When I moved to Asia last fall, I had literally no idea what adventures awaited me. Let’s just say 2016 did not disappoint and was, without question, the greatest year of my life so far. The places I’ve been, things I’ve seen, and people I’ve met have showed me just how beautiful this world, and this life, can be. It hasn’t always been an easy ride, but nothing worthwhile ever is. The truth is, I should have been writing and posting updates all year… but I’ve been known to be a bit of a procrastinator. Instead, this is a small, overdue recap of the year… and since even the highlight reel is quite lengthy, here’s part 1 of 4 - the end of winter and the coming of spring.
I spent the last days of 2015 riding around in tuk-tuks instead of taxis and soaking up the sun on the beaches of Thailand. I drove an ATV up to the Big Buddha in Phuket, played with elephants, and lost bets on Muay Thai boxing matches on Bangla Road. New Year’s was spent exploring the Phi Phi Islands. My friend from university teaches in Thailand, so we made the trip from Bangkok to the islands together. He’s as up for anything as I am, so, on a whim, we decided to start celebrating 2016 early on a New Year’s Eve Booze Criuse. Captain Bob’s Booze Cruise was an awesome time, and though I’m genuinely surprised that we all survived the day to ring in the new year, I would absolutely do it again.
The first few hours of the 2016 were spent dancing on the beach, watching fireworks explode directly over my head, sipping rum buckets, getting covered in neon glow paint by tattooed Aussies, and, later, smooching said hot tattooed Aussies.
As the night went on and dawn drew near, the streets of Ko Phi Phi Don transformed from a lively, happy-go-lucky celebration to an all-out war zone. After witnessing what I’d equate to a modern day, rum bucket induced war-zone (literally - blood was shed), hot Aussie and I decided to grab a slice of pizza and call it a night. As luck would have it, my friend from uni had hit it off quite well with tattooed Aussie’s sister, and we ended up hanging out with them for the rest of the trip.
As with any trip, Thailand had it's ups and downs. Our bungalow in Ko Phi Phi had bed bugs, so, within a day, I was absolutely COVERED in bug bites. This was an important lesson for me in the expectations versus realities of travel. When traveling to a new place, you've got to remember that you're not SUPPOSED to feel comfortable there. If foreign places felt just like home, there'd be no point in going. If you want a real and raw experience, skip the five star hotel and book the $5 bungalow with the broken mosquito net and no aircon... and when the bug bites become unmanagable, splurge another $10 bucks for a bed in a hostel. (Side note: If you ever find yourself on Ko Phi Phi Don, be careful swimming at the beach on the Slinky's side of the island. My friend picked up this literal cleaver with his foot.)
When it was time to go back to the winter tundra that is Korea, I couldn’t have been more bummed. After a week of messy buns and no makeup, I winced at the thought of returning to the plastic surgery, rice powder compact capital of the world. As if on cue, when the plane landed in Seoul, I found myself surrounded by teeny cute Korean girls all whipping out their compacts and powdering their noses.
The rest of January is a bit of a blur. Not much else was going on once I got back to Korea… except for a wicked case of the post-tropical vacation blues. I went from being in a bikini on the beach to wearing layers indoors, and it was a really sad time. To beat said post-vaca blues, I decided to join my friend for Muay Thai classes. It both reminded me of Thailand and made me feel like a bad ass.
It was really hard to get back in the swing of things after having such an epic winter holiday. It was cold and I was ready for another vacation. Thankfully, with Lunar New Year in early February, it wasn’t long ‘til I got one. Though it wasn’t to a tropical island, it was my first time visiting Tokyo, Japan, the world’s largest city.
My friend Nicole and I met each other in the city for what was a whirlwind weekend of temples, sushi, weird underground clubs, and unexpected blizzards. Nicole arrived at the hostel the day before me, so she’d already met a hand full of people by the time I arrived. Apparently, everyone had headed out to a club that was *air quotes* "The BIGGEST club in Tokyoooo” *end air quotes*. The air quotes are totally necessary here because, though this club was sizeable, it was not worth the arm and a leg we spent on cabs to get there, to get in, to get a slight buzz, and to get back.
