Saturday, December 25, 2021

2021 Resolution (Get 50 Rejections) in Review

***13 Apr 2022 UPDATE: My story, "100 Ways to Pass as Human", is now live on Daily Science Fiction! I hope it brings you joy.

***3 Jan 2022 UPDATE: Since writing this blog post, I learned that another one of my submissions was accepted, meaning I actually had my two first-ever fiction sales from my 2021 submissions! This piece is a science fiction short short story (i.e., flash fiction) and was accepted to a publication that pays professional rates! I'm so thrilled and will share the piece once it's out in the world.***

I love New Year's resolutions and I'm usually pretty good about sticking to them the whole year. I find goal-setting very motivating and personally use each new year as an opportunity to challenge myself and stretch outside of my comfort zone. At the end of last year, I decided 2021 would be a year to confront the natural human fear of rejection. Inspired by a post I read online about a successful, published writer who seeks to earn 100 rejections each year, I decided I would shoot for 50 rejections in 2021.

Most of those were creative writing rejections, but I counted a few examples where I applied for something (like an internal job opportunity at the Embassy where I work) or put myself out there and was turned down (as I did when a scholar rejected my invitation to speak on a panel I organized as part of my volunteer work).

I learned so much from repeated rejection and am happy I completed this resolution. Here are some of my takeaways (in no particular order):

  • My skin got thicker. It's only natural that we all want to be liked and accepted and praised. But rejection is part of life (and personal growth), so receiving it more than usual helped me toughen up my response to it.
  • Making a rejection goal helps you maintain a positive outlook. It's always disappointing to be turned down for something, but at least during 2021 each rejection brought me one step closer to my yearlong goal of 50 rejections.
  • Pursuing rejection means aiming higher. I submitted my work to publications I would only dream of one day accepting something I wrote because an openness to rejection gave me greater courage to shoot for the stars. After all, if the worst that could happen was that they rejected me then I had already prepared myself well for that possibility.
  • In the case of writing or similar creative pursuits, you need material before you can even try for rejection. I wrote more pieces, entered more writing contests, and polished and edited more rough drafts this year simply because I knew I would need them to reach my goal. In the process, I developed better writing habits and experience.
  • The same thing that makes rejection sting (putting your heart and soul into something and offering it up for someone else's consideration) is also what leads to success. In 2021, I'm proud to say I succeeded in publishing my creative writing for payment the very first time. (Hey, it was $40 for a short story, but it's something!) I also noticed a major improvement in feedback from editors at publications I love: at first they only sent me form rejections, then nicer form rejections, and now more and more often I am receiving personalized feedback and even encouragement from editors to try again in the future. When I go back and read my writing from last year or even at the beginning of this year, I can really tell the difference.
  • There is an opportunity to learn from every rejection. With my fiction, for example, I didn't just spam editors. I reviewed my work after every rejection, seeing if there were places I could improve and edit. As some rejections took many months, I often found my fresh and more practiced eyes could almost always find things I wanted to change before I resubmitted. And over time, I became more efficient at revising my older pieces. Eventually, I made the decision to put aside some of my earlier writing because I felt I had improved significantly since I wrote those pieces and a simple edit wouldn't suffice. I would need a full rewrite to be confident submitting some of them again.
  • I sought out and benefitted from resources where people I admire talked about their experiences persevering through rejection. The statistics and advice on Richard Thomas's piece "Storyville: Surviving Rejection" had a huge impact on me and helped push me to keep going.

Another writer suggested trying a submission goal in the future instead of a rejection goal, since rejections and acceptances are out of your control but submissions aren't. I thought this was wonderful advice, but I still think the rejections goal helped me see little wins in every rejection that otherwise might have only been disheartening. If you find yourself in a bit of a plateau in whatever your goals are - creative, academic, professional, personal - and benefit from targeted New Year's resolutions, then I highly recommend giving 50 rejections a try.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Getting in the Spirit of the Season

I love this time of year, where we celebrate Christmas in our own way. I love to decorate the house, attend themed parties and cookie exchanges, see light shows and any other seasonal attractions, blast Christmas music 24/7, and do the #LightTheWorld calendar (which gives you a service prompt every day of December) provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. M and I don't do gifts because we're pretty minimalist, though we definitely got them as kids and I successfully convinced M we need to do gifts (and all holidays) for our child.

This weekend, we finally got the Christmas tree and decorations up. Marwan always does the tree itself and the lights, because he's so much better at distributing things evenly. Then, I swoop in to spread all the ornaments around. This year, we got a new ornament to commemorate our tour here in Seoul. My favorite ornament, though, is one we received from our high school bus driver, S: a painted bus with our number on it and everything! (For those who don't know, M and I went to high school together and met on the bus. I was stop #1 and he was stop #2. Our commute was about 5 hours round trip every day, so we all got to know each other pretty well in those years.)

