A Year since Bonn

While I was working in Sri Lanka, I applied for a UN Youth Volunteer position in Sarajevo, and, in what I consider a miraculous stroke of luck (as a person lacking a knowledge of the language or a background in the field that the position was in), got the job. I studied for the LSATs at the beginning of this year, went through a roller coaster of mental and emotional states, had a panic attack which almost killed me, and eventually took the test, reminding myself that this test isn’t worth my mental health or my life. I went through training in Bonn, and felt a tremendous sense of loss at the end of it because I knew that I would never again (or to be less fatalistic, rarely ever) meet such a large group of people whose values and ideals aligned so well with what I consider the better version of myself. We had many intimate conversations, and at the time, felt like heaven and earth moved to make me meet these people and realize that there was still work to do in this world, and that I could do something as part of it.

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I was quite emotional saying goodbye to everyone, so I wrote this email at the airport:

Dear all,

I’m sitting at the airport eating haribo gummies being given too much time to dwell on the tsunami of emotions that accompany separation from amazing people I didnt know 5 days ago. (if I had a tub of ice cream, I would be eating my feelings away, but haribo should make do for now).

Few words can even begin to explain the gratitude I feel towards all of you, and even fewer words can explain the immense sadness I feel when I start comprehending that the experiences over the last couple of days can’t be replicated, just like how a sweet dream ends and never comes back when you wake up and can’t fall back asleep.

I feel like the stars alligned for me and blessed me with your company, and I do hope those stars allign at least once more in my lifetime so that we could all meet again.

You can only be sad about the end of something if what has ended was a gift, either of experience, love, or the company of the special. Thank you for being such an incredibly special gift. Thank you for being people who make goodbyes so difficult.

The cliche in situations like this goes “dont cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” I think I’ll be doing a bit of both.

I wish you all the best of luck in your assignments throughout the next year.

Best wishes, and with a heartful of love,

Minji

So after all that, I arrived in Sarajevo and moved to my new house which basically felt like a luxurious Airbnb I didn’t feel entitled to at the time.

To share my honest feelings about my first week at work, I probably felt about as useful as a sack of potatoes sitting on a chair with a UN ID card hanging around the neck of the sack. I felt like I had no business being there. People (i.e. other UN Volunteers) reassured me constantly, saying that things will change, I will adjust, there will me work for me to do,and I will miss these few days or weeks when I had plenty of time and little to do when I am overwhelmed with work. Obviously, they were right to a certain degree.

As time went by, I slowly started feeling like like heaven and earth never really cared about trivialities such as myself and the people I meet. I knew how treacherous the human memory can be, and I knew that everyone will eventually not remember everyone else, or the content of the exchanges with everyone else. I knew that once this dissipates, the emotions that everyone felt towards each other will eventually dissipate too. All the good stuff in Bonn felt like an extension of my luck that landed me the job in the first place, and I knew that luck never lasts. I knew that feelings never last either.

How arrogant I was in thinking that I “knew” these things.

To any of the other UNVs who may be reading this: Facebook is a waste of my time and it cost my eyesight, but for me, it essentially keeps the feelings of connectedness and affinity going for a very long time. And I still feel that towards you all. I feel pride and happiness when I see photos of you guys working in the field. I always harbor good will and a genuine wish for great things to happen to you. I feel like if I ever see any of you guys again, it will make me immensely happy and those feelings I felt in Bonn will come back to me. I don’t know how you feel now, a year after Bonn, but I hope it has left similar lingering feelings for you too.

 

 

 

 

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Going “home” where I have no “house”

I feel like home is a thoroughly discussed concept, and I would be belaboring already dissected ideas. It’s not even unique anymore to say “I have no home” in the sense that you haven’t settled anywhere. All these people may have unique experiences, but that doesn’t mean they are all special. It’s just a fact about you, just like how you are the first-born, or that you have long hair, or that your last name starts with a K, or that you like pineapples (and this is all about me, because I’m just as self-centered as you are).

I’m going to talk about home in very personal terms: I want to call Sri Lanka my home.

