we felt liberated. Who cares if we ride slow and hold our bikes together using masking tape and Kakao bandaids? Does it matter when the average cyclist’s bike costs $1000 and can propel them to speeds triple ours while our brakes are pretty much stuck on the entire time? Shitty Bike Club is symbolic for the adventure and recklessness of the open road (or a mostly paved and well marked bike path), and that counts a lot more than crossing the country in five consecutive days.
But for real, how do regular people do the entire 633km trail in five days? On our first day we biked from the western tip at Incheon to Hanam, a city due east of Seoul, which took a mere 10 hours. Only 15km after leaving the start line, Dallas’ front tire blew out, Shane’s back brake detached, and I left my bike bag open, spilling the contents of it into the middle of a busy intersection. The light turned red and I was too stressed to pick anything up so I just left it there. This error made Dallas rather angry, causing him to turn around two kilometers later to retrieve the lost items, only to discover that my extreme exaggeration of “everything falling out” just meant one granola bar and a bottle of Purell. He hasn’t trusted me since.
By the late afternoon we were cruising the Han River through Seoul, weaving between casual citizens just having a leisurely ride and ahjussi bike gangs covered head-to-toe in spandex. Riding through Seoul at sunset felt like I was some futuristic dream world as depicted in movies from the early 2000s. Trains soared overhead at lightning speeds, juxtaposed against a hazy pink sky that settled around the crisp curves of silver skyscrapers. People zipped along the boardwalk, laughing candidly on tandem bikes or lounging in the grass with an effortless calm, all of whom possessed a physical beauty I only thought possible in teen dystopian films. I have never felt as small as I did crossing the vast stretch of bridges that lined the Han, each time feeling as if I were traversing a border to a new country. With the exception of Tokyo, east Asian cities are underrepresented on the travel radar in favour of what Western-based organizations deem as worthy. I had limited intel on Seoul prior to setting my sights on Korea, but I was tragically in love as we cycled out of the metropolis and into Hanam.
The magic of Seoul faded the next day as we awoke to grey skies. Our ride took us straight through the mountains in these multi-million dollar tunnels pulsating with coloured lights that felt better suited to a bike rave than ride, cruising alongside Korean cyclists mostly over the age of 40 with thighs of solid steel. It was to none of their surprise when it started pouring rain. Shitty Bike Club, staying true to our name and values, consulted our rain plan: pray it doesn’t rain. Needless to say, our plan failed quickly with no backup, leaving us to cover our backpacks in plastic bags and push through the cold. Things went from moderately shit to really shit as my brakes wore out, Shane got high off Korean painkillers, Dallas blew his back tire, night began falling, and we couldn’t find a place to sleep.
Some people might credit coincidence, but I like to think it was fate that lead us to the Green Light Motel, a building that rivalled Dracula’s castle outlined in red neon lights on the very top of a steep hill. For full disclosure, we did push our bikes up the hill, because we were one downpour away from a mental breakdown, and I was beginning to feel a strange pull at the back of my left foot every time it hit the floor.
To this day we don’t know exactly where we were, but it was a tiny village of no more than 50 people on the outskirts of Gyeonggi Province. I do know that one room at the Green Light Motel cost ₩35000, there were no beds, the reception desk was covered in phone numbers and photos of naked women, and I felt like I was in a horror movie the entire time. Yet, stopping in this tiny village was the highlight of our entire cycling trip. After hiking down the hill we ate the best fried chicken of our lives, which says a lot for gluttons like us. I wish I could go back, but I genuinely have no idea where we were.
The next morning, Shane’s eyes did not open.
Not because he was dead. He awoke with the crustiest eyes in Gyeonggi, which was later diagnosed as pink eye. Ripping across the country without sunglasses isn’t really the greatest idea if you are prone to allergic conjunctivitis, so after failing to find a pharmacy (closed) or a hospital (closed down), we resolved ourselves to that fact that suffering must be Korean Jesus’ plan, and onward we went.
As we pushed through the countryside at 7am on our third and unbeknownst final day, I began to understand why Korea is dubbed the Land of the Morning Calm. The landscape was painted with a smokey palette and the air held an unparalleled peace. The only sounds for miles were my complaints about the constant sharp pain at my left heel and my melodic interpretations of “More Than a Feeling” by Boston.
As the misty morning dissipated into a sunny afternoon, the pain at the back of my foot only grew stronger, eventually peaking when we rolled into Chungju, the final frontier before our ascent into the mountains. After somehow ripping out a quick 80km, the painkillers I took in the morning had worn off. While trying to dismount my bike, I discovered I couldn’t put any weight at all on my left foot. As I cried into a plate of bulgogi at a restaurant in the bus station, my friends kindly suggested that this would be the best place for me to quit, as we were in the last city before riding at least a day into the mountains and unbound wilderness.
