There is only one person I’ve ever met that could give me unsolicited advice and get away with it.

“I noticed you haven’t been yourself lately. Is everything okay?”

I’d say I’m fine, what do you mean I’ve been different, nothing’s wrong.

Three bottles of soju later, and he’s ladling 김치찌개 into my 앞접시 and I’m telling him how much it hurts me when students let me down. He’s telling me whether I realize it or not, my words are hurting them.

“Think of how much confidence a student has to work up to walk into the teachers’ office and tell you that he forgot his homework,” he tells me. “And you immediately shoot them down, not allowing them a chance to explain or giving them the benefit of the doubt.”

He’s right. I have nothing to say.

And then he says to me, in the gentlest and most loving way, “I know how much you care about them. But I care about you, too, and I want others to see you, to recognize you as the generous person that you are. Because if they see that, they’ll appreciate your passion so much more.”

Even to this day, in moments of doubt or crises of faith, I think of Peter and ask myself, “What would Peter have to say about this?” And it doesn’t matter that I can’t talk to him because he’s an ocean away and not here to ladle soup into my bowl. I know him well enough to know what his answer would be, and to know him this way, I am lucky.

— —

In one small part of Hoengseong, a county in Gangwondo normally famous for Korean beef, is a coal-burning neighborhood gaining a following of locals and tourists alike for its charcoal kiln “saunas.” This town, called Podong-ri, does not have much besides mountains, and its residents seem to depend mostly on cham soot (참숯, natural charcoal) sales for revenue.

On our way to beef town, my family and I got lost and ended up on a road with two charcoal burning sites, one on each side of the road. The one on the left had a sign reading, “오늘 찜질 하는 곳” (“Sauna open today”) with an arrow pointing downhill, where the kilns were busy burning, puffing dense, grey smoke into the air.

It was almost dinner time when we arrived, so we booked one of the rooms nearby to stay the night and check out these saunas in the morning. The lady who gave us our keys explained that the kilns will be burning all night at anywhere from 1300 to 1700 degrees Celsius and that a few of them will be cleared out by morning for people to go inside and jjimjil (찜질, or sweat in a sauna) in the residual heat. The next morning, 강원참숯 (Gangwon Cham Soot) was to open its soot gama (숯가마, charcoal kilns) for sauna use.

 

kilns

kilns supplies

kilns people

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I think it’s safe to say that the general public does not quite understand what PR really is, how it’s different from marketing/advertising, and what it means to “do PR” in today’s day and age. Younger people might have an inkling; they are exposed to PR content all over the web. Good PR is supposed to be undetectable, but I’m sure they pick up on some of the more poorly crafted/delivered messages. And then there’s media portrayals of PR. Many firms’ CEOs have told me that a lot of young women get themselves a job in PR after watching how “cool” it looks on Sex and the City. Then they quit after realizing that working in PR is nothing at all like living Samantha’s life. (I’ve never watched the show, but I can imagine the portrayal.)

The biggest thing I’ve learned in the past few days is the lesser known truth about what makes PR such a demanding job. What happens behind the scenes (and almost everything in PR happens behind the scenes) is more human and honest than any outsider might imagine. As a PR professional in the creative function, you are expected to create/distribute/promote content that captures people’s attention, engages them in conversation, and makes a big enough impression on them to be shared and remembered. Only content that resonates on a human level can achieve this, and only people that truly love to connect with others can create that kind of content, as far as I can tell.

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I’ve been running my new business for about 10 days now, and while things are going okay for the most part, it’s undeniably a struggle. I’m noticing that I’m already changing in ways I didn’t expect.

When you start a business for the first time…

1. You become distrustful of everybody. People mess up. People lie. People neglect to do things or tell you things, on purpose or by mistake. And these human flaws become more apparent and frightening because they affect your business. When you work for somebody, you mostly just have to look out for yourself. But when others are working for you, it could just as easily be their actions that get you into trouble as your own.

2. You become more self-involved. You become a talker. You turn into a 24/7 salesman. Everything you talk about revolves around you and your business, because it’s all you ever think about. As your work consumes your life more and more, there remains less room in your heart for other people.

3. But at the same time (and maybe because of that), you get lonely. There are decisions that need to be made every day, all of which ultimately have to be made by you. You need to maintain composure and confidence in all professional communication and even personal communication that could have a stake in your business (which can amount to quite a bit). The distractions of your working hours might keep general loneliness at bay but at the end of the day, you crave that much more to have that someone around whom you can completely let down your guard.

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When I met André, I was barely making ends meet, with only a few freelance jobs helping me pay my rent. The only thing that kept me going was the spring air. It’s been almost two years since then, and André’s back for a visit. And I am again on the hunt for a new job. It seems I can’t make it a year without creating significant changes in my life. I guess that part of me is still the same, but when I meet André this weekend, he’ll see that I’ve changed.

