September Highs

Way back in the seventies, my parents along with my brother (who was three at that time) moved to the UK. Their stint would last for about three years, before they would eventually return home, but stories of their life and travels across Europe, would dominate the rest of their life. As a child, I’d hear stories of cold winters, watch technicolour slides (photographs converted for projection) of old friends (some of whom I would meet on occasion), struggles of adapting (something I never paid much attention to back then), and the stubborn will to make the challenges work in their favour. And now that I think of it, my parents were quite the travellers. In the late eighties, when I was probably 6 (my siblings 9 and 15), they set on a world tour (without us) starting from the west (U.S.) and ending in far east (Japan). Twenty odd years later, my brother was the first to leave for Europe. My sister followed, to another part of the globe, a couple of years later. I still find it strange that my nephews and niece, speak in very different accents. I was the last one to leave the nest, get married, and eventually leave for a different part of the globe. Unlike me, Basil was born in Kuwait, and spent his early childhood there. The move to Seoul (abroad) hasn’t been as difficult for him. Those of you, who have been following our blog, would realise what a rollercoaster ride the last two months had been. But, it’s September, and it’s my favourite month. I was meaning to write this post three weeks back, but a lot has happened since then. And it’s almost October. 

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1. The leaves have started to turn. Temperatures have significantly dipped, the sun seems to have vanished behind the dark gloom of the rain clouds, and yet, I’ve never been more ecstatic. Fall is near. Last year, at this time, I had made my first visit to Seoul. I never thought that we’d return, let alone stay. I’d missed fall last year. And now, that I’m here, and have successfully passed the test of warm summers — I’m ready to reap the rewards.

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Basil gets contemplative.

 2. If I had to compare my fitness to the last year, the progress has been fantastic. The hills that felt like mountains, last year, are much easier to climb. And what is fantastic is that I’ve taken to hiking. It helps that most mountains have the perfect combination of accessibility and challenge. We’ve been taking it slow, letting me get over my fear of heights, stand-up without railings, and letting that weak knee warm up to climbs. Things have begun to shape up.

3. I’ve never liked craft in school. Oddly, I’ve developed a keen interest in Hanji (traditional Korean handmade paper) craftwork. It helps, to have a perfectionist for a teacher, who ensures each artwork is perfectly pasted and dried. Her English is broken and so is my Korean. The combination just proves that language is only a form of communication.

Learning the craft of Jagae (Mother of Pearl) at the cultural centre.

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Step 1

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Testing the new bike.

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Third time lucky? Old flames never die.

4. My bike from Gmarket has finally arrived. Basil tried his best to assemble it and eventually had to get it fixed in the bike shop. Turns out, once you learn to ride a bike, play guitar, or even write; you can never really forget. So, after few test runs on relatively empty streets of Seoul and after nearly running over few scared locals; turns out I haven’t forgotten to ride a bike.

I’ve also developed a new addiction for solving puzzles and building 3 D models. It helps me fill those vacant moments.

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Eavesdropping

5. I’ve made friends, whether or not, they chose to wear their spiritual beliefs around their neck or cultural heritage across their forehead. The only line that I draw, is when, I come across a closed mind. When we made the move to Seoul, we were advised to stay with fellow expats or better still with our own people. And I found that strange. As travellers, we always chose to stay with locals, and that’s what made our experiences real. Why should it have been any different as expats? I wouldn’t say it’s easy, when you’re the odd one out. We stay in a locality that has excellent connectivity, but very few expats or foreigners. On rare occasions, I’ve seen the working foreign professional, backpackers, or even soldiers from the U.S. armed forces. And while life has been difficult, right from setting the apartment or figuring how to dispose the trash in the right plastic bag; the challenges of language was the only barrier to be broken. I’ve finally broken ice with locals. My monosyllabic Korean has won me my first smiles. Ajummas have tried having conversations in Korean, ending disappointed that I didn’t know more words. But, the highlight would be, when our stern security guard actually opened the main doors, for me, as I fumbled for the key with two bags in my hands. Ah! The effort has been worth it!