Why? I get verbally harassed on the streets. I get leering stares from groups of men. I have no particular affinity for crows. I do about as well as a frozen bottle of water in the heat and humidity of the climate. I hate how my legs stick to the seat of tuk-tuks because of the sweat. I don’t own property there, and neither does my family. I hold a Korean passport (which I am greatly thankful for, as it gives me visa-free access to most countries in the world). Despite all this, I was determined to go back, a year after I had left my volunteering position, and 13 years after I left 10 years of my childhood, not just to keep my promise to everyone there that I would be there for Christmas, but because I missed the idea of feeling loved and I loved the idea of having an identity.

I say the “idea” of feeling loved, because the unique love and acceptance that I felt while I was a memory to me, a year after I left. Don’t get me wrong– it isn’t that I don’t feel loved in the place I am now, neither does it mean that I think that those who I love who are oceans apart don’t love me anymore. How my loved ones love me in Sri Lanka makes me love myself in a way I simply cannot replicate anywhere else. I say the “idea” of having an identity, because honestly, I think whatever identity I construct for myself based on “select” experiences is an illusion that most people entertain.

Anyway, I went back.

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I came back with a bagful of tea for gift-giving and tears that were shamelessly shed at the airport.

It isn’t just the amazing Christmas lunch with the fake snow “fights” and presents. Neither is it just the beauty of the country, the lounging on the beaches or the fireworks on New Years Eve accompanied by drinking with friends.

I think it’s just the reminder of “you have to live for this”. Given the short period of time I have to stay in the country, every day is so precious. Every conversation you have is precious. Every feeling you experience is precious. You’re never 25 again, Sri Lanka won’t be the same again next year, and your friends aren’t going to be the same age either, and everything is just so precious because it is the only time it’s all going to happen.

A grain of sand is probably not the same as another grain of sand, just as this Monday hasn’t been the same as this Wednesday. But as this illustrates, uniqueness and particularity does not imply “specialness”, as my Monday wasn’t any more special than my Wednesday although they were definitely different. What made Sri Lanka special for me, my life, was that it was a reminder of a desire and a need for continued existence.  The banality of everyday life makes it easy to forget that there are people in your life, either near you or several thousands kilometers away from you, that make your life worthwhile. Even breaking away from this banality doesn’t necessarily remind you of this, because when you return from a vacation, you return to your banality, mostly unchanged. But I was reminded that I am always welcome somewhere in the world, that people I see there want me to feel that way, and this will go unchanged. This feeling has become a part of my banality.

Reminiscing my time in Sri Lanka, 2015

People generally make drastic life-changing decisions by chopping off all their hair, getting a new tattoo in a language they don’t read, or moving to another country to “discover” oneself. “Life-changing” sounds like such a cliché term to sell such an experience, but I can’t quite find a catchier, more appropriate synonym to describe what teaching and living in Sri Lanka was like. This was the most rewarding and humbling experience of my life, that, indeed, changed me.

My life-changing decision happened randomly, suddenly, and quite calmly. I was sitting at the library café of the school I had graduated from two years ago, waiting for my interview phone call for a teaching position in Sri Lanka I had decided to apply to on a whim just two days prior from the same location. I had just quit a very well-paid job in Beijing, China, and I was in the US to visit friends and attend a graduation (a trip that also happened on a whim). I chose to quit a job at a toxic work environment, first to visit my friends, then to move back to the beautiful country that I grew up in. The Sri Lanka from my memory was not the same as the Sri Lanka I landed in in July 2015—I was 12 when I left. I was 24 in 2015. All 12 Chinese zodiac animals had made their full, 12-year cycle by the time I landed in the sweltering humidity that I had forgotten about. I knew that 6 months was not a long time, and I was determined to make the most of it.

The first hours at school was spent in trepidation—I had teaching experience, but I had never taught adults, and the sheer fact that I had to memorize about fifty foreign names as soon as possible was the most daunting task I was faced with at the time. Little did I know that two years later, I would still remember many of those names, reminisce the jokes I made with those students, and cherish the gifts of appreciation and the memories that the students gave me. The level of engagement and connection you have with the students, the kindness, good will and genuine appreciation you feel from them, as well as the immense feeling of fulfillment coming from interacting with the people you’re benefiting, is not quite sensations one can put into words that do them justice. These feelings don’t even go into the sheer awe that the beauty of Sri Lanka inspires in you once you get the opportunity to travel around the country, which requires another essay in and of itself.

