New Zealand, We Need to Learn to Take Criticism Better

New Zealand is a social pioneer. We were the first country to give women the vote, we were one of the first countries in the world to instigate a comprehensive welfare state, we are a world leader when it comes to race relations and we led the world in the battle against the proliferation of nuclear weapons testing. We have often taken aggressive ideological stances when it comes to issues of injustice that we believe needs to be addressed on a global scale. Case in point our recent position on Palestinian statehood at the UNSC.

We’ve been able to do this, because of our position in the world, being so far away from the world’s trouble spots, built on migration from Europe, then the Pacific and now recently from Asia, social experimentation is something we can afford to do. But this small size has also required us to try and over compensate in many ways. New Zealand is an insecure country, because we are always referenced in relation to our larger and more well-known neighbour Australia. Tall poppy syndrome is a massive problem in our country as a result.

When Eleanor Catton came out and criticized the New Zealand government this week for what she sees as a failure of the current government to invest in the culture and arts, she hit a nerve among many New Zealanders who felt she was betraying the country. Lots of people have likened her criticisms to an act of “spitting the dummy”. You see, she has a state funded job as a creative writing lecturer at a state-run tertiary education institution. Apparently that means that she, as a beneficiary of the government’s begrudgingly dwindling financial support, is therefore not entitled to have such opinions.

This morning, radio personality Sean Plunket called her “an ungrateful hua” – hua or whore? Irrespective, neither terms were designed to flatter the Booker Prize winning author.

But, this was the real humdinger, the current Prime Minister of New Zealand John Key accused her of not having ‘respect’ for his contemporaries. You see, what Catton said probably dented the ego of the PM a little bit. She said that  New Zealand is “dominated by these neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture.” – not exactly a ringing endorsement for the incumbent government.

Well, I guess what they say is true. It’s usually the truth that stings the most.

Having lived abroad for a very long time, I am always struck by the high regard that New Zealand is held in internationally. It’s a credit to all those who have worked for our country in the past that I can go anywhere, introduce myself as from New Zealand and receive a positive reaction from most people in the room – provided that they’re not Australian of course.

What any expat will tell you though is that, the reputation our country enjoys internationally is based on certain factors. The first, and primary factor being our environment. Thanks to Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit franchises, New Zealand’s image of a pristine, nature loving, country prefaces any prospective conversation. This has translated to the high regard that our dairy and food products in general, are held in, we’re seen as the ‘nature’ and  ‘natural’ country. Therefore, our agricultural industry produces high quality, close to organic, nutrient rich food products.

The second reason we’re held in high regard is our history of social progressiveness. Those who are interested in the way different societies are organized, group New Zealand with the Scandinavian countries a lot of the time. Where a successful form of collective social welfare and social responsibility has led to a high quality of living and an express goal of attaining an egalitarian tradition.

The third item that precedes me internationally that represents New Zealand is of course the Haka. As a Samoan New Zealander, due to my golden tanned skin 🙂 , it is easy for people who learn that I’m from New Zealand to jump to the conclusion that I am also Maori, which results in excited requests for me to perform the Haka. A situation that usually ends in their disappointment when I tell them in no uncertain terms that I’m Samoan and I’m not about to defile the indigenous people of New Zealand’s cultural expression by performing a dance of theirs for someone else’s personal gratification.

The point that I’m trying to get at, is that New Zealand’s international reputation is a formidable one. When it comes to PR, and selling the country overseas, no one does it better.

I give you the 100% Pure New Zealand tourism campaign, which became the envy of our Ozzie cousins who failed miserably to emulate our example via its “where the bloody hell are ya?” ad campaign – ironically designed by New Zealanders!

But what Catton has alluded to in rather unambiguous terms is something that I have long felt very uncomfortable about.

There is a growing disconnect between New Zealand’s reputation internationally and  historically, with the government policies of today.

When Catton said that she was uncomfortable being an ambassador for New Zealand, I completely understood what her dilemma was. She is celebrated as a great product of the country, And anyone who goes overseas from our little corner of the world is expected to put their best foot forward, as you are unexpectedly thrust into the throes of people who expect you to embody certain values. A certain kiwiness, (and apparent love of Rugby) and there not being so many of us out there, there comes a certain expectation that we are meant to be a reflection of our country.

You see, Catton and I are a particular kind of Kiwi. We are old school. We believe in what the country USED to believe in, which is egalitarianism. I am still left in disbelief as to how we have completely abandoned collective responsibility for the fellow kiwi.

The worst example of how we’ve abandoned our sense of collective responsibility has to be the housing crisis in Auckland. The government refuses to act, not because it can’t do anything about it, it’s because a sizable part of the population own all the property, and therefore, are an important voting block. Labour tried to introduce a capital gains tax policy at the last election and National succeeded in demonizing the policy as an attempt to rob the middle class to give to the lazy class. A complete lie that was eaten up by the New Zealand public who now feel no responsibility for the well being of others.

