“Say hello to your future. I’m just pleased to meet you. You were a million miles away. Say hello to your lion’s heart. Queen Victoria’s England will never ever be the same.” -Darren Hayes, “The Future Holds a Lion’s Heart”
I’ve taken several big leaps of faith since I became an adult. Moving to Chicago without a job and renting an apartment I hadn’t seen in person, moving back to North Carolina temporarily without being sure I’d get a job in South Korea, and moving to a country I’d never visited and where I didn’t speak the language. All of those risks paid off, and nearly a year ago, I wrote about making another major life change. I decided to leave Korea and apply for postgrad. In case that wasn’t risky enough, I also decided to only apply to universities in the UK.
When I started teaching in Korea, I’d thought that I didn’t want to go back to social work. I didn’t want to continue in the area of the field I had been stuck in for several years. Several experiences/jobs in Chicago (particularly with a certain terrible boss/bully) burnt me out on social work, and I lost a lot of confidence. When I worked for a great company before I left for Korea and after I came back, I saw that they weren’t all as bad as the ones I’d worked for in Chicago. I regained a lot of confidence and courage, thanks to that company and my experiences in Korea. I finally felt ready to apply for postgrad in the UK. I knew I was taking another chance by leaving Korea and only applying to universities in the UK without knowing if I’d get accepted anywhere, but I’d had this dream of moving to the UK for many years and needed to finally make it happen. The time was perfect, and I was finally in the right mindset and place in my life to do it.
With a new long-term goal, I applied at several universities in England. The process for Social Work students was different than for other fields, and being an international student only made it more complicated. To receive an unconditional offer, they required interviews, group tests, essays, background checks for the UK and every country I’d lived in for the last five years, medical clearances, and all the annoying things that should be required for social workers. As an international student, I was exempt from some things (like group tests) at some universities, but I still had to do Skype interviews and essays. It was quite a stressful, expensive process, but I knew it’d be worth it if it worked out.
True to my long history of having everything (Chicago, Korea, etc.) come together at the very last minute, I’m thrilled to report that it did work out. After months of back and forth with my chosen university, I can finally, officially announce that I’ll be attending the University of York. I chose York because it has a great reputation as both a city and university. It looks absolutely gorgeous and is supposed to be one of the top universities in the UK/world. York’s only two hours from both London and Edinburgh by train and is close to other big cities. Since I’ve been on my own as an adult, I’ve always lived far away from family, so it’ll be nice to be close to my brother and sister-in-law for a bit. York is also one of the safest cities in the UK, though I think I’d feel safer anywhere in the UK than the US. (I was definitely spoilt by the safety in Korea!)
While it’s been challenging from the beginning, going back to school presents new challenges and experiences I’ve never had before. At the ripe old age of 31, I’ll be living on campus for the first time, though I’ll have my own room and en suite. I’ve only ever lived on my own or with family, never with roommates. I’m anxious, but I’ve never had the true university experience, so I’m looking forward to finally living it.
Overall, though, I’m very excited for my next adventure and seeing what happens and what changes over the next few years. It’s surreal that this dream I’ve had for so long is coming true. It still hasn’t hit me that I’ll be living there for at least two years, and I imagine it won’t until I’m there in a few weeks. I’m going with an open mind, as I always do, and planning to learn more about social work, the UK, and of course, myself. Maybe I’ll even finally find my home and settle down there. Whatever happens, I’m ready to say “hello” to my future and my lion’s heart…
“So put my picture on your button, my name around your hat. Call all the neighbours, and tell them I’m back. I’ve changed. I’ve come in from the ledge. I’ve changed. There’s nothing here at all. There’s nothing here at all for me to run from.” -Evan and Jaron, “Show You Sometime”
In less than 24 hours, I’m leaving Korea and returning (at least temporarily) to my old life in the States. To say that I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster the last few weeks would be a terrible understatement. I’ve spent a lot of time reminiscing about my first few weeks in Korea, only a year ago. It feels like yesterday and like forever ago, somehow all at the same time. Leaving the place I’ve called home for a year is bittersweet, more than I expected. I love Korea, but I’m ready to move on to the next chapter. It’s still difficult to leave some of the best friends I’ve ever had, but I’ve made so many wonderful memories here that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. This post, like all of them, will be a reflective one about the ways I’ve changed (and I have!) and things I will and won’t miss Korea.
There’s a great Snow Patrol line that goes, “I’m just not the same as I was a year ago and each minute since then.” This lyric sums up my year more accurately than anything I could come up with on my own. I’m 31 and was confident that I knew myself well. As it turns out, living in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language changes you in ways that no other experience really can. When I came here, I wanted to be open to everything and try new things, especially things that scared me. I’ve shed some of my shyness by hanging out with people I’d never met or didn’t know well and became great friends with some of them. I’ve shared rooms with complete strangers. (If you know me, you know that I hate sharing a room with anyone, no matter how close we are. I still do, but at least I’m a tiny bit better about it.) I’ve eaten foods I’d never try otherwise, like octopus (just one sliver) and Beondegi (silkworm pupae). I’ve travelled solo and discovered I love wandering aimlessly on my own. I’ve gone skinny dipping. To my surprise, I found out that I love ziplining and roller coasters, which I’d only ever been on once, despite practically growing up at Disney and Universal. These all sound like normal or minor things for most people, but for me, they were big. I most likely wouldn’t have done/overcome any of them without coming to Korea. I feel virtually fearless.
I’ve changed most, however, in that I’ve lost some of my sense of shame. I once was easily embarrassed, but I attract attention wherever I go in Korea just by looking different. “Graceful,” for example, is not a word most people would use to describe me, crushing my dream of being a ballerina. Whether it’s falling on a full bus twice, singing horribly at noraebang, or accidentally exposing myself before getting a massage at the spa (not the jjimjilbang, where you are meant to be nude), I laugh about those moments now. I accept that my clumsiness makes me who I am and is one thing that’ll never change.
Inevitably, Korea hasn’t all been rainbows and unicorns. There are some things I knew I wouldn’t like or miss. These are not all bad, just different, and were things I had to get used to over time but sometimes didn’t. This isn’t everything I didn’t like, but these are the top things. It’s not meant to be negative but something for anyone coming to Korea to be aware of and to help people who won’t do this understand why I was sometimes frustrated.
1. Food – I knew I wouldn’t like Korean food much, and that hasn’t changed. As a vegetarian, my options are incredibly limited. I do like bibimbap, but in general, I have found that too much of the food I can eat tastes the same. I quickly tired of the same things at school every day and of questioning whether most things I ate were truly vegetarian. Obviously I knew the foods I mentioned above weren’t, but that was the only time I knowingly broke my diet, and I felt so sick after eating them. I also got tired of explaining that vegetarians don’t just pick the meat out or eat around it. As nice as it is when people share food, which is all the time, I don’t like the pressure to accept everything given to you or to share your own food. Sometimes you just get tired of rice cakes or just aren’t hungry. Alternatively, sometimes you want to have a little snack without having to share it with everyone. I thought sweet foods were too bland, and salty foods were too sugary. Let’s just say that I look forward to eating garlic bread that tastes like garlic and isn’t covered in sugar when I get home. (Yes, that’s real.)
