Thoughts August 12, 2017

I just returned from a three-day MBA retreat in Warrenton, VA–about an hour outside of Charlottesville, a town that’s been in the news for all the wrong reasons this year. Since Friday morning, I have been in back-to-back classes, barely sleeping, and totally disconnected from the news. Yesterday, I saw an update pop up on my phone as I was walking back to class: “Car plows through anti-white nationalist protesters, injures 19 people.”

I brought it up to the people I was walking with as we moved from one class to the next, “guys, I just got an update….have you heard about this?” Their responses, with tones expressing a matter-of-fact-ness mixed with apathy and disappointment: “Yeah? you haven’t heard about it yet?” “Yeah, yeah…we heard.” 

I didn’t bother to look up the story, read the facts, discuss or reflect about how I or they felt, find out more of the same violence as led by the white alt-right attempting to assert themselves on people of color (again)…I knew the ending to this story and I knew how it would make me feel. And I knew I was too busy and too tired to follow up.

You all know me, you know what I believe, you know my political leanings, undoubtedly you know how I feel about what happened, but let me explain to you the mental fatigue–and anguish now that I’ve finally looked up all the facts–I feel, and I’m sure many people of color feel as well.

This summer, I made the conscious decision to focus my time on self care, school, work, and CAPAL–with special emphasis on self-careWhen I read the news, I deliberately focus on foreign policy. I deleted all my news apps, deleted most news podcasts, and turned off all my news notifications save for one news source: Quartz. The only reason for keeping Quartz was that it has a Trump filter and posts from reliable sources.

Why the effort to stay out of the loop? The amount of evident, SHAMELESS, unpunished physical and emotional violence committed by Americans against Americans–overwhelmingly white against POC– is too much, too distracting, and too demoralizing. The America we’re living in, or as I like to call it “The Timeline Where Trump is President” or “2017A,” can be insufferable. Where every day you expect to read news headlines that sound like chapter titles of history books. Nazism, the KKK, white supremacy, fascism, alt-right–whatever you want to call it, it is here with us the Internet and 24-hour news cycles have breathed new life (and legitimacy) to their causes

As a young person, I am still trying to build myself and find a role in society. I want to lead a fulfilling life and career after my MBA, so that I can affect positive change in my community while making a decent living for myself. But in order to get to the point where I could be an agent of change, I need to believe that there is something worth working towards.

Self-care and self-improvement require optimism, and optimism is hard work. It is much harder to be an optimist today than a pessimist. If I read the news, if I follow the tragedy, if I Google “the meaning of blood and soil” every. damn. time. white supremacy rears its ugly head, I will not make it through the day. International trade policy, economics, accounting, etc. will take a back seat in my brain to fear, distrust, and constant anger at the fact that the country I live in tolerates and sometimes encourages white supremacy. A person can only take so much.

Many of you follow the news all the time, I see your posts and your passion and I support your effort to speak up and show that acceptance, love, fairness, and equality are values of the majority even if they’re not the values of those in power and the bigots they rile up. For me, though, I have been trying “to fight the good fight” for a long time, and I need a break. At this moment, if I devote more of my emotion and my time to anger and pain, my brain might melt.

What happened in Charlottesville, VA this weekend was horrific, unconscionable, and depraved. I cannot imagine what those protesters went through and how they are coping right now. I cannot imagine the intensity of the driver’s hate for these people. Heather Heyer didn’t deserve to be murdered for being present at a rally.

I am twisted up inside and even as I type this I feel my throat tightening and my heartbeat quicken because on top of everything else, I felt close to Charlottesville and Albemarle County in some way. I spent two summer vacations there around Charlottesville because of how peaceful the place felt and the kindness of the locals. I even just visited UVA’s campus (coincidentally the weekend after the Robert E. Lee Statue was taken down). So for something so violent to happen in a place that seemed so safe also feels like a betrayal of trust.

So. The question that is on a lot of my friends minds right now is “How can we overcome this?” or “How can we fight bigotry and hate?” What I am starting to find out is that there’s only so much you can do until you begin to internalize a piece of the trauma yourself. We need to make allies of each other by showing compassion and understanding to each other and take turns opposing acts of hate and white supremacy. No matter how much I might want to be in in full activist mode all the time I just can’t anymore. It will, ultimately, consume my emotions and affect my work, school, and personal relationships. Right now, it’s not a price I’m able to pay.

*photo credit ABC News*

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364 days later

My last blog post was July 5, 2016, shortly before Brexit passed and months before Donald J. Trump became the President of the United States. What silly times we live in. As I look back on this blog, my growth, the time passed, and the change in environments I have experienced, I sense a profound sense of closure in a significant chapter of my life: my early 20’s.

When I began this blog, I envisioned a different direction for the blog to follow. One where fizzle-out-and-die would not be the end game for my biographical journey through Taiwan. However, my life took a pretty extreme turn for the worse and the better about two years ago. It has been nearly two years since I moved to Washington, D.C., and while my heart aches for Kaohsiung and Taiwan often, I’ve learned to love this new, adoptive home. In doing so, I have learned to let go of the past and accept present circumstances and the opportunities the future holds.

“Blank Goes Here” was a title given to a part of my life where self-determination was not the prevailing theme. As I reflect, the name was apt for the way I was living my life not too long ago. I had allowed myself to experience new things and be shaped by them; however, now, I feel like I have outgrown the brand, so to speak. I am no longer a blank waiting to be filled or defined by external forces. I have experienced, lived, enjoyed, and suffered enough to know that now I want to determine my own circumstances rather than allow my circumstances alone to shape me.

In one month, I will begin my life as a part-time student, pursuing my MBA in a city and school I have grown to love.  I am allowing myself to finally be the artist and not the canvas; to be the writer and not the page. It’s exciting and new and it feels empowering.

So with that, I close out this blog (for now). I’ll leave it open as a living document and testament to an amazing and formative part of my life, but it is a piece of me firmly in the past now. In the spirit of growth and rebirth and “see ya laters” rather than “good-byes” let me reintroduce myself. Hi, my name is Fay and I can’t wait to tell you who I’ve become.

Brexit’s Warning to America

Originally posted to Fay’s Medium.

Brexit’s Warning to America: Don’t Validate Your Racists

In the wee hours of Thursday night, just before falling asleep, I checked the news one last time before bed to see if there were any interesting headlines from around the world. As Washington, D.C. snoozed, those of us tuned into the waking world felt sleep suddenly leave us as we found out the United Kingdom had voted, by a slim margin, to leave the European Union. The Brexit was now a reality, and its implications were sending the media and markets into a tailspin.

Though I read world news for at least an hour every morning for work, I tended to skimp on reading about the Leave campaign or UKIP (U.K. Independence Party) simply because the notion of a Brexit sounded farfetched. The idea of the U.K. shooting itself in the foot both economically and politically by leaving the E.U. sounded even more outrageous and unimaginable than last year’s infamous referendum vote in Greece that inspired a similarly punny term: “Grexit”. In July 2015, the Greek people, beaten down by years 0f austerity and pushed by populism voted overwhelmingly to renege on their debt and leave the E.U. as well. In the end, however, their leadership ignored its people and listened to E.U. leaders. The Greek government opted to avert an even worse financial crisis at the expense of its democratic integrity. Needless to say, as bad as Greece is today, it would have been worse had it left the E.U. and attempted to resuscitate the long-dead drachma.

But I digress. The Grexit and the Brexit are only similar in the fact that from the outset they sounded so unbelievable to the average person. Indeed, a viable Donald Trump candidacy for President of the United States began equally as unbelievable — laughable, even. How could the average, decent human being be caught so off-guard by the burgeoning hate within their own country? Many European countries as well as the United States have supremely underestimated the power of this extremist, xenophobic contagion that has spread across the Western world since the 2008 recession, amplified by the refugee crisis, and stoked by demagogues looking for an easy path to power. This contagion goes by many names and slogans — “Make America Great Again,” “Freedom for Britain,” National Front, Golden Dawn, etc.— , but they all share the same features: the scapegoating of immigrants and ethnic minorities, a propensity toward violence, and a touch of religious extremism.