A whole group of New Zealanders will never own their own homes, and neither will their children, who will effectively be renting poor quality homes, in order to fill the coffers of baby boomers and eventually their children too, who believe that they have a right to monopolize resources that only through an accident of birth and timing gave them privilege to. Effectively engraining a new class division in our society. – That’s where it’s all heading people.

In the past, New Zealand governments have taken bold, often unpopular steps to correct problems in our society. However, that tradition has been lost, ever since the reforms of the 1980s and early 90s, governments have taken to implementing populist policies that will get them elected. It is a flaw of democracy, yes, however, in New Zealand, our tradition has always been to stand up to governments who have neglected those who have been given a raw deal by society.

Now, New Zealand is rife with downward envy, neo-liberal politicians who are exploiting this flaw in the New Zealand psyche are in control of the country, and investment has been unapologetically directed at growing wealth, not prosperity for all. The tired old line of ‘trickle down’ economics has failed miserably, but the New Zealand government continues to push this as the benefits flow to all their friends and supporters.

The New Zealand government’s support for the development of the arts has fallen. And Catton’s comments were not lies at all. She was speaking her mind. As she has on many issues on the past. Last year she was quoted in the guardian over comments where she accused the literary community of having a double standard that treated female authors and male authors differenty. Where, often the female author is asked what she feels, but the male author is asked what he thinks.

And the response from the PM was telling. Instead of responding to her criticisms of his government, which related to his government’s policies, he deflected it, turning it into a personal issue. Saying that he is “disappointed that she doesn’t have respect for what we do, because I have tremendous respect for her as a writer.” He went on to say that most New Zealanders don’t share her opinion because they wouldn’t have voted for his government in the large sets of numbers that they did at the last election. – Failed attempt to channel Obama’s SOTU speech there Mr. PM.

The way that the media reported her comments was worse. The New Zealand Herald said that she had “Thrown the book” at New Zealand,’s headline was “Eleanor Catton’s Problem with New Zealand.”

What Eleanor said is not her problem at all, it’s our country’s problem.

New Zealanders can’t take criticism of our country because we believe that we’re the best nation in the world. And in some ways we have good reason to be proud of our country. I am always the first to sing New Zealand’s praises. I love our country.

But I’m unapologetically on Catthon’s side, because I am seriously embarrassed by some, actually, no not some, but a lot of what our government does. And what disappoints me, is that most New Zealanders who live in our country can’t see how much damage this government is actually doing, in the end we won’t be able to cover this up for much longer.

Remember what I mentioned about our reputation internationally? Let’s just focus on those areas and let me demonstrate why Catton’s comments were right.

1. The Environment – New Zealand under the Clark-led government at one stage touted the idea of our country becoming the first carbon neutral country. That was a pipe dream that had no chance of becoming a reality, but the situation today is much worse than back then when the current UNDP head was in charge of our nation. New Zealand today is one of the few OECD countries that DOES NOT produce a regular national report on the environment. Let that sink in for a moment.

This means that our government is able to fudge a lot of the environmental damage that the rapid expansion of the agricultural sector has done. Most of our rivers are too polluted to swim in now, the New Zealand government has rejected numerous proposals for restoring the rivers by outside political parties. The truth is, dairy, a central plank of New Zealand’s economy is by far and away the worst polluter. However, our diplomatic and trade missions around the world are specifically tasked with increasing our foothold in international markets, but let’s be serious. there’s too much demand, and we can’t supply the entire world. So we try to maximise profits by continually trying to increase dairy production at the detriment of our country’s environment. The complete effects of this has been downplayed by a government that doesn’t require mandatory reporting on the status of our environment.

The government aims to cut New Zealand’s carbon emissions 5% by 2020. Funny that, because that’ll take our output to around 1990 levels. Which was the goal of the Kyoto Protocol – merely a plug gap measure really to stop increasing our levels of carbon emissions. It means that actually, we haven’t done anything at all to mitigate climate change.


2. Social Inclusiveness/Social Responsibility – Egalitarian tradition you say? Well no longer, according to the OECD of all the developed countries in the world, we are the most affected by inequality. From 1990 – 2010, our country’s economy should have grown by 44%, however, it has only grown by 28% as a result of the effect of rapidly increasing inequality, giving us the dubious honour of worst affected in the developed world. – How this doesn’t embarrass our government, I will never know!.