2. Hygiene – I knew about the spitting, but I didn’t know how bad it was before I came here. I’ve always been repulsed by the act, but I can’t walk down the street (or even inside some places, like school) without seeing someone spit. However, Koreans are great about brushing their teeth. You could go into any bathroom – public or private – and see multiple women brushing their teeth. I’ve no problem with that. I just wish the same applied to washing hands, which is sorely lacking with many.
3. Korean Surprises – Anyone who teaches here has heard of this. It’s real. This could go on the list of things I will and won’t miss. Sometimes they’re good surprises, but more often than not they’re frustrating. Cancelled class? Great! The class that was supposed to be cancelled is back on and starting in 5 minutes because there’s a schedule change, and you have no worksheets printed for said class? Not as great. These are very minor examples, but Korean Surprises happen all the time. There was probably at least one a week, sometimes more than one in one day. Sometimes were left to figure it out on our own. Korea being the rushed culture it is in general, I was often left scrambling.
4. Appearance – In Korea, the sad truth is that if you don’t look a certain way, life will be rough. People get plastic surgery to get jobs. I taught middle school and had students tell me they have already had people tell them they should fix this or that. Friends had students as young as grade 6 who came back from breaks with new noses or eyelids. For women especially, there’s a massive focus on appearance, as if we’re only good for looking pretty. Things that would be inappropriate in Western culture are not inappropriate to say in Korea. People who are average where I’m from are considered fat in Korea. Westerners (especially pale ones), however, are often considered beautiful. If you want to be constantly told you’re beautiful, move to Korea. Believe me, you’ll tire of hearing it quickly. Sometimes you just want to say, “Thanks, but I’m also smart and nice with a killer sense of humour. Let’s talk about those things!” It makes me feel bad for Koreans, who are pressured to always look good. It’s kind of like being in Hollywood, except it’s expected of everyone.
Now that those are out of the way, let’s focus on some of the many things that I will miss the most. Most are pretty self-explanatory, so I’ll just touch on them briefly.
1. Internet – Korea has the fastest Internet in the world, which makes it equally hilarious and frustrating that they still use Internet Explorer for everything. There’s also free wifi in most places, including many buses. Need I say more? I’m not looking forward to going back to terrible, slow Internet that often stops working.
2.Shoes – As someone who despises shoes, I loved not having to worry about wearing uncomfortable shoes at work. I wore regular shoes to school and then spent the day in slippers. It made me wish they did this everywhere.
3. Keyless entry – It was so nice to be able to leave my apartment with only my phone and wallet or to rent an Airbnb and not have to actually meet the host. No lost keys; all you have to do is remember a code. Again, every place in the world should be required to do this. It’s brilliant.
4. Rock, Paper, Scissors – It’s not just a children’s game. It’s the best way to make decisions or solve arguments because the rules stand. I’m convinced that it would solve all the world’s problems if we gave it a shot. Fighting over land or, say, an island? Play 가위바윕 and winner gets it. (Hey, with all these great ideas, maybe I should run for President.)
5. Public transportation – I lived in a town with under 50,000 people. There were multiple buses less than five minutes from my apartment, and I wasn’t even downtown. These buses could get anywhere in town or even to bigger cities, like Daejeon. In small town America, as I’ll soon learn, it’s pretty much impossible to get anywhere without a car. The high-speed train (KTX) made me feel like I was living in luxury. Korea is a very small country, roughly the size of the state where I was born (Indiana), and I loved being able to get to the other side of the country in only a few hours. I could be in Seoul in under 2 hours and to Busan in about 3 hours, including time on the bus to get to the KTX station. Yesterday, I took a 3-hour bus ride from Daejeon to Incheon, and the bus was clean and comfortable. They even played arrival music when we were getting to the airport. None of that even includes the nice subway stations, which have bathrooms and often smell better than ones in Chicago. I’ll never know why Haeundae station always smells like fresh cookies, but I’ll never complain either. (Except that it makes me want chocolate chip cookies, but if I’m being honest, I always do.) Did I mention that public transportation is affordable? I’ll miss transportation here so much for so many reasons.
6. Service – There are several things that fall under this. For one, places want you to keep coming back, so they give you free stuff all the time. The lady at my favourite boutique always gave me free stuff – from socks to apples to a ride home when she saw me at Home Plus once. I only shopped there every few months and didn’t always buy anything, but she knew me and always gave me stuff. I always got the same girl when I went to the bank, also only every few months, and she always gave me tea and even remembered that I went to London last month. Tonight I decided to actually eat at a Korean restaurant for my last meal here. I found a place with bibimbap. I ordered, ate, and paid in 20 minutes. In Korea, there’s no waiting around for food. (This goes back to the rushed culture. It does have its perks.) I received a big bowl of food and sides, as is customary in Korea restaurants, for under $4. Taxis are also generally cheaper. Pretty much everything is cheaper than in the US. Also, there’s no tipping – and taxes are included – in most places, so you don’t have to worry about figuring out percentages or any extra money. Because people aren’t working for tips, you don’t have someone bothering you every 5 minutes, and you can just press a button or call for help (which I’m still not good at doing) if you need something. Let’s just add buttons to the list of things to implement worldwide.
7. Safety – When I told people I was moving to Korea, everyone worried about my safety for obvious (but incorrect) reasons. I always had sort of a “If it happens, it happens, but it probably never will” attitude about it. The fact is that I feel safer in Korea than I ever have anywhere. I don’t have to worry that I’ll be raped or mugged if I’m walking alone at 3 AM. Korea has some of the strictest gun control in the world. When someone actually does get shot, it’s usually someone who was in the military and makes big news because it never happens. The last mass shooting in Korea was before I was even born. I don’t even hear much about petty crimes. That’s not to say things like sexual assault and petty crimes don’t happen, but it seems rare, and there are safety measures in place, such as safe havens or buttons to press for help. The only times I’ve ever felt unsafe in Korea is with drivers. Traffic laws are more of a suggestion, it seems, and drivers often don’t yield to pedestrians. Cars park completely crooked, often on sidewalks and crosswalks. As long as you watch closely, you’re fine.
8. Celebrity – This one has its advantages and disadvantages. I think we all know I’m meant to marry a minor celebrity, right? (It’s funny for someone who wants neither fame nor fortune to say, but it’s just a fact.) Okay, I’m being facetious, but actually, I got rather used to being approached all the time. Sure, there were times I wanted to do my grocery shopping without being asked for my phone number or didn’t want to answer a million personal questions from a total stranger or didn’t want to be the poster girl in someone’s “I met a foreigner” picture. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun sometimes.
There’s no way I could sum up what this year has been to me in a blog. There are so many things I love about Korea, even though there are also things I don’t like. That’s true anywhere you live. Leaving tomorrow won’t be easy, but I know I’m ready now. There will be an adjustment (and reverse culture shock), but I’m moving onward and upward, as always. I’ll leave Korea with a deep love in my heart and fond memories of its wonderful people. I regret nothing about this experience, and I’m eternally glad I did it.