I also attended a cookie exchange, one of my favorite holiday traditions. It wasn't until I was chatting with my Australian friend S that I realized this might be a very American thing. Each attendee to the cookie exchange bakes a lot of one kind of cookie. In the case of this party, we were supposed to make six dozen but I was so afraid of not having enough that I made over 100 cookies! I don't know how this started, but my go-to cookie for these exchanges every year is a thumbprint cookie: a sugar cookie with a thumbprint full of whatever jam I feel like or have in the fridge, coated with ribbons of white chocolate. (What's your favorite holiday cookie?)

So anyway, after each person bakes a ton of cookies, we all take them to someone's house and exchange cookies with each other! You bring one kind of cookie but can leave with ten different kinds. The one I attended this year was super organized and the host even prepared a recipe book of all the cookies people made so we could know how to make our favorites. I have a big cookie tin that I only break out specifically for cookie exchanges, and it was brimming with delectable goodies by the time I left the party.

I also took time off of work so we could go on a day trip with our friends (the other N and M) when it would be less crowded. I've wanted to go on this trip for a while. We visited Petite France (쁘띠프랑스), Nami Island (남이선), and the Garden of Morning Calm (아침고교수목원) - all in Gapyeong (가평) about an hour's drive from Seoul. Petite France had some nice views, but it was honestly a little disappointing.

I hoped to find at least one French café or restaurant, but really the only thing that was French about it was the architecture and artifacts inside the buildings. There was a lot of Le Petit Prince art and some attractions that were geared towards little kids, but there wasn't much for adults to do besides walk around and take a few photos.

After Petite France, we drove and took a ferry to Nami Island - a popular destination due to Winter Sonata and several other famous shows having been filmed there. We had a lovely walk around the island and saw wildlife we haven't seen elsewhere in Korea including rabbits, black squirrels, peacocks and peahens, and a lot of ravens.

Our final stop of the trip was the Garden of Morning Calm, which was by far my favorite destination of all. I had heard wonderful things about their annual winter light show, and it did not disappoint me. I'd even go so far as to say it's better than the Christmas light shows I usually go to see in the United States.

They had so many creative installations ranging from the mystical to the religious to the musical. There were clearly defined places to take great photos, as well, so I was extra thankful that we went on a random weekday. I imagine it could get very crowded on the weekends and it would be difficult to get photos without tons of people in the background.

I love celebrating what's special about each season, and that includes Christmas. Especially when you're far from family and your hometown, honoring traditions and commemorating holidays can help you feel less homesick and more settled wherever you are. At least, that's always worked for me. Let me know in the comments below if you have a special holiday tradition or something you love doing to celebrate the holiday season when you're far from home!

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

A Happy Birthday and Friendsgiving

I heard this Mark Twain quote recently for the first time and it struck a chord within me: "The further the pendulum swings out over woe the further it is bound to swing back over mirth." This sentiment always hits me harder during this time of year, which is full of holiday cheer and unique challenges at the same time. It's one of the reasons why I never participate in National Novel Writing Month (known as "NaNoWriMo"), where writers try to write 50,000 words (usually to start and finish a novel draft) in November. It's already such a hectic time of the year for me, and I personally don't need to add one more thing to my plate.

This year marked a decade since my father passed away unexpectedly. If I had to divide my life into two segments, I would still choose my dad's death as the dividing line because of how profoundly it changed me. My sister and I still talk about how it felt like our childhood ended that night and we had no other option but to grow up faster than we planned. I wish I could go back to my self then and give her a hug and tell her everything would be okay. I think she would be surprised now to see how well we're all doing once we weathered the many storms of that season of our lives.

I had a milestone birthday this year, and my amazing friend N wanted to make sure it was special. So she worked with M to plan a whole birthday party for me, and I didn't have to lift a finger! It was so fun to see so many friends from different circles of my life in Korea get together and hang out in person. (In the case of my friend S, we've been meeting on Zoom to study Korean folktales together for 8 months but my party was the first time we met in real life!) I was blown away by the decorations, photo backdrop, food, and cake (can you believe those flowers are edible?). I felt so special and can't remember the last time I actually had a real birthday party. I am so grateful for friends like N. The Foreign Service can be a lonely life, but it doesn't have to be.

Soon after, it was Thanksgiving - which has always been my favorite holiday. It's so close to my birthday that the whole month of November always felt like a celebration to me, and I love food and getting together with my family. My love of Thanksgiving as my family practiced it and ignorance of the full history behind the holiday has led me in the past to dismiss concerns about its celebration. I regret that now, especially as I've listened in a more heartfelt way to Native Americans and the injustices they not only experienced from settlers in the past but continue to face today. I do still partake of Thanksgiving with loved ones each year - whether family back home or friends while living abroad. But I am trying to find ways to honor the Indigenous people who made Thanksgiving and so many other things I benefit from consciously and unconsciously possible. This year, that's learning more about the Wampanoag people whose generosity sparked the first Thanksgiving meal.