And let me just add a qualitiative observation to this. In 1988, my family moved to Manurewa, a town in South Auckland that was relatively middle class at the time. Anyone who lived there will tell you how great Southmall used to be. It was a slick town centre, filled with locally run shops and vibrant locals would frequent the cafe’s, banks, post office, Farmers was there, so was Whitcoulls, DEKA even at one stage. But you look at Southmall now and it’s an unfortunate metaphor for the country’s reality of inequality. The town centre is run down, the neat tiles that used to line the floors of the complex began to crack and has now been replaced with plain cold concrete, there are no stores besides 1 or 2 dollar shops, liquor shops take up the road frontage, and most locals avoid the area at night, as street prostitution has taken over, vagrants and people up to no good often threaten people waiting for public transport, and even I, when at home avoid the place at night, at all costs. The people of my neighbourhood have not had their quality of lives improved over the course of this neo-liberal rockstar economy that the government talks about.

The OECD has recommended that the New Zealand government raise taxes and implement better redistribution policies which were of course rolled back during the massive restructuring that took place when I was a kid. The government ignored the report and has in fact done everything it can to lessen the tax burden of the rich, citing the need for ‘growth’ to develop the economy further. All it has done is exacerbated the gap between the rich and the poor.

3. Race relations – Ahhhhhh the quintessential New Zealand lynch-pin that is used to express our superiority over our Australian neighbours. We are the world leaders in recognizing the rights of our indigenous people. Well, the great thing for New Zealand is that comparisons are all relative. So yes, in comparison to a lot of countries, it looks good for us. Let’s be honest, Australia hasn’t exactly set the bar very high on this point. But what about the status of our indigenous people? It’s one thing to rhetorically support them, but are we really doing what we can to mitigate the effects of colonization? Here’s where we’re going wrong.

1. The education about the Treaty of Waitangi. John Key, the PM of New Zealand said that the settlement of New Zealand was peaceful. Let’s not get into why that is wrong on so many levels, but let’s just take it as a representation of the misunderstanding that Maori face in New Zealand.

2. The poltically motivated demonization of Maori in popular discourse. They are characterized as bludgers, people who leech off of the state, when in actual fact, all those in New Zealand who have developed wealth, especially those who developed it off of farming need to understand that their relatives and predecessors that established their economic base did so off of the pillaging, and theft of Maori land.

3. Government Policy – Under the current government, the socio-economic outcome for Maori in New Zealand has worsened in terms of disparity with Pakeha New Zealand. You can say what you like, but if the social outcomes are not improving in relation to Pakeha New Zealand, then that means that there are still systemic and structural factors that have not been addressed. However, the government is happy to push those issues aside in order to allow for the truly racist undertones of the centre-right in New Zealand to be covered up through widely publicized treaty settlements.

The Maori cause is not being advanced by this government, but we’re more than happy to use Maori culture to promote our country’s image internationally. To use the widely popular phrase on social media at the moment – “Bye Felicia”.

So as you get your claws out and begin to add me to the list of traitors to New Zealand that the media seem to be keeping a close track of, I hope people can understand why I believe that Eleanor Catton did nothing wrong. She is a successful woman whose talent is all hers. She comes from a democratic country, and she has a right to criticize the government if she feels strongly about what the government has done.

Plunkett’s criticsm of her as being an ungrateful hua smacks of insecurity to be honest. I believe that she has been targeted by the media in our country because we’re not so used to seeing women go on the world stage and criticize our government so publicly. It’s the New Zealand version of keeping face, something that Asian cultures are well-known for.

But the thing is, it’s almost a crime these days to mention redistribution and criticize neo-liberal economics because all of John Key’s cronies are in charge of everything, not just the government, but also the media, business, and they are trying to strangle free speech in our country by taking a paternal approach to discussions. Saying that we the poor, are poor because we don’t know much, and we should just listen to them, they’re the experts.

They’re not the experts, they’re criminals who are hoarding New Zealand’s growth and resources for their own benefit. By crafting an image of what we should all aspire to, we are trapped into thinking that they know best.

And it works, because New Zealanders are so insecure about our place in the world now as a result of successive governments who have rejected truely kiwi values in favour of larger personal bank accounts and individual prosperity – enticing everyone else with a false idea, that they too can have that life.

But what they don’t tell you, is capitalism and free enterprise only works to generate wealth for some, and what’s central to the system’s success is its ability to create inequality. Therein lies the greatest contributor to our country’s increasing sense of insecurity.


Welcome to the Club, First Time Sufferers of Racism – Part 5 Memoirs of the Land of the Morning Calm

The question of race, why it matters, and how it affects people’s experiences in this lifetime is jam packed with so many historical and sociological pains, as well as societal implications, that often we are afraid to have any meaningful conversations about it.

I am no expert when it comes to issues of race and discrimination, but I have spent many years looking at the way society is organized, and there are certain facts that have always been made abundantly clear when looking at inequalities that are built and man-made through societal structures that we have inadvertently created.

One such fact being that race matters, insofar as that in certain societies like my own, it is a very useful predictor of what kind of socio-economic outcome you are likely to have, where the darker your skin tone, or the less ‘white’ you are, the higher the correlative effect on your likelihood to end up towards the bottom of the heap.

