Thursday, December 30, 2010


Blog entry #100!  Crazy!  Thanks to all the readers out there, both those I know and those I don't.  All of you should thank my Mom, because she's the one who bugs me about entries when they are few and far between.  I wouldn't write as often without her.  I apologize in advance for the slowing of blog entries that inevitably comes with winter.  I am too busy hibernating to blog (plus how uninteresting are entries about me laying under the covers in my bed watching old X-Files episodes?).

So over a month ago it was Thanksgiving and last week it was Christmas, and this whole holiday season always makes me think about the many things I'm thankful for.  I've led an immensely lucky and blessed life, and I am thankful for so very much.

My Family
I was born into a family who had the means and drive to make me an independent, informed, well-traveled, person with a passion for helping others.

My mom is one of the best people I've ever known, and such a force in my life.  I don't know how she didn't murder me in high school, but I am glad we got through it and got so close.  She is one of my very best friends.

My dad and his other child.

My brother, who I really only became friends with a few years ago.  Glad we're past the days of you stealing my covers and opening my windows in the middle of the night (in winter).  Our intense travel competition always encourages me to explore new places (like I needed a reason).

My mom's parents have been a huge part of my life as long as I can remember.  Whether it is coming to all my birthday parties (regardless of location) or just their continuous support of all my crazy plans, they are wonderful.  (Special shout out to honorary family member, Monica!)

My aunt, uncle, and cousins on my mom's side are all really close.  Aunt Patti never ceases to make me laugh and Rachel is like the younger sister I never got to have.  I don't know how she got so much older when I didn't, but it's pretty crazy.

My Uncle Todd is one of the coolest fathers I've ever known.  He can crack me up whenever we talk, and is generally just an awesome guy.  Michae and Ty are, again, more like younger siblings than cousins.  I'll go ahead and run the risk of sounding trite when I say they're growing up faster than I can believe, but I am excited to see the people they become.

My Friends
I have long said that one of my strongest attributes is my ability to surround myself with awesome people.  At home I have some of the best friends anyone could ask for, and the past year and a half spent in Korea has proven that distance can't break these bonds.  

Our last camping trip in July 2009.  This picture has all but a few of the most important people in my life stateside.  Renee, Carl, Lyndsay, Jo Anna, Monica, Liz, Debbie, Greg, and Amanda have all been  key players in my life over the past ten years.  Find somewhere to cram in Bruno, Gabe, and Erin and you've got pretty much everyone.

Then I came to Korea and stumbled into another great group of friends.  And I was doubly lucky in that most of them stayed a second year.  Without Dana, Dave, Laura, Chrissy, Julia, Jamie, Erich, Shannon, and Derek I'd probably lose my mind here.  Julia, Brigid, and Ayzia also belong in this picture for their major influence on my first year, but those silly geese decided to go home early.  Diana is also conspicuously absent (from the picture but not my heart!).

My Education
As a strong and vocal supporter of education, I know exactly how blessed I was to attend well-funded, challenging schools with dedicated and creative teachers.  From my formative years at Holy Trinity (where I learned to love school), straight through the hellish years of high school in the science and tech program at Roosevelt (where I learned to hate attending classes), I was exposed to a lot and learned a ton of (questionably useful) stuff.  Then I went to Marywood, where I truly got to know who I was and flourish in a fantastic, supportive, environment.  The people I met, the organizations I participated in, and the places I served all had a lasting impact on me.

Love Electric Mary and the arch, especially with fall colors behind it.

While we are talking about being thankful for education, I'd be remiss not to throw out another little shout out for Pencils of Promise.  This year they're starting a new initiative called Season of 1,000 Promises and their goal is to get 1,000 people agree to sponsor a student's education for $10 a month.  It's such a tiny commitment that has the power to make huge, lasting changes in a child's life.  Not to mention that child's family and future offspring.  PoP is an amazing organization (while you're on the site you might as well click around and learn more about their spectacular schools in Laos and Nicaragua), but they can only do it with your help.  So consider making a promise this season...I already made mine!

