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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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He was driving me with his windows down, arm out the window, when a white Audi pulled up to him and asked him for directions. The driver answered brusquely and let the guy drive ahead. Then he closed his windows and turned to me and said:

“That guy knew where he was going.”

“Then why did he ask you?”

“Maybe he just wanted to talk to me.”

“Because you had your window open?”

I didn’t know whose hypothesis was crazier, his or mine, but he didn’t say anything. Equal parts confused and unsatisfied, I looked down and went back to kakao-ing my friend.

“Whatcha doing on your smart phone there?”

“Oh, just talking to my friend.”

“You know, I write things online. A lot of people read my writings.”

Oh dear.

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My best friend is in law school and he generally dislikes it. When he’s not studying, he gets stoned and writes me lengthy emails about his pot-induced epiphanies, rating each one on a “highness” scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the “highest” he thinks he could get. Whenever the rating exceeds 5, I am wary, because the higher he is, the more insipid the contents.

His most recent email, however, was different and strangely enough, unrated. It was autobiographical, and it made me feel things: concern, curiosity, potential. There was potential for some kind of discovery there.

In it, he presented an argument for his self-diagnosed identity crisis that went more or less like this: I am my accomplishments. I lose my potential accomplishments to competitors more successful than I. And when I do, I lose myself.

Instead of pursuing his dreams, he becomes reclusive and spends most nights smoking up and experimenting with his drugs. Averaging only 3 to 4 hours of sleep a day, he lives on various substances that keep him awake.

He’s actually successful in his studies and career — he’d pass for any respectable law student — but as with most of us, he feels something lacking.

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I’ve been seeing different doctors about my neck problems, and the more doctors I see, the worse the news gets.

Today was particularly devastating. He looked at my x-rays from the previous hospitals and asked me why I’d waited this long to get treatment. “Didn’t you feel pain in your neck and shoulders?” And I said no, not at all. I just have these headaches… But then he said that it must’ve taken about five years for my neck to get this bad. Five years…

Five years ago, I was in college. I struggled almost daily with shoulder pain, but I chalked it up to stress (because my mom gets pain in her shoulders with stress, too) and didn’t do anything about it. The pain wasn’t too bad, and I was too focused on schoolwork to take care of myself.

And therein lies the problem. I was constantly bent over books and absorbed in computer screens. Ever since junior high, my parents told me to fix my posture and stretch once in a while, but I ignored them, never once thinking that my cervical spine would bend forward like it is now.

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It’s been three months now since I’ve been unemployed, and I’ve fallen into strange habits, a new pattern of day-to-day living.

On bad days, I’m down and dejected with no hope of finding a job. I wallow, hole up in my apartment, and eat poorly.

On good days, I spin Regina Spektor albums and work at home, breeze and sunshine trailing in from my open window. At night, as my writing wraps up, I light some incense and unwind with a nightcap and cigarette.

You might say I’m “living the life,” working so comfortably and not (yet) worrying about money. But it’s more like I’ve found a way to enjoy hermit life, because I can’t afford to go out and spend.

So the fun I have in my head, the drinks I enjoy by myself. Making playlists for solitary work and imaginary parties has become my new hobby. Sometimes I procrastinate and dance by myself.

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Exactly two weeks ago, I wrote this:

67 applications, 10 interviews, 9 hours of testing, 3 rejections, and 2 offers later, I finally have a job.

Often discouraging and sometimes insulting, this job search has been a merciless test of my resolve and patience. Over the past five weeks, I’ve been judged, criticized, disrespected, manipulated, and lied to, but none of it matters anymore because after all of that, I’ve landed my first choice job.

After today’s final interview at that job, I was promised that good news would be delivered to me within the day. I had dinner in my neighborhood, talked to my best friend, and came home. Once I was in my apartment, all the tension dissolved and I cried. It had been so hard.

And then I stopped writing because I knew there was still a chance that I might not get the job. But I also knew the Vice President wouldn’t make such a promise lightly, so I kept my hopes up and stopped looking for more jobs (mostly out of sheer exhaustion, not confidence). I waited all afternoon and evening that day for the promised email, but 8 o’clock rolled around and it still hadn’t come and I had to leave for a date. Throughout the date, I checked my phone every time it vibrated. Still no email. I kept the above writing in my drafts and waited some more. A lot more.

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“Walter wants to start a new business?”

“Yeah.”

“What kind?”

“Liquor.”

“Why?”

“He wants to make more money.”

“How do you know that?”

“He told me.”

This is what my new student told me today, that a character in a play spoke to him.

I’ve started teaching part-time again. A US boarding school student is in Korea for spring break, and I was asked to teach him two books over the next two and half weeks. Short-term privates somehow always turn out to be the best, unfortunately; when they end after that brief, predetermined period, I get sad. I get sad just like a child who wishes the fun didn’t have to stop.

I was startled as soon as he started speaking to me for the first time. There was a nervous air about him; he spoke quickly and voiced every small concern that occurred to him or bothered him or entertained him. He even muttered predicted problems as he worked.

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