first stage: 4 months out

snow at night

snow at night

Last night, I ran outside with little bits of ice and snow pelting my face. The icy flakes did not melt immediately on contact with my eyes, but stung before melting. Like being caught in a harmless sandstorm. I think about what I’m giving up and relish the cold, the ice accumulating on my fur-lined hoodie, and winter miles above the equator.

As I prepare to move to Jakarta, the whole thing feels like going away to college. I initially thought it was like planning your own “final departure” but I’ll be back in 2 years. So I’m going with the less dramatic college move, since I also have the option to be home for the summer and friends and family can visit.

I was at school the other day with my hair pulled back, and a colleague who knows about my upcoming move to Indonesia exclaimed, “Did you cut your hair?!! How many changes are you making in your life right now?”

She made me smile. “I actually sold my car and got a scooter. I went vegan.” As we both laughed, I thought about how this wasn’t that far from how drastically my life is going to flip.

Today I had my nieces over. We made waffles from scratch. I drove less than 5 miles to see my grandma. We talked about family. I helped her put her legs up. I drove home on uncluttered roads. These feel like luxuries now.

Mosquitos! Someone from Jakarta wrote to warn me about these pests. I would rather have a head cold, the stomach flu, pink eye . . . just about anything but have to deal constantly with them. Why am I going to Jakarta? Or will facing these unpleasantries and uncertainties in advance prepare me for what lies ahead?

I’m not sure, but as I slowly collect paperwork, scan and send it away–as I begin to make sure my car and condo are secured, and start to think about both in my new home in the Southern Hemisphere–I feel like I’m in a lazy canoe heading toward a waterfall.

Inertia was part of the reason I decided to get in the water. To avoid its lazy pull. 

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how a plane trip, a hotel stay and 4 conversations can change the course of your life

how it begins

Reading international teachers’ blogs like Teach to Inspire and Teach Travel Taste is like watching the swim teachers jump off the high dive. Their blog reflections take

yogafor granted that climbing above the crowd and letting yourself go is a viable option for anybody who wants to seize it. However, their seemingly effortless bravery can’t explain why or how I managed to step my bare foot on the first rung of the high dive of international teaching and begin to climb.

Less than a month ago, I booked a flight to San Francisco and reserved a hotel room to attend the Search Associates Job Fair. The opportunity opened up last minute due to a major component of my Search profile finally coming into place. I noticed the fair landed on the first winter break teachers in our district have had in over 10 years. It felt right. So I went.

how it unfolds

While there, I sensed my life merging with Lindsay and Joey of Teach, Travel Taste as I followed their suggestions from the Cambridge Fair down to extra thank you notes for interviews. QatarAs interviews and offers came in, my life suddenly intersected with Jee Young of Teach to Inspire in a dramatic way, as I Skype-interviewed for a job in Seoul, South Korea where she is currently from and then had another offer later on which sent me into decision making turmoil, just as she described in her post surrounding her recent experiences at the Bangkok fair. Her judicious email assessment and advice were both guarded and also generous. I remain grateful.

The stakes are so high! Each minute you’re at a fair gives you a taste of being on Chopped or Top Chef. Not a minute to lose and decisions could cost or benefit you in life-changing ways.

I went from focusing on just one country to taking to heart the advice of the fair director, Michael Williams, to not rule out any country. In fact, he told a story of a couple who came to the fair open to any country except one, and ended up accepting an offer from that very country. According to Mr. Williams, this couple has remained there for the past 3 years. I didn’t think this applied to me as I was planning to return to the country of my birth. As an adoptee, I had candid email exchanges with Jee Young about this as I am from Korea. I had carefully considered the implications. I was going to Korea.

how it takes a sudden turn

Until I answered what appeared to be a random email invitation to interview with a school in the Southern Hemisphere . . . I had requested more time after being offered a position to teach 4th or 5th grade at a school in Seoul via Skype (in the hotel lobby as I was too cheap to sign up for wi-fi in my hotel room) in order to at least rationalize my cross-country airfare by interviewing in person with recruiters actually at the San Francisco fair. The superintendent kindly agreed to a noon deadline.

Tick Tock. I went for a morning run I called my parents. I made the pro / con list on hotel stationary. “Living in Korea” appeared on both sides. Then I went to the 9 a.m. interview with the school from the Southern Hemisphere.

After the interview, the recruiter asked for a second interview. I let him know of the 12:00 p.m. deadline from the first school offer in Korea. He rushed to schedule another time, but noon was the first that was available. I accepted and immediately requested more time from the school in Seoul. Both schools had interviewers who were from Canada. There is an undeniable warmth about Canadians. The middle school job at the school in the Southern Hemisphere seemed to be a package deal of my cliche life’s passions: technology, English Lit and teaching English Acquisition to speakers of other languages. It felt customized in a way that the elementary position had not.