Semester at Sea
I don't have the space (or appropriate words) to express how deeply the Semester at Sea program has affected my life.  I knew from the moment that we pulled away from the docks on that rainy, cold January morning that SAS would always be with me, and it's true.  SAS has helped shape me into the person I am today, and given me some incredible experiences I wouldn't have had the opportunity partake in otherwise.  The only thing stronger than the memories I brought home are the bonds and friendships I'll forever share with my shipmates.  Simply, SAS is love.  I am forever thankful that my parents allowed/encouraged (depending on the day) me to go and have such a stellar experience. Every moment- from standing in breathless awe on the Great Wall, to crying as I volunteered in the orphanage in India, to sitting in the hall for six hours in my life jacket (watching the waves slip up onto the fifth deck), and getting the chills when looking up at the the insanely starry sky that night they turned off all the lights in the middle of the Atlantic- is permanently ingrained in my heart.

I was actually talking about high school and university the other day with Diana and it really made me think about what an impact SAS really had on me.  My grades coming out of high school were pretty terrible, namely because I didn't go to class.  I went to school...but not to class.  Special, I know.  Then I got to college and the first semester I was still a mess.  I ended up with a 1.42 GPA.  Life lesson: a low GPA is a lot harder to bring up than a high GPA is to bring down.  The school threatened my scholarships, my mom probably threatened my life, but the single biggest motivator for me to go to class and do well was a poster for SAS hanging in our student center.  After finding out that I needed a 2.5 GPA, I worked hard to make it happen.  Spring semester of my freshman year yielded very different grades, because I now had something I was working towards.  By the time I came back from SAS I was changed...I didn't want to squander the educational opportunities I had been given when so many others weren't.  So I went to class, I worked hard, and I graduated with a 3.49 GPA.  Moral of the story...SAS very well might have kept me in school and definitely had a hand in getting me to Korea and most of the other places I've traveled.

Home away from home: the MV Explorer.

My Job
Teaching can be a stressful, exhausting, thankless job.  Don't even get me started on how little teachers are paid (universally) for the job that we're doing.  But when it comes down to it, I love what I do.  I love working with kids every day and being someone who helps them make progress and overcome various challenges.  Working at Hilltop was eye opening for sure, and it introduced me to some great friends with whom I share a million hilarious inside jokes and memories.  The kids there left a lasting impression on me, and sometimes I find myself randomly wondering how Demari and Jonathan are doing in middle school, whether Gunner still looks forward to earning buses each day, and if that absolutely insane little girl is keeping Charlita and Debbie on their toes.  Though I was often made miserable by the absurd expectations and ridiculous bureaucracy, I loved those kids. 

Hilltop's fifth grade class of 2009.  What a colorful crew.

And then I set off for Korea.  Though sometimes this country drives me bat shit crazy, I really do love it here.  Korea has forced me to grow up in a lot of ways and really see what it's like to be living completely on my own.  Though there are things about Korea I'll never understand (too many to list), there are lots of things I love.  I love that every single day, no matter how stressful, a kid or adult says something to make me laugh.  I love that I get to explore new places in this country and go to fascinating festivals.  I love the easy access I have to the rest of Asia.  In the two years I've been here I will have gone to 8 new countries (South Korea, North Korea- DMZ COUNTS, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Indonesia).  I love that somehow, almost imperceptibly, the country has become know how you can bad mouth your brother all you want, but as soon as someone says something negative about him you get all defensive?  Yeah, that's me and Korea.  Just ask Diana....she likes Japan better, haha.   

I am sure the next six months will fly by and before I know it I'll be back at home getting ready for grad school.  As it stands I can barely believe I've been here nearly 16 months already!

This still ranks as one of my favorite photos of my entire stay here.

I promise that very very soon I'll have a real update about the (little) that has been going on in my life, including Christmas and New Years festivities and a trip to the Blue House (Korean equivalent of the White House).  I hope you all sail happily into 2011 and that it is filled with love and happiness for you and all you care about.  Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Top 10 Countries I'd Live to Visit!