Giving up after I had planned to do this trip for months (ok, a month and a half) seemed foolish to me, but so was continuing to bike when I could hardly walk. I consider myself a rational thinker, so I did what any rational thinker would do and popped several pills, chugged a bottle of Pocari Sweat, and put Yeezus on repeat as we headed for the hills.
And by hills I mean mountains, the first of which was a straight 5km uphill climb. Flash forward about an hour and we had inched out of Chungju and into the countryside, past shining emerald lakes and lush forests, where began our first ascent. Cicadas hissed secrets at each other among the trees, hushed by the breeze that blew off the lake when I suddenly heard a pop, and felt every ligament in my Achilles tear apart.
I immediately began sobbing and rolling around on the road until a car came roaring at me and Dallas dragged me to the side, where I proceeded to roll in gravel until I was significantly crustier than I’ve ever been. Soon the tears and sobs began alternating with a hysterical deep-belly laugh, much to the horror of my poor friends. I could have spent my vacation in Seoul having a good time, yet there I was with a ruptured Achilles on the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Convinced I was dying, I called my best friend Caitlyn, who proceeded to ignore my call because she was trying on perfume at Olive Young.
I call the Foreigner Hotline (1330 from any phone in Korea) more than I’ve ever drunk dialled any of my exes, so next I desperately gave them a quick ring and they told me to go to the hospital and delete their number. There was no way I could get back on my bike or even walk, so we tried hitchhiking, to which zero cars responded to. To be fair, if I saw myself in that state with snot running down my face, laughing and sobbing like a dying animal, I would not have stopped my car either. We were getting hopeless and I began reciting my will as I accepted my fate to perish on the mountainside, when suddenly the heavens opened up and beamed down Korean Jesus.
Korean Jesus pulled up in a red and white spandex onesie, matching his red and white bike perfectly, and asked if we needed help. Shane, our resident translator, explained the situation and just at that moment, an old Korean man driving an empty pickup happened to be passing by. With the force of just one pedal, Korean Jesus rode into the middle of the road and the truck stopped at his holy command. Exchanging no more than a few words with the truck driver, Korean Jesus loaded me, Shane, and our bikes into the truck and soon we were flying back to the hospital in Chungju. There was no room for Dallas, but being the only fit member of Shitty Bike Club he was fine with cycling back to the city.
However, when we arrived at the hospital it was closed for Chuseok, which we only discovered after I had already crawled on my hands and knees to the second floor. After a minor breakdown we hailed a taxi and ended up at a state-of-the-art orthopaedic clinic, where a doctor who spoke no more than a few words of English confirmed that my Achilles was ruptured and I would need to be on crutches for several weeks. As I cried on a glass table getting an x-ray, Shane, being the supportive friend he is, leaned over and whispered, “I’m glad you’re injured because now we don’t have to bike to Busan.”
After my hysterical laughter had subsided and the doctor was writing a prescription for heavy painkillers (which I never ended up getting filled because I mistook it for my hospital bill, not a prescription), Korean Jesus walked in the door with Dallas behind him. He saw me with the splint on my leg and crutch under my arm and gave me two thumbs up.
“All good?!” He asked with a big smile.
And as quickly as he had appeared, Korean Jesus was gone.
For those who are uneducated in the field of muscular trauma (unlike me, a doctor), pulling your Achilles is an extremely painful and serious injury that requires immediate surgery and carries the possibility of never being able to walk again. My injury came from my bike seat being too high, which I had raised because during our last trip to Boryeong my seat was too low, resulting in sore knees. Korean Jesus was looking over me that day on the mountainside because I only partially pulled my Achilles, meaning recovery would be slow but possible.
In three days I went from being the crustiest girl in Korea to the crutchiest girl in Korea. I had nothing to show for all my struggle, no gold medal to hang around my neck except for a single crutch because the doctor didn’t have two in my size. That proved to be fine though, because I had Shane and Dallas to alternate carrying me through the streets like an actual queen.
I wish I could say the trip ended there, but it didn’t. Fast-forward several months later, my Achilles had healed and I was back to tripping over the curb on any given day. Shitty Bike Club might be a lot of things, most of which are synonyms for bad, but one thing we are not is QUITTERS. We had gone through far too much leg, knee, neck, lower back, and Achilles pain to give up the chance for personally engraved gold medals, which could later be worn to the club and become the envy of all our peers.
Believe it or not, but we had pretty much reached the halfway point when I had my accident, which meant we only had 300km more until the finish line in Busan. With no more vacation days until the sweltering heat of summer, we decided we could “easily” finish the trip in two weekends.