By 5:30 p.m. I had interviewed with a third school–but told them about what was going on with the other two situations. By 5:30 p.m. I had also spoken with the second school with the middle school position 3 more times. The third interview was prompted by a call on my cellphone from the interviewer that sent me sprinting back from a restaurant while a new friend, Ana, got elephant_barour food (tempura salmon roll) to take out and followed me back to the hotel after accepting my cash for the order. By the fourth call back, I had an offer to teach at a middle school that practiced the Middle Years Program, a branch of the International Baccalaureate.

This time, I had until Wednesday to make my decision. I reluctantly emailed the school in Seoul who had made the initial offer to say that I had another offer and couldn’t let them know by the end of the day, which meant I declined their invitation to join the staff. Again, I thought of Jee Young, as she also mentioned how much more difficult it is to decline an offer than you might imagine as you had really personal and heart-felt conversations with your potential employers.  Also, the intensity of time constraints surrounding a major life change for the next 2 years of your life actually causes you to question everything, including your ability to see clearly.

As it turns out, I regretted turning down the initial offer while I was in my state of indecision about the middle school offer. However, when I returned home to Michigan and wrote the superintendent of the elementary job, expressing my regret, I received a definitive answer that it was too late to change my mind. This actually gave me more peace and permission to possibly accept the middle school offer which immediately regained its initial appeal.

I was able to correspond with a middle school teacher, Kim, at the school whose offer was still on the table. She was refreshingly up-front about the weather, the pollution and the atmosphere of the school. Because of her frankness to not shield anyone from the possible down-sides, I felt less apprehensive.

I had a conversation with my two third grade colleagues and my principal about making my decision that night. Most of the day I was 60% / 40%.

how it gets settled

On Tuesday night, after school, I drove down to my local FedEx, formerly Kinkos, and tried to fax the signed contract to the school. It would not go after 10 attempts. So I sent an email from my iPhone and thought, “This is how my life changes. By hitting ‘send.'” Then I decided to scan in the papers and send the contract via email.


They accepted. People from the school have subsequently sent warm welcomes via email–including Kim, who asked if I was into diving because it is a really popular activity where I have decided to live.

I’m moving to Jakarta, Indonesia to teach middle school.

Here are a few more photos from the San Francisco Search Associates job fair:

1) I sent my friend, Kimberly, this pic from the hotel room to show her the scarf she gave me as a good-luck gesture while on one of our infamous “Just going to return something at the mall” trips:

wet seal

2) After having lived in CA, I’ve always craved the In-and-Out since becoming a Michiganian. In Harold and Kumar style, I finally hunted one down after 3 attempts:


3) This one is for my dad:

water bird

4) There’s something about this picture that makes me smile:


This decision is dedicated to my parents, the original international teachers, and friends near and far.

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why I love Stitcher so much

My most favorite app is Stitcher. I’ve put it on a list of “things I can’t live without.” It’s an app that delivers all of your favorite podcasts “without downloading or synching.” It updates automatically so you don’t have to be a slave to your iTunes sync. I’m really not being paid by Stitcher, but . . . I’m not opposed.

I love Stitcher so much that if I lost my iPhone, I’d actually be missing that companion more than anything else. It’s not like I wouldn’t care that I couldn’t contact friends and family, because when you think about it, there are so many ways to connect to them. For instance, once, when I was thinking more deliberately about NOT contacting a certain person, I realized that there are actually at least 5 or more ways that I could instantly contact him. Which makes things a lot worse because it’s hard to know which one to concentrate your will power on the most . . . My point being that direct contact, other than a phone, is possible. However, when it comes to having Stitcher in your pocket, delivering your favorite podcast “friends,” losing that would leave the biggest gap.

With Stitcher, you can build a radio station. Before I give you my playlist, a couple are prefaced with a serious announcement about how “the following podcast contains explicit language.” However, once you start listening, the content is really less offensive and more provocative in an intellectually or humorous way. Through Stitcher delivering weekly content, I have been a more faithful jogger / walker (allowing me an excuse to listen to podcasts and measuring my run in the length of the shows), yet also that person jogging by your house laughing out loud for no apparent reason . . .  a vicarious New Yorker / Chicagoan / Los Angelean.