Two years ago, I was still a fool. It’s almost too embarrassing to write about what kind of person I was then. In some ways, I feel myself getting weaker. I never settle — I still strive for more, I still work hard and play hard — but there are yoga poses I could pull off last year that I can’t anymore. I can’t drink as much. I find myself leaving clubs earlier or not going at all, choosing instead to stay in, cook a light dinner, and watch Buzzfeed videos. I look through drafts I wrote about my colorful twenties life, posts about not giving a shit about a lot of things. Posts about drinking to feel, self-medicating to not feel, seeking immediate gratification in various forms. The rational decisions I would make from time to time just to keep my life on track.

I read these things, and I don’t identify with it anymore. That pseudo-reckless lifestyle of a bourgeois girl who takes controlled doses of danger once in a while to make up for the monotony of her day-to-day life. So who am I now? I don’t know, and I don’t think it really matters. I just… know that I like who I’ve grown into, and I really like the people in my life. One thing that will never change about me is my love of people, and I hope to meet many more, even ones as maddening and incorrigible as André.

There are days when I think of Arashiyama. The water was warm as I stepped in, toes slipping on mossy rocks. I waded deeper, dodging boulders, my blue shirt floating around me. The fog wrapped around the mountains, and tiny raindrops fell, invisible in the blackness, murmuring a soft tune over the water.

You took off your trunks and swam naked in the night river; Jack sat on the pebbled shore, our sandals and clothes scattered about him. A boatful of tourists floated our way, with Japanese men lighting torches and fish-swallowing birds performing tricks to loud, enthusiastic applause. Balls of fire illuminated the dark green water, and we hid in a bank canopied with willows.

And I remember the hill in Nara. We climbed fences and endless steps to the top, treading on deer dung, drenched in sweat.

“How much further, Chris?”

“Just be patient. And don’t look back.”

(I looked back when he wasn’t looking.)

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[This is a story that was straddling two languages: Korean and English. I’m still not sure which language suits it best, but the Korean translation is in progress. If you want to collaborate with me on it or have general feedback, please let me know.]

Little ant climbed to the top of the anthill. A grain of sand rolled down with her final footfall. Big ant sat waiting at the summit. Little ant panted, “You’re here.” Big ant smiled.

Big ant looked at little ant. He hadn’t seen her in a while. Just yesterday, he had been wondering how she was. Little ant dropped her satchel on the sand and plopped down next to him. He could hear her little breathing slow. Slow to a steady bloom. In, out. Puff, puff.

He stretched out his legs and let out a groan. “What took you so long? I got here an hour ago.”

“Sorry, I got distracted.”

“What was it this time?”

“There was a circle of pigeons.”

“And?”

“It was a circle. I was curious.”

“Well, was there something inside the circle? What were they looking at?”

“Nothing. They were just pecking at a scattering of crumbs.”

He looked at her. “Seriously? You know, you could’ve gotten hurt.”

“They looked friendly.”

“Of course. All right, so what have you got?”

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A fortune teller once told me,
“Stay silent and you’ll regret it.”
Except Fortune Teller didn’t know
that I don’t regret
that I don’t believe in mistakes

Fortune came
with a weird boy on New Year’s Eve
He was in black, I was in blue
He could feel me

In the company of old friends
Fortune came
bringing warm, sweaty cheer under its arms
a celebration of something or other
We didn’t understand

And on the drunken countdown
I lit his sparkler and mine
He held my drink, she smiled at us
I wished for what I wanted

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Some time ago, I was living in a blue, underwater kingdom of kings and queens and delightful creatures. It was quiet as long as citizens kept traffic to a minimum and restrained from using bubbles irresponsibly. It was civil, not because civility was enforced, but because no one had reason to act out.

The royal guards lined up to salute the king and queen. Trumpets were raised, and the queen, as graceful as ever, smiled at each and every one of her loyal guards. Her name was Geraldine, and I liked her. Queen Geraldine once told me, “Sarah, don’t let anyone tell you to doubt your feelings.”

“What feelings, Queen Geraldine?”

“Your feelings about anything.”

And I got a funny feeling one day that told me the kingdom was changing. I saw it in the blinking shadow of a jealous eye. I saw it in a little girl’s betrayal of her best friend. I saw it in a man’s refusal of all the things that made him uncomfortable.

——

A few months ago, I went to a doctor, knowing that I needed treatment for a worsening condition. He gave me a temporary diagnosis, informing me that it would take at least a few more visits for him to figure out exactly what’s going on.

Since that first visit, I’ve been going through two-week trials of various drugs prescribed to ease my symptoms. Some provide immediate relief and others require more of a commitment, taking at least a month’s use to start showing effects.

I don’t like the idea of waking up each morning and taking a pill, keeping other pills on hand during the day for emergencies, and taking yet another pill before going to bed. People have started calling me a pill popper, a label I can’t even protest because it’s true: I have become a pill popper.

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