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6. I’ve been rather late at realising the dual advantages of being an expat. There are times when you want to be treated as a foreigner, be spoken to in English, or have people smile at you. And on days like those, I head to the tourist districts of Seoul and mingle with the crowds of tourists and foreigners, and double up as a tourist. It’s easy to get lost in the crowd. And as a foreigner, there’s a celebrity status. Chances of getting clicked by flash lights at tourist sights or at the local tourism centres are extremely high. It’s a good morale booster. And then, at the end of it all, I return to where we live, away from the gimmicks, and enjoy the isolation of being the odd one out.

 7. Sometimes, I find it hard to understand the ways of the world. For all the mess that we’re in, we still prefer to divide than unite. In Seoul, expats are divided into native and non-native English speakers. Puts me in a predicament of sorts. I’ve never really understood which category I truly fit in. The non-native English speakers ask me if I had an international education and native English speakers tune their ears to spot errors in my grammar. And then, there’s the imaginary wall between first and third worlds. Most of my conversations begin from where I come from, quickly followed by: where from, from where I come from. The next few sentences could either be a monologue of things I always get to hear about or on rare occasions, a dialogue, when I get to try to explain differences in culture. Does it bother me? I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. But, I’ve come to realise, that when someone chooses to put you in a box; it’s a box of their creation. Who’s stopping you, from lifting the lid, stepping out of it and showing them — who you really are or can be — doesn’t necessarily depend on where you come from.

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Birthday Bingsu!

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Dinner at Dr. Robbin

8. There’s another reason I love September. It’s the month that I was born in. And seriously, I might be getting too old, to celebrate birthdays; but this birthday was quite unique. Just when I was feeling all alone, I met a really warm lady from Singapore, in Hanji class, and she was kind enough to treat me to a birthday Bingsu. Over shaved ice and chocolate; we spoke of our lives, countries, and life in Seoul. I ended the day, with dinner with Basil, and quiet walk in the park. The next day, I would travel back home, on my maiden solo international flight. I could have never asked for a better birthday gift.

9. I’ve never been an intrepid traveller and get jittery on airplanes. It’s also one of the reasons I never travelled internationally alone. If there’s anyone who judges you on the hue of your tan, length of your stubble, colour of your passport, or texture of your jacket; it has to be the immigration officer. Following close — are airline ground staff. In Bangkok (my layover), the ground staff carelessly flipped through my passport and smiled and asked me I was transiting in Mumbai. I shook my head and her face turned grim. Do you have a visa? At 5:00 am, in the morning, I panicked. Did I need a visa to enter my own country? I feebly answered, “But, I am from Mumbai”. To which, she smiled apologetically, and said that I didn’t look Indian. I’ve never really understood how a traveller is supposed to look — the look. Guess, I’m doing something right.

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The Old Mango Tree

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Bagheera

10. I was crushed when my dream trip to Mongolia got cancelled in August. Just when I had given up all hopes of travel, we planned for a trip to Indonesia. And then, I decided to cancel it for a trip back home. I never thought that going back home (town) could have made me so happy. But, nothing compares seeing the smile on your parents’ face or the hug of a mum who’s missing you so badly. Strangely, my mum can be my kryptonite and magic potion. The youngest of three, I’d never been known to be the strong one. And yet, these days, my mum considers me to be the strongest of the three. I guess, it takes strength to see your mum unwell, hold her hand, and say things are going to be fine; while you’re trying to stay strong and keep those eyes from moistening. A trip back home can rival any dream destination. Yes, September couldn’t have been better!

63 responses to “September Highs

  1. A very touching post that arouse different emotions. I felt how uneasy life in a different country and what kind of difficulties you face each other. IT is not easy at all. Being far from your home and parents, I do understand you pretty well. However, your thoughts are beautiful and still optimistic, you know how to cheer yourself up. Thank you for sharing!