I don’t wish to engage in too much detail about the issues of race and prejudice in New Zealand, as there is a very robust discussion that takes place among academics, politicians, and a much lower brow conversation going on at the “less informed” level of New Zealand society – putting it nicely, that relates specifically to our own demons that are cloaked in issues related to race.

The point is, I know racism when I see it. I’ve felt the humiliation associated with being made to feel less than you are because of the fact that you’re not of the dominant racial group. I’ve seen others around me discriminated in much worse terms, I was at least given the ability to ably communicate in Pakeha language, so I was able to negotiate my way through the institutional structures that were designed by European perspectives, of which people of my ethnic group have struggled to decipher in any meaningful form since our mass wave of migration to New Zealand in the middle of the last century.

So moving to Korea, where the population is about as homogenized as any nation on the planet, issues of race were always likely to come up. 97% of the people that live in Korea are ethnically Korean. That is a staggering number. In China, another country that people see as being ethnically homogenous, the dominant ethnic group are the Han-Chinese, and they make up about 91% of the population. There are significant minority groups in China though. As an example, the Zhuang ethnic group contribute about 16.9 million people to China’s total population, 4x the entire population of New Zealand. As you can see, Korea’s lack of ethnic diversity is much more pronounced than its larger Sino neighbour.

Koreans have also opened up to the rest of the world relatively recently. Once known as “The Hermit Kingdom”, a title that is almost exclusively used to describe North Korea these days, It wasn’t really until the late 1980s when South Korea announced its return to the world community of nations, via its big coming out party at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Up to this point, the last meaningful interaction the international media had had with South Korea was when the international community came to its aid during the devastating fratricidal Korean War that remains today one of the bloodiest conflicts of the last century, that has seemingly slipped the consciousness of many. Aptly titled “The Forgotten War” by many historians, until the Seoul Olympics, many in the West still had notions of Seoul being a flattened completely devastated city with army tanks rolling through it, peppered with an emaciated population of which it is estimated 3 million, perhaps even more, lost their lives during the course of the brief yet, indescribably brutal conflict.

People say that Koreans are racist. I’ve heard some Korean-Americans call Koreans racist, I’ve seen African-Americans call Koreans racist, I’ve experienced racism here myself quite clearly. And I too have called Koreans racist in the past. However, after really trying to come to terms with Korea, its history, and what feeds the mindset of the ordinary Korean, I can’t help but think – they just can’t help themselves. I don’t mean this in a bad way at all. And I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. I’m not trying to defend racism in any shape or form. But I am trying to understand it as best I can in the locations and conditions in which it occurs.

I believe that Koreans aren’t really racist. To be racist, I think that a person needs to have been exposed to other cultures, and been educated to understand that colour doesn’t matter, but STILL make a conscious decision to discriminate against a person based on colour.

And I disagree with people who say that the reason why people are racist in our countries is because they haven’t been exposed to other ethnic groups. I don’t accept this because in our countries it simply isn’t possible to not be exposed to other cultures anymore. If you’re American, and you eat Mexican food, you have been exposed to another culture, only you have chosen not to accept that what you have in front of you was crafted by another cultural group, because you still harbour underlying notions of superiority.

That point can be debated from now until 2016, so I’ll move on. Just know that this is why I believe that Koreans are not necessarily racist.They’re just super, super proud of their nation and people. Add this to their lack of outside contact with foreigners, and their behaviour, which comes out as racist, really, is just a manifestation of this pride which many of us don’t really understand. I don’t think I fully understand it either, but I can definitely relate to it.

Feelings of nationalism and patriotism run strong in Korea. As an outsider, having studied Korean history in a little more detail since living here, it’s understandable. Just look at its thousands and thousands of years of recorded history, a sequence of devastating and neverending invasions from the Japanese and then having its territory trampled on by the Chinese who would seek retaliation. The borders of the Korean kingdom, its name, its rulers etc. have all changed so many times that the depth of Korean history is quite simply mind whirling in its detail and intricacies. It’s a miracle that the Korean state itself was able to survive for the many centuries it did before it was finally annexed in entirety by Japan in 1910. Where Japanese Imperialism united Koreans in a common struggle for emancipation, which inevitably lead to an entrenched form of nationalism.

Some would argue that these feelings of nationalistic pride are on the decline, especially with the rise of the younger more affluent and indifferent generation. But as someone who grew up in perhaps one of the most unenthusiastic populations in the world when it comes to pride in the nation. I don’t believe that’s true at all. I still see it in the way that Koreans act and respect their way of doing things.

Koreans may not be as zealous about traditional Korean culture these days, but Koreans are still obsessive about Koreanness in my opinion. The only thing that’s changed is that the focus of this Korean pride has taken new capitalist forms, care of the spread of Western economic structures and Korea’s successful ability to incorporate these structures, and adapt them to suit the Korean way of doing things. KPOP, KDramas, Hyundai, Samsung, Kim Yuna, Park Ji-Sung – Manchester United, aesthetic surgery, Korean cuisine – as they all rise in international standing and reputation, Koreans make use of the international networks it provides to further opportunities for other Koreans around the world.