I started this blog with the intention of writing about Korea, and I intend to keep it open to write about other things. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll write about in the future, especially seeing as I already have an entertainment blog, but I guess we’ll see where life takes me.
Thank you to my friends in Korea for making this experience as incredible as it was. I love you all dearly and will miss you terribly. Thank you to my friends and family at home. I couldn’t have done it without you, and I’m ecstatic to see you all soon. Lastly, thank you to everyone who has followed me on this crazy ride.
“The third thing that I do now when my world caves in is I pause, I take a breath and bow, and I let the chapter end. I design my future bright, not by where my life has been. And I try, try, try, try, try again.” -Jason Mraz, “3 Things”
My co-teacher recently asked me to write a letter to my middle school (grades 7-9 in the US) students for the school newspaper. All I was told was to give them some advice and make it about a page, so I decided to write whatever I felt. We all know I’m not into the whole brevity thing, so the hardest part was keeping it one page with simple language.
While writing, I thought about the things I’ve noticed during my time in Korea. Koreans are often discouraged from being individuals or too creative. The group mentality is good in some ways, but it also makes people hesitant to break away from the pack. Their parents might not like me for it, but I used this letter to try to encourage them to be their own person and think for themselves.
The other thing I thought about while writing the letter was my own life. I have a relatively vague recollection of middle school, which we all know is such an awkward time for everyone. I’m still waiting to grow out of my awkward stage and have accepted that I probably never fully will. I thought about where I’ve been, what I’ve done, and what I’ve been through. I thought about all those beautifully complicated life lessons. Mostly, I thought about what I would have wanted someone to tell me when I was their age.
In some pathetic way, I think it ended up being more of a letter to my past self (or a reminder for my future self) than it is to my students, as most of them will probably never read it, anyway. I had a couple of requests to post it somewhere for friends/family to read, so here it is, unedited in all its cliché-ridden glory. Because of the constraints, it doesn’t flow as well as I’d like, either, but just remember that it’s for a bunch of teenagers who don’t speak English as their first language and love stuff like this. Warning: This letter is saturated in cheese. Read at your own risk.
It’s hard to believe the school year – and my time in Korea – is almost over. You’ve all grown so much, and you’ll continue to grow and learn more about yourselves in the next few years. You will see, do, and be so many things that you can’t even imagine right now. If someone had told me 5 years ago that I’d live in Korea, I wouldn’t have believed them. Life can take you unexpected places and make you do things you thought you’d never do. You’ll see this in the next few years. Some of you are starting high school soon. You won’t be the big kids in school anymore. You may feel nervous or unsure of yourselves and your place in life, but you will be okay. I have some advice that I hope will help you during this uncertain time in your lives. I gave you three rules on the first day of class that also apply to life: 1) Listen. 2) Be kind. 3) Try.
Listen. Always listen to your heart. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Do what you feel is right. Find what makes you happy and do it. Trust your feelings, and you’ll never go wrong. You don’t always have to follow what everyone else does or believes. Don’t change for anyone but yourself. Be yourself, and don’t be afraid to be different. People who are “different” are some of the most interesting people you can be and meet. Listen to other people to learn more about them and hear their stories, but always follow your own path. Listen to your own heart and chase after your own dreams. Question what you don’t know or trust, and make up your own mind. When you find something or someone you love, love it with all you have.
Be kind. A little kindness can make a big difference in someone’s life. You never know what problems someone else might have, and being kind can mean more to them than you know. You have nothing to lose by being kind. People will not always be nice to you, and they will not always like you. That’s fine. You can still be a good person and be kind to others. Treat others with the respect you want. Always inspire others and be inspired.
Try. This is the most important rule. Life does not always work out the way you want. Never stop trying. Live your life without regret. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and take risks. You are going to make so many mistakes in your life. If you spend too much time thinking about what you could have, should have, would have done, you will never grow. Appreciate the present and focus on your future. Learn from your mistakes and move on. This is the most important lesson I’ve learned in my own life. Don’t expect anything to be given to you. You have to work hard for what you want. If you do, you will appreciate it so much more when you get it. I say this from experience. There will be times when life will be hard. Be open to all that life has to offer, good and bad. Things will happen that you are not ready for or that seem bad at the time, but sometimes the most wonderful things can come from the bad. You never know how something will affect your life for years to come, but it’s up to you to let it change you for the good. One choice can lead you to a life you can’t imagine. You’ll know when it does. Accept change. Change will come whether you want it to or not, so stay positive when it does. Never stop trying to make your life and the world better, and no matter what happens, never give up.
I hope this advice helps you, and you remember it as you go through life. Thank you to everyone at [redacted] for helping to make this the best year of my life. I will remember everyone with love. I wish you all the best and know you will make me proud. Keep fighting!
OH! THE PLACES YOU’LL GO!
You’ll be on your way up! You’ll be seeing great sights! You’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights. -Dr. Seuss, “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!”
“There’s a place in the sun that belongs to everyone. You can feel it inside. It goes straight on through to the other side. And we’re hitching a ride. There’ll be room for everyone. We’re not saying goodbye. We’re just saying hello to a better life.” -The Candyskins, “Feed It”
Since I decided to come to South Korea, many people have asked me the same question: “What are you going to do next?” My EPIK contract is for a year, ending in February 2016. Now is the time to answer that question. I was asked months ago about renewing my contract, and I told my co-teacher that I would not renew because I wanted to move to Busan. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not happy with my province’s curriculum or my town. I’ve also never wanted to teach middle school. That leaves a few options: Reapply for EPIK and hope to get into a city and school I want, apply for a hagwon (private school), or go home. It’s certainly not a decision to take lightly.
For months, my plan has been to reapply to move to Busan with EPIK. If it didn’t work out, I would find a hagwon there. I love Busan, and most of my closest friends are there. The downside to EPIK is that to move anywhere outside my province, I have to complete the entire application process again. Even though I’m already here, there’s no guarantee that I would get elementary school or the city I want. They could say, “This woman has been teaching a special program in middle school! She’d be great for high school!” (They’d be wrong.) Still, I started on my application, willing and planning to take a chance.
The time has come to finish my application. As I wrote on my essays, I reflected on my time in Korea, my wants, and my needs. I’ve always believed that every choice we make, sometimes even little ones, can change the course of our lives in ways we can’t anticipate. I think of how one seemingly minor event/decision can lead to another, and that one leads to another, and before you know it, you’re in Korea. (The film Mr. Nobody does an excellent job of showing how choices drastically alter our lives.) I’ve been doing some soul-searching, which is easy for self-aware souls, and I’ve made a decision.
