In Korea, all young girls learn to color their nails with the balsam flower (called 봉숭아 or 봉선화 in Korean), when they bloom in bright shades of pink and red in the summer. 

You’d pluck the flower petals and mash them with potassium aluminum sulfate (백반) – this used to be easy to come by but not anymore, I think – then lay on the mixture on each of your fingernails. Your mother or some other older and more experienced lady would wrap each of your nails with plastic wrap and tie each “finger bundle” with string. After eagerly waiting, the bundles would be freed, your fingers would be pruny, but after removing the flower mash and washing your hands, your nails would bright and colorful. If the older lady was not very talented, you’d face the misfortune of orange skin around your nails.

If last year was a year of growth, I would say this year was a test of my endurance, patience, and self-assertion.

#1_ New Challenges

After getting comfortable (and jaded) at Weber Shandwick, I started searching for my next challenge. And boy, did I get myself into a massive one. In June I started my new job in marketing. And I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the difficulties I faced during my first few months on the job — the different style of leadership, lack of teamwork (and team members), and of course, the completely new kind of work I was doing.

I still don’t think a marketer can do PR, or that a PR person can do (or be happy doing) marketing. Nonetheless I am at a good place now at my job; I have the hang of things and know now how to solve problems, external and internal. And I really appreciate my boss, my team, and the things I am learning. I learn something new almost every day at my job. Interestingly, I think I am learning more about people than I ever have at work.

#2_ Hitting Rock Bottom (almost)

In September, while I was on a 3-week business trip in Hangzhou, I hit one of the lowest lows I’ve ever hit in my life.

Each time I go to Hangzhou on business, I get sick in one form or another. Usually it’s a cold. But in September, from the grueling orientation plus the late nights I spent working after training hours, I became very ill with an infected boil. I ended up missing more than half of one of my mandatory orientation programs.

When you’re really sick, you start thinking about what’s most important to you. And you focus on only that, because you’re desperate to hold on to something positive and uplifting. And the only thing I could think in my hotel room, unable to move or even sit up, was how much I regretted not becoming a journalist.

The week following that moment involved three Chinese hospitals, a pregnancy scare, and an attempt to quit my job. But I’ll save the details for another day.

#3_ 55 Hours Alone & 72 Hours with You

In 2013, this blog was born from my project called 60 Hours of No Human Contact, wherein I cut off all human contact for 60 hours and focused on myself and my writing.

For the first time since then, I found myself desperately needing this space and time of my own, complete freedom from the daily struggles and pressures that were weighing me down.

So I took three days off work, rented an Airbnb called “Thinking House” in Namyangju (a suburb of Seoul), and disconnected. But this time, it didn’t have the same rejuvenating effect as it did in 2013. Here is an excerpt from my real-time log from those 55 hours:

Tomorrow before noon, I have to pack up, clean up my traces here in the Thinking House, and return to Seoul. This getaway was neither effective nor productive, as I mostly just miss my boyfriend. I called him crazy for telling me he loves me only after three dates, but this time apart has made me realize I love him, too.

And I understand now the power of love; I am no longer afraid of what my future holds, and I don’t think it really matters what I do for a living. My boyfriend gives me the confidence to do my job and be satisfied with it. Most of all, when I’m with him, I focus more on what I am outside of my job. He pays attention to the whole me, wants to get to know the entire me. He makes me pay attention to the aspects of myself that I sometimes ignore or overlook when I’m focused on work.

I am writing this now at a bar in Gangnam, entering my 73rd consecutive hour with you, counting down to midnight. Our belated Christmas weekend to make up for the actual Christmas that we didn’t get to spend together.

This adventure we are on together is another challenge that 2018 has brought to me: a challenge of a new kind that I am facing for the first time and still learning to maneuver.

Whatever happens, I am thankful for the punches life threw my way this year, because I know they are making me stronger.

Happy new year, everyone.

He said he almost always had nightmares when he slept over at her place. And that he’d wake up in the middle of the night and see her sleeping next to him, and realizing everything was okay, drift to sleep again.

They wore her blanket down until it was in tatters, the cottony stuffing exposed, sticking out in soft tufts and pulling away from the rest of the thing. When she woke up and he was still asleep, she’d get bored and pull at the tufts. She made snowy peaks rise from the surface. She watched them move gently up and down as he continued to sleep, continued to breathe, his chest rising and falling to a steady beat.

He had a way of reminding her of the rare, exquisite things that she lives for, the weird things that surpass reality. He could bring her out of any kind of gloom, even the indelible sadness of feeling unwanted. And he had a way of showing up with the most delightful surprises, like he did today, without notice but with a wild pink flower in his right fist, mud and roots still attached.