My Stitcher Station Playlist:

1. All the Slate Podcasts:
Slate Culture Gabfest: really you just have to experience this discussion to get the breadth of the topics, the range will astound and amuse you. Or maybe it won’t. Sometimes the dynamics of the 3 commentators, especially Steve Metcaffe can be wearying, but overall it’s like having cool New York friends when you live in the Midwest. (Not that there’s anything wrong with the Midwest)
Slate Spoiler Specials: I read somewhere that actually finding out the ending enhances rather than detracts from the enjoyment of a movie. This was certainly the case for me after this podcast spoiled Catfish.
Slate Audio Book Club: Again, very New York–ivy league-ish, but more accessible than you think in a housewife or old college friend with drop-ins from recent college grads kind of way.
Slate Political Gabfest: This podcast got a shout-out from Stephen Colbert. The banter can seem a little overly combative to the Midwestern sensibility, but it’s like The Daily Show / Colbert Report’s more serious college roommate.
Manners for the Digital Age: Advice for people who wonder if talking on a cell phone and flushing go together.
Double X Podcast: Sorority reunion of bookish women.
Hang up and Listen: Mike Pesca is the reason I listen to this conversation about sports at all. Yet, it’s the podcast I listen to the least frequently all the way through.  But still fun.

2. The Sporkful: I’ve recommended this to a friend with insomnia. Not because it puts you to sleep, but when you’re awake in the middle of the night you feel so alone and stripped of any sense of well-being. About 20 minutes with Marc and Dan and you realize that we still live somewhere that 2 grown men can take disproportional enjoyment from food. Not only that, they have time to focus enormous energy and passion on eating, reminding you that simple pleasures are truly possible.

3. Freakonomics Radio: If you haven’t read the book (like me) but appreciate, instead, when people spoon-feed weird associations and cool connections directly to your ear, this is the podcast for you. It feels like cheating since you could have read the book first, but when you get past that, it’s informative and satisfying. As a teacher, I definitely appreciated the School of One and Pandora pairing.

4. Filmspotting: The hosts have gone through a transition recently and their tastes are pretty guy-ish (2 male hosts primarily), but again someone took their passion to a level where they do a lot of work for you. To get a sense of the taste represented, I saw Hanna and Fish Tank on the hosts’ praise.

5. The Moth Radio: True stories. Told live. The name comes from the analogy that storytelling is like a light that draws moths to its flame. Most of the stories have the authentic feel of an HBO documentary/ series chopped up and produced by a revolving door of accidental storytelling citizens.

6. NPR Shows: Planet Money, Fresh Air, RadioLab, The Business, Wait Wait . . .

7. This American Life: The OG (Original Gangster), Ira Glass.

8. WTF: Marc Maron interviews comedians in a backstage shop talk way. My favorites? Donald Glover and Jason Sedakis. The sponsors and some of the intros are a bit iffy, and the actual interviews can veer into intervention-ish AA-y type conversation. Lots of self-disclosure. But interesting in a reality radio kind of way.

9. The Onion News Network: Quick bursts of comedic observations. Hit and Miss, but mostly spot-on.

10. Too Beautiful to Live: Also a good insomnia cure–in fact, I listen to it exclusively in the middle of the night. TBTL a slightly self-satisfied examination of life from a late 30s, early 40s perspective. Discussions that seem like those annoyingly compelling Facebook updates that are passed around, validating your experiences (Favorite restaurant, Pet Peeve, etc.)–you just can’t turn away like you’re looking in a mirror. Entertaining in a guilty pleasure sort of way.

If you download and enjoy Stitcher, don’t forget to tip the wait staff.

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bad day for an octopus

This piece was written for my 3rd graders as an example of a personal narrative. They helped me out with a “juicy hook,” “5-sense details” and a “wrap it up” ending.

Splat! Splat! Have you ever seen an octopus get spanked before? I have!

Once, in the summer, I was visiting a fish market in Busan, South Korea. It smelled very strong like the ocean had dried up and become a giant store.  Actually, it wasn’t completely dry, because there were bright tubs everywhere filled with salt water.  The tubs were red, blue and yellow.  Some of the tubs were huge aquariums and some were like kiddie pools. There were fish and lots of sea creatures inside. Everywhere the sound of water gurgling and sea creatures flopping and splashing flooded your ears. Even the air tasted a little salty from the mist.

Outside the fish market, an octopus the size of a small swim ring—that you use when your family brings you to the beach for the first time—was in one of the kiddie pools with lots and lots of other squirmy octopi.  It decided to slide out of the pool. Its little suckers on the back of each rubbery arm pulled it out of its shallow tub. The octopus made an attempt to return to the sea that was only one block away! It could also probably smell the ocean, its home, so very close.

Suddenly, a granny in a giant visor put an end to the octopus’ plan! She grabbed the octopus and spanked it before plopping it back in the pool.