As Thrillist states, "Only 16 years after members of the Wampanoag tribe feasted with Pilgrims, they were massacred, leading to a statement from Plymouth Governor William Bradford that for "the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory."" Did you know that? I didn't. You can learn more by listening to the latest episode of All My Relations, a podcast hosted by Indigenous women to explore topics relevant to Native American peoples. You could also read the book Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians but Were Too Afraid to Ask by Anton Treuer, which I just purchased and plan to read soon. I also asked friends online to join me in donating to the First Nations Development Institute, a national, nonprofit, Native American organization whose mission is to strengthen American Indian economies to support healthy Native communities. They believe (and I agree) that only solutions designed by Native peoples, for Native peoples, through the control of their assets and based on their cultural values, will succeed. They also have a perfect 4-star rating on Charity Navigator. You can donate to their organization in many different ways, all explained on their website.

I closed out the birthday and friendsgiving celebrations with my favorite birthday tradition. Although I'm in charge of food for our household the other 364 days of the year, M absolutely spoils me on my birthday by preparing and cooking whatever I request for my birthday. I tend to take full advantage of this arrangement and pick the most difficult and time-consuming recipes I can think of that I would love to have but don't feel like making for myself. This year, I let him postpone the actual cooking day given he had just arrived back in Korea a few days before my actual birthday and needed time to shop for the ingredients. Once the day arrived, though, he did not disappoint. Highlights included lemon blueberry pancakes, baked mac and cheese, almond macarons, stuffed cabbage (pictured above), and chocolate pudding.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

We're Having a Baby!

Surprise! We're having a baby, whom we've affectionately nicknamed #Sbitiny at the excellent suggestion of a couple of our wonderful neighbors and colleagues from Nairobi. We are so excited to expand our little family next spring and look forward to starting a new chapter of our lives. (And I'm grateful not to be hiding my growing belly and other signs of pregnancy from my friends and coworkers anymore! I've never wished I could telework so badly than during that first trimester...)

One of the first questions people ask when we share the good news is whether we're having a boy or a girl. We've decided to keep the sex of our baby a secret, so everyone will have to wait to find out after the birth. (No gender reveal parties for us! After all, it never made sense to me why we call them "gender reveal" parties when what they are revealing is the sex of the baby, not the gender, which is distinct. But I digress!)

Regardless, we are thrilled and busy preparing for our new addition, and we plan to have the baby here in South Korea instead of returning on what we call "OB medevac" to the United States to give birth. We are so grateful to live in a country with world-class medical care, great doctors, and plenty of unique things that made choosing to stay a no-brainer for us. I am also personally thankful for the very recent (i.e., starting October 1, 2020) introduction of parental leave to the Department of State, which will give me three months of paid leave to spend with our newborn.

I'm working on a mix of posts about other things we've been doing, some Foreign Service advice I've given to applicants lately, and more... So stay tuned for both some of the blog's more regularly scheduled programming as well as personal updates coming soon.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Ladies' Birthday Retreat in Gangwon-do

This past weekend was really special, as I had the chance to get away with some girl friends of mine from church and celebrate several of our birthdays in a region of South Korea called Gangwon-do (강원도). We stayed at Pure Water Resort (맑은물리조트), and we had such a wonderful time together!

Before I jump into the vacation portion of the weekend, I wanted to take a moment and share a little bit about the day before the trip began: November 11, or Veterans Day in the United States. I took the time to remember my late father, who served in the U.S. Air Force, and to explore the War Memorial of Korea (전쟁기념관) just a short walk from Yongsan Base. The museum was huge, and all the permanent exhibitions were accessible free of charge. A few stories really stuck with me. One account from a Turkish soldier who fought in the Korean War as part of the UN forces who came to South Korea's aid after North Korea's invasion described how a little Korean girl orphaned by the war touched his heart during his service. Decades later, that Turkish soldier and Korean girl - by then an old man and a grown woman with a family of her own - shared a tearful reunion. The veteran said he still prays for that girl and her family every day. My heart was so moved by that and so many of the other stories in the museum. I highly recommend a visit there to anyone visiting Seoul.

The next morning, I met up with my friend A and her friend J to catch a bus to Inje (인제) and from there we rented a car to get to our accommodations (commonly called a "pension" in Korea). Inje was full of unexpected surprises that I won't be able to get into on the blog, but make sure you do your research about various local businesses in advance before you patronize them. I'll leave it at that. We did have some scrumptious and decadent jokbal (족발, pig's foot) at a local restaurant and were lucky to get the last portions left. (We know we did because the next customer who came in without ordering in advance was turned away due to a lack of food!) The restaurant owner was so nice and even gave us free rice and samples of persimmon she'd dried herself to eat. We returned to our pension full and happy.

Late that night, our friends B and H joined the party (not that I was awake for their arrival) and our vacation was in full swing. The next day, a few of us went for a morning walk in the crisp fall air by the river next to our pension and enjoyed the sound of the rushing water, the view of falling leaves, and the glow of a freshly risen sun. When we got back inside, our other friends had already made breakfast! We ate our fill and then helped with the dishes so we weren't just a bunch of freeloaders.