Crust Country Take Two took place at the end of April, starting in Suanbo, a small town in the mountainous heart of Korea still reeling from its glory days as a honeymoon hotspot. Finally understanding how to learn from a mistake, we began our reunion tour by stretching our legs and properly adjusting our bike seats before setting off for 3000m of elevation under a clear blue sky. Busan lay ahead of us like a foggy paradise we’d only imagined in our wildest dreams, which involved biking straight into the ocean and swimming back to shore empty handed.
For real, how do regular people do the entire 633km trail in five days? On our first day in Suanbo, we went up and down so many mountains that we stopped locking up our bikes at rest stops in the hopes that someone would steal them and save us from our misery. Some of these hills are so impossibly steep that there are road signs encouraging cyclists to try hitchhiking with any trucks passing through, but of course none wanted to stop for three crusty foreigners.
Saturday took us on a twelve-hour marathon that involved non-stop rolling hills, one mountain, six Ghana bars, water scarcity, several temper tantrums (me), two sobbing fits (also me), one flat tire, and the return of Korean Jesus, who this time took on the form of a sweet ahjussi who was well equipped to fix said flat tire.
Blinded by sweat and tears, we didn’t know that Saturday would lead us to one of the greatest wonders of the East: an English man attempting to cross Korea on a scooter to bring awareness to veganism. Like any white saviour in an Asian country, he informed us that locals ate dogs and it was bad. His main method of saving animals appeared to be wearing a shirt that said “Go Vegan” in English, which I can only assume is next to useless in a country like Korea. Shortly after we parted ways with him, we came to a stretch of the path that was flanked by factory farms on either side, cows mooing out at us as we flew by. I didn’t see any liberated cows so I think his message might have gotten lost in translation.
Some people might insist that the hardest part of the cross country trail is butt pain, but let me assure you that the worst part of crossing Korea by bike is not being Korean. Every time we went up a grueling mountain, we found it odd that we were alone, whereas we usually passed a few other cyclists on flat river trails. About 50km past Daegu, we were trying to recover from our latest uphill stint by eating churros on the side of the road. A 50-something Russian man pulled up beside us on a weathered-looking bike packed with camping gear and a Korean flag.
“Did you come over the mountain?” He asked in a thick accent.
He smiled and pointed to a road that went in the opposite direction of Busan. “There is a flat road that goes around. If you go back that way, you can go around. Are you going to Suanbo?”
“No, we did that already.”
“Oh, there are a few roads around the big mountains there too. If you do it again, now you know. This is my thirty-second time.” With a smile, Russian-Korean Jesus rode away, his flag flapping valiantly in the wind.
These hidden roads are a national secret held only by Korean cyclists and the occasional middle-aged Russian. Had we known this months ago, perhaps we could have avoided much booty pain, but I’d like to believe we are all the more stronger for it. But not that much stronger. I would never do this again, let alone thirty-two times.
That was enough for one weekend, but for some godforsaken reason we did the same thing the following one. Busan was the blinking green light ahead of us, always out of reach but still in sight, and we were a crusty version of Jay Gatsby with much less wealth and much larger thighs.
Our final ride to Busan should have been a glorious triumph full of laughter and a few happy tears. We should have all cheered and hugged and set fire to the deathtraps that brought us across the country, but instead we woke both days to pouring rain. The skies and weather forecast predicted between a 95-100% chance of heavy showers for the next eighteen hours. The end of our coast-to-coast journey would have the shittiest ending possible, which perhaps was only fitting for a bike club like our own.
The final 60km went by quicker than we expected. All we wanted to do was escape the rain, which soaked through our ponchos straight to the bone. Rolling up to the finish line was maybe the most anti-climatic moment of my entire being, involving a quick cheer then trudging into the bike certification center to apply for our gold medals, only to be informed that they would be shipped in 1-2 business months.
Any feelings of grandeur and endurance morphed into a desire to be dry and warm. Mentally and physically unprepared to bike any further, we checked our phones and noticed there was a subway station conveniently placed five minutes away from the finish line. These five minutes should have been a breeze after 633km, but naturally were filled with strife as a car flew through a puddle and splashed about six gallons of water right into Shane’s open mouth.
Yet we beat on, shitty bikes against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the path.
I spent the last week at work scrolling through thesaurus dot com in search of the perfect word to summarize the past six months in South Korea. I’d like to give an honorary mention to ephemeral, fleeting, hedonistic, and temporary to almost making the cut but eventually bowing out under the weight of nihilism (like we all do). I have been living the life of a self-serving nihilist since moving here, which has included looking up the definition of nihilism to check myself before flexing my intellect on all twelve of my blog readers.
