From the BK to the SK
That's how the Lonely Planet Travel Guide describes Singapore: It's a breath of fresh air in Southeast Asia. It couldn't be a more perfect description.
I am writing from Singapore right now, which has had me in a trance since the moment I arrived. Malaysia, despite starting it off on the wrong foot, was really very cool. When my friend Amand and I landed at the airport that very first day in Kuala Lumpur, my heart skipped a beat as we waited in line for immigration. We were surrounded by culturally enriching scenes, and we were only in immigration.
China was cool and Korea is unique, but there is just something about Malaysia I can't quite put my finger on. I was in awe of the Islamic culture from the moment we landed and encountered the women wearing the burqas, the long black dress with the black hood, who had not even a slit for their eyes. It was just all black, and you just stand there looking at the epitome of everything foreign and unfamiliar and awkward and uncomfortable to you while a thousand questions race through your mind.
And when we were driving through the city, we'd see men driving their motorcycles/scooters with their sons sitting behind them or daughters standing on the foot space in front of them, heading to school or somewhere to go about their daily lives while we're surrounding by endless jungle. (Kuching is in a state known for its jungle and wildlife.) We could not have grown up any differently if we tried. God could not have made our lives more opposite. It's mind boggling to think of how we're all raised, and that when I was 10 years old constantly playing manhunt on 78th street with all my friends or going to teen club on the weekends, there were kids growing up in the jungles of Malaysia.
But right now I am in Singapore, and both have been a great escape from cold and uniform Korea. I am staying in the heart of the Little India section of Singapore, and I don't want to leave. There is Indian music dancing through the streets, people everywhere and it feels like a movie. You know when you're watching a scene unfold and the shot jumps with the beat of the music? It might be a collection of different scenes or start off as a panaroma shot and get smaller and smaller or vice versa? That is what it feels like with every step I take. It feels like I am constantly switching and shifting my focus to a new angle, a bigger crowd or a smaller more private view of life in the Little India of Singapore. It makes me want to jump out of my skin and keep traveling toward India.
It is definitely going to be difficult to go back to Korea and teach for another semester after this. I have a feeling that I am on such an uncontrolable high right now, and that the fall is going to hurt. It's going to be difficult to stop traveling, because once you start it's so addicting.
I did add a new addition to my body. Dad, this is the only way to tell you without you being able to be angry with me: I got a tattoo.
Kiddinggggggg! I got my ear pierced. I was shaking as if it was the most daring thing I've done in my life, meanwhile I've drank snake blood and eaten scorpion and moving squid before. Sometimes I don't make much sense.
I will try to write again soon, and my apologies for these blogs being kind of half-assed. It's so hard to write about all of this, and the Chinese New Year is a fwe days away so I am incredibly excited to be spending it in the Chinatown section of Penang, a city in Malaysia; however, that's if my friend and I make it there alive. We have a ten hour train ride tomorrow from Singapore to Penang.
I've got my iPad charged and ready to go.
I had one of those moments again where everything around me feels surreal, and I don't know which way to look or turn. I have to remind myself to breathe, keep myself in check and keep moving forward. I'm in Singapore, and I loved it more than I thought I would.
 So far, I've been traveling for a little over a week for my winter vacation, and at the moment I really can't imagine going back to Korea. I forgot how addicting traveling is - how your heart constantly pumps excitement throughout your veins. I've met some super cool people, and I am always in awe of them and their travels and their stories. I often think my life, in comparison to theirs, is so boring. There is no way that it sounds as adventure-filled, as spontaneously crazy as what some of these backpackers are doing at the moment, but who knows.
I left Korea on January 23, just a little over a week ago. My four friends and I planned for Malaysia and Singapore for two weeks, and I really had no idea as to how I would feel or what to make of the trip that lay ahead. Let's just say it didn't exactly start off as planned whatsoever.
I flew separately with my friend Amanda into Malaysia and met our other three friends in Kuala Lumpur, its capital city. We decided to spend the day there and catch a flight out that night to a separate island of Malaysia where we could do some jungle trekking and relax on the beaches.
We walked around and wandered through Chinatown, with its markets that wound through the streets like a snake, the vendors spitting their games like venom at all of the tourists. We dodged as many vendors as we could, not letting ourselves fall victim to endless the "we give you special price"; "hello lady...come have a look"; "you want a nice bag? we have many bags and i give you good discount" . I'm so sure you will give me a good discount, buddy, just like you did the last ten tourists who wandered through here.