This is my 99th post on this blog!    That is pretty crazy if you ask me, especially since I write so damn much.I was going to save this post for number 100 and have my Thanksgiving post first, but then I realized that the things I'm thankful for (in Korea and abroad) deserve the glory of the milestone post, so I did a little switcheroo.  I wanted to steal an idea from Chris over at Aussie on the Road and make a top 10 list of places I'd like to go.  I've been ridiculously privileged so far in my life, having already visited 23 countries.  Semester at Sea obviously played a big part in that (9 countries), but travelling with family (5 countries), Girl Scouts (3 countries), and friends (6 countries) has provided me with many wonderful experiences as well.  However, as per usual, its not enough!  There are so many amazing places in the world that I can't wait to explore.  In January I'm going to Taiwan, and in February I plan to visit two more countries (Malaysia and Indonesia), bringing my total to 26 countries in 25 years.  I hope to keep my count up by visiting at least one new country each year for as long as I am able!

So here is my list.  The hardest parts were narrowing it down to only 10 and putting them in order.

10. Greece

Tons of history, stunning blue water, beautiful architecture...I mean you really can't go wrong.  Especially since I've gotten over my fear of unfamiliar foods (and then some, haha) and I'd be willing to eat random things wrapped in grape leaves.  Um...and baklava?  Totally worth the trip.

9. Croatia

From all I've heard, Croatia is an absolute gem that is almost always overlooked.  With great beaches, unique experiences, and a strong cultural history, Croatia is so unknown to most people that you'd probably get a bunch of screwed up faces and questions like "You're going...where?"  But isn't that half the fun of travel?

8. Finland 
(especially in winter)

I love snow.  Especially when I don't have to be in charge of clearing it.  Finland is a great winter destination because in addition to having tons of attractions like dog sledding and ice hotels, you can also see the Northern Lights during their ultra-long nights.  

7. Iceland

Blame it on the Girl Scouts.  When I was in high school we worked the Goodwill Embassy Tours (which I just learned were cancelled after 9/11, which is a damn shame because it was such an awesome idea).  Basically embassies, consulates and residences along Embassy Row in DC would open their doors and provide tours, cultural demonstrations, etc.  One year I worked at the Icelandic Embassy and got to hang out with the ambassador's wife all day.  Iceland captured my fancy then and has yet to release it.  Hot springs and the Northern Lights in a country whose people are consistently ranked one of the happiest in the world?  Awesome.

6. Egypt

I mean, obviously.  For any history lover, Egypt pretty much has to make the list.  Add to that great experiences people I know have had there (Casey studying abroad there during university, and my grandmother's cousin Shirley teaching there after university- just like me teaching in Seoul!- but quite a few years before my time) have really inspired my desire to visit Egypt.  I could do without the camels, but I would love to volunteer there as well as soaking up some history.

5. Chile

Miners and earthquakes aside, I've always heard only positive things about Chile.  Breathtaking scenery, lovely people, cheap steaks, amazing wine...all of these things are high on my list of "Awesome Country Attributes".  I love mountains and the Andes are hard to beat.  Also, the idea of getting to go all the way down to the weeeeee little tip of South America is very cool to me.  Plus then I could just hop on a boat and hit up that pesky Antarctica!

4. Turkey

No one has ever, EVER, said anything negative about Turkey.  No, seriously.  Ask around.  Everyone who has ever been there left with totally fond memories and will laud this country as one of their favorites.  There is something about Turkey that draws people and enthralls them.  Busy street markets, a beautiful blend of eastern and western cultures (it is one of only a handful of countries that literally reside in two continents) and some of arguably the most beautiful buildings in the world are a good enough draw for me!

3. Mongolia

Mongolia is just a fascinating country to me. I don't know when it started for sure...but if I had to cite the first time I remember really wanting to go was while I watched Ewan McGregor and his friend ride their motorcycles through Mongolia on their documentary Long Way Round.  Ewan McGregor's hotness aside, I was struck by how welcoming the people were, the vibrancy of their culture, and the fact that they had survived so long on those crazy, windswept mountains and valleys.  Plus I wouldn't mind catching some of their strange (and fiercely competitive) traditional games involving animals bones, horseback riding, and skillful archery challenges.

2. New Zealand

Why is this whole country so gorgeous?!  Seriously, I bet you have no idea how many movies have been filmed in New Zealand to take advantage of their wide open spaces and beautiful natural backdrops.  Add to this that they speak English (though some might rightly argue that it is definitely a foreign language when compared to American English) and you're in heaven!  I am also absolutely enamored with the Maori people and their strong defense of their native lands and traditions.  If you haven't seen the movie Whale Rider, you should.  It's lovely.  Also, just FYI, I could watch those guys dancing the haka any day of the week.