After that, we decided to spend the day at a birch tree grove (인제 자작나무숲) and it did not disappoint. I can't remember the last time I saw birch trees, and their brilliant white trunks silhouetted against the sun made for an unforgettable view. We did the moderate hiking path, and I'm so glad we did because I needed a few breaks. I couldn't imagine doing the hardest difficulty path instead - that might've taken me all day.

We spent hours just hiking through the forest and taking photos together. Thankfully my friend B had the foresight to carry a great selection of hiking snacks which we munched on liberally: cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, mixed nuts, and dried fruit. I really appreciated that fuel, and by the time we were done with our hike I was ready for a nap. We got back to our pension and I crashed immediately, waking only when it was time for dinner.

H and B had picked up groceries and we did a home-style barbecue with beef, mushrooms, banchan (반찬, Korean side dishes) including radish kimchi, garlic, rice, sliced cucumber, and wraps of lettuce and perilla leaves (the perilla leaves are my favorite wrap by far). It was delicious and we all ate until we were stuffed (in Korean we say "배불러": bae bulleo). We even had some sparkling apple ciders to mark the occasion; after all, we were technically celebrating three of our birthdays on this trip!

Once we finished our meal, different subsets of our group played several very different games: Go-Stop (this was the traditional card game they showed in the movie Minari), Sequence, and Cards Against Humanity. By the time we finished playing, I had lost track of time and it was after midnight. Generally being an early bird, I turned in right away once I saw the time. Thankfully, I got to sleep in a bit the next day before it was time for breakfast again. We had Spam fried rice, French toast with butter and syrup, yogurt, blueberries, mixed nuts, and scrambled eggs with potatoes, onions, and peppers. I'm normally not a big breakfast eater but I wouldn't mind eating like that more often.

After we did the dishes, cleaned up, and repacked our bags, it was time to hit the road. We stopped by a river market with an eclectic array of artisans selling handmade and craft goods, local food products like honey and mulberry juice, and more. My friends bought a few items and we all grabbed an herbal tea or hot chocolate before we left. We made it back to Seoul from Gangwon-do in good time, but I'm sure it partially felt that way because we had such great company and conversation in the car.

I'm so grateful I found these amazing friends of mine in Korea, especially while I haven't been able to attend church in person during the pandemic. Especially when you move as frequently as we do, the people around you usually make or break a whole experience. I feel so lucky to have been accepted by these inspiring, strong, hilarious ladies and look forward to sharing more adventures with them in the time I have left in Korea.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Breathtaking Fall Foliage at Changgyeonggung Palace

The past few weekends, I've enjoyed spending some quality time with my Korean family. They are spoiling me, feeding me wonderful food and showing me around. Last year, I missed the fall foliage since I was stuck in quarantine. This year, I got to enjoy the autumn scenery with loved ones at Changgyeonggung Palace (창경궁) in Seoul. The views took my breath away and were so easily accessible: it was a leisurely walk around the palace and the entrance fee was only 1,000 Korean won per person (about $1).

The palace has an interesting history. King Seongjong had it built in 1483 to include accommodations for Joseon Dynasty kings' wives and concubines but most of it was destroyed during the Japanese invasion of the late 16th century. Since 1987, the palace buildings have been reconstructed as closely as possible to what records describe as the original layout and style. You can see and read more about its historic and cultural points of interest on the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration website (just click on the names of the points of interest on the right hand side to learn more).

I could see right away why Changgyeonggung is so popular in this season. Between the surrounding forest, beautiful pond, and extensive but easy walking paths, we easily passed many hours there admiring nature and capturing photos together. This has always been my favorite time of the year, as the weather cools down and excitement builds for a new school year and holiday season. I hope wherever you are reading this that you get a chance to celebrate the season, too.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Calling All 공부벌레 (Bookworms)! My Korean Book Recs

The word 공부벌레 (kongbu beolle) is a Korean expression that literally translates to "study nerd" but can generally refer to bookworms and nerds more generally. Of course, it was my nickname almost the entire time I've been in language training. (It's all my parents' fault, really. My mom took me to the library once a week when I was young, and throughout my whole life I watched my parents continue to read voraciously while raising us. Now my sister and I have become adults who devour books, too!) So anyway, as soon as my classmate at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) decided to start a book club for Korean language students I was excited to join.

Our book club was very low maintenance. Once a month, we would devote one lunch break to discussing the book we had all selected the previous month. (When the pandemic hit, we switched to virtual meetings on the weekends. And after we moved to Korea, we continued with weeknight dinners in person.) You didn't have to finish the book in order to attend, but one student would lead the meeting by asking questions, facilitating discussions, and providing snacks. The lead student would rotate each month depending on the book. I'm sure any long-term language class could easily do the same.

