United [we stand] in Humanity

Earlier this year, I took a little trip to New York City. I decided to go to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum because I felt I needed to pay my respects.

I was fourteen in 2001. Just old enough to remember clearly what America was like before this terrible day, and have watched so much change from that day forward.

On my way to the memorial, I was busy paying attention to where I was going and was busy listening to my friend as she gave me directions on how to get to the airport from the WTC. I recognized the memorial across the highway from pictures I’d seen. But when I walked up, and saw these words on the stone, a million images flashed through my memory in a brief moment like a Rolodex. The burning building. The second plane flying. The impact. The horror. The falling debris, flames, and people. The people running, terrified, with handkerchiefs and scarves covering their mouths. The piles of rubble, crushing who knew how many people. And then, the two giant smoking holes in the ground. Those holes are now pristine memorial fountains, but they were designed to withstand hurricanes. Who ever knew those holes would hold so much more? Yes, the two holes in the New York skyline are much heavier.

All I could do was weep.

I wept more that day than I did when I was fourteen. In the 15 years of aftermath of this terrible day, I’ve lived enough life at this point to know the country I grew up knowing has never been the same since that day. And I’m wise enough now to know we can never go back. It took me fifteen years and three hours of late morning on a Tuesday to process my sadness from September 11, 2001. Grief is a strange, strange beast.

As I wandered through the museum, I found myself surrounded by some French people, and one grief-stricken French woman said, “Il était comme Paris…” It took me a minute to understand her, as my high school French has gotten rusty, but as soon as I recognized it, I turned to find her. I wanted to reach out to her and hold her hand and say, “I know. I remember your country flying your flags at half-mast in mourning of this horrible day. You wept with us. And we wept with you, too.” But she was lost in the crowd of tears.

None of this has anything to do directly with Korea, but I have seen my viewpoint on globalization change in my short time here, and I think on a smaller level, this moment in New York was preparing me for my year(s) here. Our world is so much smaller than we think, and so much simpler. Grief looks the same on all faces in the world. Fatigue in the fluorescent subway lighting isn’t flattering on anyone. Anger is still loud and abrasive. And, thankfully, of course, the happier feelings look the same as well. Tickle fights between siblings. Running to embrace at the subway after a long journey. Daddies sharing cokes with their children when away from mommies. The smiles, the laughter, the tears. It’s all the same, no matter where you go.

Human life is always the same, and it always matters. I may not understand the language here, or the customs, but everyday I see more and more that as people, there is so much more that unites us than divides us. I may not have any answers for solving our worlds problems, but this truth seems like a good place to start.


And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. – 1 Corinthians 13:13


When Endorphins Speak

Since becoming a teacher, I’ve been struggling with my weight. Previously, I’d been working for a wholesale company, and tended to burn off most of my calories each day, even when I stress-ate. But with teaching, even with all the standing and walking, it still wasn’t the same. I went through serious emotional stress my first year, which usually causes me to lose my appetite. I did. I lost ten pounds: my first year teacher weight. I then hovered back and forth another five pounds once things settled down. And at some point in the last year, I’ve packed on ten pounds again. I watched what I ate. I drank more water. It would all work, but only temporarily. More than anything, I’m concerned about my long-term health. When your father has a heart attack at fifty, and your mother passes away from one at sixty, that knowledge tends to weigh on you.

This summer, I finally succumbed to acceptance. I came to accept that in order to see change, I had to make some changes. I decided to wait until I moved to Korea to get into the swing of working out. Moving was incredibly stressful, and I wanted nothing to do with balancing that with working out and trying to count calories and macros. Experience has taught me that when I try to do everything at once, I fail miserably. I drop all the spinning plates. So I waited.

Currently, there’s a beautiful city park that is less than one block from my place. How I lucked out with this, I have no clue. But I love it. The track is wide and shaded most of the way, and the weather has finally cooled down enough to be bearable. I did begin running when it was hot, but it was so insufferable I made no real progress with anything other than dehydration.

This week I made myself a goal to run three times this week. Tuesday, my first run this week, was beautiful. I’m using an app that does intervals between walking and running, which is ideal for making the adjustment from noK to 5K. And Tuesday was the first day where I actually ran all of the running intervals, and while they were still challenging, they weren’t awful. I regretted the granola bar I ate before hand, but no near-death experiences. My runner’s high even started to kick in closer to the end of the run, too, making a cool down annoying more than favorable.