1. The Maldives

The Maldives are the actual definition of a disappearing paradise.  This chain of approximately 1,190 (!) islands is the lowest nation in the world.  It's highest point is 2.3m above sea level, while the average is 1.5m.  This is a problem if, oh, say the SEA IS RISING thanks to global warming.  These islands are incredible with a extreme biodiversity in the ocean and some of the most stunning hotels I've ever seen.  I want to gooooo!

Honorable Mentions:

So, now it's your turn.  What are the top 10 countries YOU want to visit?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Thoughts on North Korea!

First and foremost, know that I'm fine.  The bombing that took place was many kilometers of open ocean and dense city away from where I live.  This picture shows how far away Yeonpyeong Island is from Seoul.  And keep in mind I am on the far eastern side of Seoul (just ask my brother who bitched about the long commutes to anything in the city EVERY DAY while he was here).

Though this is clearly a significant issue, and should be treated as such, I am a little sick of the foreign media making it sound like everyone over here is cowering in their bomb shelters, because really...its not like that.  Every day I read news articles from CNN and BBC that make things sound significantly more dangerous here than it feels.  Yes, North Korea is pledging to retaliate if the US joins South Korea in military exercises in the Yellow Sea.  No, their words do not carry much weight.  Pyongyang said the exact same thing in July after the US military came over and started running drills after the Cheonan was sunk.  As Fox News says in this article, "The North routinely threatens attacks whenever South Korea and the US hold join military drills, which Pyongyang sees as a rehearsal for an invasion." This is not new.  But you better believe that every time it happens the media reports it like this is something fresh horror.  Moral of the story, Pyongyang talks a really big game, which is almost comically over-dramatic, and everyone can just take a breath.  Tell your mom, friend's sister, cousins, and co-workers that I'm fine, I'm not leaving Korea any time soon, and that I always carry my passport on me in case stuff unexpectedly turns bad.  And I am familiar with where I have to go in case of evacuation, so no worries. 

Now, I am not one to repost political stuff, but I have to say that I was pretty disgusted by Sarah Palin's little "slip" on Glen Beck's radio show last week.  While I agree with the many people who excuse it by noting that anyone could accidentally say North instead of South when saying the sentence "Obviously, we have to stand with our North Korean allies" I would like to think that the majority of us would have immediately CORRECTED OURSELVES.  Instead Palin blithely sailed onward as the host corrected her.  Yes, everyone makes mistakes.  But significantly worse that the mistake itself was her unwillingness to recognize it!  I mean, come on.  Her lack of immediate correction/response leads me to wonder WAS it a mistake? Or does she seriously not know the difference between North and South Korea.  I mean, there are just a few small differences in areas like politics, allies, economy, and...oh yeah...EVERYTHING. Gaah. Also many have brought up the point that the rest of us who may have made the mistake aren't running for president or presenting ourselves as policy experts.  I think this writer basically says it all in his article.  As a resident of South Korea I hope for damn sure that the leaders of ALL nations know the difference between North and South should things turn bad.  Anyway, moving on. 

While all this craziness gives great coverage to that tiny, insane tyrant, Kim Jong Il, it leaves the appalling violation of human rights that occurs daily in North Korea exactly where it has been for years: firmly in the shadows.  I am certain most American's don't really know the extent to which people are suffering in North Korea...I mean I really didn't before coming here.  Sure, we all know "North Korea: Dictatorship + Nuclear Weapons = BAD" but while we might know about the government of the north and their interactions internationally, we pay very little attention to the domestic policies of the North Korean government that leave hundreds of thousands of people starving, living in extreme poverty, and/or serving time in concentration camps.

Over the past week I've spent a few days with a North Korean defector named Chung Hyuk.  He is a student at the University of Seoul, and is in an English class taught by my friend Andrea.  Andrea and I had been friends on Facebook for a while, actually since January when we were supposed to both work on the DHC book project (this was before she had university classes scheduled at the same time and had to give up the project), but we didn't meet until last Saturday.  She's a super passionate and inspiring girl, and I'm excited to have finally met her.  It is clear that she really cares about Chung Hyuk and is dedicated to getting his story out, and helping him in any way she can.