    • Thanks for your comment, Ann. Life isn’t as easy as I expected it to be here. 🙂 I guess life as a traveller and expat is very different. But, I’m working on things and yeah, keeping a positive and open mind is helping! I’ve met so many incredible people, from different countries across the globe, and they’ve been so supportive and I get to know and learn things that I wouldn’t have otherwise. September has been a game changer! Thanks for stopping by and showing your support! I’m fortunate to have incredible people like yourself tuning in to our blog! Have a great week ahead! 🙂

  2. I like the craft of jagae. I used to dislike the craft lesson when I was young either, and strangely, lately (especially this passed two weeks) I am back to the craft lesson that I learned when I was young. 😀 😀
    And happy (belated?) birthday, still two days left for September. Wish you all the best.
    And, I wish you another trip to Indonesia. 🙂

    • I know exactly what you mean! I’m so glad I have a fantastic teacher. And I get to meet some incredible people at the centre. It’s a good way make friends too. Thanks so much for the birthday wishes! I feel I’m too old to be announcing it here! Haha! I know Indonesia is going to happen! It’s so fantastic and I’ve got Basil all excited about it! 🙂

  3. Another lovely post of an expat!! 🙂
    Belated birthday wishes.
    I’m sure having exposed to the travel culture made you more adaptable to changes and culture. 🙂

  4. It sounded like a jam-packed September you and Basil had, Cheryl. Is that Basil on the bike? 😀 I have actually never learnt how to ride a bike myself, always kept falling off and never found my balance. So you are doing better than me, remembering how to ride your bike.

    Happy belated birthday, and that looks like one delectable bingsu. Full of chocolate and it must have tasted very, very sweet. Bringing ice with locals or with anyone does take time. The security guard of your building sounds like a big burly guy but with a soft heart inside. Sometimes it just takes time, and little by little we get more comfortable around each other. Respect them and they will in turn respect us 🙂

    • It is Basil! 🙂 You should consider trying to learn cycling. It’s never too late. We cycled for 15 Km yesterday, along the Han! Woooohooo! I’m a little sore today, but it’s worth the pain!
      Aww! I’m too old for birthdays! 🙂 The security guard is a stern looking elderly guy. Not burly or anything. He just doesn’t smile! 🙂
      I think adapting to new cultures requires a little more than respect. It requires patience and the will to learn your 7th language! 🙂 Maybe, smile a lot more than required, even if the person across refuses to let his/her pearly whites show! But, then, at some point people will cave in. 🙂

  5. Even though I am merely a new city transplant in my own country, I can understand your excitement and eagerness to fit into your new place on one hand, and your sadness and occasional frustration on the other. Like me, you are trying to convince yourself that this is fun! … but sometimes it takes more effort than others. At least I don’t have the extreme language barrier (although maybe that challenge would be invigorating – I love languages!). Anyway, happy birthday month and keep up the wonderfully positive approach to life. (I hope your mom is doing ok.)

    • Lex, you really do get me! I truly appreciate your comment and the fact that you’ve been able to read through it all. The pangs of separation and a certain sense of loss (and confusion) are hard to describe. Getting over the isolation is the key to survival. And I’ve found very few people wanting to talk about it in my friend circle — back home. On the other hand, whoever I met here, no matter where their from; has never shied from telling me that it’s tough and that I’m doing a great job! Support like theirs has been incredible. And also the support from bloggers, like yourself, has been instrumental in getting me through many difficult moments.
      I love languages! But after dabbling with 7 languages (will write a post soon), I just felt that I had reached my tipping point. At the moment, I don’t seem to have an option and I think I might have to try learning my 8th language. 🙂
      Thanks a bunch for the birthday wishes! Mum’s on the radar for a month or so. I do hope the doc gives her an all clear by November. Fingers crossed! I think the trip back to my hometown helped both of us heal. 🙂 Thanks so much for asking.