Korean hierarchy in its societal makeup still governs the way in which business, social relationships and interactions take place every day. There is no shortage of Koreanness that continues to govern my workplace, my commute to places, the way I interact with my Korean friends, the way I eat food, the restaurants I frequent, and my attitude to work ethic.

Korea is well known for what is called the ‘Miracle on the Han’ – The banks of the Han River, the lifeblood of the ancient city of Seoul, saw the most dramatic rise from the ashes that the modern era has ever seen. More dramatic than the reconstruction and rise of Japan after WWII in my view, because before the complete devastation of Seoul, Korea was an impoverished nation. Japan on the other hand was perhaps one of the most advanced in the world resulting from the incredibly successful reforms during the Meiji Restoration. It had a reference point to grow from, as well as a much larger population base than Korea to draw from.

So how did Korea go from the poorest country in the world – that’s right in 1953 Korea’s GDP per capita was roughly less than $50USD, lower than the level of most sub-Saharan African countries – to today, where it is now the 13th largest economy in the world?

Well, the truth is, it did it with a lot of controversial government policies that included a spell of complete authoritarianism and denial of basic human rights to many of its citizens.

Something that we often get reminded of, is that the current President of Korea, Park Geun-hye, is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, former Korean President. But what most outsiders don’t know, is that he was a military dictator that controlled Korea with an iron-like grip, so absolutely that many would place him in a category more commonly associated with despots and autocrats. Namsan, the mountain that I frequently run up, which has a beautiful running trail today, complete with oriental gardens, rock formations, Seoul Tower, the love locks of Namsan, Hanok Village, and functions as a geographical centrepiece of the city, was once the site of brutal torture, imprisonment, and the place where people simply vanished without a trace.

Whatever your view of the Park Chung-hee era, one thing that is undeniable is that his economic reforms and unforgiving requirement that his citizens work relentlessly to rebuild the nation worked. It was during his time South Korea’s economy took off, And it was during his time, that the legend of the “Miracle on the Han” began to evolve..

Koreans know struggle like most brutalized nations do, who have been on the outside of the dominant nations for the entirety of their existence. Of course, this isn’t an excuse as to why nationalism should then lead to the exclusion of foreigners or the victimization of foreigners as being classified as outsiders and treated in discriminatory ways. But it should go some way as to explaining why feelings of national pride, and embracing one’s heritage here and ultimately Koreanness makes complete sense in this country.

In short, all these things make Koreans who they are today. This intense sense of victimization by the imperial ambition of surrounding nations, combined with its recent unfortunate history of being used as a pawn in an ideological struggle between the West and the former Soviet Union, resulting in generationally imposed suffering, the Korean mindset is naturally hardwired to believe that Korean’s are the most stoic, hardworking, resilient group of people that have been able to survive some of the world’s greatest hardships. Can you imagine what kind of effect that would have on your view of the outside world?

As a Samoan kid, one of the sources of my greatest pride is knowing that as a nation we never gave up on our political independence after we were so unwillingly subjected to the forces of colonialism. For us, we haven’t been able to be the same economic success story that Korea has, and we are beginning to drown in the greater pool of the world economic structure as our culture and way of organizing society is not thriving in the face of economic paradigms that we just cannot seem to reconcile with our own indigenous understandings of ownership and societal arrangement.

But what is particularly eyebrow-raising for me though, and I’m just gonna say it without pulling punches, without naming names, is when people who are not used to being treated differently because of their skin colour, because they are part of the dominant ethnic group where they come from finally experience racism for the first time in their lives in all its humiliating glory.

Asians, Koreans included, are among the most discriminated ethnic groups in our western societies. I know in New Zealand that it’s rather quite popular to campaign on a ticket that attempts to shut the door on migrants that come from Asia, because ‘they don’t understand our way of life.’ At least in New Zealand we don’t usually throw stones or stab Asian people in kebab shops, which is more than I can say for our Aussie cousins. And lets not get started on what it’s like to be Asian in the UK or the US.

So when my non-coloured or non-black friends complain about being discriminated against here because they are a foreigner a couple of things go through my head. The first is, well they discriminate against all foreigners, and they really do this because of their own experiences. Much like how we do this back home.

But my second thought is, welcome to the club. For the first time in your life, you’ve been able to experience what I’ve felt for the entirety of my life living in a society where my skin colour meant that I would always be pigeonholed by others into a particular role. “All Samoans can sing.” My favourite: “So which position do you play in rugby?” – Yup stereotypes of me and my ethnic group are very clear.