But tonight. Oh, tonight. Tonight was a beast. Humidity is back in the air, and it’s warmer than it was on Tuesday. But that wasn’t everything. For some reason, my body, my legs were just…not feeling it. They were lazy and curious and wondering why I was forcing them to work so quickly, and wanted me to pay for my insistence of physical health. You want me to do what? No, they said. I’m not about that life tonight. Try me again on Monday, when the week is new and fresh and I’ve had enough rest to carry out your Type A tendencies. My body was not having this run.

A week and a half ago, I burst into tears at work. Fortunately, I wasn’t teaching at the time. Unfortunately, it was on a day that I really couldn’t afford to break down and cry. I’m no stranger to crying at work for various reasons, and despite cultural workplace norms, I’ve given up caring if I cry at work. I don’t care if someone thinks it makes me look weak. Stress is a beast on the highly sensitive types, and if someone is insensitive enough to not understand that, they probably should take a crash course in human decency.

My first year as a teacher, I used to crawl under my desk and cry my eyes out. The pressure to get everything done and to be everything to every student every single day of the week is soul crushing. Spinning plates again. Everything all at once. They make such a terrible noise when they come crashing down.

My second year, I cried less, but I still had my moments. My third year, I cried three really good cries at the beginning of the school year in the comfort of my classroom, and then another closer toward the end. As the years have gone on, it’s been less tears with work, but with the new school, the new system, the new colleagues, the new country, it was only a matter of time. Spinning. Plates.

But the beautiful thing about years past is that when I break down crying at work, I have my own classroom to escape to, and desk to crawl under, safe from the prying eyes and shame I would feel or throw upon myself. This year, however, I share an office with approximately 25 other people, most of whom are Korean. My desk is about as wide as a sleeping bag, and I definitely cannot fit under it, even when I pull my knees in. At least not comfortably. But this was no time to care for appearances. I was stressed and drowning in work. Appearances be damned. This of course is very unKorean. Korea is all about appearances, and one of my Korean co-workers tried to get me to escape to the bathroom while I was crying because she didn’t want one of the owners to see me in tears. No, I told her. They need to know the pressure their foreign teachers are under. She looked at me curiously, and somewhat enviously. In that instant I knew: she somehow hated me and admired me all at the same time. She hated that I might make her and the other Koreans look like unsupportive jerks to the foreign teachers (which they totally aren’t) but also admired me for my honesty and gumption.

In the past, tears at work would cause me to throw in the towel. Call in a sub or scrap the lesson plan to something less intensive. But subs aren’t really an option here, and the lesson plans are too easy as it is. The administrative work is stupidly complicated and obnoxious, which is what invoked the tears to begin with, a form of professional culture shock that I’m still grappling with. But the week of tears got better after that. It was somehow more manageable. Two of my colleagues offered to help and support me in my adjustment. And this week has been better, also. There have been moments of difficulty, and more than anything, I know I just miss home and how things are at home. But I also know enough to know that how life is at home isn’t the only “right way” to live life.

After several minutes of tears, I dried my eyes, somehow managed to pick myself up, and wait for it…carried on. I have no idea who this lady is, this lady who keeps going. Jenny Leigh from three years ago would not recognize this woman today. Shoot, I didn’t even crawl under my desk to hide. I just cried in broad daylight, for the whole damned office to see. There’s something about moving around the world that makes previously perceived embarrassments a thing of the past.

Tonight while I was struggling to run, I thought about that day when I cried and then picked myself up and kept going, and I realized my running wasn’t too dissimilar. I wanted to quit. I wanted to throw in the towel and say, screw it. We’re all gonna die one day anyway. But for some reason, I remembered sobbing in the office last week, and how when I was done, I patted my face dry and got back to work, culture shock be damned. I reflected on the last week, and how I’ve handled it, and huffed and puffed and swore under my breath about the stitch in my side and before I knew it, a favorite song on my running playlist came on. My feet caught time, and my stride lengthened and fell into place, and before I knew it, my run wasn’t [as much of] a struggle anymore.

I can’t help but think this is exactly how dealing with culture shock is.

I can’t help but think, this is exactly how dealing with life is.