I had come back to Colombo because I wanted to see how my old home town had changed. But this is not a cliché tale of radical self-discovery by revisiting my “roots”. To be clear, I am Korean, not Sri Lankan, and it would be preposterous for me to claim Sri Lankan culture as my own. However, I can now reclaim this amazing country as a “home” for me, thanks to my six months I spent teaching at SVS, understanding the country in a way I never did when I was young.

(If you’re interested in teaching in Sri Lanka, go to www.svsenglish.org)

Italy: Rome, Day 1 (February 17th, 2015)

I was re-reading the Italy portion of “Eat Pray Love” on the plane to Moscow (layover), and a man (American) who was sitting on the same row I was pointed the book out to his girlfriend (Chinese) that it was a very popular book that was made into a movie in a not-so-quiet voice as if I weren’t sitting two seats away. It was oddly annoying; It was either assumed that I do not speak English (which would have been strange, given that I was reading an English book, unless he assumed I was looking at the words as if they were foreign pictographs), my hearing was severely impaired, or my existence in my seat was not acknowledged. Or maybe it was an oddly indirect way of trying to engage a stranger in a conversation.

Anyway. No, I was not going to Rome because I was somehow naively infatuated with the city I only vaguely remember (from my visit when I was in 2nd/3rd grade) upon reading of the experiences of the protagonist from the book. Honestly, I have no idea (other than the fact that I miraculously (and incorrectly) found cheap tickets) why Rome became my destination. But it doesn’t matter, because I fell in love.

I love Rome. I don’t know how to make those words sound more emotionally emphatic and less naive (I have heard alternating accusations of being too dramatic in emotional expressiveness and range by my brother, and too naive in falling in love with things by certain friends). I don’t think it is advisable to fall in love with a place, as places don’t reciprocate feelings. But Rome did. The mere existence of this grand and ancient city that presented me with so much wonderful gelato and architectural beauty that really dims most other beautiful things in contrast inspired more awe and gave me more happiness than I could handle. (I was not sugar-high, I swear). I wanted to blend into the wall or a cobblestone street. I wanted to inhabit the crisp, clean air that hung over the greenery of Villa Borghese and under the brilliant blue skies. I wanted to stay wrapped in the embrace of the yellowish glow of a warm night in front of the Pantheon packed with tourists, musicians and lovers.

I know that with prolonged exposure to a good thing comes a degree of disillusionment, and a small voice somewhere tells me that if I stayed in this city for a lot longer, I may not love it in the way I do now; it may be too much of a good thing.
I do not care. I love it now. As the Korean expression goes, I am very “thin-eared” (귀가 얇다), which basically means I am malleable and easily influenced by the opinions of others. I honestly wish someone would re-encourage my “thin” ear to go again this month.I don’t mind laughing out loud again because of food, like that time I was losing my mind after tasting insanely good rose-flavoured gelato for the first time in my life.

Anyway, straight to the more interesting photographs.

DAY 1

Castel San Angelo from a distance

Castel Sant Angelo from a distance

I started the day relatively late. I didn’t eat, but I wasn’t all that hungry.

The air that was hanging around me felt so crisp and fresh and clean; if my happiness could be described as a substance that consists of molecules, this happiness was quickly expanding in volume and filling the clean and empty spaces in the air around me because there was so much space to fill. (This stands in stark contrast to Beijing, where the smog attempts to make my lungs collapse upon itself). I tried not to smile around too much so that I don’t come across as a vulnerable tourist (as if that were possible to begin with, given that there is little room for doubt if I am an Asian woman with a massive camera around my neck).

I never ended up going into Castel Sant’Angelo (picture). It was definitely on my itinerary, and I was probably thinking of going there on my third day if time allowed, but I ended up spending the entire first day getting my bearings in this city of sprawling streets. If I may impose my opinion here (as if it wasn’t what I’ve been doing throughout my writing), I think you need at least a day to be able to picture and place yourself on a map, at least in relation to the major landmarks, and you have to do it almost entirely on foot (which is what I did). Besides, this was Rome, and getting lost was delightful and beautiful.

By the way, I am going to continue with this litany of praises for a while. (Cynics– brace yourselves.)