All this to say, that on June 23rd, 2016, the United Kingdom did not just vote to leave the European Union, they decided to leave the modern world and decent society and legitimize their bigots instead. On Saturday, a compilation of more than 100 tweets from the U.K. went viral on Facebook (they have since been removed for unknown reasons). The tweets came from British citizens who woke up to a “new Britain” they no longer recognized or felt safe in anymore. Decent British citizens suddenly found themselves in a country where people publicly harassed and berated men, women, and children because they had an accent, spoke another language, wore traditional clothing, or had darker skin.

 

Trending on Twitter: #PostBritishRacism #PostRefRacism

What UKIP and the Leave campaign has done to British society, a Donald Trump White House will do for the United States.

A Plea to the America’s Maybe Trump Voters

It’s not impossible for this kind of blatant hate speech to become more normalized in the United States and manifest in actual violence. Indeed, we have already seen several examples of how Trump’s rabble-rousing is doing just that. But we have a chance to stop it. Let us take the Brexit as a warning and recognize that the United States does not accept blind prejudice, racism, and an unjustifiable fear of immigrants.

There is an unsettling number of maybe-Trump supporters in my life. Many of these folks are not hateful people. They are people who want some kind of genuine change to take place in the American government, and they want to feel like they have a voice in the behemoth of the American political machine. Many are not people who you would call racist/sexist/homophobic/etc., but are people who believe that someone new in the Oval Office who will either frighten or inspire our stagnant Congress into action. Given the option of Clinton or Trump, these people think “at least Trump will shake up the system because he’s an outsider and brash.” Many Americans can sympathize with this sentiment, but the belief that Trump is the outsider we need to shake up the American political system is specious and naive. It is also a bit lazy to believe that all the work you need to do to change your country for the better can be done in a single, specific election.

The true impact of a Trump presidency will not be a 50-foot border wall along the Mexican border nor will it be a Nazi-esque database of Muslims that will track every American Muslim’s information. President Trump’s true impact would be in the public acknowledgement that the majority of Americans are justified in their fear of one another, and that the only way to deal with that fear is to sequester ourselves away from diversity, human decency, and the modern world. To vote for Donald Trump would be to disavow the values and achievements of the United States.

Britain did not just shoot itself in the foot this week economically, but it has further emboldened racism in its country and the ramifications are striking. We have come too far, America, to regress socially as Britain has sadly decided to do. Make no mistake, the general election in November is not about “PC culture” and it’s not about “making America great again.” This election is about preserving the achievements we have made as a nation over the last 240 years in order to make our citizens and soon-to-be citizens safer, more prosperous, and a part of the American community. Because, personally, I don’t remember the past as that great and worth “going back” to, do you?

What utopia from the past would we try to return to? The past where an African American person would essential risk their life simply to exercise their right to vote? The past where women weren’t considered capable or intelligent enough to vote, file for divorce, or acquire contraception? The past where child labor was considered normal? The past where social security didn’t exist and we were perfectly okay to let our seniors die impoverished and alone? The past where people could openly and without retribution deny opportunities in education, housing, and financing just because of someone’s race, sexuality, or gender? I cannot imagine anyone wants this country to go back to any of those versions of America. No matter how bad we think things are today, “going back” is not an option.

The “real America” is not supposed to be a society with a tribal mentality where our freedoms and rights are viewed as a limited resource of privileges that only certain groups can hold at one time. No, the “real America” believes we can move beyond that petty tribal squabbling of “whites v. everyone else,” “immigrants v. native born” “Muslims v. Christians,” etc. and that we are able to engender trust in the presence of diversity and change. There are still severe injustices in our country for people of all groups and classes, but we cannot fix these problems by being suspicious and hateful of one another. Believe it or not, America can become better and better if we work together.

Though the United Kingdom is an ocean away, I urge all Americans, to take the social implications of the Brexit very seriously. The United States must not vote for or encourage the bigotry upon which Donald Trump has built his entire campaign. Hillary can be a great president even if you distrust her last name as a legacy of “the establishment.” At least, she has avoided the use of platitudes, hate speech, and fear mongering to get this far. The same cannot be said for Donald Trump. You, our families, our friends and I will be safer living in a Hillary America than a Trump America.

Athens and Filopappou Hill

Settling In

Adjusting to our arrival in Athens was a bit difficult for several reasons. On the one hand, this was the first time my sister Daisy and I were in Greece as adults and had full control over where we went and what we wanted to do. No longer were we beholden to every relative or family friend with an opinion if we wanted to leave the house. Instead, with my great aunt  and grandmother so old, it felt like we should be taking care of them.

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Endless food and drink means a nap is completely unavoidable.

Of course, though, Ioulia would not hear of it. “If we could make it all this time without you all here, we can make it one more week. Don’t worry about us, sweetie,” she said as she snatched the dirty plates from my hands as I made my way to the sink to wash them (she has arthritis in her hands and knees and yet insists on cooking and cleaning for us). “And leave please leave the dishes in the sink, μανάρι μου.” Her choice of words, first guilt-inducing and then endearing reminded me how unfortunate it was that in 25 years, I have spent maybe a total of 12 months in Greece with my relatives. There are so many things we missed from each others’ lives, and seeing the “grannies” (as we often referred to our grandmother and never-ending supply of great aunts) all well into their late 70’s and 80’s really hit that home.

The other element is that we both brought our partners with us to Greece, and Daisy and I–well, mostly me because I am a ball of stress–struggled to simultaneously manage our expectations as well as theirs. Despite any crazy family drama that was likely to come about, we wanted to make sure that everyone was having a good vacation.

The most striking part about breaking back into Greece and Greek culture were Greek people themselves. I mentioned it in my last post, but this was Daisy’s first visit back in a decade and the first visit back for me after seven years. To compound the experience, Daisy spent the last three years living in upstate New York filled with some of the nicest, milquetoast people on the eastern seaboard, and I had spent the last year living in Taiwan where people are generally quick with a smile and helpful in general. I love Greece, but Greek people can be mean. They are mean even when they are actually being nice, it’s just their default setting. It is as if passive aggression is the standard setting and many people hold a defensive paranoia of being accused of some form of bad manners. In a way, dealing with (especially) blue-collar Greek people is like dealing with the old fashion New Yorker. But Daisy and I adjusted well-enough by Day 3 or 4. We are half Greek after all and from New Jersey.

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Germany gets it.

 

The Americans Visit “Grandpa Hill”

**I am going to skip our actual first trip which was to the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum. Both are wonderful destinations that anyone visiting Greece must see, but after five or six visits to the old pile of stones it’s just not interesting to me anymore.**

The hill is not actually called “Grandpa Hill,” but it’s the English translation I gave it because Φιλοπάππου (Filopappou) sounds similar to the words φίλος (filos, friend) and παππούς (pappous, grandpa). So it’s full English name should actually be “Friendy Grandpa Hill.” We chose to go for a hike this very hot and dry afternoon because it is one of the three “mountains” that you can see from the Acropolis, and a place Daisy and I had never been. It’s one of those nagging things when you go somewhere more than once you start to think, “well maybe one day I’ll go to that other place, just to see it.” Kind of like how one day I’ll go to the Empire State building in NYC, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in DC, or an Outback Steakhouse. You know, just to see what it’s like. The cool thing about Filopappou Hill, though, is that it is one of the last major landmarks between the port city of Piraeus and ancient Athens. Piraeus is still a port town, but Athens is no longer just the Acropolis and is now a vast swath of urban sprawl which includes Piraeus.

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A map of ancient Piraeus (left) and Athens (right) and the walls that lined the treacherous, long route between the two.

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Nowadays we just use the subway (grey line) and it takes like ten minutes to reach Ancient Athens (red pin)

What we didn’t expect was to encounter a totally deserted downtown Athens–that can only be described as one-part urban decay two-parts intense sunshine. Without any data plan in Greece, I pulled up a screenshot I had taken of Google Maps that morning. It’s just as good as actual Google Maps provided you are prepared not to have a zoom feature, can read in Greek, and are fully prepared to encounter roads that no longer exist.