I love South Korea. I’ve done things here that I’ve always wanted to do, things I never thought I would do. I’ve faced fears and crossed items off my bucket list. At the age of 30, I’ve changed in ways unimaginable. I’ve made memories and friendships that will last a lifetime. My friends and I have had this shared experience, something that only people who have done this can truly understand. I am forever indebted to Korea. No matter where I go or what I do, it will always have a special place in my heart. I think you can guess where this is going…
As much as I love Korea, it’s time for me to move on and have different experiences and learn new lessons somewhere else. The longer I stay, the more I’ll feel I’m putting my life on hold. I’m getting too old for that, and I can feel the clock ticking on certain things. It took me coming to Korea to figure out how to achieve some of my goals. I can only hope that my time in Korea will get me closer to them, but I know Korea itself cannot provide what I want and need in the long run. I have no future here, so I need to move on to a place where I could have one. If I stayed, I would really be staying for the money and to continue to procrastinate, which I’m all too good at doing.
So what’s next? One of my goals for a long time has been to live in the UK, but I never knew how to make it happen. My family has always been drawn there for some reason. My sister went to postgrad in London, and my brother got married in Scotland and currently lives in London. I’ve always felt a sense of longing when I’ve left the UK after visiting or when I watch my favourite British series/films. I’ve effectively adopted British English, mostly due to the fact that the majority of my close friends in Korea use British English. (Plus, it makes sense to use it when every other country does, except the US.) I’ve realised that now is the time to take yet another leap of faith.
I’m almost afraid to tell people of my plans because I don’t want to jinx them, but the questions will inevitably come if I don’t. Initially, I didn’t want to go back to social work, but I’ve realised that whether I am working in it or not, I will always be a social worker in heart. I was just thinking today that boundaries in Korea are non-existent and how I had a hard time with self-disclosure when I came here. (I still do.) I’ve also been thinking that in the right setting and with more education, I could potentially be a good social worker and enjoy it.
I was recently informed that there is a shortage of social workers in the UK. They also appear to be paid better than social workers in the US, though that’s likely because many people don’t want the job. My plan is to apply for postgrad in the UK to get my Master of Social Work, hopefully followed by a job there. This seems like the most feasible way to move there. Of course, there is a chance that I won’t get in anywhere, but I would hope that my four years of experience (including two years of management) in the field, good GPA, and experiences in Korea would only help my chances. Everything in life is a risk, after all.
With those risks, there’s still a lot to figure out to make this happen. I will likely go back to the States when my contract ends in February until I can leave for postgrad. The issue is that I don’t have a car or job there, but that would happen regardless of when I go back. I’ve also been out of school for almost 6 years and haven’t kept in touch with professors, so I hope that they either remember me and will write a letter of recommendation or that the places I apply will accept professional references. I’m still in the beginning stages of the process, doing research and making lists. It’s a lot of work, as postgrad will be, but if I can pull this off, I think it will be worth it.
I’m choosing to believe that everything will fall into place. Things have never come easily to me, but they tend to work out eventually, usually in weird, unexpected ways. If all else fails, my backup plan is still to apply for a hagwon in Busan. A year ago, my dream was to move to South Korea. I made that happen, and I have zero regrets. (I don’t believe in them.) It hasn’t been an easy decision to leave, but I believe it’s the right choice for me. With any luck, I’ll be writing from the UK a year from now, living out another dream. Time to do or die.
Although some might consider teaching in South Korea to be a “holiday from real,” anyone who has actually taught would likely have a different opinion, especially if they have a curriculum as challenging as mine. By the end of the semester, teachers are just as ready for summer break as the students. For many teachers in Korea, this is the first time in our lives that we’ve had both the money and the time to travel. Some teachers went home for their breaks, and others travelled throughout the country. Many of us, however, jumped on the chance to see more of Asia.
I needed to get out of Korea for a few days, so I was willing to go just about anywhere. I never really had much interest in going to Japan, even though it’s the easiest “not Korea” country to visit. It’s not that I didn’t want to go there, just that it was never a place I felt that I had to visit, partly because I thought it’d be too much like Korea. I considered some other places and almost went somewhere alone, but in the end, the stars aligned for me to go to Japan with my friend, Grayson. As we planned our trip, I was increasingly keen to go, but it was still really because I needed to get out of Korea for a few days.
I didn’t sleep much the night before our early flight to Osaka (Thank you, love motel noise!), but by that point, I was so excited I didn’t even care. I just hoped I’d be able to sleep that night, especially since I’m weird and have trouble sleeping in a room with other people. I was deliriously exhausted and excited at the same time. When we arrived in Japan, I got connected to the airport wi-fi until I picked up my sim card. Our trip was already getting off to a great start with a text I’d received: I was an aunt! My precious niece Layla was born while I was flying. Needless to say, I was ecstatic and instantly felt glad that I’d opted to get a sim card to stay in touch with my family. With the excitement of everything, I could barely even think. Still, we managed to get everything we needed at the airport relatively quickly but were so hungry that we decided to get something there before embarking on the long journey to our first destination.
I was never been a big fan of Japanese food and didn’t want to eat it for every meal there, so we looked around to see what was there. I’m pretty sure I shrieked when I saw the sign: Pancakes! Anyone who has spent time with me since I’ve been in Korea knows how important this was to me. I’ve tried to get pancakes in Korea more times than I can count and have always failed for one reason or another. Japan: 1. South Korea: 0.
After some of the best pancakes I’ve ever had, we got on our first train to go to Koyasan. My brother and sister-in-law stayed in Koyasan when they visited Japan a few years ago and recommended a temple stay. We used a company that booked us in a shukubo (temple) called Daien-in. I was surprised at how beautiful it was for only about $100/person. We got there just in time to get settled a bit before dinner, which was included. We both kept saying how happy we were that we decided to do the temple stay because we didn’t know of any other foreign teachers who did a temple stay in Japan. It felt like we were a bit off the beaten path and were having a once in a lifetime experience. Our room was very nice with a beautiful courtyard view.
Dinner was a typical Buddhist vegetarian meal. I’ve developed trust issues in Korea because I’ve been deceived many times, so it was refreshing to be able to eat everything without worrying if it was really vegetarian. My brother and sister-in-law (who is also a vegetarian) told me that the shukubo meals were some of the best they had in Japan, and I had the same feeling. I didn’t know what everything was, but I tried everything, even (accidentally) the eye-watering Wasabi. It was quite a feast, and it made us both look forward to breakfast, which was not as good but still lovely.
After dinner, we hung out in the room until it was time to bathe. I’ve been to Korean spas before, so I wasn’t nervous about bathing with other women. My only concern was that I’d heard that tattoos were frowned upon in Japan, even more than in Korea, and I was worried I’d offend someone. It didn’t seem to be a problem, and after a long day of travelling, the hot tub felt especially nice. After bathing, we talked and listened to music for a while until bedtime. I knew we’d be sleeping on Japanese mats, but I was expecting thin blankets, like the incredibly uncomfortable ondol at pensions in Korea. I was pleasantly surprised because they were probably more comfortable than my own mattress in Korea. I didn’t feel like I was sleeping on a hard floor, and the buckwheat pillows provided great neck support. I still didn’t sleep a whole lot, but I slept more than I thought I would, so I was happy. Japan: 2. Korea: 0.