Ponte Sant'Angelo, Bridge of Angels

Ponte Angelo, Bridge of Angels

This is such a cliche, and writing this with my own hands makes me cringe slightly, but Ponte Sant’Angelo took my breath away. (More precisely, the view resulted in a very sharp intake of breath from amazement). Honestly, why does anyone bother making ordinary, boring bridges if you can make bridges like this? You get the sense that you are stepping on and walking across something that is so much greater than you are. The bridge below your feet feels sturdy and old, but it also has an air of grace and self-assurance that cannot be captured in photos.

One of the angels of Ponte Angelo

One of the angels of Ponte Sant’Angelo. “The Angel with the Sponge”.

I mean, just look at it.

In retrospect, some of the awe that was inspired in me may be due to the fact that this was the first awesome thing I saw almost as soon as I got out of the apartment. I say this because the awe that I felt when I walked into St. Peter’s Basilica has no parallel in my memory.

Anyway, I made my way across the bridge and ended up, after some confusion and many photographs, at Piazza Navona.

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona. I’m sorry– the first and last thing I notice about this photo is the butt of that sculpture.

I was trying to find the market at Campo de’Fiori (literally, “Field of Flowers” but actually a square) to have lunch. I bought a large cup of strawberries and sat in front of the statue of Giordano Bruno. No photos, unfortunately, as I was busy doing close to nothing but just being there eating strawberries and getting skin cancer. If I were a plant, I bet I would have grown at least 2 centimeters sitting there for so long eating strawberries and drinking the sun while watching people. Interestingly, most of the people selling fruits and vegetables looked like native Italians, while a lot of the people who sold packaged pasta and seasoning looked like immigrants. Anyway, after some photosynthesis and leg-resting, I headed towards the Trevi fountain to look for the Gelato of the Crispy Saint.

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain, unfortunately under construction.

Unfortunately, this magnificent thing was under construction or restoration or whatever you call what they are doing with this unpleasant metal structure. People were still throwing coins in here though.
They say that if you throw a coin into this fountain, you will visit Rome again. I do clearly remember throwing a coin in here backwards over my shoulder when I came here about 15, 16 years ago (I just did the math to calculate how many years it has been since I was in 2nd/3rd grade and I cannot believe how OLD I am now). Unfortunately I do not believe this works when there is no water in there (as if it works with water the first place), so I didn’t waste any pennies, but I definitely will be back, and I dearly hope San Crispino has rose flavoured gelato again when I come back.

View from the Spanish Steps

View from the Spanish Steps

My plan was to bring my crispy saint gelato all the way to the Spanish Steps and do more people watching here while I savour the delights of rose, orange and hazelnut. However, I got lost too many times, the weather was unnaturally warm, and the gelato was truly too delightful to wait for even the most spectacular view. The view wasn’t bad, but being here felt like it was more about even more sitting around doing nothing where everyone else is sitting around doing nothing. It was awesome, given the spectacular, warm weather. I just wished I had sunglasses.

View from Spanish Steps II

View from Spanish Steps II

On my way here, I actually almost lost my map twice, and I almost lost my map many more times in the following days (because it fell out of my pocket or from under my armpit while I was taking photos or some other similar careless nonsense). Right before I descended the steps here, though, a man (who looked Southeast Asian) who sold red roses (there are a lot of those. people who sell flowers, I mean) called me (which I initially ignored because my hands were sticky from the gelato and I thought he was trying to sell flowers) and pointed at my map which was on the ground about 10 meters behind me.

I would have been completely helpless in navigating this city for the rest of my 3 day stay if it weren’t for this man. I often get a little timid in pointing out things like “your bag is open and it looks like your stuff is about to fall off” or “your fly is open” or “you have something on your jacket” to complete strangers. I guess I should do this more often. I don’t know if I should be less suspicious of strangers from this one incident, because Rome is famed for being a tourist trap full of pickpockets and people trying to scam you. But luckily I have had nothing but delightful encounters, such as the one with the rose man, and another one with the panini man of two days later from the Colosseum warning me to keep my possessions close to myself when I take the metro.