When we had enough of Chinatown, we headed back to the hostel where my friends stayed at the night before and grabbed a coffee at the cafe next door before catching a taxi to the airport.
We sat there, the five of us at the table, minding our own business and talking amongst ourselves when this Malaysian man walks over and sits at the table next to us. He starts mumbling something about his cell phone, and we were all a bit hesitant at first to respond to him. We all had our heads turned and facing him as we struggled to make sense of what he was saying before eventually trying to dismiss him and go back to our conversation. All of a sudden, he asked if any of us spoke italian, and I sort of felt like that was a little strange. I didn't tell him I did, but one of my friends told him I spoke italian and he started acting even more strange. My friend, Laura, was sitting at the other end of the table, far across from the man, who insisted she look at his phone. He handed it to me, and I leaned to give to my friend who leaned in for a just a second before saying she couldn't help him. He snatched his phone back from my hand and darted off, and I watched him and a woman run into a car on the corner.
It all seemed really absurd and outlandish, and none of it made much sense. It happened maybe in two minutes, and in all the four years I've been traveling this is the first time I've been scammed, even though it was sort of indirectly. The reason the man wanted my friend, Laura, to grab hold of the phone is because when we leaned forward, there was someone behind her who grabbed her purse from her chair and ran off with it without any single one of us noticing for at least five minutes. When we got up to go, about three hours before our flight, she noticed her bag was stolen, and in it was her entire life: passport, phone, ipod, iPhone, wallet, credit cards, camera - everything.
I have to say, I am really proud of her for the way she handled the situation, because I would have been hysterical. We searched around for a few minutes before it all clicked that we had been scammed, and that the woman I saw running with the man into the car must have taken the bag while the man was distracting us with his cell phone problems. First day in and we were screwed.
I almost felt responsible. Out of all five of us, my one friend and I have traveled the most, and I felt like I should have known what was going on when it was all happening. I knew something was weird and something wasn't right in the situation, but I guess that is why they are all so good at what they do. They had us so confused that we didn't know what to make of anything that was happening.
We immediately went to the police station, which one of the waiters at the coffee shop directed us to. It was a trailer parked on the street with three cops inside who were of absolutely no help to us whatsoever. We knocked on the door of the trailer and waited for one of them to open it, and none of them did. They sat there at this little makeshift table and didn't budge. Another cop came down the block, and so we grabbed him hoping he would take us in the trailer and help us sort all of this out. Wrong.
He went into a store and brought out some random store employees who spoke english and tried to help us get in touch with the central police station, and though they did their very best, in the end they were of no help. Their suggestion: go to the airport and cry, cry, cry.
So we did.
We all went to the airport, and I sat with Laura in the police station at the airport while we filled out a police report. We sat in there for four hours as she filled out one report, a cop called it in to the central station and dictated it - word for word, spelling each word out for the cop on the other end of the phone -, waited for the head cop to come back from his dinner so we could fill out another report which he had to again call in and dictate - word for word - to a cop at the central station  and then sit there unnecessarily for 30ish minutes until we realized the cops were kind of just shooting the shit with us. They brought out cups of coffee at 11 p.m., started talking to us about their english teachers when they were in school, how we like Korea and our jobs and just making casual conversation like we had been longtime friends and had all the time in the world to kick back with some java. Though we enjoyed the company of our new friends, who were actually really funny, we politely dipped out of there around 11:30 and grabbed a hotel at the airport. It was Sunday, and the embassy wasn't open to issue her a new passport. We booked a flight for the next day at 4 p.m., figuring we'd have everything all sorted out and safely meet our friends in Kuching.
Again, we were wrong.
The embassy wasn't exactly a complicated process, but it wasn't an easy one either. I don't want to say Laura and I had fun running around Kuala Lumpur getting her an emergency passport, but it was definitely an eventful and entertaining day.
After all was said and done, we received her passport around 2 p.m. after some minor difficulties, and the woman at the U.S. embassy told us we MUST go to the Malaysia custom in Kuala Lumpur before we could fly anywhere. The customs office didn't open until 2:30 p.m., and our flight was at 4 p.m.
We were screwed. What could we do? We decided to take our time catching a train to the customs office. (By the way, my debit card didn't work and we had 100 Malaysian ringgits between us to get us through this entire day. That was about 20 USD. I told my dad I officially learned the meaning of emergency and how it applies to credit card usage.)