I have procrastinated publishing several posts, which I already regret because none of them are timely nor relevant to my life anymore. A lot of really unfortunate things have happened since I last overshared my life with the internet. I have so many self-deprecating stories to tell involving hot oil massages, inopportune timing for foot peeling masks, setting my apartment on fire, and desecrating two of Busan’s finest Angel-in-us coffee shops. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to occupy this space in which I casually re-account my life’s lowlights on an easily traceable platform. I’m so afraid of my students (who sometimes struggle with the English alphabet) finding this blog that I told my grade five class that my full name is Hannah Hannah when they asked for my last name.
A large part of my newfound nihilism stems from my angst over working a dead-end job in a foreign country where I cannot communicate with the majority of people. I live for the weekends and spend half of Sunday dreading going back to school, as do most English teachers I know. In a new all-time low, my friends and I ate old jjimdak (Korean braised chicken) that sat out on my counter for over 24 hours in hopes of getting food poisoning, so we wouldn’t have to go to school the next day. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, but we did discover that day old jjimdak is still delicious, and stays preserved due to its vinegar content.
Is the root of my problem the capitalist work week as opposed to an inherent lack of meaning in life? Maybe. Nihilism is a symptom of capitalism. But my nihilism ties into neo-imperialism: I find this job meaningless because of its neo-imperial roots that do not align with my ethics. I do not believe that foreigners should be allowed to teach in Korean public schools just because they are native speakers, unless they have a basis in the Korean language and a relevant education degree. Foreigners, such as myself, who possess neither are wasting the government’s resources and getting paid higher than Korean teachers for making little to no difference. I have been granted the opportunity to teach abroad solely due to my nationality, not credentials. In Canada, nobody can be a teacher without a teaching degree, so I don’t know why any less should be expected in Korea. Even more troubling is the fact that even though over 40 countries have English as an official language, the EPIK Program only accepts applicants from seven predominantly white English speaking countries.
But alas, a job is a job, and I’m not sure if teaching abroad is any less ethical than working in Toronto for a corporate conglomerate that exploits the environment and the working class both domestically and internationally. I made my first million (won) back in September, which sounds really cool in text but doesn’t reflect my inability to save money. After paying off my winter vacations and seeing my account balance, I voraciously scoured my credit card statement, sure that I was being hacked and there it was: $170 for something in November. I don’t buy things within that price range, as all of my money goes towards food under $10. But lo and behold- it was the gym membership I bought a month prior and totally forgot about!
Monday is my new favourite day of the week, which is completely limited to the fact my gym is closed on Monday. I feel no guilt as I eat my second dinner, and look forward to the next day when I can have a nice long soak in my gym’s hot tub. I don’t want anyone to think I have started to take fitness seriously- I workout solely so I can relax in the hot tub afterwards. The joy the hot tub gives me is the closest thing I’ve had to existential meaning in the past six months.
I had the time of my life at my neighbourhood gym for a solid two weeks, all until one fated Friday afternoon. In the midst of taking off my pants, the ear-splitting squeals of elementary-age children reverberated through the locker room. I’m terrified of my students finding my blog, so you can only imagine my horror when I realized they shared the same communal showers as me. Is there anything more mortifying than your 11-year-old students watching you shower naked at the gym? There is! It’s when they catch you naked as they walk out of swimming lessons with their parents.
My movements in the gym change room now resemble those of Harry Potter fighting the basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets. I peer into a mirror that rounds the corner so I can make sure there are no children around before exposing my breasts to the ajummas around me. Once in the shower, I angle my body towards the corner whenever I hear girlish giggles and strategically pretend to scrub my face with a wash cloth until I have confirmed they are over the age of 12.
Although fear beats through my heart at the prospect of being recognized in public, being Asian in Korea has opened me up to a new realm of possibility. Back in Canada, my Chinese heritage renders me a visible minority. Growing up in a small white town, I was forced to be aware of how different I was from other people. I hated being the perpetual foreigner and never wanted to stand out because of my ethnicity. But now that I am a foreigner in Korea, being vaguely Asian is the only thing that allows me to blend in. I feel invisible as I glide through the showers and dip my body into the hot tub, shielded by the comfortable guise of being ethnically ambiguous. A small pit of anxiety stirs in my stomach as I worry someone might try to speak to me, but I can still close my eyes and sink into the hot water without drawing attention to myself.
For once, I’m not exoticized as the Oriental other. Being invisible is a privilege I’ve never known. I’m not just “that Asian girl” or referred to as the name of the only other Asian girl in the community (shoutout to my classmates and teachers who called me Jessica Lai for 12 years). Until I open my mouth to speak, I can enjoy freedom from prying eyes, questions, and racial remarks. It’s been nice.