We woke up early on Saturday to try to go to the prayers. We were told we could come and go as we pleased, but the room was so packed we couldn’t get in. We decided to just walk around the temple a little bit until breakfast. After breakfast, we checked out the town a bit before leaving for Nara. There wasn’t a lot to see, so we didn’t spend much time there.
While we were waiting for the bus to take us to the cable car, we met an old Japanese man, who spoke decent English. He told us how he had just prayed at a temple nearby, then pulled out a flask. It took all I had to not die of laughter, especially when he offered it to Grayson later on the cable car. He was very fascinating, though, and told us about all the places he (supposedly) travelled and things he (supposedly) did. We ended up meeting him again on a train later, and he showed us pictures of his deceased family. It was quite special, and I have a feeling we made his day, too.
Eventually, we made our way to Nara. I was looking forward to Nara more than anything because I’d heard that deer roam freely in Nara Park. They’re my second favourite animals and are very special to my mami, sister, and me. We consider them good luck. We checked in at our hostel, ate lunch, and then headed to the park. I was disappointed because I expected there to be a bunch of deer, but we only saw a few. Still, we hung out there for a while before relaxing at the hostel for a bit.
The hostel guy told us there was a fire ceremony at the park, so we decided to go back to look for it. We never found the ceremony, and we just wandered, even though we were walking against the crowd. We came upon a different part of the (surprisingly big) park we’d completely missed earlier. I found a couple more deer, and though it was dark, I suddenly saw hundreds of glowing eyes! I tried to get pictures but couldn’t get good ones in the dark, so we agreed to come back the next day. We continued walking and found a cool cemetery, temple, and a pond, all of which were beautiful at night.
On Sunday, we moved to a hotel, which was a nice change from the hostel. We explored beautiful Nara and through the market before heading back to the park. I was a bit like a kid, so excited to feed the deer, and I took so many pictures. I think I had to be dragged out of there.
There was a restaurant called Nino that we wanted to go to for dinner ever since we saw it on Saturday, but it was always closed. I’m not sure why we were so set on it, other than that they had Italian, but we were disappointed every time they were closed. I guess we have good intuition because we finally got to go there for dinner, and it was perfect. The food was amazing, and the staff was super nice. We were sad that they were closed on Monday because we wanted to go there for lunch. We actually stayed and drank for a while just because it was so nice.
On Monday, we traded Nara for Kyoto. I didn’t know much about it, except that it was bigger, so I went without expectations. It was love at first sight. As crazy as it sounds, it reminded me of London for reasons I can’t explain. Our hostel, which was a cool, old theatre, was very close to Nishiki Market, so we spent most of the afternoon shopping and exploring that area because the market seemed endless. We were going to try to meet up with a friend after dinner, but it didn’t work out. We ended up going to an area by the Kamogawa River. There was a musician playing beautiful, soothing music on the bridge, and we were so entranced that we both bought his CD and took a picture with him. We spent the rest of the night hanging out by the river, listening to music, and enjoying being able to actually see the stars.
Tuesday was my last full day in Japan, but I still had a few things I wanted to do. Besides Nara Park, the only other thing that was really on my list of things to do in Japan was to see Fushimi Inari Shrine. I was somewhat afraid that it wouldn’t live up to the hype, but it was mystical and stunning to see in person.
The only way the shrine could have been better is if there were fewer people. It was quite crowded, making it difficult to get some of the pictures I wanted. We managed to find a few places that seemed to be neglected by other people for some reason. My favourite was where they had origami cranes. It was positively breathtaking. The legend is that if someone makes 1000 paper cranes, a wish will come true. It made me think of the Web series “Emma Approved,” in which a character called Martin wanted to make 1000 paper cranes “in an explosion of better feelings.” (I won’t spoil it, but if you watch the series, you’ll see how his quest goes in the end.) I thought of how I would like to make 1000 paper cranes myself in hopes of my own wish coming true. Maybe someday I will. Grayson told me about an instrumental song called “A Thousand Paper Cranes” by a Japanese band called Mono. Though I can’t speak for both of us, seeing this at the shrine definitely had a profound impact on me. It’s one of those moments I like to think I’ll remember forever.
We did a little bit of shopping after the shrine, including buying chopsticks with our names engraved on them. I also wanted to find a yukata or kimono. I never thought I’d buy one, but after wearing yukatas at the temple, we both wanted one. Grayson had already bought his, so we looked around near the shrine and then at Nishiki Market for one for me. I found some that I liked, but a lot of them seemed to be pretty generic. I saw one on Monday that I loved but didn’t buy then because I wanted to keep looking. I couldn’t get it out of my mind, though, so we set off on a mission to find it.
After looking for quite some time, I was losing hope. Grayson mentioned that maybe it was in Nara, and then I started thinking I was going crazy and feared that I had, in fact, seen it in Nara. I almost bought another one I didn’t like nearly as much. I couldn’t even remember exactly what the one I loved looked like, except that it was green and unique, but I could picture the store and knew I would know the kimono if I saw it. I felt bad for dragging Grayson around to look for it, and I was just about to give up when I saw the store. I made a mad dash for the store, and thankfully, the kimono was as gorgeous as I’d remembered. I tried it on, and we both agreed that it was perfect. (Maybe he was just tired of looking.) Every time I saw a woman wearing a kimono after that, I said, “Hers is pretty, but mine is prettier.” I only speak the truth.
After another busy but successful day, we decided to explore Gion Corner, where the geishas work. It was rather quiet, but I saw a couple of geishas go by in a taxi. We walked around the area for a while, then walked back to the Kamogawa River. I wanted to try sake before I left, but we were both in the mood for a low-key night. We decided to get some sake and beer at a liquor store and hang out by the river again. We went back to the same spot as the night before and played great music for each other again, including “A Thousand Paper Cranes” by Mono. It was the perfect end to a great trip.
We may not have had a chance to see all that Japan had to offer, but I’ve no doubt I’ll be back. To my surprise, I really fell in love with Japan. The people (with the exception of one woman on my last day) were amazingly nice and never gave us a second glance, like they do in Korea. I’d heard that they don’t speak as much English there, but I didn’t experience that. All the food was amazing. Several of the people I met understood what “vegetarian” meant more than Koreans do. It was an absolutely beautiful country. I was a bit nervous about the trip before we left, but I think it was one of the first trips in my life where nothing really went wrong. I’d hoped that being out of Korea for a few days would make me appreciate it more. Instead, I appreciated Japan more than I ever expected. It made me crave more adventure and wonder where I’ll go next. I don’t know what my future will bring, but I guess I’ll figure it out while I’m working on my thousand paper cranes…
“If the stars had sound, it would sound like this. The punishment for these solemn words can be hard. Can blood boil like this at the sound of a noisy tape that I’ve heard?” -Mogwai, “Yes! I Am a Long Way From Home”
No matter how excited you are or how much you prepare for an experience like this, culture shock is inevitable. It’d be naive to think that moving to a new country with a completely different culture would not result in culture shock. I researched everything I could about Korea before moving here, including culture shock. In a way, it prepared me for what was to come. I figured that if I knew more about what to expect, I would be better able to recognize the signs and deal with them. Living it, however, is an entirely different story. When people post about their lives on social media, many tend to sugarcoat everything or make it seem like their lives are perfect. While living in Korea has been an overall positive experience for me that has changed my life in ways I never could have imagined, this will be a personal, honest reflection on some of the things that are not so shiny right now. It might not be pretty, but it will be raw. I hope it’ll help others who are going through culture shock now or will be soon to know that they are not alone.