Chung Hyuk escaped North Korea in 2005 at the age of 18.  (Kind of crazy to think that I was disembarking a trip around the world as he was preparing to leave the only life he'd ever known.) He fled the disastrous conditions of North Korea into the disastrous conditions of living in hiding in China.  China does not recognize defectors as refugees, and if they are caught they're sent directly back to the North Korean government.  Best case scenario, they're sent to prison camps for hard labor.  Worst case scenario, they're executed.  Chung Hyuk made is way into Mongolia, illegally crossing yet another country's border, where he was then able to seek asylum at the South Korean embassy.  It was over six months before he was able to actually come to South Korea and join the over 20,000 North Koreans who have defected here.  His story is like that of so many other North Korean refugees- they leave one hell only to find themselves in a whole new, terrible, and dangerous situation.  Here's an insane statistic: 80% of women who escape North Korea into China are sold into the sex trade.  EIGHTY PERCENT.  That is an almost unimaginable number.

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to watch part of a documentary made by a Korean newspaper called the Chosun Ilbo.  It followed the journey of one group of defectors as they fled China in hopes of finding a place where they no longer had to live in fear and hiding.  This group, including a nine-year-old boy, left northern China and board a train for a 3-day trip down to southeastern China.  Once there, they illegally crossed the river border into Laos in the middle of the night.  They had to remain silent as their small boat crossed the fast moving water, lest they arouse the suspicion of the guards posted along the riverbanks.  Once in Laos, their journey was far from over.  They hiked for 18 hours, slipping and sliding up the side of a mountain covered in dense rain forest and down the other.  Finally they arrived in Thailand, where they met another guide who drove them the many hours down winding dirt roads to Bangkok.  It was only once they entered the compound housing the South Korean embassy that they were safe.  Until then they were at the mercy of bounty hunters hired to find and capture those illegally travelling through China, Laos and Thailand.  The story was harrowing, for sure; it sounded like something out a movie.  But the truth is that people do this every day.  They face their fears, and very real risks of imprisonment and death, to seek out a better life.  And, thankfully, some are successful.

Chung Hyuk came here and started studying.  Even though the North Korean education system leaves a lot to be desired, he worked his butt off and took the South Korean college entrance examination.  His scores qualified him to enter the economics program at the University of Seoul.  Unprepared for the rigors of South Korean academics (ESPECIALLY in math), school has definitely been a struggle for him.  But he is an exceptionally hard worker who is very dedicated to bettering himself.  One of the most fascinating things he talked about during the Q&A portion of his speech last week was how difficult it is living in South Korea.  I am sure that worldwide, people find themselves in horrible situations and just think "when I get out of here, everything will be perfect."  While South Korea is certainly a better situation for him to live in, it is still fraught with challenges: fierce competition for jobs, very little monetary support from the government, discrimination, and an educational system that moves at the speed of light.  It is a constant struggle for him, his older brother, and mother (all of whom have defected to South Korea since 2005) to keep their heads above water.  They also have constant worry about his other brother who remains in North Korea.  They have very little contact with him; when they do need to get in touch the word travels through four or five people. In addition to all of this, Chung Hyuk has a side company, which is actually how I met him.  He makes soap.    

After arriving in South Korea, he attended a high school for North Korean defectors.  The principal of this high school is a pastor who has done extensive work both inside and outside of North Korea, attempting to better the lives of people there.  He is friends with the owners of Sem & Soie, an all natural soap/cosmetics/candle manufacturer in Seoul.  The company itself deserves recognition, as well as the couple who run it.  Headed by a female president, the company was started to provide a sheltered workshop-type atmosphere where people with cognitive disabilities could hold a steady job.  They currently employ around fifteen adults with mental disabilities who work there full time to earn a living.  The company uses 100% natural ingredients and makes some really great products.  They worked out a system with Chung Hyuk, allowing him to come in on weekends and make soap.  Any soap that he makes, he is allowed to sell.  Chung Hyuk takes the profits from these sales and donates them to help North Koreans escape Kim Jong Il's brutal regime and find another place to settle.  Two Sundays ago I had the privilege of helping him make soap, along with Andrea and her friend Sabe.