As fun as having Asian privilege and soaking in the hot tub has been, after six months I can’t say that I have come closer to finding inherent value while living in Korea. Everything I do seems futile considering I already know the expiry date on my experiences here. That’s not to say I am not enjoying myself, but I am becoming too aware of how disposable this sort of expat lifestyle is. Everything moves in cycles: you shove your life into two suitcases, have intense friendships spanning a few months to a year, then move on and repeat. I still retch at the idea of doing something “permanent”, but I’m starting to wonder if there shouldn’t be something that will disappear as quickly as it begins.
There are still some things here that make me smile, like the six-year-old boy who recently befriended me and walks me to and from school, yelling “Englishy teacher!!!” across the street when he sees me. I might hate my job but I still manage to find the LOLs in it, like when I tried to play a school-friendly version of fuck, marry, kill with my students. But none of this is enough to even make me consider staying.
Last month I wandered alone through the alleyways of Seoul at three in the morning and came across a sign lit up in pink neon, claiming “It hurts to be alive and obsolete.” I sat down on the steps of a dark building across the street and revelled in the melodrama of being a self-aware English teacher. If I am a nihilist here, moving on to Paris or Toronto or wherever won’t change that. I laughed out loud and took the first train back to Daejeon.
Whenever something mildly inconvenient happens to me, whether it be spilling water on my laptop or running into my students while wasted and trying to buy foot deodorant, I find myself crying on a park bench wondering why such misfortune must befall me. After 22 years of searching for an answer, my newfound love for cycling has recently led me to realize that that I’m not actually plagued with bad luck; I am just incredibly stupid.
There are a number of reasons why biking is my calling, and one of them is that you can enjoy the feeling of working out from the comfort of remaining in a seated position for hours on end. Not only is it an eco-friendly way to travel, but you also get to see a variety of gorgeous landscapes while picking tons of tiny bugs out of your eyelids.
Not wanting to hoard the joys of cycling to myself, I rallied up two of my most loyal friends, Dallas and Shane, and together we formed Daejeon’s very first Shitty Bike Club. The name came naturally to us because we quickly discovered that we’re the most dysfunctional bikers in the city, and perhaps the entire Korean peninsula.
I haven’t been able to bike for longer than an hour since high school, so I thought I should begin my new life as Lance Armstrong with a light 140km bike ride from Daejeon (central Korea) to Boryeong (west coast). The fact that Korea is comprised of 70% mountainous region did not deter us from failing to plan a route, buy helmets, research the destination, or even check if our bikes were functional before setting off. We wanted to see the ocean, so we geared up and set off to see the ocean.
To give you some quick team stats: Dallas spent the last year wrangling wild horses in the South American outback. He’s our DIY mechanic and fixer of anything that goes wrong, like when a few cords were falling off my bike and he held them together using Kakao Friends band-aids. Shane looks ambiguously Asian and previously studied abroad in Seoul, thus is our resident Korean translator and Naver Maps navigator. He can order fried chicken (with or without sauce) faster than any other foreigner in the land.
While you could make a case that Shane is our MVP and without him we would not survive, I will note that I am the prettiest girl in Shitty Bike Club and self-appointed vlogger. You could argue that vlogging is useless and does nothing to contribute to the general survival and wellbeing of the team, and you would be right. In fact, it has caused me to crash off the path into foliage several times, twice being into a thorn bush.
We chose Boryeong as our destination because we wanted to swim and it was the closest coastal city to our inland location. But before we even could get out of Daejeon, Dallas discovered his gears didn’t change, Shane suffered serious booty pain, and following a near-death collision with a car I realized my brakes didn’t work. I suppose that’s what happens when you buy the cheapest bikes possible on Gmarket and pay $20 to have them assemble it for you. Despite our total lack of bike preparation, we had kimbap, oreos, and garlic toasts in our backpacks. So instead of investing in tools, we barrelled onwards, fuelled by the sheer force of saving our reputations because we had already posted on Snapchat AND Instagram that we were biking to the coast.
The beginning of anything is always the worst. This applies to biking, relationships, and salad diets. After our first 25km out of Daejeon, things were a breeze. Korea has well-maintained bike paths that go across the entire country, making cycling super fun even when you have to hand-tighten your gears after they come loose in the middle of a rice field in the rural provinces.
At first, not having brakes was great and made me feel like I was too fast, too furious for anyone. I felt infinite flying down hills and dodging all the snakes, spiders, and ahjossis (older Korean men). Unfortunately, this freedom faded after we came to our first city. I went from loving the feeling of wind in my hair to crying at the top of hills, wondering why it never occurred to me to buy a helmet before a 12-hour bike ride through a country full of mountains.