The symptoms and length of the culture shock are obviously different for everyone. I read somewhere that the honeymoon period ends and culture shock often hits around 3-6 months in. I moved to South Korea in February, and I started experiencing it around May. At first, I was intrigued by all the new things, interested in the culture, and excited to meet anyone and everyone I could. I love Koreans! I love foreigners! New food! Isn’t it interesting how they (insert cultural difference here)? KOREA!!
Needless to say, the newness has worn off. Several of my friends and I have discussed being in the throes of culture shock right now. One friend asked me, “How do you know if it’s culture shock or if you just hate a place?” There is a fine line between the two sometimes, but culture shock is temporary. I still love Korea. (Most of the time.) It’s not perfect, but America certainly isn’t either. Another friend and I pondered how our feelings might change a year from now. Maybe we’ll say, “That time was rough, but I love Korea! Can you believe what we’ve done and what we’ve been through?” Maybe we’ll say, “I hate this place. I can’t wait to get out of here.” For now, I’m trying to live one day at a time.
So what does culture shock look like? For me, it started with depression. It comes and goes, but there are times when I need to be alone and not see anyone. Sometimes I get emotional for no reason or have mood swings like I never did before. I might be fine one minute and want to cry the next. This, I know, is normal, but that doesn’t make it any easier to go through it, especially if there are other things happening in your life at the same time. I still remember when I received a card in the mail that was signed by about 15 friends in Chicago, and I sobbed uncontrollably for an hour. That moment is pretty much the best way I can describe culture shock – an extreme reaction to a beautiful (and sometimes not so beautiful) gesture.
Since I’ve been here, I haven’t been homesick exactly. I’ve never said, “I want to go home now!” I have missed people (and sometimes food.) I’m going to be an aunt next month, and I hate that I won’t get to see my niece until 2016. Things like that make me wish I could be in two places at once but only for that, not because of “home.” Two symptoms of culture shock can include idealizing your own country/culture or obsessing about your new one. I don’t think I’ve really done either of those. I’ve avoided Korean entertainment, but I also don’t appreciate America more. I just appreciate the people in my life – here and there – more.
Another symptom of culture shock is anger. When you’re experiencing culture shock, sometimes all it takes is a person looking at you the wrong way to drive you insane. I’ve mentioned Korean surprises before, and what I once saw as a challenge has become an annoyance and source of stress. Granted, there are good Korean surprises sometimes, but they don’t happen as often as the bad ones. I’ve become annoyed and stressed when I’m told to do something at the last minute and expected to do it perfectly in no time at all. I know I need to adjust to the Korean way of thinking, but it gets tiring when you are expected to bend all the time but aren’t afforded the same consideration.
There are other norms that I’m still not used to, no matter how hard I try. I know it’s selfish, but sometimes I just want to eat my Dr. You bar without hiding in the bathroom because I don’t want to share. I also don’t understand the appeal of eating the same food every meal every day, and that’s not an exaggeration. I had a “traditional Korean breakfast” the other day. Spoiler alert: It’s the same as lunch and dinner. My school has been sweet and accommodating about my vegetarian needs, even if they don’t really understand them. I even had a teacher buy me a ton of seaweed because he was worried about my diet. Still, I’m getting sick of rice and kimchi, and my response when friends ask what kind of restaurant I want to go to is pretty much “not Korean.” I can’t say how many times I’ve been told to just pick the meat out of something or they haven’t understood why I don’t eat the soup. I’ve also gotten the “You don’t need to lose weight” thing a lot. I’ve never dieted a day in my life, but the assumption is always that I’m a vegetarian to lose weight because so many women here are obsessed with weight.
Along those lines, it can be difficult to be an individual here. I’ve been told, “We don’t want to be too creative. It’s easier to be told what to do.” Korea is a culture of sameness to the point that couples often dress the same. I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drum, so it’s difficult for me to wrap my head around some things. There’s definitely a very high value placed on appearances. Plastic surgery extends beyond Seoul, and people get it as young as middle or high school. It’s sometimes more difficult to find women who haven’t had plastic surgery than women who have. There are some ways I’ve had to conform (I always cover my tattoos and shoulders, unless I’m in a big city), but the pressure on them to always look good and be perfect makes me sad for them.
So those are the ways I’ve been experiencing culture shock… What am I doing about it?
The first thing includes this blog. A few weeks ago, I realized that I missed having a real creative outlet. I can’t paint in my tiny apartment, so I had to find another release. In addition to this blog, I started a music blog called A Melody, The Memory started writing handwritten journals. I highly recommend a creative outlet for anyone going through culture shock. I can’t express the cartharsis I feel when I write, even if no one ever reads it. Writing isn’t a release for everyone, but if you’re going through culture shock, find your therapy.
Another thing I’ve been doing is getting out and trying new things as much as possible. I had a bloody (quite literally) blast this past weekend when I went ziplining, and I’m going to the Boryeong Mud Festival in a couple weeks. I’m also planning a trip to Japan next month, which has given me something else to focus on for a bit. It’s so important to always have something to look forward to, and it doesn’t even have to be anything big. I live for the weekends. That said, this might sound like a contradiction, but I also make sure I have at least one weekend a month to stay home and do absolutely nothing. It’s easy to get caught up with the trips and parties, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to take time to decompress.
The most important thing I’ve done is build real relationships. Many of us are in the same boat right now, and we need to lean on each other. When I first got here, I wanted to be friends with everyone. A lot of foreigners who have been here longer than I are extremely bitter, at times hateful, and some would not even acknowledge me when I smiled at them. Others I liked at first but then realized they were obnoxious or pretentious. Life is too short to waste on people with negative energy. I have one dear friend in my town, and we have weekly dinner dates where we talk about everything under the sun. We can have real discussions or talk about celebrities without missing a beat and without judgment. I’ve never needed a lot of friends, but I am so grateful to have her in my life. Wherever you live, I recommend a weekly dinner date with a close friend.
I’ve always been a believer in fate, destiny, and serendipity. As an introvert with (I think) amazing instincts, I don’t always connect easily with a lot of people. I’ve had some close friends in my life, but I also feel like I had to come across the world to find my people, though I like to think we found each other. For someone like me, it’s rare to find someone I am comfortable with, have a lot in common with, and who I can also have real, deep, intellectual conversations (or nonsense conversations) with. I sensed a connection with a couple people here the first time we met. I couldn’t explain it, but something made me immediately say, “This person is meant to be in your life.” That kind of connection is rare and has only happened a few times in my life. I honestly hope I can say I’ve made some lifelong friends here.