The featured picture up top is actually the back entrance to Filopappou Hill. Other than graffiti, strewn across the ground was an assortment of garbage from every aisle in the grocery store (from condom wrapper to styrofoam). There were also a few (seemingly) abandoned structures with broken shutters, cracks in the plaster, and covered in graffiti and shaded by the errant palm tree. It was like a post-apocalyptic Miami.

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Jevon, chill as ever, rolls a cigarette to beat the heat.

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Not Sparta; Athens.

So here we are, a gaggle of American kids roaming around what is now turning into a combination of desert and a sparse evergreen forest. The sun was so hot and the air so dry that the surface of my skin felt like it was getting crispy, but I didn’t notice thirst or fatigue. It wasn’t until I stepped into the shade of a gnarled evergreen by a graffitied ancient milestone that I could feel the toll the sun and landscape was having on me. There was still more hill to climb, though. At the top of one south-facing bluff, thirsty and climbing to a high point to catch the breeze, my eyes were hit by an infinite blueness that dropped off the point of white-walled Piraeus town. The town opened into the port, which seemed so small from this distance, and the port splayed open to the Mediterranean Sea. The air was so bright and clear that the horizon was a perfect match between the blues of the sky and sea. It’s the blue of the Greek flag, the same shade that you paint tourist hotels’ shutters and roofs. It was a blueness that felt empty and full at the same time. And as I panned from the sea to the direction of the Acropolis, I was stunned at how easy it was to still pick out the shadow of the ancient road, more than 1,900 years ago. It was almost a straight shoot from port to capital, and it must have been a dangerous one. Cliffs, rocky earth, and farmlands meant that not only were we standing above an ancient road, but probably a graveyard, too.

As I dazed I could here the restless footsteps of my friends and sister. “It’s so HOT,” Daisy remarked brusquely from under a giant, black sunhat clad in a matching black romper. Hours of trying to shape and pull the hat’s brim around her face to block the changing angles of the sun had now cast a wavy Funyun-like shadow over her ruddy, rotund cheeks and face. Jevon lit a cigarette nearby. “First off,” I responded, “Jevon, don’t cause a wildfire, please. That shit is real. Secondly, let’s just skip the path winding up the hill and take a shortcut through those trees on this side.”

“Uh…Okay,” Daisy said as we started walking toward the evergreens. “Yeah, just watch out for snakes, okay?” I added as an after thought.

“What the? Are you SERIOUS? Fay, I’m not going in there if there are snakes,” Jevon only sounded half-scared, so I followed up with “I’m sure we will be okay,” and I started hiking ahead of the group. I spent six summers in Greece, but never actually saw a snake before, only tortoises, but for some reason hearing a warning about snakes was common in all my summer memories wandering into the “wilderness.” It was practically a reflex that I just warn everyone about snakes whether or not they existed.

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The sun takes a toll on Warren’s rational decision-making, but enhances his physical abilities.

Almost twenty minutes and two forks in the road later, we make it to the grand and glorious monument at the top of Filopappou Hill.

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Wait, is that it?

Needless to say, it’s pretty disappointing at the top. This was once a monument built to some important ancient-ish mayor or general as part of his funeral services. It was made out of the marble scraps of crumbling, unkempt temples and buildings built hundreds of years earlier. Then, it turned into a pile of unkempt marble scraps. If you look to the back of the monument, you can see how some people tried to “rebuild” and “restore” the original memorial by taking the scraps-of-scraps from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. You can tell by the handwriting and dates.

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Greeks have a long, weird relationship with graffiti. Also, you can see how Greeks gave up on recycling ancient marble and switched restoration practices to plaster and mortar.

We Meet Brimmy

Filopappou Hill was a major disappointment, but at least the view of the Acropolis was fantastic. Among the few tourists who also made the mistake of making a trek to Filopappou Hill, were a few couples, our group, and a lone teenager wearing an American flag tank top and thick-framed, black Rayban sunglasses. This was Brimmy. Actually, his name is Justin (I think), but ever since I added him on Snapchat, I’ve been referring to him by his handle.

Brimmy is a lanky, blond California kid no more than 18 years-old. When we asked him what he was doing in Greece alone he said, “I’m taking a gap year. Who needs college?” Brimmy is a genius. Almost in unison, Daisy, Warren, Jevon and I said “That’s SUCH a good idea.” Brimmy smiled because he felt validated. Greece was just one of his longer European stopovers, and it was for a much more noble reason than I could have imagined. Even though he looked like he belonged at a frat party, he was volunteering in Athens with a charity focused on the refugee crisis. He spent most of his days at a church teaching and playing with with little kids from all over the world. After a brief conversation with Brimmy, and after taking all the pictures we needed, we said our good-byes and headed down the hill back toward the Acropolis and eventually Monostiraki, leaving Brimmy at the top of the hill just where we found him.

A random snake charmer and one really cool tortoise later, we were back at the Acropolis park, walking along the cobbled bath that encircles the paid, gated part of the park featuring the ruins. We rounded a corner that presented us with a fork in the road: we could hike the Hill of the Nymphs, head toward the tourist traps, or take a side road into another part of downtown. But right in the middle of the fork, there was Brimmy awkwardly holding a pack of yellow American Spirits as if he was thinking about how to smoke them. We called out to him and he turned his head toward us almost instantly, surprised. He waved back and walked up to us. “You’re here, too, huh?” It was the start of a conversation everyone knew was going nowhere with no one in our group interested in extending the conversation. That awkward commentary of describing what is literally happening at the same time. Then Daisy lifted up a hand half-heartedly and saved, “well, bye!” and made the executive decision for the group to walk up the Hill of the Nymphs and leave Brimmy at the bottom of the bath. Brimmy’s face fell noticeably, even from behind the sunglasses and he made for the main path that circled the Arcopolis.

Seeing eager, young Brimmy full of hope, spontaneity, and the desire to make new friends reminded me of 2008-era Fay. It’s cheesy, I know, but after high school graduation, I left for the entire summer to finally escape the confines of parents and suburbia and I was ready to take the world by the horns. With a dejected Brimmy walking away from us, I could see just how dorky, young, and unsubtly needy I was back then. I turned to walk up the hill, but paused and said loud enough only for the group to hear, “I’m going to invite him to hang out with us.”

“What, why?” Daisy said, clearly not interested in an awkward tag-a-long.

“Because why not? He’s by himself. Where’s your spirit of American companionship?” I turned back down the slope and called his name in a half-yell, he was already on the other side of the cobbled path, and waved him over. When he saw that we were waiting for him to catch up, he broke out into a wide smile. It was like watching a puppy perk his ears up and gambol over toward his best friend.

We spent the rest of the evening hiking, talking at random, stopping for ice cream, and just enjoying the tourist experience. Brimmy said to go back to work later that evening, but European summer sunsets are languid and long, so it was hard to tell exactly what time “evening” started. Tired and sunburnt, we sat down at a restaurant at the border of the Acropolis and Monostiraki districts which specialized in μεζές (mezes are like tapas) and cheap beer. As the sun finally began to approach the horizon, Brimmy set his freshly opened beer down to check the time. It was almost 9:00 P.M. “Crap! I have to go home like now.” He chugged his beer, impressive for a kid who only graduated high school a month ago, and left us a 2 euro coin and his cigarettes as a “gift from home,” and took off.

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It’s possible Brimmy enjoyed the tourist experience too much

We Head Home

Realizing the time, I told the group to only eat a little bit because it was a guarantee that dinner was waiting for us at home and we had to some how muster the energy to get back, eat again, drink, chat with the relatives and neighbors, sleep, and wake up early enough to have a day of activities.

Already a few days into the week, we approached the subway station and only made a show of purchasing tickets for the metro. Having heard rumors that all metro transportation was free due to the economic crisis (and witnessing scores of young people not pay), we decided to be on the safe side as tourists that hitting random buttons on the machine for 30 seconds was as good as buying a ticket.