We didn’t plan a route to get to Boryeong in advance because we couldn’t find any information online, which we assumed was because it was all in Korean. Somehow this plan worked out fine for the first 100km, which was along these beautifully paved paths that took us through a stunning array of scenery. We rode through electric green farm fields, wound around mountainsides, coasted along the river, and accidentally found ourselves in the middle of a bike race at one point.
However, as we entered the last 40km, the aforementioned bike path suddenly ended, as did any sight of fellow riders. We started cycling down an elevated freeway with transport trucks flying by us. I’m not trying to be dramatic, but we sensed instant death was only a meter away, separated by a single paved white line. Our unpreparedness had finally caught up with us: there was no bike path to Boryeong. We put zero faith in Korean drivers, so we huddled on the side of the highway and tried to decide what to do. After a few seconds of deliberation, we realized that we legitimately could not turn back because a) we were on an elevated highway and b) we didn’t know where the nearest city or bus was. There was no option but to go forward, which we did.
The highway only lasted for another 10km, but for anyone considering biking the Daejeon-Boryeong route I would recommend skipping Boryeong and following the bike path to Gunsan. I would actually not recommend doing this trip at all, especially if you have the fitness endurance of a two-day old bowl of oatmeal. I would particularly advise against completing this trip after August, because September is jellyfish season at the beach. Naturally, we did not realize this crucial fact until it was too late and I was screaming for someone to carry me out of the ocean and pee on my leg (please note that this cure is actually for sea urchins).
You know how some people see the Virgin Mary in rock formations or spaghetti sauce and think they’re seeing God? That’s how I felt when Boryeong’s local buses came into view. The sun was beginning to set and the sky was softening to blue linen. Gold light filtered between the mountains, which was blinding but in a cinematic way. I couldn’t see anything, certainly not the gaping hole on the side of the road I nearly ended my life in, but it was a magical sort of blindness. We felt lighter too. Despite our exhaustion peaking on its eleventh hour, we knew the city was just around the corner.
We biked that corner. Then biked another corner. And that corner turned into a slight incline. And that slight incline turned into a decent hill. And that decent hill turned into a mountain. And that mountain had no mercy on our legs or how many kilometers we had already biked or that night was falling or that we didn’t buy bike lights because we thought we’d be finished by early afternoon.
In an executive decision for the wellbeing of the team, we decided to take the bus into town because our map said we had not yet reached the peak. It was too dangerous to bike in pitch darkness on a winding mountain, cars whizzing by every minute. We waited 15 minutes for the bus until its headlights rounded the corner. I looked down at my bargain bike and back up the mountain. After pushing twelve hours through rural countryside, it was all about to end on a sweaty bus. There is no victory worth that ₩1,200 bus fare. We gave up when we had come within single digits of reaching our destination, all because we failed to buy lights.
Except the bus didn’t stop for us because it couldn’t see us in the dark. \ (•◡•) / So onwards we went without consulting the map. Ignorance is bliss until you find yourself hurtling down a mountainside and into a high traffic tunnel at over 60kph with dysfunctional brakes. The best way to describe this was that one scene from Perks of Being a Wallflower where Logan Lerman leans out of the sunroof and feels infinite, except I was a lot crustier and probably much more finite.
When we finally got into Boryeong, we were ready for the sweet release of death. I somehow survived the mountain without brakes, gears, lights, or cardio endurance without falling once, but as soon as we got into town I somehow managed to topple over sideways on the curb of 7-Eleven. All the skin ripped open on my calves didn’t matter because I was starving and so ready to tear into a seafood pancake.
At traditional Korean restaurants, you take your shoes off at the door and sit cross-legged on the floor as you enjoy the best meal of your entire existence. I hadn’t realized how this custom discriminates against long-distance bikers until we took off our shoes for the first time in 12 hours and nearly died from the stench that filled the room. I have never had to choose a meal based on how little clothing I need to remove and I hope I never have to again.
Several fried chicken burgers and grape sojus later, I crawled into bed and prepared for a relaxing sleep, but was unexpectedly met with perhaps the worst night of my entire life. I know I have a reputation as the queen of exaggeration, but know that I am not stretching anything in the least when I say I woke up every half hour crying and whimpering in pain because my legs felt like someone had simultaneously set them on fire while slowly ripping the muscles apart. Sometime around 5am I rolled over and googled “Can you die from leg pain?” to which I found the answers “no” and “see a doctor immediately”. The thought of having to speak Korean to an ambulance driver terrified me, so I hoped it was the former and tried to go back to sleep.
The next day, Shane and I popped a few painkillers while Dallas happily led the way to the beach. Minus the fact it was jellyfish mating season and I still felt like my life was ending, we had a lovely day eating fried chicken, splashing in the Yellow Sea, buying matching helmets, relaxing at a Korean spa, and finally taking a bus back to Daejeon. This dumb trip was the most fun I’ve ever had, but there is no amount of money in this world that could have convinced us to bike home.