I was across the street and looked when someone yelled, “That octopus just got spanked!” I couldn’t help but start laughing. It didn’t seem real at all!

What was more surprising is that later, an octopus—probably not that one—became my dinner. It was scary to eat something so different—I imagine, just like when the octopus tried to escape. But it was also brave! It wasn’t as rubbery as I thought it was going to be because it was raw, and cut up into little pieces. We dipped it in some tasty sesame oil. 

I had to pretend that it didn’t have suckers when I chewed and swallowed it or I might gag.

Both the octopus and I found ourselves in a strange, new place. We both tried something new even though it seemed crazy at the time. I’m sorry that the octopus’ day ended so tragically. But I will never forget it!

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how to live with a stranger

When your biological identity is shrouded in mystery, you have an evolving relationship with that missing piece of yourself.

As a baby who was separated by thousands of miles, continents, and language from the flesh and blood people from whom I had received my, well, flesh and blood–I came to understand that I was a character in a story. The creation of my family–my adoptive family and God. My flesh and blood were actually paper and ink. The certificates and naturalization papers that linked me to the people who were responsible for my survival.

The mystery first belongs to others. Like armchair Sherlock Holmes, people relish the speculation. You’re a curiosity. Like a puzzle, they fill in the blanks. Not to really know, but to prove how clever they are. They refuse to allow you to become a cold case. You have the honor of being cast as a character in a fairy tale or ancient Biblical story. Your mystery is others’ sport.

The problem is that it really isn’t. It’s your life.

As you come to understand its significance, you fight to retrieve the mystery from the hacks: Boy meets girl. Boy dumps girl. The inevitable broken heart that leads to nameless, birthday-less baby. Cliche story writers.

You write your own stories. Others label them fantasies. But it was your story that was interrupted. Not theirs. You attempt to find ways to protect the blank page that is you. You understand intuitively all the reflections that others have projected onto your mystery. Desires. Hopes. The rescue motif.

Both the past and future ultimately seem up to you. This both paralyzes and frees.

When you return to the country of the original mystery. Where the deep chasm first started as a tiny crack in two people’s relationship, you peer over the edge. The crevasse is much deeper and wider than you anticipated, but it is also somehow less engulfing in its proximity. You face the mystery. Conquering it by your very presence. Respecting its power.

At the same time, forces beyond your control, continue to prevent you from scaling the depths, really exploring what’s inside. the closer you get, the more you understand the impossibility of truly getting to the bottom. You are faced with the echo-y depths that are beyond reach.

Or if you are able to spelunker down because of a random reason or another, you become more aware of the intricacies of the mystery. The mystery is actually complicated by reality, not made more plain.

Yet, you wrap yourself even tighter in the mystery that has now defined you for so long. You are not willing to give it up. Even for reality.

What does it mean to come to know yourself as having large chunks of identity invisible? Shadowy. Unretrievable.

You embrace the enigma. You guard it. You find others with transparent souls. Holograms. You put your hands through each other.

for Nichole. Thanks.

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cory booker’s affection for newark offers solace for a broken heart

The reasons to love Cory Booker are almost countless. Or I’ve been brainwashed by the documentaries about him–Street Fight and Brick City–or his combination of smart and attractive has overwhelmed my sense of judgment. Cory Booker also has boundless optimism backed by getting it done–pick-up basketball games with Newark children in the summer,  personal “Let’s Move” campaigns,  snow-shoveling, public gratitude for public service, residents’ retweets and responses regarding traffic lights, real-time crime and general shout-outs (Example: Lol! RT @KarenV11: I’m an attorney and I go 2 Court in Nwk almost every wk- how bout I get my own reserved parking space?  #itdoesnthurttoask) . . .  Does Cory Booker sound make-believe? For the uninitiated, he is the mayor of Newark, NJ.

Cory Booker’s dedication to defending his beloved city is kind of like someone defending a girlfriend others just don’t really get. Someone people don’t think is good for him. He could do better. But he believes in her. In this way, his Twitter account is chock full of the kinds of quotes you want to hear when you’re attending to a broken heart or are in a relationship that other people find perperplexing. Some of my favorites include:

  • “The soul would have no rainbow had the eyes no tears.” John Vance Cheney
  • “Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.” Dalai Lama
  • “Promise me u’ll always remember U R braver than U believe & stronger than U seem & smarter than U think” C Robin 2 Pooh

Really, you don’t have to mine his account very long to find fresh quotes that apply. 

I just want to say this to Cory Booker, “Message Received.” Keep the faith!