In case you're interested in what we read or you're thinking about picking one of these up for yourself, here are my brief thoughts on each book:

  • The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See: What a strong start to this book club! I had heard a few small references to Korea's famous Jeju Island and even the women divers known as the haenyeo (해녀) before, but I'll admit I didn't know much before reading this book. Set during Japanese occupation through the Korean War, this book wonderfully documents the intense realities of life for haenyeo women while exploring themes of loss, forgiveness, and suffering. To be honest, I had a hard time putting this book down. I laughed, I cried, and when I finished the book I sat and wondered what to do now that it was over. The author did an extraordinary amount of research to represent the historical and cultural context, but the beautifully written characters and heart-wrenching plot make this novel a true standout I would gladly recommend to anyone.
  • Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim: Given that this was an account of teaching North Korea's elite young men, it was a much fluffier read than I expected. The whole book club also agreed that it raised some serious ethical questions. I did learn some things about North Korea from reading the book, particularly about the education of youth and the differences in interactions with foreigners of different races. At the same time, the general consensus was that the book dwelt too much on what felt like superfluous details: the author's Brooklyn lover, detailed accounts of similar conversations, and so on. It wasn't my favorite book club read, but it's short enough you can breeze through pretty quickly if you don't have a lot of time to spare and want to peek through an often-shut window into North Korean society.
  • Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan by Frank Ahrens: What a title, right? This book was a fun read for so many reasons. I learned a lot about the car industry and Hyundai in particular despite having no baseline of knowledge (or too much interest) in cars generally. Also, the author was a spouse and EFM (Eligible Family Member) of someone working at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul who had never lived abroad before, so his observations about Korean culture and embassy life are interesting and full of humor.
  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang: I'm not going to sugar-coat it: I found this book quite disturbing. There's a surface-level story about one woman's choice to become vegetarian to the shock of everyone around her, but it's really an examination of the consequences of living life on one's own terms. That choice to be different causes everyone, even moreso in a collectivist environment, a lot of suffering and pain. But for the subject of the book, who is interestingly never the narrator, her rebellion also comes with a kind of freedom. I think folks who enjoyed the Academy Award-winning Parasite movie will also enjoy this thought-provoking and intense book, which also happens to be a very quick read.
  • In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers: Wow, this one was such an emotional read and I admit I shed a few tears by the time I finished. I was moved learning more about what this famous North Korean defector went through growing up under such extreme repression and horrifying circumstances that continued during her escape. This one definitely needs a content warning for sexual violence and suicide, but if those subjects aren't triggers for you then I would recommend this book. (Do note that Yeonmi Park has recently become very vocal in American politics, though, so be aware of that if you are interested in seeing what she's doing now.)
  • If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha: This was a quick read focusing on the lives of various fictional, modern Korean women told by a longtime CNN writer. I found the stories really powerful, with well-developed characters and a window into some of the more extreme characteristics of Korean women's experiences. This book tackles plastic surgery, room salons (i.e., escort parlors), demanding office culture, lookism, marriage, sex culture, and more through a narrative style that I personally enjoyed. I will add a content warning for suicide and miscarriage, but I found both to be portrayed respectfully, without too much detail.
  • Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo: This was the first (and only) time I read a full-length novel in Korean. It took me ages, but with plenty of time (and the help of a dictionary) I was able to do it and felt very accomplished afterward! This book is about an explicitly unremarkable woman who suddenly starts behaving strangely (similarly to the beginning of The Vegetarian). But over the course of this one regular everywoman's narrated life we can see all the normal yet insidious indignities that women in Korea and around the world experience and, frankly, are expected to put up with even in the modern age. There were so many passages where I just had to sit back and stew in my rage because I saw my own experiences even as an American woman reflected in Kim Ji-young over and over again. This book was cathartic for me and so many women and an important read for others who want to understand misogyny.
  • The Silence of Bones by June Hur: I absolutely loved this book! It was a YA (young adult) murder mystery but felt like a regular adult novel. This book is full of twists and turns and set in the Joseon period of Korea. The author did her historical research so well, and it shows: this is an immersive and delightful read that led to me reading a lot of Wikipedia articles about Korean history because I hungered for more information. The protagonist is also one of my favorite fiction leads of all time.
  • The Court Dancer by Shin Kyung-sook: It took me a while to get into this book because the main characters felt distant to me, but I really enjoyed the middle where the author expertly teases out the themes of Western colonialism and identity. The ending really shook me, but my heartbreak eventually deepened into appreciation for what I saw as the whole main character's story as an allegory for Korea. This book is heavy and at times distressing, but it adeptly uses a historical narrative to bring up questions and problems we're still grappling with today. And for that, I appreciated it.
  • Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-sook: I loved this book from the very beginning because of how complicated and messy the family dynamics were. Depending on the person, the understanding of the titular mom and the characters around her can vary widely. She can be saint or victim as well as a symbol of what is both good and bad in traditional society and family life in a changing world. This is definitely a good read for those who are into brooding literary fiction.