We dragged our bodies through the clean, marbled hall ways of the underground, boarded our train, and returned to our Athens HQ. At home, giagia and Ioulia had left the light on for us outside and were in the process of going to bed (by this time it was about 10:00 P.M.). When they heard us on the veranda Ioulia came rushing out to us. “Τι κάνεις, παιδιά; Είναι τόσο αργά! Πεινάς?” Just as I had expected, Ioulia had made us dinner.

“Daisy,” I called out to her as she and Warren were headed upstairs to shower, “we have to eat first.”

“Noooooooo….I’m so sleepy.”

“We have to, they have arthritis and they still cooked for us!” I knew in my heart that there would be no excuse that would satisfy my aunt. Besides, she was already inside fetching the tablecloth for us.

Καλώς ήρθατε! Welcome!

“Welcome to Aθens” shone bright over the the Athens International Airport facing the planes landing on the runway. This was the first sign of change for me: English. A lot more English than before. Finding English signs and translations in Greece (especially around tourist zones and during the summer) is not difficult, but there was just so much more of it this time around. To all my friends interested in traveling to Greece, put the phrasebook down. Everyone is bilingual in English.

At the airport, I met my sister, Daisy, and her boyfriend, Warren, and after some awful (yet typical) southern-Mediterranean-style missing baggage customer service (where the customer is never right and always lied to), we made our way to the metro that would take us directly to γιαγιά‘s (grandma’s) house.

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On the train platform to travel into central Athens. Photo credit: https://flic.kr/p/6bEvex

Despite total exhaustion, I forced myself to keep my eyes open and take in the scenery zipping by on the train. The sandy beiges and forest greens basking in the sunlight of the desert-like landscape completely contrasted against my last train ride from Kaohsiung to Taipei, filled with lush dark greens and heavy, metallic rain clouds. Then, the train dipped underground and it was only a few more stops until we reached our station, Εθνική άμυνα-National Defense.

My grandmother’s house is a short walk away from the station, but a short walk with luggage and in the blazing Greek afternoon sun with two other people in tow can be unnerving. I kept looking around to make sure that I was following the same route I remembered from 2008 (before the economic crash). And though everything looked familiar, so much was different. For one thing, the train station was so empty and the streets above, a central bus hub, were devoid of the crowds and migrant street vendors I remembered. As we turned the corner, following the brown-brick walls of the National Defense perimeter, I noticed that though all the buildings were the same, the businesses were not. In fact, many businesses were simply missing, leaving only ghostly storefront windows staring emptily at passersby. Luckily, the gas station that marked the next turn was still there and I knew immediately that I wasn’t leading the group astray.

We made it to the last turn, down a short alley to my grandmother’s apartment building, a four-storey white apartment building with Samos grape vines twisting up the building from my grandmother’s veranda on the ground floor and spreading across the side of the building and snaking across balconies like a monstrous hand trying to collapse the ediface. The grapes as well as the, now towering, lemon trees along the side of the house are the last living remnants of my grandfather. Decades ago, his family farmed grapes for wine (can my family be more cliché?) on the island of Samos, so when he married and moved into this building, he made sure to keep a piece of Samos with him.

The first peculiar thing I noticed was that the door was locked, which was unusual from what I remember of my grandmother; her door always open in the daytime to welcome neighbors and friends should they pass by. She was expecting us to arrive as well, so the door should have been open, but remembering a recent conversation with my mother about my grandmother’s advancing age and mental health made me realized that the door was locked because she probably taking a nap.

We waited quietly on the small veranda. I pressed the doorbell and heard the familiar, electric buzz. It should have been loud enough for anyone within earshot to stir from their siesta. After a minute there was still no sound from within. Bzzzzzt! As I pressed the doorbell again for half-a-second longer. “Γιαγιά, ήρθαμε!” My Greek, limited and clumsily returning, all I could remember was “We’ve come, grandma.” Finally, from inside, I could hear feet shuffling across the floor and approaching the door, moving rather quickly for her age. The door swung open with a mild groan and standing on the other side, eyes bright and at my chin-level, was my great-aunt Ioulia (Julia in English, but as I call her θεία Ιουλία).

“Ah-hoo! Φωτεινή, τα παιδιά ήρθαν!” She was smiling and yelling, full-blast Greek old-lady-style, toward the back of the apartment at my grandmother’s room, “Fotini, the kids are here!” And as she hugged me tight and kissed me three times, alternating cheeks, she let out a deafening yell into my ear “Καλώς ορίσατε τα παιδιά!” “Welcome, kids!” Ioulia is energetic and spry in spite of arthritis and her 82 years. She looked over my shoulder toward Daisy, but before I could reacquaint them, I could hear the slow shuffle of my grandmother approaching from her room.

**Note, all conversations are in Greek, and I will simplify some dialogues by writing exclusively in English.**

I was stunned when I saw my grandmother. In all my memories, she was small, elderly and cute, with salt-and-pepper, closely cropped hair that she probably dyed on and off. Standing before me, though, was a somehow even smaller, frailer γιαγιά with ashy-grey hair. She was at least 83 years-old, though no one is quite certain because in her time birth records were important, but not exact dates. Her smile was the same, though, and her eyes glistened when she saw us. I went through another bout of hugs and smooches, with my grandmother holding me tight “το Φωτεινακι μου!” “My little Fotini!” She pulled away to look at Daisy and Warren who were standing behind me, waiting for their turns to say hello.

Ποιά είναι αυτή;” she asked looking at Daisy. “γιαγιά,” I answered, “this is Daisy, remember?” and Daisy smiled and went in for her round of hugs and kisses. “Η Daisy; Po-pohh!!! κούκλα είναι!” Kούκλα means “doll” in Greek, and is one of the most endearing words grandmothers and other family members use to describe their younger female relatives.

Είναι και οι δύο κούκλες,” “They’re both dolls!” Shouted Ioulia. “Daisy has grown so much! I remember when she was so small,” and Ioulia held her hand out flat at hip-level. For Daisy, it had been almost ten years and five different shades of hair color since she had last visited Athens at 11 years-old. “Και ποιος είναι αυτός;” “And whose he?” My grandmother asked, almost in a retort, at Warren. Standing taller than all of us with long brown hair with a full beard to match, Warren stood out among us with his sharp Northern-European features and septum piercing. “Grandma, this is Daisy’s boyfriend, Warren,” I answered enthusiastically.

Γειά σου!” Warren said with a big smile. I couldn’t wait for her reaction. “Whose boyfriend?” Γιαγιά looked at me quizzically and mildly surprised, “Yours?”

“No, no, Daisy’s boyfriend, Warren.” I emphasized.

“Waarr-ey?” My grandmother stumbled over his name, “Warrrr-ey?” She tried again.

“Warren.”

“Warrrr-eyy-n?” Our sweet grannies both croaked over his name and failed again and again to pronounce it. We all laughed, and I looked at Daisy and Warren, “I guess there’s no ‘W-A-R’ sounds in Greek.” Ioulia tried one more time and I conceded. “Yes, you got it.” But she didn’t. Still, Warren, got his round of hugs and kisses, too. The first phase of our welcome was complete. Now, onto phase two, THE FEEDING. Which would continue over the course of the next week and the total three weeks we would spend in Athens. If you have ever seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, then you know Greek families love their children and grandchildren through food. This is why without fail, kids visiting Greek grandparents for the summer return to school in September as roly-poly as ever.

Τι θα φάτε;” “What are you going to eat?” Γιαγιά asked us as we all followed her into the kitchen. Again the excitement of explaining something foreign, like Warren’s presence, tickled me with anticipation. “Γιαγιά, Daisy and Warren are vegetarians.”

Actually, Daisy and Warren are vegan, but I had no idea if there was a Greek word for vegan.

“What?” She asked/shouted in the tiny kitchen that from my childhood always seemed so big. Ioulia interjected loudly, “Your mother already told us. No meat!”