While we do consider our trip to be a general success despite its many unfortunate events, it didn’t have the happy ending we hoped for. The perfect ending to our first bike trip would have been returning to the bus station to find our bikes stolen. But unfortunately, due to Korea’s extremely low crime rate and 1984-style surveillance, they were still locked to the bike rack. And thus, stay tuned for the Shitty Bike Club’s next adventure as we attempt to bike across the entire country, 650km from Incheon to Busan during Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving)! Will we throw ourselves off the top of the nearest mountain?! Will we quit and take the train in Daegu?! Will we finally invest in foot deodorant?!
The answer is probably yes. But stay tuned to find out anyway.
Four years ago when I imagined my post-grad life as an English major, I envisioned myself writing a book while perched on the windowsill of a New York City loft. I would be working as a waitress, but I’d be happy because I’m doing what I love. However, my dream sounded akin to almost anyone who has ever read and enjoyed a collection of poetry, so I knew I had to do something ~unique~ upon graduating.
Four years later, in a totally expected and rather typical fashion, I packed my life and Arts degree into two suitcases and moved to South Korea to teach English. I was accepted into the EPIK Program to teach in Daejeon, the country’s fifth largest city, commonly referred to as the Silicon Valley of Korea. I later found out that within the country, Daejeon is actually referred to as the most boring city in Korea, but alas, we live and we learn.
I’d like to think that most people I interact with are decently rational thinkers, but I don’t want to admit how many people asked me to clarify which Korea I was moving to. Before you go off spewing ignorant misinformation, I invite you to please try to locate North Korea on a map. From now on, I refuse to engage in semi-intelligent conversation with anyone who cannot complete this task.
Canadians always ask me if I’m afraid of North Korea, but in all honestly my safety here is the least of my concerns. My greatest fear is running into my students when I am at a bar in a crop top. I live within walking distance from my school, so it is impossible to walk down the street without running into little Minju or Jiyeon. Although values are changing, Korean fashion is still fairly conservative, thus showing skin from the waist up is considered scandalous. I’m trying to not set a reputation among my students’ parents as the biggest hoe in Daejeon so I always leave the house in a disguise, AKA a long sleeve blouse which I quickly shove into my bag as soon as I’m in the clear.
I teach grade three, five, and six, but I think I’m learning more from them than they are from me. I’ve been taking style tips from my sixth graders, who come to school in all black jumpsuits, rompers, and non-brassy blonde hair. Those cursed with poor vision sport trendy wire-rimmed glasses that would have every head at Trinity Bellwoods on swivel. Whoever said Paris is the capital of fashion was obviously a Eurocentric blogger, because Korean style is light years ahead of anything I’ve ever seen in the West. When I was in the sixth grade, I’m pretty sure I wore Aeropostale tracksuits and had tiny oval transition lenses. Aside from the fact that Korean clothes are one-size-fits-all and I have not been able to get a single skirt over my thighs, I’m anticipating becoming a Korean style icon by the end of my teaching contract.
My decision whether to renew my contract, which lasts until next August, weighs upon a number of factors, including but not limited to whether or not I survive school lunches. Although my school’s cafeteria food is honestly delicious, lunch is a physical and mental struggle every day. As a Chinese-Canadian, my diasporic and cultural anxiety is at an all-time high as I feel too Asian for the Caucasians and too Caucasian for the Asians. My facade of passing as Asian quickly slips away during lunch as I strain every muscle in my upper body on not letting the fried chicken drumstick slip off my metal chopsticks. Yet, during EPIK Orientation, at least one white girl would sit with me during dinner and demand that I teach them how to use chopsticks.
I’m still not sure what food is socially acceptable to eat with your hands, so I’ve been piercing my chopsticks through cherry tomatoes and struggling to hold up the weight of corn on the cob, lest my co-workers think I am uncultured swine. I have kimchi stains on everything I own, from my shoes to my notebooks to the white skirt I wore during a welcome ceremony with my entire school and their parents.
Prior to stepping foot in Asia, I had planned to start a Korean dating blog, aptly titled “BAEJEON”. In preparation for my dating blog I overlooked the most crucial aspect in writing about my search for love in Korea: I don’t speak Korean. Except for learning the alphabet and two basic greetings, I prepared nothing before uprooting my life and settling down in South Korea. It is completely irresponsible to prepare nothing when moving to a foreign country as an English teacher, and I admit I am guilty. “Globalization” is just a buzzword; expecting everyone to cater to your Anglophone-speaking needs is prime Western Tourist Complex. Don’t worry though- I’m currently writing a comprehensive analysis on the neocolonial impacts of teaching English abroad.