I still remember how it felt when John Banks went on national T.V. in NZ and said that Pacific Islanders jumped through people’s windows at night robbing hardworking New Zealanders homes while they were sleeping – or words to that effect. I have never ever heard a white person on television once in New Zealand being typecast as a criminal because of the colour of their skin. Or lets not forget how Paul Henry said that our next governor general needed to look like a real New Zealander, apparently one of Indian descent who was the incumbent didn’t look like a real New Zealander. Again, I digress, let’s get back to Korea.

The thing that gets me about people who are not of colour complaining about racism in Korea is that yes, it happens. But white privilege goes with you everywhere. Even in Korea, where foreigners are discriminated against, there are certain degrees of discrimination.

For example, I have been passed up for jobs here in favour of a white applicant who has no experience, is much less qualified than I, and is so immature that they are closer in demeanour to an adolescent than an educator, purely because of the colour of my skin.

I’ve walked on the street before and had jovial Koreans see a group of foreigners and choose to try and strike up a conversation exclusively with the white members of our entourage. Ignoring the others in the group who are so obviously not white.

Forgive me if I’m not so sympathetic to cries of racial injustice from this particular ethnic group.

I am not making excuses for racism in this country. And in fact I don’t like the idea of racism anywhere, but my thing is white people who cry racism here in Korea, and people who I have seen post on blogs about how racist Koreans are toward foreigners are the same people that often stay silent when issues of race come up in our countries. And that’s what I find completely hypocritical and what gives you no right to play the race card, ever.

Until you choose to stand in solidarity with black people who suffer racism in their own countries, and until you stand in solidarity with Asian people who suffer racism daily in your own countries, learn to turn the other cheek, Because you have no right to claim humiliation when you benefit from a genetic privilege that you did nothing to earn.

And I’m really tired of hearing about how racist Koreans are. There are racist people everywhere yes. But let’s keep things in perspective. Koreans have a reason to be suspicious of outsiders, more so than we do. As an Asian ethnic group, they are victimized where ever they go, typecast as nerds, stereotyped against as skinny and weak, even looked down and named as an undesirable race by many from other cultures. Korea, their homeland, is where they can actually be who they are without fear of this judgment. And if you’re not cut out for this kind of life, then take the experience and leave.

I have recently realized that Korea is not the place for me in the long term. and all of the bad experiences I’ve had here have been completely washed away by the incredible experiences that I have had. So when I leave in a couple of months time, I’ll be leaving with wonderful and fond memories of the place. And it’s funny, it’s not Korea the country that I’ll miss, it will be Korea the people.

This ill-informed-of-the-ways-of-the-world-people, who have a predisposition to shun outsiders, have left an indelible mark on my heart. Koreans don’t really let outsiders in, but when they do I can guarantee that they can be some of the most loyal wonderful people you can ever hope to meet.

And let’s see more articles about that, and less about our misunderstandings of a simply quite remarkable, race of people.

The Transformation – Memoirs of the Land of the Morning Calm Part 4

Whenever I return home or I run into anyone from home who hasn’t seen me for an extended period of time, the meeting goes like this. 1st we scream and hug. then we interrogate each other. And our conversation will always invariably follow this trajectory:

Them: “So good to see you!”

Me: “I know it’s been ages!”

Them: “So what have you been up to? Seems like Korea is treating you well.”

Me: “It’s great, enjoy it a lot, but miss home and my family”

Them: “Well tell me, what’s the secret? How did you lose all that weight?”

And there it is! Ding-dong-deng!! I’ve learned to expect this.

Let’s face it, it’s the only thing anyone really cares about when they see me. And be honest, this is the one post that you’ve all been waiting for isn’t it? isn’t it? 😀

Don’t lie, it’s ok, I understand that wanting to be fit and healthy is a goal that we all share. Heck that’s the reason that I did it. Luckily for you, I know the secret of losing weight, getting fit and keeping the excess pounds or kilos off in the long term.

The only thing is, I’m always really reluctant to talk about it. Because whenever I’ve ever explained to someone how I did it, they always look at me like I’m crazy or they don’t believe me that the formula I have come to understand about maintaining excellent health and wellbeing, is actually very simple.

So I’m gonna write about this once, and leave it at that. No more questions about my weight loss journey please. I’m over it. Not because I have become arrogant about the success I’ve had, it’s because I don’t believe that it should be called a journey at all.

The term journey implies that there is a distinct beginning, middle and end destination. But I believe that health and wellbeing, or the care of someone’s physical person doesn’t have a beginning, or a final disembarking point. It’s a constant necessity that accompanies you throughout your entire life. You need to understand this basic fundamental point first. Weight loss, or trying to get to a particular weight is not the same thing as taking care of your body. More on that point later.

But let me get down to explaining what the secret to losing weight is first. And you’re going to be shocked when I tell you this. Basically, the only tried and true method of losing weight, and this is the only thing that has substantial scientific evidence to support it, goes something like this:

Consume less calories, move your body more.