“對–I mean–Yes, and no cheese, milk, fish, or eggs.” Habitually answering in Chinese, correcting myself in English, and then translating slowly into Greek was the first struggle of being back in Athens. I made the mistake of speaking Chinese to Ioulia and my grandmother often enough to illicit confused stares from Daisy, who had never heard me speak Chinese before. The brain can be funny sometimes.

“WHAT?” Ioulia now had a reason to shout because who doesn’t eat eggs, dairy, and fish? Also, I was beginning to notice that “what?” and repetitive rapid-fire questions I could barely keep up with after seven years of no exposure to the language was going to be an on-going theme of this vacation.

“Daisy and Warren don’t eat meat, milk, fish, or eggs.”

“Neither meat NOR milk NOR eggs?”

“對–I mean–Yes.

“Nor fish? What about cheese?”

“No cheese.”

“Yogurt?”

“No yogurt.”

“NOT EVEN YOGURT?! Τι μαλακίες είναι αυτό;” “What bullshit is this?”

And i just laughed and laughed while Ioulia continued.

“So what do they eat? BEANS?”

“Yes, a lot of beans.”

Καλά,” she cast her eyes toward the stove dismissively but defeated, “I guess you’re going to eat beans.”

And yet, when the beans, pasta, and salad were served to the table outside, an ENORMOUS plate of feta cheese was set in front of Daisy and Warren. We all made eye contact and I grabbed a hunk of bread and pulled the plate closer to me, “Well, I guess she forgot.” But maybe she didn’t, and was just testing to make sure that I was telling the truth. Anyway, we ate even though we only wanted sleep because in Greece that is how you show your elders that you love them back. When the language barrier is so high, and you are forced to live so far apart most of your lives, you can make the sacrifice of little desires and needs in order to show that despite any obstacle there is still love. With my family, no matter where you end up or how much time passes, there will always be love and food.

To be continued.

**Featured image from Vasilis Porgiazis**

Istanbul: Where I Get a Taste of What Tom Hanks Felt in ‘Terminal’ and ‘Cast Away’

I actually managed to fall into a deep, dreamless sleep somehow after hours of struggle. How long was I out? Two, maybe three hours? Why did I wake up? The pool of drool collecting on the hand tucked under my cheek was indication enough. Gross, I thought. My eyes still had no idea what they were looking at from their blurry, latitudinal purview. I could at least gather that I was looking out a window and it was sunrise. Glasses…please don’t be crushed. Glasses found under my stomach or ribs, status: not crushed. I sat up a little, jean jacket still tucked around my torso. Still looking out the window, I saw beyond the runways, a large mosque shining peach-orange in the hot, early sunrise. The call to prayer could be heard if I listened carefully.

I looked around. The passengers that were sleeping around me when I tucked myself in were still snoozing away, but with the regular morning hours upon us, more families with children occupied the vacant seats. Soon, I thought, there will be too much noise for sleep.

Unlucky for me, my flight from Seoul to Istanbul arrived early, extending my airport terminal prison sentence by an extra hour which meant I would be stuck in international purgatory from 4:00 A.M. until 2:00 P.M. The worst part was that I knew in my heart of hearts my flight to Athens would take off late. Such is the Mediterranean world. Asia, with all its comforts when it comes to customer convenience and service, was now behind me. I pulled out my phone and my mind and heart heaved in exasperation together, only a dismal 35 minutes had passed since I fell asleep.

Even at four in the morning, the Istanbul airport was bustling with people from every corner of the earth. Iran, France, Korea, Sudan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, Vietnam, the U.S., Yemen, Italy…I felt like I was in the center of the world. Protip: When you visit the center of the world, bring a book or Kindle because there’s no free WiFi.

The flight from Seoul was pleasant enough but I had not had a good night’s sleep in three days, which made laying down as soon as possible priority number one. First stop: the hotel airport. I knew it would be expensive, but it felt so seedy when they told me they charge by the hour, and infuriating to find out that for a two-hour nap I would have to shell out 115 euros. Plan B, I decided to see if a plebeian traveler could somehow pay her way into an airline lounge. Emirates, China Airlines, Qatar Airways, Air France, KLM—no one would take me. Overly made-up, thin women would barely even look at me as they shooed me from their desks. I could not have felt more like Oliver Twist unless I had an empty bowl and was covered in soot. I was desperate for some peace of mind, some privacy, honestly a clean bathroom would be nice enough (I would give a solid two out of five for the public restrooms in the airport). Not a chance. Finally, on my fourth lap around the airport, refusing to have Istanbul break me so quickly, I found a row of unoccupied benches, and taking a cue from the other single passengers, I sprawled myself out across five seats, used my purse as a pillow, my jean jacket as a blanket and passed out.

Little did I know, this was major foreshadowing for the adventures ahead.

The hours grinded by and I must have walked through every duty free shop, every cafe, and made at least 15 loops around the entire airport. The Turkish gift shop was amusing to me for a good 30 minutes. Every single item in that store could be found in Greece. The major difference? Language and whether or not the item was Halal. Again, major foreshadowing for the rest of the trip.

Finally, I found myself in front of my gate at 2:00 P.M., so done with the day. Ready to be in Greece; dying to see my sister after so long; longing to hug and kiss my giagia after so many years; dreading even another hour on a metal tube rocketing through the air. Luckily, the trip was hardly painful. I was seated next to a fellow American from Los Angeles who was on a solitary Mediterranean journey, who was reading the fourth book in the Game of Thrones series. “Hey, so, I’m a huge GoT fan and I want to read the books, but they are such a commitment. Do you think it’s worth it?” And so commence GoT geeking out until the Athens runway was in sight.

With the runway in sight, all conversation about Game of Thrones stopped. I couldn’t believe it: Greece, just below me! The airplane tires touched down and I felt myself actually shaking with excitement. I’m here. I’m back. I can’t believe it.

Photo credit: http://bit.ly/1YmvtJW

Day-Tripping Daegu with Dora and Carolyn

I entered the KTX (Korea’s bullet train) station with my Korail Pass in hand. The pass offered a 20,000 Won (19 USD) discount for my roundtrip to Daegu, a benefit only offered to tourists. By 11:30 I was on the train speeding toward Daegu at 150 miles per hour.

I already spent most of my vacation week in central Seoul, and thought it was worth paying Daegu, South Korea’s third biggest city and a historical sight, a visit just to change up the pace of the week. Also, I have a college friend, Carolyn, residing in Daegu and teaching English to public school kids. I thought if I’m going to do a random day-trip, to a new place where I actually know someone and who speaks Korean would make the trip more interesting. Carolyn and I would meet for dinner after she was done with work. Until then, I would wander the city on my own.

It took about an hour and a half to reach Dong Daegu Station and as I lily-padded from WiFi hotspot to WiFi hotspot, I tried to research what the heck I was actually going to do in Daegu before dinner. Though I do some research before my trips, I really like the go-with-flow method of travelling, too, though it is a bit anxiety-inducing. I soon found that the easiest way to reach the city center AND get an introduction to the town would be with a Daegu city bus tour, a 4,000 Won (approx 4 USD) ticket to the main sights of the city.

Stepping out of the station, I was instantly hit with the impression that Daegu was small– much smaller than Seoul. The sheer lack of people and commuters outside the exit intensified the vastness of the station relative to the city, and accentuated the ugliness that is massive on-going construction. A new, yet very familiar, feeling hit me instantly as I stepped into the sun: heat. I had only five days off from the tropical humidity of Kaohsiung in July, but my break from it in Seoul was enough to decrease my patience and tolerance for summer heat. The heat fell on my body in layers, like a heavy, velvet curtain dropped from a high ceiling onto my shoulders and back. And though I wanted to flail my arms and free myself from its clutches, I would never get this metaphorical curtain off of me. It was unsettling at first. Getting to grips with my new, shadeless environment, I moseyed my way toward the City Bus Tour stop as indicated by the colorful brochure I picked up outside the station. I followed big, equally colorful English signs first straight then right, along a fenced off sidewalk, then left and straight again until the fence ended and I was on a new sidewalk facing a major road steaming in the noon-day sun. The bus was parked near a lamppost that sported a sign with rainbow text “Daegu City Tour.” It was set to leave in three minutes, but when I boarded I was the only passenger in a 50-seater bus. Even the driver seemed surprised to see me.