Teaching English in Korea is a huge job market occupied by a majority of white Americans, and with a great number of Americans abroad comes a great number of blogs (Ancient Travel Proverb, n.d). Many people prepare for their time teaching abroad from these blogs, myself included, but I soon realized that these blogs are written for and by white people. Expats of colour have much different experiences than white people who are just realizing that race is a factor that influences one’s daily interactions.
To make a pretty mediocre long story a pretty mediocre short story: living in Korea is hard. Blogs like to omit the less glamorous details. Blogs talk about the exhilaration of clubbing in Seoul, not the frenzy of trying to cancel an accidental 1000 page print job on a Korean printer. Blogs tell you living here is easy as drinking soju outside 7-Eleven and singing your heart out at noraebang. Blogs don’t tell you how to cope with finding out your students are being abused. Blogs tell you it’s cute and funny to have to mimic what you’re trying to say in Korean. Blogs don’t tell you that teaching your language is sometimes a form of imperialism.
However, I’m quite excited to have a relative amount of Asian privilege! Getting harassed for being a minority? Not in this country! During EPIK orientation all of the English teachers stayed at a Korean university dorm where the curfew was 11pm. My friends and I, who are all Asian except for our Token White Friend, strolled in casually at 11:04pm one night. Our white friend got written up as late and we walked away without a second glance. I guess there are ups and downs to every experience!
Someone pinned a note to Ernest Hemingway’s grave recently. Free of water stains, it read, “I started writing out of love and joy… I kept writing because of you. If you could create in the midst of misery, so can the rest of us.”
I write in my journal that I am not creating enough to call myself an artist. My journal is a garden for the half-truths I allow myself to flourish in.
I dropped a dime onto Hemingway’s small plot in Ketchum, Idaho, an inconspicuous spot sprinkled with pennies, wilted flowers, half-drunken bottles of whiskey, and a rain-torn copy of The Sun Also Rises. In my family, dimes are a sign of good luck.
Superstitions are ruled by neither fact nor fiction. Stepping on a crack and breaking someone’s back requires that you have a mother. Growing a long nose requires that you can distinguish your own lies from truth. Catching a bouquet at a wedding requires that you believe in fairness within monogamy.
In my journal of half-truths, I am trying to write less he-said-she-said, he-said-I-believed. I am trying to be less of a cliché, less of a girl who writes in cafes and becomes transfixed over writing in which she cannot distinguish fact from fiction. I have begun to say “transfixed” instead of “crying” because people love to read their own truths into situations when an emotional woman is involved.
At the end of I Love Dick, Chris Kraus writes, “No woman is an island-ess. We fall in love in hope of anchoring ourselves to someone else, to keep from falling.”
Yesterday I called every sexual health clinic in downtown Toronto. I left three messages at three offices that went straight to an answering machine. None of them called me back.
There are extremists who believe that in a patriarchal society, all heterosexual sex is considered rape with woman as the victim. Power imbalances do not disappear once they have entered the realm of sex. I write in my journal that assault necessitates anxiety over any sexual encounters in the future. Most survivors of sexual assault are accused of lying.
I Love Dick is a collection of the many letters Kraus wrote to the man she fell in love with as she travelled across America and Guatemala. Kraus turned her sexual desire for Dick into a voyeuristic novel that garnered widespread acclaim and criticism. Hemingway is still considered one of the greatest life writers.
There are no appointments available at any clinic until the end of August. A woman learns how to accept in pieces. Kraus writes in I Love Dick how historically, female artists were not taken seriously because their work was considered too emotional and personal, therefore could not be speaking to the same level of universal truths that men explored in their creations. As a result, female artists took the personal and made it universal.
Some lines from my journal that may or may not be true: birth control pills were first tested on incarcerated Puerto Rican women. The birds started chirping at 5:04am. I try to talk myself into being gay at least twice a year. Kraus is not taken seriously by literary institutions because female desire is seen as juvenile. I’m afraid to directly write about assault because I don’t want to be labelled as a victim.
I tell my friends that I only write experimental fiction. I tell boys that I’m not disinterested in that I only write poetry. I have my journal with me at all times. Telling the truth does not necessarily make it a fact.
Kraus and Hemingway wrote with desires to fictionalize their lives. In doing so, they have created myths of their own personalities, legends to be constructed in cultural manifestos and cited in peer-reviewed papers. Both have been threatened to be sued for defamation. Not everyone likes how fact and fiction stem from the same place.
I had a dream a few nights ago where my mouth was full of teeth that I kept spitting on my kitchen floor. I am unsure how to interpret that.