  6. Oh Cheryl, I think you left me with a whirlwind of emotions by the end of it! I’m complaining, it’s my way of saying it’s beautifully written!
    Also, Belated birthday wishes:) It’s so nice that you’re able to take the craft classes…they look like so much fun!
    I hope you enjoy your stay at home & wishing your mom the very best:)

    • Glad you enjoyed reading it, Divya! 🙂 Comments like yours make me want to get back to writing. Thanks so much for the wishes. Hoping I get wiser by the year. I’m back in Seoul. Two weeks with my folks, especially mom, has been a wonderful change.

  7. Thanks for taking us into your world, Cheryl. Sounds like September was quite a month for you. I love the way your posts radiate positivity even when challenges are high and life isn’t always roses. Happy belated birthday to you my dear friend, I hope the visit home to see your mum is wonderful and let’s hope that October is just as good a month for you. Enjoy. 🙂 xo

    • I’ve missed you, Miriam! How have you been? Your posts have been inspirational and echo the positivity that I need in my life. It’s so easy to slip back into hopelessness at times. But, the challenge is to stay strong and be positive, no matter what! I’m back in Seoul. Back to meeting old friends and making new friends and exploring the outdoors. The visit home was excellent (my next post). I’m looking forward to October and preparing myself for my first cold winter! 🙂 xo

  8. Happy birthday Miss Cheryl! Sorry we weren’t around to celebrate with you, but glad you were treated to a birthday bingsu. 🙂 Fall is wonderful here, and I’m also so looking forward to it. Clear skies, fresh air, hikes…can’t wait. And you got a bike…we’ll have to meet up somewhere one day and go for a ride along the Han. PS: I couldn’t help but laugh at “but I’m from Mumbai.” Hahaha, reminded me of when you and Bora both hid behind the pole outside the bakery… :p

    • How I missed you, Shellleeyy! Yesterday was super fun! A bike ride along the Han sounds like an excellent idea. I’m a little sore from yesterday’s bike ride. Arms don’t work very well! And I woke up at 10 am. today.
      I think immigration services and ground staff love me a lot! Haha! I don’t really work well without sleep and I had a 6 hour layover in Bangkok, after a 5 hour flight from Seoul. Phew! My eyes were almost shut when she asked me that question. Haha!
      Bora and I are like twins! Soul sisters. That bakery thg was hilarious! But, I’ve started behaving more like a celebrity these days. Have you ever attended a class at the cultural centre? Gosh! The lights keep flashing! See you Thursday!

  9. There is something special about traveling to new places, and the effort to try to fit in and make it (it being life) work smoothly ~ but there will always be the reminder that, as a traveler, you’ll always be riding a bit of a roller coaster. Smile at the great times and grin-and-bear it at the not-so-great times 🙂 Mongolia, now there is an adventure 🙂

    • Truly appreciate your comment, Randall. I do like the highs and lows of being a traveller. There’s so much learning and the experiences are worth it. I’m slowly warming up to the idea of being an expat in Seoul. And I think, people are noticing the change and are returning the warmth! 🙂 Staying positive is definitely a good sign. I think, Mongolia will have to wait for a while. I know, I’m going to have to make it happen, though! Have a great week! 🙂

  10. Great post. #7 is something I am thinking about a lot 🙂
    Traveling with a friend is a reasonable thing to do, but if I go for just a few days, I prefer to travel alone because of my very tight schedule not everyone would keep up with 🙂

  11. This is a beautiful post, giving readers a more intimate insight into your early years, fears and concerns. Where all go through the same thing during many points in our lives except that few articulate it as well as you do. I read this post 3 times. Thank-you for sharing. 🙂

    • Really, you did? 3 times? I rarely like to read my own posts/writing. And if I do, all I see is typos, grammatical mistakes, or lapses in thinking. Takes the joy out of reading. That’s why, comments like yours make me realise that I’m probably doing something right. Thanks so much, Helen. Truly appreciate it when you stop by.