Yes! Things are hard for a lot of us right now. Yes! I did vent a lot in this post, but that’s part of the process. Yes! I am a long way from home. Things are not all good or all bad, just different. It will take time to adjust, but I will adjust. There will be good days and bad days, just as there are anywhere. I will not let culture shock get me down or make me bitter. I will have amazing times with beautiful people, and I will have days where all I want to do is Skype my mom and cry. But I will be okay. I will come out of this on top. I will laugh hard, cry hard, and love hard. I will continue to make memories that I will remember for the rest of my life. Like one of my favorite Jason Mraz songs says, “It’s when you cry just a little but you laugh in the middle that you’ve made it.” I will live by that, and I will make it.
“You’re breaking down the day. You’re soaking up a storm. Run away from what you are. Run, you’ll always have a scar.” -Endochine, “Music To Drive and Cry To”
If it was not already apparent, music has always been my life. At 3, my favorite songs were “Papa Don’t Preach” by Madonna and “Angel” by Aerosmith. My parents taught me important life lessons from a young age when they sang “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” all the time. It’s not surprising that I got my passion for music from two people who also painted Steve Winwood’s Arc of a Diver album cover on a wall. Years later, I started painting lyrics on umbrellas, canvas, and even tables. It’s in my blood. Music has made the best times of my life even better and carried me through the worst. I suppose it was inevitable that I’d write a blog about my top ten albums.
I knew it would be difficult to narrow this list down to only ten albums, so I set a few parameters. Any albums on this list had to stand the test of time. I decided that each one needed to be in my life for at least 5 years. (Sorry, Forever If Ever, you’re not old enough yet.) They also had to be full-length albums, which disqualified Darcie Miner’s self-titled album. Each musician could only make one appearance on the list, even if they have been in multiple bands, as is the case with a couple of these. Finally, each album had to have an impact on my life. I’m not saying that these are the greatest albums of all time or that they are musically brilliant to anyone else, but they all have a special meaning to me.
With all this in mind, please note that these albums are not ranked. That said, the first couple are the ones that almost didn’t make it, while others were always definites.
Honorable mentions: Coral Fang by The Distillers, Rising by Elevaters, Days In Avalon by Richard Marx, Affirmation by Savage Garden, Key of a Minor by Jessica Riddle, and Futures by Jimmy Eat World. I also feel like I should add Jason Mraz’s Waiting For My Rocket to Come or Tonight, Not Again: Live at Eagles Ballroom to this list. Several of these were just edged out of the final cut.
10. Musicforthemorningafter – Pete Yorn
I’ve been trying to remember exactly how I got into Pete Yorn. I’m pretty sure I heard “Just Another” on “Ed” around 2001 or so and have been a fan ever since. I pulled a lot of all-nighters during my first couple years of college, and this album got me through them. Years later, when my best friend and I discovered we were both fans, it took our relationship to a whole new level. Musicforthemorningafter is one of those albums that I can listen to anytime, whether I’m happy or sad or just want a great album to listen to. I enjoy it thoroughly every time. Pete Yorn is one of the few artists I love who I’ve never had a chance to see live, but it’s on my bucket list, if only to finally hear one of my all-time favorite songs, “On Your Side,” live.
9. Day Two – Endochine
Endochine only released one album and never had a hit, so I’m glad I found them. The first time I heard them was when “Secrets” was on a JCPenney commercial in summer 2004. I was getting into Paloalto at the time and thought it was them at first. Thankfully, it showed the artist (not Paloalto) and song at the end of the commercial. I typically only listen to this when I’m really depressed (“Without Love”), lonely (“Can’t Find a Way”), or mad (“Stalker.”) Even if I happen to listen to it, and I’m not in those moods, I love it. There’s a reason the title of this blog comes from this album because that’s exactly what this album is – music to drive and cry to. I have done exactly that with this album many times. Eleven years later, it’s still therapeutic for me.
8. My Private Nation – Train
I’ll probably get teased by some for having a Train album on here, but I really love this one. Train has a tendency to release their worst songs as singles that don’t always represent their true talent. This was the album that started that pattern. Their lyrics are both witty and beautiful, sometimes in the same song. Some make me laugh. (“I don’t spend my time with anyone who doesn’t think I’m wonderful or somewhat cash refundable at times.”) Some are romantic and even cute. (“I think the shade of you is on the brink of changing all the ways I see the world. I could drown inside a single drop of all the kinds of things you got and all the kinds of things I’m not.”) Some are just heartbreakingly relatable, which are often my favorites. (“I’ll tell myself that I never needed anybody, anyway, but anyway, I need you.”) My mom, sister, and I have listened to this album so many times. It says something that the three of us all consider it a favorite but all have different favorite songs on it. My mom tends to go for funky songs, whereas I’m all about poignant lyrics. “Lincoln Avenue” and “I’m About To Come Alive” are two of my all-time favorite songs that have helped me through some of the toughest times and worst heartaches in my life.
7. Evan and Jaron – Evan and Jaron
I don’t say this about many artists, but this is one of those cases where I can honestly say it: There’s not a single Evan and Jaron song that I dislike. It would be easy for some to dismiss them because of their (insanely drop-dead gorgeous) good looks, but these twins possess true talent. There’s no denying that this is a feel-good album. When I want sad Evan and Jaron, I listen to their other music, maybe We’ve Never Heard of You Either or Not From Concentrate. When I want to be happy, I listen to this one, though the songs obviously aren’t all happy. Either way, there’s no way to lose. Like Train, their lyrics are often beautiful and clever (“To all the girls who wish to be immortalized in fantasy, I wrote this song for you and not for me.” BURN! Wait a minute… He didn’t write it for me?!) I’d describe this album with some of my favorite lyrics from it: “There were sounds of promise and shades of grace…” They’ve since both gone on to do other things. Jaron released a hit country (because he can pull off any genre) single a few years ago called “Pray For You,” and Evan started a successful online concert venue called StageIt that I highly recommend for both musicians and fans. As a diehard fan, though, I’m still hoping for a reunion because they’re way too talented to stay behind the scenes forever.
6. Opaline – Dishwalla
Most people remember Dishwalla for “Counting Blue Cars.” It’s a great song, but Opaline is easily their best work. Sometimes I feel like only my mom and I appreciate this album. I don’t even know where to begin because this album is incredibly gorgeous. Opaline is best when you want something relatively mellow or when you’re depressed. There are three songs I listen to on a regular basis because I consider them favorites – “Angels or Devils,” “Somewhere in the Middle,” and “Every Little Thing.” These are also three of my go-to depression songs. (I’m not a depressed person, but I like sad music because it makes me truly feel.) “Will you find out who you are too late to change?” is one of the saddest, best lines. I don’t use this term a lot, but I consider them to be “perfect” songs in that I wouldn’t change a single thing about them. There’s honestly not a bad song on the whole album. When I listen to it, I always say, “I forgot how stunningly beautiful this album is,” and I text that to my mom, who always agrees because it’s the truth.