We board the train and head toward the office, when I look up and see a man with an immgration uniform on sitting across from us. I blurt out, "You're in immigration?!" and we explain our situation to him. He tells us to go straight to the aiport and it shouldn't be a problem. Luckily, the train to the immigration office was the same express train to take to the airport. Our day was starting to look up, and then we looked down at our watches and saw the time. The check-in gates closed at 3:15, 45 minutes before the flight. It was 3 p.m., and we hadn't yet reached the airport.
I sort of gave up then, thinking that we would just have to buy yet another flight. We arrived at the airport at maybe 3:06 p.m., and I don't think I have ever run so fast in my life. I can run about 11K in one hour, and I will say I am in the best shape of my life right now. The immigration officer said to follow him and that he would rush us through the crowds, but I was fifty steps ahead of him, sprinting through the airport like I was running a race.
The floor was marble, the people in the airport could hear my sandals slap, slap, slapping the floor from miles away. and everyone in the airport parted for me like it was the Red Sea, and as I was sprinting and pivoting and dashing every which way, all I could think was that I was going to slip and crack my head open on the floor. It was, however, a success, and when I reached the airport lockers to retrieve our backpacks, I knew I hadn't yet reached my final destination.
My bag weighed almost 12 kilos. It's a big backpackers' backpack, and I strapped it on and took off running with it on my back. I didn't stop. I ran and ran and ran through to the gate, my legs shaking under the weight of my back and ready to give way to a lost cause of making this flight when 3:15 had already passed.
I saw a long line at the check in counter and ran to the front, ready to fight whoever was behind the counter and get our asses on that flight. I had no idea how far behind me Laura was, but as long as I was there she'd have time to catch up.
I glanced up at the TV screen and saw the words: Flight 378 to Kuching, and I stared in disbelief. I turned to the man next to me and asked if he was waiting to board the flight for Kuching.
"It's delayed," he said. "Are you OK?"
I literally dropped to the ground. My legs collapsed underneath me just as Laura ran up to the check-in counter.
She was panting and out of breath, as was I, but I managed to throw the words out into the air: "It's delayed."
She fell to the ground beside me, and we both started laughing ourselves into tears. No one around us knew what to make of it, and I think they thought we weren't OK. We sat there on the ground, sweating, panting and hysterically laughing with tears running down our faces repeating over and over again, "It's delayed."
Those were without a doubt two of the most memorable days of my life. The rollercoaster of emotions we went through was unlike anything I ever experienced before. One minute, everything was great. The next, we sat there talking as if we were never getting out of Kuala Lumpur for the rest of our lives.
We had a little bit of trouble when we landed in Kuching, but we played dumb and got our way through immigration when we arrived. Though the officials weren't exactly happy with us, we didn't care. We were happy to have survived the past 24 hours on 3 hours of sleep and 3 strings of hope that everything would be sorted out ok.
I'm 23 going on 24, and I am not alone: The Quarterlife Crisis does exist.
Thanks, Emily. Now we just need to write our book and have Tony edit it.
I walk home at night from the fitness center past this house where there is a loose dog on the roof, barking viciously at me as I pass. Every as it growls and barks and shows its teeth, I can only wonder how long this dog is going to wait before it realizes it can just jump off the roof and run after me. This is not a friendly dog by any means.
I find animals in other countries to be so interesting, because they do not at all understand English. I always think of that when I visit another country and see people with their different pets, well, their dogs. I always think of how the dog doesn't understand my language, so it would never know what I am saying or asking it to do. 
Keep your fingers crossed the dog never jumps off the roof, because I would never be able to tell it to go away and stop chasing me.
This blog was a sidenote. I was about to write a different one but am honestly too tired and need to go to sleep.
I've been living in Korea for five months now, so I felt it was necessary to write a happy five months post. I will leave to go to Malaysia and Singapore soon, and I honestly couldn't be more excited. Living in Korea isn't necessarily traveling; I cannot wait to put my backpack on and get some traveling done.
So one day last week, at around 9:00 a.m., the principal of my school came bopping into to my office; he always has a little bounce, a little spring in his step the elevates his height an inch taller than he actually stands. He came over to my desk, as usual, looks at my computer screen and the words trip off his tongue: Teaching Materials?
Truth be told, I could be reading a site that tells me how to make a bomb, and this guy really would have no idea. I tell him I am reading the news, and he says, "Today's topic?" It's news - there are many topics, but his feigned curiousity and interest warm my heart, along with his attempt at english.
Anyway, the secretary then proceeds to ask me, after having a conversation with the principal, if I like Korean pasta and Chinese tea. I knew exactly what this meant. I tell her yes, and next thing I know I have an appointment to get a long overdue lunch with the principal while she serves as our third wheel and translator.
