All My Clothes Have Kimchi Stains

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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! 

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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.

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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). 

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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.

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AJOUTEZ DEUX LETTRES À PARIS, C’EST LE PARADIS (J. Renard)

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. 

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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 🙂