  12. Such a wonderful post laden with so many emotions. First off wishing you a very belated happy birthday! 🙂 I’m so glad you got to make a quick trip home and hope that all is well there.

    I also wish that with every passing day your transition to your new life gets easier. It’s wonderful to see your attempts to engage with the locals and it’s great that you are learning so much in the process 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment, Diya. It was great to go back home. It’s been a month and a half since I’m back in Seoul. 6 months since the shift. I’d say, I have got accustomed to life here. There are moments of confusion, but I try not to let it get to me, and have made peace with my being in a perpetual state of limbo. Haha! Thanks for stopping by! Have a great week! 🙂

      • That’s good to hear. I’m so glad you’re settling in. And 6 months really isn’t too long a time so if you’ve already started to feel at home there, that’s a really good thing 🙂 🙂

      • You know, Diya, I’m always confused with the thought of home. Either I’ve been travelling too much or moving into too many apartments (I’ve changed 3 here). Home is a very strange definition for me these days. 🙂 🙂 The days of disconnect come and go, but I’ve made my peace with it. I guess, that’s what we do when we move to another place. How long have you been away from home? 🙂

      • 3 apartments in 6 months? Woah! No wonder you feel disconnected sometimes 😦

        I’ve been an expat my entire life so I suppose to me ‘home’ is really my adopted country. Don’t get me wrong, I love the occasional visit to India (and we’re fortunate that we live close enough to squeeze in multiple trips in a year sometimes) but as of now India is still the place where I spend possibly one month in a year.

        I sometimes feel like you do especially after a bout of intense traveling. It’s like my internal compass needs some time to re-orient itself 🙂

      • I guess knowing you’re not there permanently is what makes it hard to put down roots. But that’s exciting too in a way. Kind of like having an extended holiday 😉

  13. Hi darling ! I’m sorry I was a bit absent these last few months. I’m happy to read this post and see that in September you managed to make a few friends and that it was all in all a good month. I hope you had a nice xmas over there and a happy new year. I’m going to catch up on a few posts, as part of my new year resolution 🙂

    • Hi Sweetie! It’s been so long! I guessed you must have been super busy with work and the preparations. Thanks for taking the time to go through all my posts and comment. Wow! You stick through your resolutions. Hope you and L had a wonderful Christmas and wish you both a very happy new year! I’m super excited for you guys! Say hi to him! xo

      • I have been busy with work but now it will be quiet until April, the beginning of the craft market season. I will be able to have some “me” time and it’s going to be awesome.

        I also went to China for a while then when I got back I broke my toe and was stuck at home. I became very lazy and after my day at work all I wanted was to sit down in the couch. I had no energy to blog. I think it’s the weather as well… it does not help.

        I have to go back on tracks now, going back to the gym !! (If i want to fit my dress for the wedding)

        We had an unremarkable xmas and new year, but it was good. No travels to exotic place this year for xmas and new year 🙂

      • Sounds bad. Injury can never be good. Did you enjoy your China visit? You will make a beautiful bride, I’m sure! You guys should have considered getting married in Iceland. That would be awesome! 🙂 Wishing you good health in the New Year! hugs! Just wanted to say, your advice on adjusting to a new place really helped. Thanks so much! I was going through a really tough time and your support meant a lot! 🙂

      • China was really good, we ate a lot of food and met the family. The pollution was quite bad and it was difficult to cope with it, I developed irritant bronchitis while there. Oh we are getting married in Iceland 😉

        No worries about the advice, I’ve been there and it also helped me 🙂 I’m glad you feel better by the way !

      • Ohh.. that’s pretty bad…We were lucky with our China trip. Are you seriously getting married in Iceland? Such a dream wedding it would be. 🙂 Hugs! I’m happy for the two of you!

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