Any type of Korean fare usually turns into a binge eating fest, where people are constantly funneling food down your throat and never take no for an answer. Everything is communal and shared, so I was preparing myself for the big stomach ache that would lay ahead.
I was beyond relieved when we went to a little pasta house in the uni area that I've been to before and I was able to pick my own dish and what I wanted to eat. Ha, he knocked his orange juice over in the first minute or two of our lunch, and the secretary said she thought maybe he was very nervous. She spoke English with me very plainly and openly about him or about the meal or about the day because we both knew he didn't understand, and though it was nothing mean or rude, I just felt rude or disrespectful in a way. (I wonder if they talk about me without me knowing, but Alexandra is a hard name to miss in a conversation.)
I found it surprising that he talked so openly with me about North Korea, what my reaction was to the past situation (I didn't have the heart to tell him I was almost excited about a possible war...) and how many family and friends felt back home. I left out my fascination with North Korea and the people there and their lifestyle, though he does know about it to a degree; I've said that the place I want to most visit in Korea is the DMZ, or the demilitarized zone. Koreans cannot go to this place (Koreans also can't gamble, but there are casinos in Korea...sidenote), and its so ridden with history and current events. I am just terribly intrigued by the enigma that is North Korea.
Anyway, I am rambling a bit. He was saying some of the nicest things about me that anyone has ever said, about how he thinks that I am will be successful in life and he is so incredibly proud of me and my teaching methods. It kind of made me feel guilty about all the times I've slacked off.
I knew going into this day that it wouldn't be a simple rendevouz. My entire day, from lunch on, was no longer in my hands. It was in the hands of my principal. So, after lunch we went to get some tea at a traditional Chinese tea house near this mountain in my city called Palgong Mountain. (Have I mentioned before that Daegu is in the mountains? I've never been to Colorado before, but it reminds me of Boulder or DEnver or something.)
The tea house was enchanting. It was nestled at the base of this mountain, a little ways off the road that is a total secret and a gem. My principal says that he likes to conduct business here, because although the business culture and meetings revolve around drinking and alcohol, he doesn't like to drink. He prefers to drink tea.
It was like drinking tea in a doll's house. The tables were traditional Korean style: low to the ground, so we had to sit on the floor. We were given two teacups, each of which was small enough for me to between my thumb and pointer finger. 
He told me all about the traditional tea etiquette when you're in a formal setting, and we tasted a variety of different teas until my stomach hurt. Literally - we made up for the usual Korean binge eating for binge drinking tea.
The owner is a woman who has a son studying in Beijing, China, and who said that opening a tea shop was her calling in life. She loves learning about tea, the powers behind it and spreading her knowledge to all her guests, and because my principal is a regular, we received the royal treatment. She roasted sweet potatoes for us, which she heated on a portable grill that looked more like a bug zapper for mosquitos. When they were hot enough, she put them on a plate for us and we peeled the skin off and ate the potato.
We talked about different cultural aspects of our lives, and about the things the EPIK program had warned schools about when it comes to the foreign teachers. Rule one was to not take us to too many traditional, Korean restaurants where we sit on the floor. He was told this would be highly uncomfortable for us. I agreed. I lasted about 35 minutes sitting indian style before I felt like pins and needles were attacking my legs and feet. 
I learned that my principal is from a very small, countryside town a little bit outside of Daegu. He told me he thinks that God brought us together: a country boy and a city girl, united in Daegu, Korea (his words, not mine). I just felt really grateful to have a principal who is so thoughtful with his words, genuine and careful with expressing himself and his feelings. The lunch was long overdue, he said, and he apologized for not taking me out sooner when I had first arrived in Korea.
Well, better late than never. I may have left the tea house in a tea coma instead of a food coma, but I definitely came to love the principal of my school more than before. He's beyond cute for words now, and the little pep in his step the next morning made my heart smile more than before.
I just finished reading Angela's Ashes, by Frank McCourt. I don't want to say I was disappointed by any means, because the book was wildly funny and painfully sad in a way that made you feel bipolar, constantly dangling between two emotions. It's so funny how a book can do that to you. I guess I was more surprised, though, at how he was able to recall his childhood word-for-word in what conversations were had and what situations he experienced. It's incredible that he had such a vivid memory. How do people do that?
Anyway, things are going fairly well here in South Korea. It's been a bit cold the past few days, though thankfully they addressed the heating issue in my office at once when I feigned a little cough and said I was coming down with something. I think God will forgive me for that white lie.
