These Boots Were Made for Unpaid Farm Labour

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.

the space? wide open. the harvest? abundant. the foot fungus? immaculate.

Portugal in Passing

kinda heavy, 2018

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.

junkyard, 2018

“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.

castle, 2018

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.

2018-10-24 08.29.34 1.jpg
rain, 2018

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.

cotton, 2018

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.

limelight, 2018

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.

2018-12-03 11.57.34 1.jpg
raymond carver, 2018

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.

maps, 2018

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.

crossing, 2018

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.

somewhatdeveloped, 2018

Nihilist with a Heart of Colonial Gold

big mood

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.

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 9.47.13 PM
fuck 1 marry 1 kill 1: nietzsche, heidegger, me

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!

a photo as bright as my future (i swear this is the only angst-ridden post i’ll ever write)

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.

hong kong not korea – also felt nice to be the majority here til my white friend blew my cover

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.

hell is up next

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.

hannah and caitlyn on roof-21
the sun will rise another day! i’ll be a better person next year but in 2018 i’m still gonna be a nihilist piece of shit (photo by @darougexo)

The Birth of Shitty Bike Club: A Series of Unfortunate Events

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset
the loneliness of the long distance biker – haha deep

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.

Processed with VSCO with p5 preset
the saddest self-appointed bike blogger at 7 eleven

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.

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset
idk how to work this into the post but i just wanna say that the speed at which post-war
korea developed is insane

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).

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset
pre-jellyfish mayhem in our unplanned couple outfits

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.

don’t actually have any cool bike pictures bc it’s kind of hard to take photos while biking ??

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.

the light at the end of the tunnel was a lot more picturesque than i imagined

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.

Processed with VSCO with p5 preset
daejeon delivering the goods once again

All My Clothes Have Kimchi Stains

Processed with VSCO with p5 preset
memorize your friends’ key codes and break into their apartments

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.

step 1 in moving to korea: overcome thigh chafe

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.

step 2 in moving to korea: overcome excessive facial sweating

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. 

scouted location for my first Baejeon post

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.

i had my electric fan on the whole hike up here

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! 

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset
my new hangout

The End of Paris and Other Myths

tu est belle
je sais

Since I was old enough to have interest in the novelty of travel, Paris had repulsed me. Paris drips in pink glitter in the North American imagination, lodged in the front lobe of everyone’s mind since they learned the significance of “culture.” A city that attracts a sickening amount of tourists per year cannot have anything of value, no matter how good its patisseries might be.

Yet there I found myself at age twenty, jet lagged but in total awe as my plane descended in the cotton candy haze that surrounds Paris, the Eiffel Tower protruding through the mist like a religious idol. Armed with only Ernest Hemingway’s teachings in A Moveable Feast, I had no idea of the literary phenomenon that awaited me. As anyone who has spent more than five minutes talking to me or reading my blog will know, I live and breathe by Hemingway’s Paris quotes. I regret nothing about the literary obsession the man’s book propelled me into, as I spent my time in Paris creating my own portrait of a writer as a young woman.

page 309, The Diary of Anaïs Nin (Volume 1)

Trying to write in a city that created all my literary idols was not as easy as I thought it would be. I am intoxicated with my friends, trying not to fall down a cobblestone street in Le Quartier Latin when we stumble past James Joyce’s old apartment. The next morning I come back to the same area and stand quietly beside an old American man, reading the memorial at Hemingway’s former apartment at 74 Cardinal Lemoine, where he once lived in poverty with his first wife, Hadley, and their son. At sunset I stroll along the banks of the Seine and try to feel less like Owen Wilson à la Midnights in Paris and more like Henry Miller. By day I walk the entirety of Rue St Denis, my eyes trying not to linger on the aging sex workers in the alleyways as I revel in the grit that made Miller who he was. My phone breaks and I don’t fix it for a month, instead reading Anais Nin’s diaries across the city, watching the train pull out to Louveciennes from Saint Lazare.

There’s an odd feeling of trying to step into the shoes of writers past, as I recline on the terrace of Les Deux Magots, hoping the cafe’s patrons see my notebook and inference that I too am a writer. Essences of literature’s greatest haunt me here, which is confirmed when I look up and note that I am sitting in Square de Jean Paul Sartre et Simone de Beauvoir. Yet I linger in cafes writing mostly in my journal, thoughts of my novel at the back of my mind. My dreams of being a 1920s jazz age writer fall short as I seem to resemble more of a 21st century blogger with each passing paragraph. To be fair I did start writing a book over the summer, which was put on hold when I decided to follow my fake Parisian lover across Europe, but has since been resumed. Still, I do not consider my time in the City of Light to be an artistic failure. It is a triumph, and I have realized my potential as an internet age creative non-fiction writer (that is NOT the same as a blogger). 