  • Almost American Girl by Robin Ha: This was the only graphic novel we read. It's a fantastic memoir for adults or older children that touches on the challenges faced by diaspora members, the relationships between parents and children, the pain of learning a new language and culture, bullying, body image, and so much more. Several of us cried at various moments while reading this story because it was so sweet and poignant and personal. I rooted so hard for the author and her mom and just felt so grateful that she was willing to share so much of her personal story. I'm sure plenty of people, especially young immigrants or third-culture kids, can relate. As unique as her specific experiences were, they resonated with common human emotions like rejection, shame, determination, joy, peace, and hope. I highly recommend this one!
  • The Nine-cloud Dream by Kim Man-jung: We read this book because it's considered one of the great classics of Korean literature. The novel weaves together political satire, Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, Chinese culture and history, and so much more. The most difficult part for me was the poor treatment of women throughout the book (i.e., they were primarily portrayed as sexual objects). The references were also a bit inaccessible for those of us without a background in Chinese literature, but I learned a lot about Korean and Chinese culture reading it.
  • Familiar Things by Hwang Sok-yoon: I adored this book. It had a dash of magical realism (including goblins of Korean folktale lore), incisive social, political, economic, and environmental commentary, and really well written and complex characters. This is the first book I've read in a very long time written from the perspective of a young boy that I found completely believable and enjoyable. I highly recommend this one, which I think will resonate for both people with and without knowledge of Korean society.
  • The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture by Euny Hong: I thought I would enjoy this book a lot more than I did. There are a few things that now seem outdated, such as the skepticism that kpop could succeed in the West, but that's to be expected given that the book was published in 2014. I was bothered by some of the inaccuracies (such as the dismissive synopsis of Korean classic movie Seopyeonje). This book might be a useful introduction to the Korean wave for someone without much prior knowledge of it, and it's written in a humorous voice that makes for a quick read. It compellingly describes the deep web of cooperation between government and industry that makes the Korean wave successful. At the same time, I would not recommend relying on this as one's sole source of information on the subject of Korean culture.
  • Fox Girl by Nora Okja Keller: I'm not sure there are two books on this list more different than The Birth of Korean Cool and Fox Girl, and I'm glad we didn't have another heavy one before this because this was one of the darkest novels I've ever read. This book needs all the trigger warnings: child abuse, violence, sexual assault, racism, abortion, and so much more. The characters have really stayed with me long after I put the book down, and I think their haunting stories push the reader to reflect on the impact of the historical U.S. military presence in South Korea, sex work, racial identity, poverty, and so much more. If you're looking for an emotionally powerful read that will force you to confront one of the darker sides of the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance and its legacy, this is the book for you.
  • Tower by Bae Myung-hoon: This was a fun and quirky science fiction read that kept me thinking long after I finished the book. It's a series of short stories set in a fictional skyscraper nation-state. The author has a degree in political science from the top university in Korea, and it shows in the creative ways he explores complex sociopolitical questions through his speculative fiction work. I recommend this one to folks who want to dip their toes in Korean science fiction and the more common short story collection style found in Korean literature.
  • Drifting House by Krys Lee: Y'all, this book was heavy and had very adult themes. I really liked a couple of the stories and one in particular that I found to be a very moving reflection on those left behind by Korea's drastic economic and social change. There were other stories and one in particular that were harrowing and haunting. We had a hard time even talking about that one in book club. I would recommend this short story collection to someone who wants to try contemporary, more highbrow literary fiction about Korea and Koreans.
  • The Hole: A Novel by Hye-young Pyun: I struggled with this book for a number of reasons. It's a thriller with several creative and disturbing elements, but it includes a lot of medical patient abuse that I found very difficult to read. I liked the complexity of the characters, especially the main character and how he develops over time. It was difficult to read about what happens to him - even when you can see the ending coming from a mile away.
  • My Brilliant Life by Ae-ran Kim: This was hands-down one of my favorite books I read in the whole book club. The voice of the main character is so tender and sensitive that it really moved me. The protagonist is a child who has a terminal illness but still retains so much agency and doesn't read like a victim. There were moments in this book where I gasped, laughed out loud, and cried - it was that powerful. I highly recommend this book to anyone with a soul.
  • Crying in H-Mart by Michelle Zauner: I'd heard so much about this book before reading it, from the flurry of media coverage to the recommendations from friends to the fawning praise in various mixed-race social media spaces I'm in (as the author is mixed white and Korean). I found some of the relationships in the book far more relatable than others, but I think the author really captured the feeling of young, sudden grief and the challenges of navigating the world with a complicated racial, social, and cultural identity. Zauner is a musician who performs under the name Japanese Breakfast, and despite the fact that I'd never heard her music before I enjoyed listening to her song "In Heaven" from Psychopomp, the album she wrote right after her mom died. They won't be to everyone's taste, but I suggest giving her book and her music a try!
  • The Plotters by Un-su Kim: It took me a while to get into this book but I was totally immersed after the first half. It contains a lot of philosophical observation and reflection on the individual and society and morality for a book that is nominally a thriller about an assassin. Although not all of my book club mates agreed, I thought the ending was absolutely masterful. This one is a great fit for anyone who loves the combination of suspenseful action and dramatic scenes with cerebral commentary and questions. I thought this was a wonderful book to end on, personally.