Horses that left a trail of poop in front of Galleria Borghese

Horses that left a trail of poop in front of Galleria Borghese

Did I say I did a lot of sitting around and doing nothing under the sun? Well I really did a lot of that here at Villa Borghese. I think there is a pattern emerging here– when I sit around and do nothing, I sit around and do nothing. I barely take any photos. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos of Villa Borghese save for a couple when the horses went by when I was on my way to Galleria Borghese to get advace tickets to the gallery for the next day. They left a very stinky trail of poop.

Anyway, being in this park was quite amazing. I had no idea I missed this green and this feeling of relaxation so much. I sensed an increase in the density of happiness molecules in the air around me. The relaxation wasn’t the kind that intoxicated me with laziness (which so often happens when I absolutely refuse to get off my bed on a weekend). It was an oddly energizing kind of relaxation that filled my mind with greater empty clarity; it was the kind of relaxation that just made my senses more keenly aware of everything I could take in about my surroundings.

And after soaking in as much as I could, I dozed off a little in a patch of sun on a bench, had some coffee, and walked around even more.

Villa Borghese (took precious few pictures here except for this pond thing, sadly)

Villa Borghese (took precious few pictures here except for this pond thing, sadly). There is a married couple in a boat in the distance taking wedding pictures.

I got lost a few times here and there when I was rushing to get out of Villa Borghese. I wanted to catch a Carnevale celebration somewhere, and I had written down a couple on my map. Unfortunately, I was running out of time. I managed to get out of Villa Borghese but I had no idea where I was.

Turns out, I was near Piazza Del Popolo

Dancing! And apparently I am not the only one with the big(ish) black camera who found this subject fascinating

Dancing! And apparently I am not the only one with the big(ish) black camera who found this subject fascinating. I wish I could dance shamelessly in public. I definitely did that in 2nd grade to Backstreet Boys at school assembly.

And the had a massive parade going on.

Carnevale Parade!

Carnevale Parade!

Robin Hood in a pram, armed with a balloon sword and a bag of confetti

Robin Hood in a pram, armed with a balloon sword and a bag of confetti

You hear the drums for 2 minutes before you see the drums

You hear the drums for 2 minutes before you see the drums

Roman generals looking legit

Roman generals looking legit

Roman senators looking pretty legit too!

Roman senators looking pretty legit too

Confetti, Confetti everywhere

Confetti, Confetti everywhere

O.o

O.o

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more confetti in your hair

more confetti in your hair

Anyway, after the parade, I had more San Crispino (honey and banana) and headed towards the Pantheon.

Honestly, I didn’t know if I would have more awe left to be awestruck.

Pantheon

Pantheon

IMG_2516 IMG_2512The pictures of the dome looked too ridiculous and measly (due to my lack of photography skills) so including them here is doing the magnificence of the building a gravely unjust disservice.

By the way, Raphael was buried here, and I cannot think of a more fitting place to be buried at after seeing what he did at the Vatican museums.

Pantheon, from the inside looking out

Pantheon, from the inside looking out

Pantheon, in its nightly splendor

Pantheon, in its nightly splendor

IMG_2532 (2)Anyway, after being thoroughly awed by the Pantheon and embraced by the bright lights and the music and the warm applause outside the Pantheon, I headed back to the apartment of my airbnb host.

Ponte Angelo and St. Peter's Basillica in the distance

Ponte Sant’Angelo and Basilica di San Pietro (St. Peter’s Basilica) in the distance, being magnificent with effortless grace.

It took about 30 shots to get this photo right.

The Tiber river flows slowly and sluggishly, but the pretty reflections on the river of the warm yellow lights all over the place makes you really feel the depth and expanse of the history of this incredible city.

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Castel Sant’Angelo and Ponte Sant’Angelo on my way home.

I mean, just look at what I walk over, just 5 minutes from the apartment.

Italy: Before the trip and Day 0.5

*special thanks to Sarah and Andrew for encouraging this inanity of a whim which resulted in one of the happiest weeks of my life*

After the shenanigans of re-purchasing the correct return ticket from Italy (the process spanned over about 36 hours of worrying and some more hours of waiting on international phone calls to Expedia customer service; I contemplated cancelling the whole trip, but thank goodness, thank all things I can thank, that I didn’t actually cancel) and sort of losing around $500 due to general carelessness and lack of keen observational skills, I actually did go to Italy.