And that’s it.

Forget fad diets like Paleo, Atkins, South Beach, whatever, if they work, it’s because they are aligned with that simple concept. Ie restrict calories, at the same time encouraging you to move your body more. If you want to lose body fat, you must follow this simple formula. How you get those calories, ie through which foods is completely up to you. Obviously you want to choose the ones that are most nutritious, whole foods generally allow you to get more bang for your buck. ie eat more of them for less calorific input. But when it comes down to it, this is the only way you will lose weight.

There are of course, healthy ways to lose weight and unhealthy ways to lose weight, but reducing body fat, every single study out there has shown, has an exponential benefit to the overall functioning of your internal organs and extremely positive effect on not only the look of your body, but the health of your most plentiful organ: your skin.

Most people hate it when I convey to them this seemingly logical and simple explanation for how I managed to lose over 60kilos. They think that I’ve hoodwinked them, that I somehow stumbled upon a secret that was hidden within pandora’s box that I am deliberately keeping from them so they can stay the way they are and I can flaunt my ‘skinny’ body.

Pfffft I am far from skinny, my body composition tests say I’m healthy! I have muscle and bone content that numbers close to 87kilos! More than the average person my height (187cm) weighs in total, including their body’s fat content. LOL I’m Samoan after all. We’re just built this way.

But when I began to take better care of my body and began to lose the weight, I actually didn’t really understand these concepts either. I understood the formula, but I didn’t want to accept it. Once you get over the fact that this is the formula, and the only formula that truly works, you make peace with it and begin to change your mindset from ‘that’s way too hard’ to a mindset that says ‘I can do this’.

The first thing I have to say about embarking on a journey of ‘better living’ is that the physical aspects of a health and fitness regime must be, and I cannot stress this enough, must be supported by a strong and resilient mindset. Before you decide to embark on any weight loss or fitness journey, you must get your own mental house in order.

In previous posts, I have talked about how I have had experiences from when I was a kid that stayed with me for a long time. I was haunted by these experiences, and this led to me believing that I was pigeonholed to fulfill a particular role in society. I was meant to be the smart one, the academic, the chubby boy, the funny one, the life of the party, the entertainment in that sense. I was made to believe this through my own experiences that taught me stupid and entirely untrue lessons like I was not athletic, I was not worthy of being loved by anyone else, and that I was not attractive. These internal issues I had to deal with first and foremost. What you believe, becomes your reality.

When someone is morbidly obese at a young age, it’s not a choice. You don’t wake up one day and say, I’m gonna eat all the pies and sausage rolls at the bakery because I want to look like a sumo wrestler.

There is an internal issue that is preventing them from loving their bodies enough to give it proper nourishment and care through exercise and healthy foods. I’m not saying that all people who are overweight share some sort of traumatic experience from their youth. In fact, this observation like all statements should be taken with a grain of salt and a degree of specificity. It depends on the individual. But most will find that this is the case. And so it was with me.

I’d rather not get into the specifics of what my breakthrough moment was. Because I most definitely had one, it was an intensely emotional experience and some things I believe are best left for an individual to keep for themselves. But I can say it was this mental breakthrough that I had which occurred in the autumn of 2009 that set my life and my future on fire!

I was living in Dangjin at the time, and I remember that I was much happier there than I was in Geoje. The school that I had moved to was an absolute joy to work in. I had shifted from a private academy to a public elementary school. I was working with two amazing co-teachers who did absolutely all they could to try and make my life as convenient as possible. The students were amazing, non-judgmental and responding well to the lessons I had been teaching them. Nearly all the students I had taught were showing great improvement in their language ability and confidence in using English. And it was rural, very rural indeed.

Although I was only an hour or so out of Seoul. I was living in a town that Koreans consider to be rural by their standards. My apartment was in the new part of town which at the time was being far more intensely developed, but it was still undoubetdly countryside. I could smell cow paddies, which kinda reminded me of home, so I knew that I wasn’t exactly in an exciting metropolitan hub of a place by any stretch of the imagination. There was something like 10 foreigners in the town working for the education office making foreigners an even rarer commodity in this town than in Geoje-do.

As I was closer to Seoul, I spent most weekends up there staying with some friends, going out and experiencing this gargantuan city, and meeting up with a lot more Kiwis and making some lifelong friendships that would endure right up to this day and probably further on into the future.

One friend in particular, she knows who she is, I won’t name her on here in case she gets mad, told me about a clinic that she had been visiting that helped with weight loss and that sort of thing. I had remarked to her like most people do, flippantly, half-heartedly really, that I was interested in dropping a bit of weight. When I had had my medical check up before I started working for the education office, I weighed in at a hefty 162 kilos, I still remember the hilarious shriek the nurse who was performing my medical tests gave when she read that number off the scale.