This Korean book club was a fantastic, low-pressure opportunity to learn more about Korean culture, history, and literature. As you can see, we had a diverse range of books to read, and I got so much more out of the book thanks to the insights and opinions of my friends than I would've ever discovered on my own. If you've never read a book by a Korean author, make sure you give one of these books a try!

Friday, October 22, 2021

Smith Mountain Lake, Great Country Farms, and Fall in Virginia

In the blink of an eye, my time in Virginia came and went. I'm already missing my loved ones back home, but I'd be lying if I didn't say I always look forward to returning to my own bed and schedule. One of the biggest reasons we decided to travel home was because my little sister is getting married next year! We got to meet her wonderful fiancé for the first time and I planned a bachelorette getaway for the bridal party.

We went wedding dress shopping where my sister found the perfect dress and then left straight from there with the bridal party on a long drive to Goodview, Virginia for the weekend. We stayed in a stunning Airbnb right on the water of Smith Mountain Lake. I quickly established myself as the early bird of the group, failing to stay up past 11pm both nights we were there while everyone else kept partying. The upside was I had two very peaceful mornings where I got to watch the sunrise over the water. We relaxed around the house, played games, and some of our group went kayaking and canoeing on the lake.

After enjoying Smith Mountain Lake for the weekend, we drove back home and spent time with my mom. She kept us well fed during our stay in Virginia and even had a new fall tablescape out for one of our dinners together. Isn't it beautiful?

We spent another day hanging out with my sister and her fiancé. It was so fun to get to know him better! We took advantage of the season and visited Great Country Farms in Bluemont, Virginia. They had farm animals (which my sister, a serious animal lover, was very excited to pet and feed), food, hot apple cider, a pick-your-own-pumpkin patch, a putt-putt (i.e. mini-golf) course, an impressive corn maze filled with fun facts about sustainable agriculture, and more.

M and I snapped a selfie in front of a beautiful sunflower field next to the pumpkin patch, but I didn't realize until we got home that I forgot to get a picture of all four of us! Do you ever have so much fun that you completely forget to take a photo to save for later?

It was hard to say goodbye to Virginia and friends and family, but I'm sure we'll be back before we know it. (After all, our Korea tour is already halfway over!) I'm glad I got to spend at least a little part of my favorite season at home with some of the people I love most.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

A Gorgeous Weekend in Georgia

That's right, we're back in the United States (just for a few weeks of vacation)! We had two weddings and a bachelorette party to attend all around the same time, so we decided to make the trip despite the pandemic - especially since we are thankfully both fully vaccinated against COVID-19. We packed tons of masks and hand sanitizer, grabbed our recent negative COVID test results (mandatory for both entering the United States and entering Korea right now), and made our way to Incheon Airport.

When we arrived in Korea, everything was such a blur that we couldn't appreciate just how fantastic the airport is. This time we enjoyed the experience much more. Everything was efficient and comfortable, and we saw some special things, too. For example, there was a Korean cultural center with a woman providing live music on a traditional instrument called the Gayageum (yes, the same one I tried playing before). There was also an adorable robot milling around seeing if it could be helpful to any passengers on their way. It spoke several languages and seemed like it had a lot of AI-driven functions.

After a long plane journey sitting next to someone who blasted her upbeat music so loud through her headphones we could hear every song the whole flight (and a brief bout of intense stress at a possible leaving behind of our suitcases that turned out to be a false alarm), we finally landed in Atlanta. M was determined that our rental car be a Tesla, so we climbed into our Model S for the weekend and got to our hotel in Calhoun, Georgia around midnight. I could probably do a whole blog post on the differences between COVID-19 mitigation in the United States and South Korea, but that was by far the biggest reverse culture shock I experienced. In Korea, not wearing a mask in public - even if you're outside and fully vaccinated - can cost you a hefty fine and a confrontation with public health enforcers. Even at the airport in the United States, many travelers were unmasked (even while not eating or drinking) or did not wear their masks properly. Once we got to Calhoun, some folks gave us the stink eye for wearing masks, but having just gotten off an international flight and crossed three airports we were probably protecting them even more than protecting us. One of our friends told us that the local vaccination rate for even one COVID-19 shot was only 25%, so I'll admit that lack of community protection against the transmission we'd taken for granted in Seoul was a bit stressful.