Oh that reminds me; I had to go to 4 different bookstores that sold English language books (one of which was permanently closed) to find a copy of Lonely Planet- Italy. Either Italy is way more popular than destinations like France or Spain or Greece (all of which were in stock), or no one is interested in going to Italy and therefore they do not bother stocking up. Anyway, I bought the last copy at the 4th bookstore.

So as one can observe, this whole trip was a series of difficulties and bank-breaking before I even set foot on a plane, let alone Italian soil.

If I am to mention a silver lining in this mess of a cloud, it is that I was lucky enough to snag the last book, I was lucky enough to randomly find a return ticket from a different city (Milan, an unintended destination) at a cheaper price, and I was lucky enough to have friends and parents who were supportive and excited for me all the way through. Honestly, I think it would be very childish of me to want more than that, given that these shenanigans were brought upon my shoulders by myself, mostly.

Also, a cloud like this cannot change the fact that I AM GOING TO ITALY. YAY. It’s like the sun being like, “yeah, you measly cloud, cloud all you want. I’m still the SUN”.

My departure was the morning that my vacation started (which meant a week of work right before the trip). I was exhausted psychologically (from the whole ticket issue) and physically (from vacuuming, packing, doing 3 loads of laundry and cooking and eating everything that would go bad in the next few days). I was very close to saying that I didn’t want to do this trip anymore. I actually said it in my mind a couple of times, but there had been too much time and money and bits and bobs of my heart invested in this trip, so I had to go. I also knew that if I didn’t go, I was going to spend a very miserable 9 days in Beijing.

*****

Anyway, after a fight delay and a fair amount of running around the Moscow airport, I arrived at Rome at around 11:20PM…ish. I was in a hurry to get on the Sitbus to Vatican City (the schedule I saw online said there was a bus at around 11:50ish). There were no proper directions at the airport, so I asked a man who seemed to be in some sort of uniform where I would find this bus. He proceeded to inform me that the last bus had already left, and my only option was to take a taxi, which would cost around 70 Euros. I found this a little odd, because I saw online that the flat rate was 40. He then proceeded to inform me that he would be willing to take me to my destination with his car for a mere 40 Euros. I ignored him and headed directly to the taxi stand.

As the taxi started heading out of the airport, I actually did see the Sitbus shuttle.
fml.
Grumbling inwardly that I ended up spending about 10 times more than I should have, I struggled to not be unhappy or disgruntled 30 minutes after setting foot in Rome. I had invested too much in coming here, and I didn’t come here to be unhappy. But happiness doesn’t work that way, apparently. So I grumbled for a bit. It felt like I had a garden gnome (from Harry Potter, or more specifically, The Burrow) grumbling and fidgeting inside my chest, while I tried to wriggle it out of my body.

Then Uptown Funk came on the radio. I don’t know what it is about this song, but the beat is usually almost always genuinely uplifting for me. When I’m not doing anything in particular, it makes me want to dance, even when I am in public. Disgruntled me could feel the corners of my mouth were curling upwards. The garden gnome had left. This whole “I have to be happy here” was becoming a lot more easier, and 40 Euros did not seem like too much damage all of a sudden. The driver then pointed out the walls of the Vatican and I could actually take in the wall and the cobblestone streets and the streetlights and the tiny tiny cars. I was happy. I was very happy. I felt like I was being driven through a postcard… or an instagram filter.

I repeatedly “grazie”d my cabbie after I got off, and I went up a really cool elevator (which had a manually operated door, was half the size of a standard toilet cubicle (barely fit me and my bag) and looked about 150 years old) to meet my airbnb host.

If all airbnb hosts are like Esmeralda, I would like to recommend airbnb to everyone I like. (I wouldn’t recommend nice things to people I don’t like, because I generally don’t want nice things for them). The building looked old but spacious and very very well kept, and the rooms were really well decorated and clean. Also, I slept little, but I woke up to spectacular blue skies and air I wanted to capture in my lungs, so all was well. The corners of my mouth that curled upward seemed to never want to come back down.

Although I started writing this with the intention of writing about the whole trip today, I now realize after 1000 words that this is too audacious of a goal at 11pm. I will be writing about the rest of the trip in the next few days before I stop having to suppress the impulse to say “grazie” and “buongiorno”.