I opened my official City Bus Tour brochure and looked at the stops ahead. Not knowing much about the city other than it was big on textile and clothing manufacturing, I thought Seoswang Market, a traditional market that sells everything from dried fish to textiles to jewelry, would be a good place to explore. An elderly Korean woman, the day’s “tour guide” boarded and looked at my foreign face with mild fear. She didn’t speak any English and I speak no Korean whatsoever, beyond “anyeongha-seo” and “kamsamnida” which mean “hello” and “thank you.” Through her mobile phone’s translation app we communicated haltingly and with frequent giggles about where I wanted to go and how the City Tour  worked. Until 5:00 P.M., I could go to any tour bus stop in town and wait to board the bus that would take me to the next major tourist spot. In the meantime, I was settled on seeing the market.

IMG_0765

After a year in Asia, I started to sense that sightseeing in most cities should be left for the evening, especially during the summers. Maybe arriving in Daegu in the heat of the afternoon wasn’t such a smart idea. I started to get that feeling when the bus let me out at the Seoswang Market entrance and saw only a smattering of senior citizens going about their daily work, zipping along sidewalks on their scooters to do deliveries, and fanning themselves in shady doorways and the awnings of storefronts. Seoswang has a multi-floored indoor market that resembled Beijing’s Silk Market to a large extent, glimmering cheap to expensive goods available for purchase from shrewd store owners if you were willing to put up the fight to haggle. Seeing as how I wasn’t really in the market for cheap souvenirs and only to explore, I spent maybe ten minutes inside the air-conditioned marketplace before stepping outside again in the common market. The common market was filled with a seemingly random assortment of goods for sale. Within a 100 meter stretch, you could buy anything from a freshly killed chicken to 3,000 Won ($3 USD) pants to “antique” vases to a freshly fried lunch. Daegu being more southern and less cosmopolitan than Seoul felt more like Kaohsiung than ever when I approached the food stalls that filled the center walkway of several wings of the common market. Fried and sweet meats, vegetables, oily crepe like pancakes with sauce, and of course deokbokki (rice cakes in spicy-sweet sauce) appeared to be the everyday fare.

I took in the aura of the market for several more minutes, wandering stand to stand until I felt a pit in my stomach open up. It was 2:00 P.M. and I still hadn’t eaten for the day. Without any Korean language ability, I settled on scanning the plates of customers already eating at various stands to decide where I would make an attempt to order lunch. I finally settled on a place that seemed to be serving Korean pancakes and chicken. Though I didn’t know it yet, the most interesting part of my day was about to start.

Randomness: it's what's for lunch

Randomness, it’s what’s for lunch. Top: sweetly fried chicken with a chunk of uncooked instant noodles. Bottom: savoury, crepe topped with hot pepper seasoning and onions.

“Anyeong,” I said in my innocent tourist voice, “do you have a menu?” I outlined a box shape with my hands to further get the message across, hoping to break the language barrier with the universality of charades.

“Oh we don’t have a menu here,” a young woman serving plates responded in confident, though heavy-accented, English. Taken off guard, but also relieved that I was going to be able to communicate I just said, “well, how about you can just serve me whatever is the most popular food.” The girl thought for a moment as she turned back toward the grill, “How hungry are you? Do you eat chicken?”

“Pretty hungry and yes, I do.” I said.

“Okay, well take a seat, I’ll make you something.” Success! I sat down and immediately began to chat with girl, self-named Dora, about where I was from and what I was doing in Daegu. “Why did you come to Daegu?” She asked.

“Oh you know, just to see it. Why not? I had a free day.”

“But why?” Dora responded haughtily, “there’s nothing to see here, only downtown at night. And it’s hot now. You know what we call Daegu in Korea? D’Africa. Because it gets so hot and terrible here.” I didn’t really catch where the linguistic connection between Daegu and “D’Africa” came from, but I laughed at the joke because as a first-time tourist here, I was expected to.

“Oh I didn’t know that, but Daegu looks nice so far and I heard it’s pretty historic. It’s a small town, but the people are nice.” I nodded to her. She smiled and then turned back to her cooking as she thought of new questions to ask this naive tourist.

The food was done quickly. Dora placed the hot plates of chicken and instant noodles and what looked like a Korean-style crepe, and I started eating right away. Meanwhile, Dora and her mother, the stand owner, unleashed a flurry of questions. Where did I come from? Where was I staying? How did I get to Daegu? Why was I in Korea? How was Taiwan like? How is New York like? Do I like Korea? And so on. I finished my food, but we three continued to talk about pretty much everything under the sun. Sitting beside me now on the customer-side of the stand, Dora said, “you’re so lucky! You can travel everywhere. I’m always stuck here,” she gestured toward the resturant with a roll of her eyes and wave of her hand. “I have to work every day and my parents won’t let me go anywhere! And you know what?” She leaned in, “my they don’t even pay me!” She began to cry mockingly fake tears into the table, and again I laughed because I was supposed to, but this time more genuinely.

Dora is probably between 23 and 26 years-old. She has a short hair cut reminiscent of her TV show namesake, and a face that smiles easily with cute chubby cheeks that reflect an overall positive personality. Though she makes frequent grammar mistakes in English, she is so outgoing, talkative, and enjoys American slang so much the errors don’t hold her back, it just adds to her charm. Over lunch, she told about her year in Fiji studying English and where she learned her extensive, colorful vocabulary. “It was paradise! I had so many friends!” She excalimed, “But it was a one time thing. My parents can’t afford to send me somewhere again.” She pouted intensely for all of two seconds, and then switched back into her signature ear-to-ear smile, “but now you’re here! Where are you going?” I showed her my Daegu City Tour brochure, “I guess to the places here. I don’t know Daegu, so I was just going to see the really touristy stuff.”

With just a glance, Dora smacked my brochure that I was still holding in my hands, “Ugh, this shit! These f***ing….don’t go to this f***ing shit.They’re ugh! Just no!.” She said with finality as my eyebrows rose to the highest reaches of my forehead at the sound of sudden f-bombs.

“But, wait a minute, there’s NOTHING in here worth seeing?” I said as I laughed, “There’s got to be something.” Dora groaned a bit, but reluctantly opened the brochure, snagged a pencil from the counter and started scribbling her Daegu-ian annotations. “Don’t go here or here,” she said looking at a feature on some parks, “sooooo many grandmas and grandfas. Boring.” (Sometimes, Korean speakers will mix the “p” and “f” sounds). She proceeded to draw two huge X’s over the page and wrote at the top “Grandma. Grandfa,” so I wouldn’t forget.

“Oh and don’t go here. So boring. It’s just a store, like outlet. Unless you wanna buy Gucci or something.” Another big X into the brochure.

“Hm, here,” she looked at a page with a picture of a lake, “This place is nice, but you must go at night. It’s a couples area, but everyone in Daegu takes a walk here at night. With dogs, boyfriends, kids, and they play music too. It’s nice.” Double circle for this one. Dora flipped through the brochure a couple more times before writing anything else down. “Actually,” she said finally, “all these places here are walking distance, and you DEFINITELY need to go to downtown. There is actually LIFE there. And shopping and food and sweets and DRINKING.” A flash of light shone in her eyes with the last word. “Ah! Why didn’t you come on a Friday!? Lots of foreigners will be there on Fridays. It’s so much fun. Okay, you know what, I’m going to show you how to get to downtown now. Hold on, let me tell my mom. I’m going to ditch this place.”