We took extra precautions as a result, and that included me forgoing the chance to attend one of my favorite attractions in my whole home country: The World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta. Many of my friends and coworkers know my deep love for coke products and The World of Coca-Cola in particular. I went there once as part of a high school trip and fell in love with the place. Years later, I dragged M back to Georgia as part of an American South road trip to experience the magic of The World of Coca-Cola with me, and I am unashamed to admit I shed a few tears of joy that it was just as magical as I'd remembered from my teenage years. This time, though, we made the tough call to skip it: they have no vaccination requirement and the whole attraction is indoors. That was more risk than I was willing to take, so the most "Georgia" thing we did was eat lots and lots of barbecue (pictured above).

The real reason we went to Georgia was for my friend C's wedding. C was the roommate of one of my best friends from high school and college, L. I'd gotten to know C's fiancee (then-girlfriend) B when we were together in the groom's party for L, and they are truly a perfect match. It was wonderful to come to C's hometown and see him and B married on his grandparents' stunning estate (which I confirmed had thankfully not been a slave plantation after one of my colleagues thoughtfully asked). The couple had so many personal touches, from signature cocktails for them and their two cats to a sweet ceremony officiated by a dear friend to a full Southern barbecue dinner in the spirit of the venue.

I think my favorite part, though, was an epic private fireworks show we could all watch from the house's steps. It was a perfectly clear night full of stars above and fireflies below, with the explosions of fireworks lighting up the sky in golds, greens, and reds. Of course, M took the opportunity to play around with my Pixel smartphone camera modes, including Night Sight (for astrophotography that actually captures stars) and Top Shot (a feature that uses AI to determine where during your video the best shots are and suggests them as still frame photos to separate).

The next morning we joined the same friends from the wedding for brunch with a Waffle House Food Truck outside the family home of C's parents. We were so busy stuffing our faces that I forgot to take a photo of the food truck, but I did snap a pic of an awesome room inside the house with wet signatures of all presidents of the United States, collected by my friend's grandfather throughout his life. The older ones were purchased, but many of the more recent presidents had signed personal letters or other documents specifically for my friend's family. (This Barack Obama signature is from a personal letter to the family in 2014.) How cool is that?

Before we left Calhoun, we took some time to visit a few sites safely outdoors. The first stop was a rock garden located behind the local Seventh-day Adventist church. Since 2007, a man named Dewitt Boyd "Old Dog" (and later his wife) assembled beautiful rock and shell replicas of castles, villages, and iconic buildings surrounded by beautiful flowers as a place to celebrate art and facilitate prayer and contemplation. I was blown away by this sculpture of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, complete with stained glass windows!

Then, we visited the historic site and park of New Echota, previous capital of the Cherokee Nation and the place where the infamous Trail of Tears began. It was a particularly meaningful stop this weekend as the first Indigenous Peoples' Day recognized by the President of the United States. At New Echota, we learned about the lives of Cherokees in the 1800s, which encompassed a diverse range of experiences. Some Native Americans resisted colonial expansion and fought to maintain their sovereignty and culture, while others assimilated. The New Echota sites were beautifully maintained, though I was disappointed at some of the euphemisms used in the explanatory texts. For example, the brochure we were given mentioned the New Echota tavern had a takeout window to serve "those whom the Innkeeper did not allow inside." I had to ask a staff member to confirm that included slaves of African descent owned by Native American farmers in New Echota.

There were many impressively reconstructed buildings and artifacts, including the building and press from the first Native American printed paper (The Cherokee Phoenix) in Cherokee, the first Native American written language. I was pleasantly surprised at how critical of the United States government the historical accounts were, particularly in the small museum portion of the site. It is clear that the United States repeatedly violated Native American sovereignty, even when indigenous peoples acted perfectly in accordance with signed treaties and within U.S. institutions. Two examples that stuck with me were the 1832 Worcester v. Georgia Supreme Court case and the 1835 Treaty of New Echota.

In Worcester v. Georgia, even though the Supreme Court ruled in the Cherokees' favor and affirmed that Native American nations were "distinct, independent political communities retaining their original natural rights", U.S. President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the ruling. The 1835 Treaty of New Echota, which relinquished enormous amounts of Cherokee land, was signed by a few Cherokee leaders but was never approved by the council mandated in the nation's governing documents. (The council meetinghouse is pictured below.) In fact, the majority of Cherokees opposed the treaty and the Cherokee signers were eventually assassinated. Although it was legally illegitimate, the U.S. Congress ratified the treaty, which laid the groundwork for the Trail of Tears on which over 4,000 Cherokees died.

We must not forget the darker side of our history for many reasons. We must not repeat the mistakes and betrayals previously committed. But crucially, we must also acknowledge past wrongs and take concrete action to mitigate the harm that continues from the decisions of our ancestors - whether they be biological predecessors or just people whose legacy we personally benefit from today. A good place to start is to learn more about the history of indigenous people wherever you live and then listen to indigenous people today when they advocate for policies or steps we can take to make things better.

With that, our weekend in Georgia went by in a flash. We left with reflective minds, warm hearts, and full bellies - we couldn't have asked for more. Congrats to B and C, and we look forward to returning to the Peach State again someday!