Processed with VSCO with x1 preset
modern day de Beauvoir et Sartre (literature’s power couple)

What is it about this dirty city that is so appealing to me? What lies within its uniform architecture that throws words so easily onto the page? I’ll never stop complaining that it smells like pee, put me into debt with the already-frightening French banks, and is filled with some of the most unaccommodating people you will ever meet.

But when the sun sets on Haussmann’s meticulously mapped quarters and I am writing from afar in Parc de Saint Cloud, or sipping wine from the bottle in Montmartre, I feel that there is nowhere in the world that I’d rather belong. It is the only city where I’ll ever feel comfortable sitting alone in a bar on a Friday night eating a crème brulée and sipping a glass of sangria. I can’t imagine another place where I could still feel dignity after having to return all the new clothes I’d already worn to allow me to buy more cheese, Muji pens, and wine.

Scan 1 cb.jpeg

I spend my last night in Paris alone, like I have been for the past week. Even though all my friends have already returned to their home countries I do not feel lonely as the streetlights wrap me up on each corner. For my final French meal I buy a banana nutella crepe with my remaining two cent coins and the vendor is uncharacteristically pleasant, putting me in a better mood as I stroll down to the Seine. I walk and prepare myself to feel nostalgic for how Paris was in the early days when I was very poor and very happy. I wait for the feeling to sink in that it is my last time strolling the river’s banks, never again to feel this young and this free under a pastel sunset. Yet nothing comes. 

Lemony Snicket, Horseradish (not a Parisian writer but I’m sure he’s visited at least once)

It’s 10pm on the first Monday night of August and I’m pulling up to a house whose cracks I could trace in my mind like braille. I know the creaks its old floorboards make at night and the food I’ll find in its cupboards and the feel of its towels after a shower. Everyone warned me that when I arrived back home Paris would feel like a distant dream. Anaïs Nin writes that “The New Yorker dreams of Paris while the Parisian wonders about New York. And we go through life without definitely realizing any place. They all remain unreal for us.” Here I am weaving between dreams in the familiarity of my own bed, and still nothing was more real than Paris was. The friends I loved, the art I’d written, and the streets that taught me how to wander were as dreamlike as the croissant weight I had gained.

This is by no means a final goodbye, as you will find me strolling with a baguette in hand on Parisian streets by next autumn. I fall asleep my first night with my curtains open as I watch the reflection of the lights flickering on the lake and wonder what Paris’ veins must look like at that moment. I am 8000 miles away but I whisper to myself, There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it” (E.Hem). I take a deep breath, for once hoping to smell that familiar scent of Parisian stale urine, but I am somewhat forlornly greeted by fresh linen.

Surely I am being dramatic and these concluding events did not actually happen. But nevertheless, Hemingway is right again. Of course there is never any ending to Paris. It follows you wherever you go.

Scan han at efiffel
photo taken circa 1920, just two decades after the world expo 🙂

Bread and Anxiety: The Story So Far

blurry eiffel
just like I imagined ❤

Bonjour to my loyal readers, dearest friends, social media acquaintances, and any unfortunate souls who have stumbled upon my blog. The rumours are true- yes, I am on exchange in Paris, and yes, I’ve already become at least three times more annoying on Facebook and Instagram.

I’ve been pounding back croissants for approximately nine days now and I’ve only gained about six pounds so far. My exchange experience is already exceeding my expectations so hopefully my good fortune continues, as will my unabashed consumption of gluten products and complex carbohydrates.

I’d say I’m adjusting well to French life and could become une Parisienne by the end of the summer. Paris has made me aware of not only my glaring class privilege but my serious lack of street style. It was only natural that my first purchase here was a fur coat (vegan, of course) for the low, low price of ten euros, complete with the musty but comforting smell of thrift. A steal even with the plummeting value of the Canadian dollar! I think this fur coat will really help me stand out in the sea of foreigners who have no real grasp on French culture nor language.

Currently my French is at a level where I can walk into a café feeling moderately anxious and come out wanting to hurl myself into La Seine. So far I’ve mastered the art of nodding hesitantly and uttering a questionable oui when French people speak to me. I figure even if I don’t become conversational, at least I’ll still return home with some Hemingway-influenced short stories I wrote in cute cafés and enough #tbt pictures to make you vomit for months to come.

I have about seven months to learn the Parisian ways and I’m already feeling overwhelmed by the narrow streets that bring you to a new garden square every time you set down their paths. You’re never really “lost” in Paris. There’s a reason Paris is romanticized by the best white, upper class, predominantly Anglophone writers and artists of the Western world. To live in Paris is to learn to flâner, to stroll around without a destination whilst ignoring the racial and economic inequality all around you!

But even when my feet are aching from walking all day in my heeled boots, my literary aspirations keep me stumbling over the cobblestone streets. It won’t be easy to become a style icon, wine connoisseur, literary socialite, and Francophone in such a short time, but with the rate I’ve been Instagramming at you’ll have no choice but to join my journey 🙂

BISOUS *cringes and recoils awkwardly* BISOUS