I did my volunteering at the orphanage on Saturday, and I wouldn't be lying in saying it is a bit of a struggle. These kids are so eager to see us, to have us visit and to play with us, but the cold weather complicated our plans from being able to play soccer, basketball or on the jungle gym outside. It's a bit difficult when you have kids from age 3, who love a game like Duck, Duck, Goose, to kids who are 14 and want nothing to do with such a game.
It's funny how games can be universal, too, with their own cultural twist on them. When we explained 'Duck, Duck, Goose', we learned that they have a similar game here in Korea. It's silent (at least we think), and you drop a ribbon behind the person that would be considered the 'goose' in the States. It was fun, and the youngers kids had a good time with it, but my friends and I were scared to death we were going to slip and fall. Our socks didn't give us the best of traction, and the 'circle' we had formed left us doing pivots that were prone to causing someone to trip.
After realizing that we were playing a variation of Duck, Duck, Goose with kids that were 14, we moved on to bigger and better games: Simon Says (I was Simon, and at first they asked me to make it Jesus says. That was strange,); Red Light, Green Light; Hide and Seek (These kids literally were climing into the crawl space of the ceiling. Ha one of the little girls hid under the chapel pew and would keep rolling forward under the pews as the seeker passed her.); and last but not least, musical chairs, which they loved despite the fact that we had no music.
We stayed for about an hour and a half, and it was an hour and a half well spent that left us totally spent. For some reason, too, when we left I felt more emotional than the week before. We were running out of ideas and hiding spots for hide-and-go seek, so my friends and I slowly were becoming less and less enthusiastic. I felt guilty as we were packing up to leave, and my heart felt heavy. I felt guitly for getting tired and looking forward to laying down for a nap, and I couldn't help but think of the situations these kids came from. I thought about how we can come and go after a a couple of hours, have our fun and be done with it, come back again the next week. Yet these kids, these 15 or so kids that we hang out with each week don't have that liberty. They can't come and go as they please or call it a day when they want to go home for a nap before going out with their friends. This is their lives, day in and day out. When we were playing our games and having our snacks, there was just this incredible sense of family, soldarity and commrodority among these children; it was like something you could feel and touch. It's like you'd never know they weren't brothers and sisters by blood, the way they'll tease one another or watch out for one another. All they have is one another.
It was hard to leave that Saturday, and I can only imagine that it will continue to get harder with each passing visit. You think of these kids and the odds they've overcome and will always fight to overcome, and you feel this gaping hole inside of you. Yet that sadness, as strange as this may sound, dissapates just as quickly as it spread, and you slowly but surely feel inspired. heYou feel lucky. You feel grateful. You feel like you can make a difference.
My guilt subsided and I told myself that I did a great thing, I will continue to do a great thing, and I'll make it count each visit. It's the only way I can ever repay them for the lessons they'll teach me each Saturday.
When I first moved to Korea, I thought no one else lived in my apartment building. I soon came out to find there was an American kid who lives above me, and so then I came to believe it was just the two of us in this building.
Life in China introduced me to the smell of squid, mostly because it was a snack that my friends and I would get after a night in the bars: We'd get squid on a stick. The smell became so familiar to me, like a perfume I had worn all my life (such a horrific confession).
I came to realize I have neighbors because my life in Korea has introduced me to the smell of mackerel. Yes, mackerel. It's the only fish they ever serve at lunch, and it smells quite strong. My neighbor has made this every night for the past week, and this morning the stench was so powerful it was like taking 50 shots of espresso in a 30 second time frame. I was instantly awoken by this incredibly rancid smell that drenched the air in my building.
I tried my best to swim through the stench and make it outside to some fresh air.
I guess I discovered a new scent to add to my perfume collection.
     "Hey, Alex?"
     "Vice Principal wants to know, in America, if men wear white socks with suit, does it mean gay? Cause he heard about it."
     "Um...not that I know of, no. It does not mean gay."

The End
I just felt the need to make a post as a means to remember those six victims who lost their lives or remain in critical condition when gunned down in Tucson, Arizona on Saturday. I've been following the news and the reports, and it disgusts me that something like that could happen in our world today. What shattered my heart into pieces, though, was the story of Christina Green, a 9-year-old girl who was a "50 Faces of Hope" baby, or a baby born on September 11. It makes me sick to my stomach that such a young, innocent life was taken so suddenly. Her family, along with all of the victims and their families, are in my thoughts and prayers.