And now she’d seen him again, her friend, and it was happy, seeing him again, right outside her door, that half-smile of his on his drunken face. Worried he might get sick, she gave him some tonic and vitamins. She didn’t have any Pocari Sweat for him; she knew he liked it but she didn’t and never had any at home.

He smelled like alcohol and joy. She gave warmbug a hug and sent him on his way. After all, he was just a tunnel and bridge away.


Battles make good fodder for stories. You, the protagonist, want something, but an opponent – the antagonist – gets in the way. The thing you want is important enough to fight the battle, and the battle ends with you either losing or winning. That’s where the story ends. Of course, it could also end in a stalemate, but I prefer definite endings.

In real life I am a fighter, and I hate losing. I do pick my battles, but even the ones I fall into, whether I want to fight them or not, I will fight until the end to win. The one I found myself entangled in today, I decided to lose because sustaining it would’ve meant inconveniencing someone who was waiting for me and counting on me. But more than this, I didn’t have the energy to fight it.

This battle, although short and unforeseen and somewhat uncalled for, was not only a tally loss against the opponent but a real loss of many things for myself, things I considered precious and pure.

If there’s one thing that often trips me up and makes it challenging for me to climb the ladder, it’s that I can’t work for people I don’t respect. And today, I lost a lot of respect for someone I had quite a bit of respect for and took after as a role model.

I am nothing without my principles and passion. These two things keep the fire in me going and sustain me through tough times. But today, as a result of losing the battle, my passion took a hard hit. I found myself questioning my conviction that the work I am doing and have enjoyed immensely for the last year is right for me.

If the passion was real and true, this loss wouldn’t have me second-guessing myself. But then again, maybe I am making a mountain out of a molehill and this incident is merely an anomaly that can be isolated from my confidence in my career. As absurd as it was. (I still don’t understand why it occurred at all.)

Or maybe, as you grow older and more cynical, only your principles remain. Like bones.


Earlier this week, I was writing a “Top 5 News of 2017” feature article for my client. It was a big year for Microsoft, from opening a datacenter in Korea to launching its mixed reality platform, a first for the industry.

My 2017, on the other hand, was rather uneventful. But a lot changed within me that made it a very significant year. I also didn’t want to go yet another year without having written anything on my blog, so voila. My 2017, in top 5 news:

#1 Finding a lifelong passion and career

I changed tracks in my career from education to PR in 2015. While a lot of the work in PR came naturally to me, it definitely was not an easy ride. The first year was an extension of my editing career, with the opportunity to apply my writing and editing skills to the field of PR and digital content marketing. I learned how to make content calendars and interview executives for stories.

Year 2 is where things got rocky – I was juggling work from two teams – tech PR and digital – and found myself liking media PR more. I was adjusting to working with newly hired team members. In the end, I transferred to the tech PR team and it’s been full speed ahead since. Managing PR and IMC campaigns for challenging clients who are also some of the biggest names in the tech industry has taught me a lot, not just PR knowhow but lifelong skills of persuasion, diplomacy, and decision making. I think the next step is to learn leadership and stress management, and I look forward to the challenge.

I also learned that I truly love the work I do, because I talk about it all the time. I love coming into work every day and reading what familiar names at familiar media outlets wrote overnight. I love getting calls from journalists and clients, because it means they trust me and respect my opinion. I get to help them, which I find rewarding. I want to do PR for tech companies for as long as I can foresee – I can’t imagine myself doing anything else for the time being.

#2 Becoming comfortable with Korea

It took 7 years. I came here in 2010 to teach English, and socialized with mostly foreigners and gyopos (Koreans raised overseas) like myself. Even at my office job of curriculum development, I worked with mostly foreigners, gyopos, and Koreans who had worked with foreigners and gyopos for most of their career. Exposure to the full breadth and depth of Korean culture didn’t happen until I started my current job, where the mostly-Korean staff and corporate culture hit me with their Korean-ness full-force.

This year, I found myself wanting to express certain things in Korean and posting certain contents on social media in Korean. And writing in Korean has become enjoyable – I still have a long ways to go, but I’ve become comfortable enough with the language to write in it at length and on various topics. I’m going to keep working at improving it and extend my practice to hanja (Chinese characters), and eventually, Chinese. I also learned that I will always want to work in a bilingual capacity – it’s just more fun that way.

I owe a lot of this assimilation to the patience and understanding of my friends and coworkers. I’m not gonna say it doesn’t still trouble me when attitudes deeply rooted in Korean culture – such as Confucianism and cutthroat competition – affect me directly. But America isn’t perfect either, and in some ways, Korea is more malleable and receptive to cultural change.

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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 income.

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 supplies

kilns people

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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 farther, Chris?”

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

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

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