It’s true what they say about taxis in Japan. They are outrageously expensive, and you shouldn’t take one unless you absolutely have to. I literally blew a quarter, if not more, of my entire holiday budget on going out that ONE night… and it was so not worth it. So if anyone tries to trick you in to a night out at *The Biggest Club in Tokyooooo* say no… every time.
The rest of the trip flew by in a blur, as we tried to experience as many of Tokyo’s hot spots as possible. I went to Hooters in Shinjuku at 8am on a Monday morning to watch the Carolina Panthers, my home team, TOTALLY stop pounding against the Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
We tried and failed to see Mount Fuji. The bus ride to the mountain was beautiful, but, as soon as we arrived, it started to blizzard and Fuji was literally nowhere to be seen. I settled for making a mini snowman instead, but I am still not convinced the mountain is a real thing. I elf-style hopped across Shibuya Crossing, the world’s busiest crosswalk, and got attacked by pigeons at Tokyo Tower. Above all else, I stuffed myself with all of the fresh, delicious sushi and sake that I could handle. Overall, I had a kick ass time.
For the rest of February, work was work, and as if one work wasn’t enough, I picked up a second job. Three times a week, I’d go straight from my hagwon job to the subway station, ride for nearly half an hour, then have a 90-minute tutoring session on the other side of the city. Most nights, I was lucky to make it in the door of my apartment by 10:30pm. The 14-hour work days were absolutely brutal, and my workouts and healthy eating habits went totally out the window… but these plane tickets don’t pay for themselves, y’all (and neither did the 10 fish and tank that I made the margarita influenced decision to purchase. In fairness, I just wanted ONE glow in the dark fish named Jimi Hendrix, but he and the tank came with 9 friends - Yes, I know. I am very good at adulting).
At the end of February, the school year ended, many students graduated, and there was a mass exodus of colleagues who were moving home or to jobs at different schools. The preparation for the beginning of a new school year began, and so did that shit storm that comes with any transition period.
When we were given our schedules for the new school year, I was devastated to find out I wouldn’t be teaching my class of eight, adorable 5-year-old girls, aka the Disney Princesses. I didn’t think I could possibly love any group of students more, but, my god, I was SO wrong. Cue Beethoven class. My kindergarten homeroom class, and the most adorable little group of rug rats you’ve ever seen. A couple months in to teaching these kids, and I'd decided to extend my contract for the rest of the school year. I mean, look at em though! Can you blame me?
When the year started, they didn’t speak a lick of English, either because they didn’t know what to say or were too afraid of to talk. Some of them didn’t know their English name, and part of my morning routine became reminding a few of them… but mostly just David. I’d say, “David, open your book… David… David…” *No response* “…David…” Then I’d crouch down in front of David, look him dead in the eye, and repeat, “David, your name is David.”
Believe it or not, David was lucky... because some of them didn’t even HAVE English names. One parent even asked me to choose for them! When given the choice between Chloe and Emma, I picked Emma. I’ve gotta say, it feels strange to have had such power.
The month of March was really hard. It was filled with blank stares, tears, and lots of little babes blubbering things in Korean that I didn’t understand. Imagine how hard it is for kids to leave their parents and go to school for the first time. Then consider that these kids were going to a school where they would be spoken to, almost entirely, in a language they didn’t know yet - Pretty scary stuff for a five-year-old.
The first section in our Language Arts textbook, (yes, LANGUAGE ARTS – and TEXTBOOKS– for freakin’ five year olds), was “writing your name” and “cutting out teeny, tiny, miniscule, way too small shapes.” I suppose what the creators of this particular book hadn’t quite considered is that a lot of these kids had not yet learned the letters of the alphabet… and that they definitely didn’t know how to use scissors. It was tough keeping up with the units while simultaneously trying to catch the kids up from square one, dry their tears, and keep them from chopping off their fingers, and/or gluing their hands together.
