Archive for the 'Life' Category

Working Sitting Down: Sweating in the City, But Barely Moving

SEOUL — RUSH HOUR SUBWAY CARS here are more like subterranean body movers than modes of rapid transit. Even the youngest salary men and women on the early AM trains look as though their sparks are smoldering in the drenching summer humidity. Heavy heads bob sleepily, plugged into devices feeding them music and news. Everyone seems a bit faint.

In my shirt and tie, I attempt mentally to set myself apart as an observer of the collective exhaustion that grips this city’s modern workers, rather than a victim of it. But I too can feel the sitting-down-ness of my job taking its toll — my energy being stolen by hours spent in front of the computer, evaporating with the electric hum.

It isn’t that my work is boring; it’s quite engaging and often stressful. But as synapses fire off and thoughts zip across my humble amount of gray matter, my body enjoys no such kinetic employment. I ride elevators and take subways. And then I sit. And type. And when the day is done and I’m tired of sitting and typing and thinking, I sleep. Lying down.

For someone who used to get by doing jobs that required physical hustle — barista, short order chef, waiter — and who would ride his bike to work and school even on the most unforgiving of Wisconsin days, adjusting to the relative lassitude of this new life has been awkward, unwelcome. And it is not without consequences on my creativity. While my senses are inundated daily by Seoul’s heaving humanness, I feel disconnected from nature — from my own legs and lungs — and perhaps less in touch with my own imagination.

I think I need to climb a mountain. One of the most uniquely beautiful aspects of this city is its lush craggy peaks, which tower far above a skyline of neon and glass. Even the most salty Seoullites recognize the need reconvene with Gaia; old men here head off on weekend hikes, following their calisthenics with cups of rice wine. And citizens of all walks, once they reach the mountain’s top, will often let forth with an unbridled Yaaah-ho! And thus one of the faceless millions makes himself heard.

However cathartic such an ascent may prove, I feel that activity needs to be a more regular part of my life, and of the life of this city. Don’t get me wrong: South Koreans are an active people — by great strides more energetic than their average American counterparts — and Seoul has made vast improvements to be accommodating to pedestrians, if not cyclists. But long workdays and a sprawling metropolis mean the majority of folks are working themselves to the point of mental exhaustion, heading out for drinks and food, and then being carried back to their apartments via one of the many arteries that snake through the city’s underground.

Though there are brave souls out there making the commute on two wheels, I’m hesitant to plunge headlong onto these deathly streets. Those I do see wheeling by are usually straddling beefy mountain bikes; whistles dangle from their mouths ready to shrill should a taxi leap out of line.

Several weeks from now, this city will observe “A Day without Cars” — or more accurately, a day where a few lanes will be closed for a few miles for cyclists to parade back and forth. But at least public transportation will be free until 9 AM. That should liven things up; nothing like a little competition for space to cause some commotion on the train.

The Long Hot Summer Ahead

THE AIR IN SEOUL IS NOT CLEAN. Even on the clearest days the horizon is painted with a faint, dusty brown. I make this observation not necessarily out of criticism, but as a simple a statement of fact. This is the reality I remembered, that I expected, but perhaps was not fully prepared to embrace again. And as spring burns into summer, the breath of the city becomes even thicker. Walking along the side of the Han river yesterday, dirt and gravel crunching underfoot with a million smells swirling in the air, I felt indeed very far away from the Midwest.

Taking shelter in the shade of a tree, a purer brand of breeze wafted through, and I was thankful for that. I took special pleasure in having ventured to a random riverside neighborhood, breaking the eat-work-sleep schedule I had ground myself into over the past week. But as I sat there, watching cyclists glide by — most of whom were inexplicably riding hardcore mountain bikes — a reality sharper than air quality set in: this would be the first summer through which I would consistently work.

No more part-time at coffee shops. No more “by the way I won’t be here for the next month” kind of notices. No more bike rides on Wednesday afternoons. Rough.

It isn’t that my workplace is so excruciating — quite the opposite, I enjoy my job. But for someone who values his time in the outdoors, stepping into a soft-lit, air-conditioned office on a halcyon bluegreen day is going to be murder. Especially in Seoul, where lush mountains jut above the cityscape, tempting me with offers of respite from the smog and constant bustle.

While I’m tempted to say, Such is life, I know better; so do most in the travel blog community. Life can be a juggling act between freedom and responsibility, but it often boils down to choice. And I’ve made mine. I certainly could have continued on the track I was on — slinging espresso, pushing freelance articles and eeking out a living. I was happy that way, and I definitely could’ve gone somewhere on that path. By coming back to Korea I’m almost starting from scratch; a familiar place seen through a different lens, a career where my fulfillment will only come with sweat.

A Recipe for Fluency (Hopefully)

PUSH-UPS, CRUNCHES, COFFEE, TRANSLATION — it’s all a part of the new morning regimen. By 7 am I’m sitting sleepily in front my laptop, arms sore as the screen glows with headlines from Yonhap. A notebook on my desk and pen in hand, I scribble down unfamiliar Korean vocabulary.