5. No Name Face – Lifehouse
I should preface this by saying that I’m not a very religious person anymore. For me to include a Christian album on this list says a lot about it, though I don’t really look at the songs in a religious context. I think anyone can relate to the themes of love, loss, feeling lost, and loneliness. Again, there’s not a bad song. I actually think this is another case where they released the worst song on the album. “Hanging By a Moment” is not even close to being a bad song; the others are just that great. Ever since this album came out, my mom, sister, and I have had a tradition with the song “Quasimodo.” I might be the only one who still does it, but after I do something that makes me nervous (such as a test), I listen to that song, and I can physically feel the weight and anxiety being released.. “There goes the world off of my shoulders. There goes the world off of my back.” I had an open class a few weeks ago and listened to this song after it. It always gives me something to look forward to when I do something difficult. My favorite by far, though, is “Everything.” I’m a sucker for songs that start slow and build to a powerful climax, and this song does exactly that. The music, the lyrics, the vocals – everything is just perfect. Sorry, Lifehouse, but I’m pretty sure you will never be able to top “Everything” or this album.
4. Head On Straight – Tonic
Tonic is up there with Dishwalla as a band everyone knows for mainly one song (“If You Could Only See”), but they’re much more than that. My mom and I have been diehard Tonic fans since their Sugar album, and again, we love different songs on this album. I love all of their music, but I picked this album because I really love every song on it. I can pick favorite songs from their other albums, but I can’t with this one because I love them all so much. I’ve always said that of all the artists out there, Emerson Hart is the one who writes my soul. Tonic is the band I turn to when I want to be understood. Remember the Evan and Jaron lyric I wrote up there? They might not write songs for me, but Emerson surely does. His lyrics are real and straight from(/t0) the heart, but he has a way of wording things that few could. This album has something for every mood – happy (“Believe Me”), angry (“Liar”), depressed (“Head On Straight”), or hopeful (“On Your Feet Again.”) I can’t say enough about this album or what Tonic has done for me. I have said for years that if I ever have a son, I will name him Emerson after Emerson Hart, if that tells you anything.
3. Everything In Transit – Jack’s Mannequin
“Have you ever been alone in a crowded room when I’m here with you?” The setting was Maurice’s, a small clothing store in small town North Carolina, sometime in 2006. All it took was that one line to change my life forever. If you know me, chances are you know that Andrew McMahon is my favorite musician. He’s the main reason I had to set the “one album per musician” rule for this list. I could easily put The Glass Passenger or a Something Corporate album in this spot, but Everything In Transit seemed the most appropriate, especially because it’s the album that got me into his music. There are a lot of crazy coincidences with this album and Andrew’s life that I won’t get into, but it’s still an album anyone can relate to. He had me instantly with his lyrics and piano, though it took some time for his voice to grow on me. His insane piano skills bring a different sound to his music, which makes it difficult to classify it sometimes. I just classify it as “brilliant.” He’s not afraid of change, and his sound has matured so much. Something Corporate, his band before Jack’s Mannequin, doesn’t really sound like Jack’s Mannequin, and Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness doesn’t sound a lot like either of them. I love that about him because I never know what to expect, but I know he will not disappoint. I think this album is somewhere between Something Corporate and what later become of Jack’s Mannequin. It still had a bit of a SoCo vibe but showed progression. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that he, too, wrote his best song years ago. You know a song is amazing when it’s over 9 minutes long, was never released on a major label, and is the most popular song that is still requested at every show he plays to this day, despite him repeatedly saying he won’t play it. I’m talking, of course, about “Konstantine,” the song so brilliant I tattooed it on my back. You’d be doing yourself a favor to listen to Everything In Transit or any of his other work. You’re welcome in advance.
2. Heroes and Villains – Paloalto
I remember it well. I was watching “Without a Trace” with my mom and sister in summer 2004. A song came on, and I’m not even sure if it took until the singing started for us to simultaneously say, “We need this song!” We learned that the song was “The World Outside” by Paloalto. Heroes and Villains became a staple that summer and continues to be one when we’re together. When we went to California in 2004, we pretty much only had this album and Radiohead’s The Bends (another great one) in rotation. James Grundler from Paloalto is now in a band called Golden State. Chances are that you’ve heard his work but didn’t know it was him. He wrote a single for Westlife (who were incredibly popular overseas, but it seemed I was their only fan in the US) a few years ago, and if you’ve ever seen a trailer for pretty much any dolphin movie, you’ve heard Golden State. I’ve been a fan for over 10 years, so I can say what I am about to say without hesitation. James Grundler is the most underrated musician out now. His lyrics are insanely brilliant, his ethereal voice is one of the best voices (if not the best) in music today, and his music is equally perfect. I’m a shameless promoter to the point that I think Golden State knows me by now. However, I’ve kept James Grundler’s music somewhat protected because I feel like people need to be able to appreciate the magnitude of his talent, so I don’t share it with just anyone. What does Heroes and Villains mean to me? I once was listening to it while a bad situation started unfolding. I turned off the music so that it wouldn’t get tainted because it’s too easy to associate music with moments. I can listen to this album anytime, but I think I appreciate it most when I’m either upset or with my mom and sister. Again, we all consider it to be a favorite but have different favorite songs. I’ve always had a soft spot for “Hangman” and “The Last Way Out of Here,” two all-time favorites. You just can’t beat a chorus like “And you’re feeling who you are, and you don’t care who it is. How do you feel? And you’re barely wonderful, and you don’t care if it hurts. How do you feel? It’s the last way out of here…” I love the idea of being “barely wonderful.” See? Perfect.
1. Beneath These Fireworks – Matt Nathanson
I believe I was always meant to be a Matt Nathanson fan. I was watching “Joan of Arcadia” one night in 2003, and I heard a song. “It’s amazing, the look in your eyes, like you could save me, but you won’t even try.” That line made me an instant fan. This was before anyone knew who he was, so I couldn’t find out what the song was. I searched on the Internet, and nothing came up, but the song never left me. A few months later, my mom said, “There was a song on ‘Joan of Arcadia’ you’d like. They showed the song and artist at the end. I wrote it down.” It turned out that the episode was a rerun, and I went online to listen to the song she wrote down – “I Saw” by Matt Nathanson. I could have cried when I realized that it was THE song. I was happier when I realized that the whole album was amazing. Once again, there’s not a song on this album that I dislike, though I have my favorites. “I Saw” is still one of them. I protect that song, as well, because it means too much to me to have it ruined. I have always loved Matt because he is lyrically brilliant, and his music is sometimes depressing. Surprisingly, he’s the funniest, raunchiest live performer I’ve seen with one of the best live shows. He’s found fame since Beneath These Fireworks, but he has yet to release anything like it. It sounds terrible, but there are times I miss the bitter Matt from this album. Beneath These Fireworks is another one that I can listen to no matter what mood I’m in – happy, sad, bitter, hopeful, whatever. He does it all to perfection. Show me how pretty the world is, Matt. You’re brilliant when you try.