In the beginning, Brian, my shyest student, either because he despised kindergarten or had no clue what was going on, absolutely refused to pick up a pencil or crayon to complete his assignments. Every day, I would calmly coax him in to choosing his favorite crayon… a tactic that only worked 60% of the time. The other 40%,I’d have to pry his tiny, clasped fingers apart and put the crayon in his hand myself.
It was on one of these days that Miss Joy, our most frantic and frazzled Korean teacher, came running into our classroom urgently needing my co-teacher to write something down. Of all the writing utensils in the room… of all the writing utensils in the school… of all the writing utensils on the peninsula of Korea and the rest of the surrounding free world, she TOOK THE BLUE CRAYON OUT. OF. BRIAN’S. HAND. Confused, as he had been in the middle of doing his work when the crayon was snatched from him, poor Brian began to cry… and I’ll tell ya what, I almost did too.
Looking back on these early Beethoven class days is almost laughable now. The scared, sad, and silent little nuggets have learned so much, (today they learned CONSTELLATIONS for cryin' out loud), and, now, I literally cannot get them to stop talking. As long as they’re using English, I really don’t mind their incessant chatter because learning English is the whole point, right? (My bosses and co-teacher would probably disagree).
The remainder of March was spent de-thawing my frozen body, recovering from a hellishly long, freezing winter, and planning what would become an epically busy spring and summer. Baseball season was back - and with a BYOB policy, you bet I hit that up.
It was in April that I was finally able to fully retire my big winter coat (that I had only worn half a dozen times prior to Korea) in favor of my lighter, more trendy, leather jacket. I was so pumped to be able to spend time outside, and, with cherry blossom season in full effect, it was an absolutely beautiful time of year. April was the month of festivals, all celebrating what seemed to be spring’s long overdue arrival - The first of which was the Cherry Blossom Festival.
The Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival, or selfie stick festival, was pretty cool once you got past the hordes of tourists with their tripods and selfie sticks. It was beautiful… but I was most excited for the festival that followed in Busan, Korea’s second largest city, and a beautiful beach town in the south of the peninsula.
Busan’s Haeundae Beach was the venue for an epically colorful Holi Hai festival. It surely doesn’t come close to the celebration in India, but, given that it was hosted by an organization called India in Korea, it goes without saying that it was pretty damn legit. There were authentic Samosas and the Holi colors had come straight from India.
We all started the day with very tame, well-planned, and carefully drawn face-paints, but, as the day commenced, our once calculated attempts at color application became laughable. After a few hours of throwing Holi colors, downing bottles of soju, and smearing actual paint all over strangers at the beach, everyone looked as if a rainbow had thrown up on us.
While dancing on the beach that day I made new friends from all over Korea, Morocco, Spain, France, and, of course, India. This festival reminded me of the pure, raw beauty of this world. We were all strangers united by a common celebration – the hope for a beautiful spring. It was such a beautiful, HAPPY celebration that I was so glad to have been a part of.
A couple weekends later, I attended the Sea Parting Festival in Jindo, South Korea, which, you guessed it, celebrated the literal parting of the sea. This phenomenon, which happens each year, and allows festival goers to make like Moses and walk to a nearby island. Exhausted from an overnight, cross country ride, we all groggily stumbled off the bus, put on galoshes, grabbed torches, and attempted to walk to the island at dusk. People who started walking really early made it all the way to the island and back, but others had to be “saved” by ocean rescue teams. My coworker Stephanie and I were almost among the latter, but instead were with the many who turned back at the sound of a very concerning alarm... and then struggled against the rising tide to get out of the water. I found a starfish, and then went to take a nap.
April was an extremely busy month, but I’m so happy I made it that way. I was still working two jobs during the week, and every weekend was packed with things to do. I had little to no downtime, but wouldn’t trade these epic, once in a life time experiences for anything.