I flip quickly between browser tabs; article, dictionary, article.

And I think to myself: I should have been doing this for years. I’m struggling now because I’ve let my second language get rusty — let myself be overwhelmed by daily demands and excuses. This is the great re-focusing, a test of self-discipline.

(Silently, I worry if it’s sustainable.)

A great daunting mass of foreign words has stood between my actual language abilities and true fluency for some time. The grammar, the basics, even the colloquialisms feel well ingrained by now — but I’m still drowning in an ocean of vocabulary. What I don’t know could (and does) fill a book.

So this is my recipe for fluency, I hope:

Read one Korean-language news article — aloud, twice. List every word I don’t know, then look it up. Listen to one Korean-language news broadcast — twice. Identify names, numbers and unknown words. Make flash cards for all new words. Take a break. Review flash cards. Speak as much Korean as I can (even to myself). Go to work. Eat. Blog. Sleep. Repeat.

As my anticipation for moving abroad grows, it’s all I can do to resist regretting the time I didn’t spend working towards this goal. Willpower takes time to forge, I tell myself, and learning the intimacies of any language is a process that takes years. And so I keep on keepin’ on, sewing meaning to sounds, sounds to letters — sticking words in my head and hoping that they’ll stay.

The Other Side of Town

photo by joshua heineman.

A CHAIR’S WIRY SHADOW was cast on the brick wall like some translucent fishing net, fading in and out as clouds passed over the sun. I stared at this while sipping coffee in a minute of respite, my mind flitting between vague, yellowing memories and thoughts of how friends in other cities were getting on.

It was the first truly warm day of spring. The air had a calm about it that was only occasionally broken by cuts of brisk wind. I took it, shedding my stocking cap to allow the breeze to pass through my naked hair. A melting heap of snow sat stubbornly on the patio, like a nagging reminder of winter’s proximity — and ability to return with the drop of just a few degrees. My hands were still cracked from the cold, dry air.

I hadn’t been on the other side of town since fall, and gazing out at the traffic rushing down East Washington — an ugly, industrial artery — I felt transported; it was as though I was seeing the city from the window of a passing plane. The light seemed to play tricks on time.

I wanted to talk with someone, to share this unruffled moment. But as I felt for my phone I decided against it. The wind was picking up. I went inside, and began to bury myself in the usual roar of thoughts and worries.


I FELT LIKE A POLAR bear on melting sea ice. With each pedal of my bicycle the frozen ground beneath me cracked, giving way to slush and muddy water. I bumped along down the trail, jostling with the laws of friction in a battle to keep right-side-up.

I was headed, of all places, to the mall. My vision insurance would be expiring soon and so I had made an appointment with the local Lenscrafters to get a check-up — I had two options for locations, both in malls, so I chose the less dingy of the two.

I arrived, and after searching for a while came upon what appeared to be the only bike rack outside the entire expanse of the shopping center (it was empty, neglected). In the back of the Lenscrafters I filled out some new patient forms, and then was moved between various stations where I got puffs of air shot into my eyeballs and was patiently interrogated: “Number one? Or number two? And number three, or number four?”

Following my exam, I was told that if I wanted new lenses I would have to wait. Had I brought any spare glasses? Sure, with a four year-old prescription. “Great,” the man said to me, “come back in an hour.” And so there I was. Alone, left to wander a blurry, headache-inducing mall.

I tried to stare at my feet as I left the store. It hurt my eyes less.

Roaming the softly-lit, kiosk-clogged temple of chain-store goods, I felt like I was in a place where time and space were not relevant. The layout of the mall felt eerily familiar. The kids wandering about dressed the same as when I was in high school, only more magnified in their personas. Pre-pubescent girls wore shorter skirts. Hot Topic had somehow become even more ridiculous.

I sat down in a poor excuse for a communal space — overstuffed, mismatching couches and chairs assembled in a square. An old couple sipping drinks from the nearby Gloria Jean’s Coffee shot me disapproving looks. Otherwise, nobody looked at each other.

Everything about the mall — the architecture, the stores, the lighting — felt cheap, replicated, plastic, like the majority of suburban infrastructure consuming our country. I had spent many a bored hour wandering uninspired (and uninspiring) spaces like these in my youth, without a second thought. But now I wondered about the quality of life this afforded. Why were we, the people of United States, allowing ourselves to be sold short?

The words of travel writer Stephanie Elizondo Griest came to me: “I’m the kind of person who wants to get their funky jewelry from its country of origin, not from some stand in the mall.” I was surrounded by a den of artificiality, of faked expression. I thought about the fact that there were hundreds of similar malls all around the country (many owned by the same company). It seemed evidence enough that we’d lost touch with the value of originality, of experience, of creating environments with character.

As I went to go pick up my glasses, I noticed a sign outside where a new shoe store was about to open. It read:

The shoes you wear say a lot about you. Your style speaks louder than words. You can find it here, shout it out there. Choose your voice and make some noise.”

I laughed, I cringed.

Photo: mall, by Maproom Systems. saginaw, mich.

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November 2020