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tigers and tulips: on being a fake asian

I find Asian stereotypes riveting. Specifically, reflected in writings by American Born Asians. They strangely validate and invalidate my experience, because I am a fake Asian.  A trans-racial adoptee. A Korean-Dutch Adopted American. Korean because that is my ethnic identity. Dutch because my family (adopted) is of Dutch heritage.

I just finished Wesley Yang’s Paper Tigers in the New York Magazine. The first quasi-memoir by an ABA I read was American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. Yesterday, I consumed, in virtually one sitting (actually 2 because I started at Discount Tire where I was having my tires rotated on my Hyundai Sonata) Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. Of course, Amy Tan‘s Joy-Luck Club has always been a favorite.

All books present some kind of alternate universe–a what-if for readers. However, adoptees are often questioned about their “real family.” Outside their white family’s silent explanation for them, transracial adoptees contend with an identity they don’t fully understand. The unanswered question presented by uncontrollable often mysterious events in their lives that left them in the hands of strangers who became family.

Strangely, Yang–who is not adopted–provides a spot-on observation of this alienation from his own Asian features in the first paragraph of Paper Tigers.

“Conversations” with Asian Born American Writers:
How did Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel about being ABC (American Born Chinese) become my “looking glass” into the world of Asian American memoir? Have I experienced Wesley Yang’s bamboo ceiling (The statistics that point to high-achieving Asian Americans among the ranks of the academically elite, but not comparatively represented in the corporate power.)? Do I wish, like Amy Tan, that I possessed the actual details of the generational tragedy that would explain the desire to please everybody perfectly? Will I strive to be a tiger mother, like Amy Chua?

I met Gene Luen Yang at the Festival of Faith and Writing, after he fielded questions from some visiting Chinese scholars who questioned him on the unflattering representations of Chinese stereotypes caricatured in his book. Yang referenced The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as examples of how Americans satirize in an attempt to expose injustice or absurdity. This was met with blank stares. I realized that his brand of Asian American was closer to my own fake Asian than I thought possible. He was explaining America to “real Asians.”

Wesley Yang‘s Paper Tigers focused on Asian men who are just beginning to claim a right to define themselves as alpha males, to be a corporate success and conquer a white girlfriend. Touche since the stereotype for Asian adopted females is that they tend to marry white guys.

What I connected with is that I have a sneaking suspicion that Asian adults have the potential to annoy white people. Because when they speak up, they seem like someone’s younger brother or sister–You’re still talking? 

Also, it goes without question that Asian students are desirable and beloved by teachers and professors for their perceived hard work and respect for authority. These qualities don’t automatically translate into social power. Like aging child actors, puberty divides ethnic minorities from when they were harmless and adorable to when others perceive them as overstaying their welcome.

Why was I so drawn to Amy Tan‘s invitation to enter her family’s secrets? This contrasted with my contention that I was not interested in my birth family. As a loyal adopted person I always denied wanting to return to Korea. Of having any desire to connect to a people or culture that, I was reluctant to admit, had rejected me. So my denial served two purposes: to please my parents and blunt the sting of rejection with apathy.

I carved out my own identity and I didn’t need other Asians to remind me of where I came from. I always had the suspicion that when two Asians were in the room, one of us was redundant. Drawing attention in larger numbers, always made me uncomfortable growing up. Yet, I could safely do so in books. Amy Tan was a safe, distant Asian confidante.

I do not hesitate to dive into the controversy that is Amy Chua. I found her book funny, brave and completely contradictory in the best way. I got her. Like a long-time friend.

Her “motivational speeches” launched at her daughters were undeniably sharp. Possibly wounding. But she didn’t sugar coat them. She included them for others’ review. She reflected on them. She admitted that the tiger mother code is usually secretive, guarded. She exposes it. For that I give her credit. Yet, I am grateful with a complicated pang of regret for my American parents who did not push me into gymnastics after I expressed a fear of the balance beam. Even after a coach had said that I had the potential to be competive.

When it comes to being a fake Asian, these vicarious glimpses into the lives of second generation Asians, specifically writers are like a reflecting pool out of the Harry Potter series.

I attend Tulip Time in my small adopted hometown of Holland. My white parents grew up here and moved to Asia after they got married, which is why there is no picture of me in Dutch costume marching in the Kinder Parade. We moved back to the U.S., but not to Holland when I was six.

Strangely, as an adult I have made their hometown my own. Last night my Dutch-American sister and I attended the traditional dance around Centennial Park. I kept wondering, “What is it like to have your heritage so accessible?” Which is the same question I ask myself among Korean Born Koreans when I visit Busan–the city where I was born.

Thanks to the Slate Culture Gabfest for discussing Wesley Yang’s Paper Tigers. Also to Nina Shen Rastogi for her reaction.

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