Soaps ready to be packaged up and sent off.

Soaps as far as the eye can see.

Scents scents scents.

We met way up north at Ssangmun Station before heading out on a little tour of the criss-crossing streets and lane-ways that led us to the unassuming Sem & Soie factory.  Nestled on a residential street, the only real clue that it is a factory at all is the wonderful aromas that you can smell from down the street.  It smells so fresh and clean!  We met the owner and after some prolonged discussion about what scent, color, and shape soap we wanted to make it was time to get to work.  Chung Hyuk got the materials all ready and we were off.

The soap mold shapes we decided upon.

Various color choices (we chose the colors of the three bars in the middle- red, pink with red specks, and cream).

Soap making involves a lot of melting and stirring. And then some stirring.  And more stirring.  All in a clockwise circle.  Stirring in a clockwise circle is easy...until someone tells you it can ONLY be clockwise, not counter-clockwise.  Then it takes all your concentration just to keep going in the same direction, haha.  Various ingredients are melted together, copious amounts of scented oils are added, and the temperature is checked about a million times.  Once it has solidified a little, its time to put it into the molds.   These silicone molds are really just like the ones you buy to make fun shaped ice cubes.  Once we had filled up hundreds of fun shaped impressions with soap, we cleaned up and sent our coolers of soap off to one of the cooling rooms.

Chung Hyuk getting us started.

Our ingredients all set up and ready to go.


Andrea stirring.

Stirring as it was still melting.

Stirring my fully melted soap with food coloring.  This one actually turns out to be the cream color!  Crazy.

The owner taking her turn stirring (with Chung Hyuk looking on).

Pouring the soap into the molds.  I was a master at this step.

Continuing their nearly ceaseless acts of kindness, the owner of Sem & Soie and her husband then treated us to lunch.  We had brought food also, which lead to a funny international mod podge- jjajjangmyeon and peanut butter sandwiches, kimchi and Pringles.  We also shared some great conversation about the changes that are happening in South Korea and what the future has in store.  It was just a really nice way to relax  and share our thoughts.  Sometimes the communication got a little sticky, but for the most part we were all able to get our thoughts across.  It was lovely.  After taking some photos and being showered with SWAG (seriously...8 bars of soap, two packages of decorative soap, herbal skin creme, and a deliciously wonderful soy candle) we were on our way.

 Posing with the owner's husband, who provided some incredibly thought provoking conversation over lunch.

I am pretty sure I could train my dog Rusty to take a better picture than the woman who took this shot.  Out of four pictures, on two cameras, this was the BEST.  Aigh.

Chung Hyuk with the owner of Sem & Soie and her husband.

I got to see Andrea and Chung Hyuk again on Thursday (Thanksgiving), when I left school early and met Dana to go hear him speak at the University of Seoul.  We trekked all the way up north (and it is a trek...I hate Line 1 AND the Jungang Line) and found our way to the S Cafe.  It was  really great turn out of people, so that was wonderful.  First we watched part of the Chosun Ilbo documentary I mentioned before, and then Chung Hyuk told some of his story through translators.  After that the floor was opened for Q&A session which really brought a bunch of information about his past to light.  At the end Andrea thanked everyone for coming and sold some soap.  

Chung Hyuk speaking at S Cafe at the University of Seoul.  Thank you, Andrea, for setting this up.

We will be going back to make some more soap on Saturday, December 11.  If you are in Seoul and interested in joining us, please let me know.  Chung Hyuk is a quiet, dedicated, nice boy who is a pleasure to meet and help.  The more we help him, the more he can help others.  And isn't that what the holiday season is all about?

I wanted to share a few short videos that give a bit of background to what I've been saying, or simply underscore some points I've made.  The first was made by LiNK, or Liberty in North Korea, an American based North Korean support group.  It really made me think when I saw the other day, and it is worth a watch.  Plus I really appreciate their message about what you can do to help the situation: get educated, and educate others.

Second is a video that was made in 2007.  While it is slightly out of date (the numbers are only higher now), it gives good insight into what it is like to live in China after escaping North Korea.