And like that, without even getting a word of opinion in, I suddenly had my own semi-tour guide and friend for the afternoon. We visited the century-old Catholic church in Daegu, passed through some smaller city streets with cool street art, and then made it to central downtown where all the shops and Korean retail brands were. If there was ever a sign that Daegu is a small town, it was in the downtown area. Taking a stroll through the most popular streets, it wasn’t hard to notice the same faces over and over again. There was one tall foreigner that I saw twice in two different  places in the city during my day there. When I mentioned this to Dora she said, “Oh yeah, and dating sucks here. Everyone knows each other and everyone can see when you’re on a date with someone new. Nothing is secret.”

A Korean saint in stained glass at the Daegu Gyesan Catholic Church

A Korean saint in stained glass at the Daegu Gyesan Catholic Church

After a couple of hours together, trying on clothes and people watching, it was time for Dora to go back to work at her parents’ food stand. She dropped me off at a bus stop and told me how to get to my meet up spot where I would meet Carolyn. We exchanged Facebook info and as quickly as I had met her, she was gone again. Once I was on the bus, she yelled from the sidewalk “Next time, come back on a Friday and we’ll drink together!”

Dora from Daegu says good-bye from the bus stop.

I met Carolyn in the major underground mall where the two main subway lines in Daegu connect. The mall was immense and cold because it was air conditioned and sheltered from the sun. It was also packed with all manner of people, especially youth, and it was then that I suddenly realized (after two trips to South Korea) that Korean people are hooked on shopping. Before my phone died, I was able to find a cafe and get on WiFi to tell Carolyn where I was. We met up and headed back to the main downtown area I had just been for dinner. We found a low-key Korean barbecue restaurant in a winding alley way and started to catch up on the last few years since we had seen each other.  Korean barbecue usually entails the guests to cook raw meat on their own at a grill installed into the table. Yet, despite the fact that Carolyn had been living in Daegu for a year and that the establishment was a locals’ haunt, we had an overly attentive waiter cooking our food for us. Usually in Asia, a foreign face means, “I don’t know how to do anything.”

After dinner, Carolyn asked me what else I wanted to see in Daegu, and I heard Dora’s voice in my head. “Got to the lake ONLY AT NIGHT.” So Carolyn and I took a bus and then walked a bit to Suseong Lake, known as a popular meeting place for young couples because of its frequent appearance in romantic scenes on Korean dramas. Carolyn told me about the several on-screen couples whose relationships started or ended at this very lake, and the fandom that surrounds it. “Some people will even come here to re-enact some scenes.” There was a fare share starry-eyed young lovers, but higher in number were the families out for evening walks with their pocket-sized pooches. The walk around the lake was so full of people, musical performers, and chatter that it felt like an amusement park at closing when the hoards make their way to the main exit. Instead, at Suseong Lake, families and couples kept arriving and stayed to enjoy a moment of relief from the heat, the sun, and the daily work grind. There is a sense of calm in the endless circular walk around a large body of dark water.

Me & Carolyn

Even Carolyn and I lost track of time as we talked for hours, telling and retelling stories about Syracuse and life thereafter. At about 9:45 P.M. I realized I was pushing dangerously close to missing my train back to Seoul, and we had to walk/trot back to the monorail that would take me through the subway system back to Dong Daegu Station. I made it back with about 10 minutes to spare. The KTX rolled out of the station and I prompty passed out, snoozing through Daejong and other cities we passed on the way hurtling toward Seoul.

Overall, it was a nice day trip and I got to see something new in South Korea, especially that small-town scene. My one regret is that I didn’t have an extra day to devote to visiting Busan. I guess it will have to wait for the next time I visit South Korea, whenever that may be.

Quick Update before the Catch Up

Hey friends and visitors,

It’s now October and I’ve been far and away from this blog for too long. I apologize for my disappearance off the face of the earth, but three months and three countries later…I AM BACK IN THE U.S. Washington, D.C. to be precise.

I will spend the next couple of weeks playing catch up to tell you about my adventures in South Korea, Greece, Taiwan, and back to the States, but until then enjoy apology cat (above).

Reaching New Heights Hiking Bukhansan

Last Tuesday, I wanted to give hiking another go because Achasan was such an easy hike. This time, with my Airbnb host, I hiked Bukhansan, Seoul’s tallest peak. Standing at just above 800 meters, it makes an impression on the surrounding landscape. I’m not an avid hiker, but I do like new challenges. This was probably the tallest mountain I’ve hiked before, and it was a brutal two and a half hours to get to the top. My first hint that this would be a rough hike should’ve been that I couldn’t get a single friend to join me in the hike. On my first day in Seoul, my friends asked me, “so how do you want ot spend your time in Korea?” I answered with, “I don’t know, I’m up for anything, but what about hiking?” The response was met with a wary, “okay, where were you thinking?”

“Well, I heard Bukhansan is the tallest mountain in Seoul. It’s supposed to offer amazing views.”
“Uh…okay, wow. Bukhansan? Hm. Let’s think about it.”

Anyone that’s spent time in East Asia or South Korea, knows that such a vague answer usually means, “No.” Undeterred, I mentioned my plan to hike Bukhansan with or without company to as many people as I could. Finally, I mentioned the idea to my Airbnb host, Noah, and to my surprise he said he wanted to join. The morning of the hike, I dressed in yoga pants, a tank top, and my old running shoes. My purse carried two water bottles, my wallet, sunglasses, some peanut snacks, a roll of kimbap, and my phone. In my world, that means I’m ready to hike. In his world, and every Ajima (elderly woman in Korean) I met on the subway ride to the Bukhansan bus stop, I was setting myself up to sincerecly regret my day and possibly slide down a mountain face to my death. No matter. Even though I stood out like a sore thumb among the fully equipped, backpack-ed hikers, I was determined Bukhansan was going down.

I saw this Ajima, barely five feet tall, hop on her Harley just before our bus arrived. She rode up to the intersection and I snapped a picture without thinking. Why stay home and knit when you could ride your motorcycle into the sunset like a total badass?

I saw this Ajima, barely five feet tall, hop on her Harley just before our bus arrived. She rode up to the intersection and I snapped a picture without thinking. Why stay home and knit when you could ride your motorcycle into the sunset like a total badass?

Hiking Bukhansan easily takes a full day. First, it takes at least an hour and a half to arrive at the base of the mountain, by subway then by bus. Then it’s an increasingly steep and rocky climb to the top for two hours. If your legs aren’t ready for an endless stairmaster workout, then it’s better to save Bukhansan for another day. Also, be ready to sweat. No matter how much or how little clothing you’re wearing, hiking in July entails that you will be streaming with sweat. But it’s all worth it when you reach the peak. Maybe it was the altitude, maybe it was the endorphinsf from pushing my body to climb as fast as I could, but standing on top of Bukhansan’s windy peak and staring down at the green and hazy world below lifts your spirits like nothing else. You will also have a newfound appreciation for all the seniors climbing up along side of you. I only wish I could be a fraction as healthy and fit at their age as they are now. In another bad ass Ajima/Ajashi moment at the peak, many of them were drinking Makgeolli at the top of the mountain. Makgeolli is a milky alcohol and an acquired taste that resembles an alcoholic, watery yogurt in texture and taste. It reminded me of something that maybe our grandparents’ generations would drink during wartimes when options for something better were scarce.

I won’t post too much about the actual hike, so I can talk about Daegu in my next post. But leave me questions in the comments if you have any, and I will be happy to answer them!

Thumbs up, half way point!

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Old fortress wall near the peak. Noah takes another break (right) as he admits defeat to mighty Bukhansan.

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Munching on some kimbap near the peak. The altitude is supposed to make food taste better, but I think sheer exhaustion was a good enough flavor enhancer.

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The Stone Phoenix of Bukhansan. Probably not it's real name, but it works.

The Stone Phoenix of Bukhansan. Probably not it’s real name, but it works.

Of course they sell ice cream on the mountain and of course we got some.

From the Heart of Asia to Its Seoul

I arrived in Seoul from Taiwan (the “Heart of Asia“) a few days ago and have been spending my time mostly with one of my best friends from college and her sister as well as being lost in the endless Seoul subway system.

Just from the first few days I have to say it’s been great getting away from Taiwan’s heat and humidity. The first night I was here was windy and I actually felt a chill that made me put on my jacket. I checked later and saw it was a frigid 75 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s also nice to be in a place that has the same living standards as the U.S. and that has elaborate and mostly convenient subway system. I say mostly because I’m writing this while waiting for my train and it’s already been 30 minutes. I guess Hoegi (pronounced “higgy”) Station must be like Greenpoint and this train is like the G train running weekend schedule every day.

The past couple of days I’ve mostly spent in the Gangnam area with my Ye-lin and Ye-Jin. Gangnam is about 35 minutes away from Hoegi and its also the place named in Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” They have this massive mall that’s like the Macy’s NYC mall but if the entire building were made of marble and glass, half of it were entirely underground, and the foodcourt was an endless array bakeries and restaurants. The mall is Shinsaegae, and anyone who has been to Seoul has been there or at least bumped into one of them. They are owned by Samsung, so they have the wealth and power to erect huge buildings all over the place.

Ye-Lin (left) and me. Friends since 2010, Orange pride for life.

Ye-Lin (left) and me. Friends since 2010, Orange pride for life.

Me, Ye-Lin, and Ye-Jin (left to right) after our spa day on Sunday.

Me, Ye-Lin, and Ye-Jin (left to right) after our spa day on Sunday.

I also went to the French Quarter where, get this, there is actually a significant population of French people living and working in Seoul. So there are some amazing patisseries and boulangeries as well as almost every single luxury French brand store you can imagine. It was so bizarre to see so many French people in the middle of Seoul, but I guess the feeling is akin to a Midwesterner visiting Chinatown in NYC for the first time. You might be thinking I had French food for lunch there, but you’d be wrong. Ye-Jin suggested this incredible burger place called Brooklyn. Seriously, it was probably the best burger I’ve eaten since going out to Harlem Public last year. If for some reason you ever find yourself in Brooklyn, in the French Quarter of South Korea’s capital, eat there! Don’t even bother to look at the menu. Order the Burgherita and a Nutella and marshmallow milkshake and enjoy the rave your taste buds throw for you in your honor. Seriously, it’s that good.

Brooklyn in the French Quarter of Seoul.

Brooklyn in the French Quarter of Seoul.

Burgers, shakes, and fries.

Burgers, shakes, and fries.

On Saturday, I had the whole morning and afternoon to myself so I decided to go for a hike. It’s been a long time since Kaohsiung wasn’t a fiery hellscape, so I’ve been itching to climb a mountain without suffering from heat stroke. Looks like I picked the wrong day.

I went to Achasan or Mt. Acha (San means mountain), a begginer’s level hiking peak. I took the train to Wangshimni, which brought me to another subterranean world (half of Seoul’s population could probably live in the tunnels that crisscross all over the city, there are just so many!). I grabbed some mini pies and an egg sandwich from a bakery and continued onto line 5 which would take me to the Achasan stop.

Though I’d heard Achasan was the smallest of the local peaks in Seoul and one of the easiest to climb, I was dripping with sweat just from the walk from the metro station to the perimeter of the park. Clad in athletic shorts, a T-shirt, running shoes, and a baseball cap, I easily zipped by the swaths of seniors who sported full hiking gear (long pants and jacket), backpacks, large hats, gloves, and ski poles/hiking sticks. At the gate of the park was a water refill station that provided free, ice cold water from the tap. Dozens of seniors were crowded around the watering hole, and I could barely find a free spot to squeeze through before I felt an elbow or a hand push me out of the way. I looked around and noticed everyone was equally soaked in sweat and had a look of utter fatigue on their faces. Maybe today was hotter than I thought?

When I finally refilled my 2 water bottles, I headed up the mountain. After a year in a subtropical climate where shady large-leafed trees, bamboo, monkeys, and flying cockroaches are the norm, hiking on Achasan felt plsin. Besides the pine trees, which were a sight for sore eyes, that took root in the shallow soil above the granite there was little natural life beyond the occasional mosquito. I nostalgically yearned to hear the sound of monkeys fighting and bamboo creaking in the wind. Speaking of wind, there was barely even a breeze the entire walk up until I reached the very peak of Achasan. There, I could feel the air subtly moving like a whisper, just enough to actually offer a cool sensation.

View of the Han River from Achasan.

View of the Han River from Achasan.

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Stone Pavilion reconstructed on the site where the original once stood some 600 years ago.

The first reason I chose to hike Achasan was because of it’s reputation of being an easy peak (meaning I’d just spend a couple hours and go home), the second was because of its historic value. There are still some ruins of fortresses and look-out stations from Ancient Korea’s “Three Kingdoms” period (not to be confused with China’s Three Kingdoms), when the control and use of the Han River (Seoul’s lifeline) was still contested. When you reach the top of the mountain and stare out at the cityscape, you can see exactly why Achasan was so important. Achasan has a perfectly clear view of the eastern portion of the Han River and its banks. A lookout could easily spot any dangerous movement of people or ships in and around the river from miles away. They would also have ample time to warn people living at the base of the mountain and surrounding areas. Nowadays the peak of the mountain serves as a beautiful scenic spot; a moment of gratification once you reach the top.

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What’s left of the ancient fortress built nearly 700 years ago. You can still see the shape of the wall just behind the trees.

One of the very many elderly hikers also visiting Achasan on Seoul's hottest day.

One of the very many elderly hikers also visiting Achasan on Seoul’s hottest day.

As I made my way back down the mountain I became increasingly self-conscious as to how much I had actually sweated. It was probably the most in my life. My entire shirt was a shade darker and I could feel the grit of salt and sand sliding on my forearms and shins. I would find out from Ye-Lin later that apparently it was Seoul’s hottest day of the year, so hot that city hall announced a warning against people exercising during the day.

“Dear God,” I thought as I approached the subway entrance. I was thinking of all the beautifully dressed, meticulously make-upped women on the subway, “I’m a mess and I really hope I don’t smell.” Luckily I’m 85% sure I didn’t have super bad B.O. on the commute home.  No one covered their noses or stepped back when they stood next to me, so I took that as positive feedback and tried to avoid contact the entire ride home. Random sidenote, for a developed country capital, Seoul adheres to some really intense gender norms for appearance. I’ve noticed make-up, especially lipstick, is pretty much a requirement for going outside if you’re an adult female. Heels aren’t a must, but encouraged. Everyone looks like a freaking model, and if they don’t have the size 0 body, they definitely have the wardrobe. It’s enough to make a girl think twice about stepping onto the shiny, AC’d subway in sweaty workout clothes. In my, what most people would assume is, disgusting condition on Satuday I’m sure I stood against everything that is expected of a lady commuter that afternoon. Oh well.

I made it to dinner on the other side of town an hour late. I was supposed to be there for 5:00 but arrived at 6:00. Ye-Lin and Ye-Jin planned a fried chicken and beer picnic near the Han River. Thanks to not having any cell phone or data plan in Seoul, I was unable to tell them that apparently on Saturday evenings commuters are just as packed into the trains as they are during weekday rush hour. I waited 35 minutes for one train and then another 15 minutes to transfer. We were packed into the cars to the point where I couldn’t move my arms and legs until the next stop, and then it would only be to readjust before the onslaught of bodies unforgivably mashed themselves into the train car again. Awesome that some folks DID sport the enchanting parfum of outdoor hard labor on the hottest day of the year.

Just a bit of the crowd on the subway on Saturday.

Just a bit of the crowd on the subway on Saturday.

When I finally did make it to meet up spot, I had all but irrevocably damaged dinner plans. The chicken was cold, the girls were weary from worry, and my legs were tired, limp meat bags on my body. Luckily, there was some daylight left and we headed straight away to the park and commenced picnicking. Night fell two hours later and by that time the good conversation and food made my commute of nightmares seem like a distant past. I was sufficiently content with the way the day went. The mosquitoes started biting, cuing our exit, and as we carried the trash away, fat and scattered raindrops began to fall. The typhoon expected to pass on Sunday was signalling that it would be on time.