My friend offered to take me along to the clinic to see the doctor there who was a nutritionist and expert at helping people lose weight. The clinic was in Cheongdam, a suburb of Gangnam-gu, made famous by Psy a couple of years back, but is also renowned worldwide now as a plastic surgery and body aesthetic-improvement hub.

There at this clinic the doctor ran some tests on me including a body composition test, blood tests etc. What she concluded was that my body despite being very big, for some reason had a very slow metabolic rate. Which meant that my body took a longer time than others to burn fat, even though I liked to do things like swimming, play sport etc. She told me that I would need to boost this through a variety of methods.

One way was to take metabolism boosting drugs, and to eat foods that helped to kick start my body’s metabolic rate.

Now you’re all thinking, well that’s the secret, it was those metabolism boosters that did it. Well, actually no. She also told me that the metabolism boosters were useless unless I exercised for 60mins after I took them. So I was to exercise 60mins a day for 5 days a week and reduce my calorie intake. To help me initially reduce my calorific intake, she gave me appetite suppressants to take for a month as well. So that I could get used to eating less. If you need to take these to help you, I would recommend asking your doctor for them. I don’t know whether they actually worked for me, I still felt really hungry when I started to reduce the food I was ingesting. So I discontinued using them, and the truth is I felt no different either way. Some people swear by them.

Anyway, so the hardest part for me was the 60mins of exercise every day. I was 162 kilos remember, so running, which is the best weight loss exercise you can actually do, was a very cumbersome task. But I had to do it! Remembering that I had had my mental breakthrough already, I was mentally determined to overcome this challenge. So at 6am every morning, when that alarm went off, I got up and I ran.

At first, I don’t know how far it was, it may have only been about 800 metres that I managed to run without stopping  Today I can run at least 30K without stopping. I didn’t get here overnight, I did it with hard graft and consistency. I set myself targets and goals. And I think this is an important part of it. You can’t just say, “I’m gonna work out and lose weight.” That’s too generic, without direction, even if the general direction is a positive one, you’re gonna get lost.

Remember in primary school when your teacher would make you write out goals at the beginning of every school year? It used to annoy me all the time. But they would say that without setting goals you’d achieve nothing. Well guess what? Your teacher was right. I had to set myself specific distance goals, time goals, and endurance goals. And I wrote them out on calendars at work and at home, saying I expect myself to be able to do this by this date! So that I would be reminded of them constantly. I celebrated every single milestone by adding a block to my self-esteem wall, literally, I created a self-esteem wall where I would draw another brick on top of it to symbolize the growing strength I saw emerge in my character and self-worth. And another important aspect of it, I cancelled my social life for the entire period.

I didn’t go out, I didn’t drink alcohol, for 4 straight months. This is really important and I’ll explain why later. I saw nobody but the doctor who was tracking my progress, making sure that I wasn’t losing weight in an unsafe manner and occasionally a friend or two who accompanied me to the gym.

It wasn’t just running that I took up, I also took it on myself to take up self-directed pilates sessions. I downloaded some exercise videos and worked on my core. This would go on for 3 sessions a week, and then I would also do weights at the gym for 3 sessions a week.

My diet consisted of a nutritious breakfast that was pared down to around 300-350 calories a sitting, I would eat lunch at school, which is a real benefit of teaching in public school. In Korea school lunches are designed by health professionals and everyone eats at school. No one eats their own homemade lunches, they are prepared with maximum nutritional value in mind. Now some people will say the school lunches have too much rice, well, it’s simple. Don’t eat that much rice.

I just told the ladies in the cafeteria to limit my rice serving to half the normal amount, they were happy to oblige. One thing that gets me is when people make excuses like that. You just got to make it work! That’s the vital thing. If you’re determined to make progress you will find a way through any obstacle. C’mon, if you think there’s too much, don’t eat it. Simple. Why does everything have to be like pulling teeth with some people? The fact of the matter is, when you’re ready to make the change you won’t have any need for excuses. If you make excuses for yourself, then you really aren’t mentally prepared for what this process entails.

This process is not easy, I was cranky sometimes, hungry at other points, and worst of all, I had to force myself to run in the snow! Before I moved to Korea I had never ever seen snow fall from the sky before. Suddenly, I had to learn to suck it up and run when it was below zero. Like I said, if you’re mentally prepared, you will do whatever it takes to value yourself more. I ran one day when the temperature was -10.

And as I mentioned earlier, this is where I really changed, it was not just in my physical activity and what I was stuffing my mouth with, it was my attitude and perspective on health and wellbeing where I made the most gains. Now I don’t think about exercise as something that is a chore that needs to be done so I can make sure I don’t gain weight. That’s of course a huge bonus. I see exercise and activity as an extension of my own personal self-value and an investment into my future. If you can understand this fundamental fact, you are 80% more likely to succeed. Well not sure how accurate that number is, I just made it up. But you catch my drift.

Just before I left New Zealand, at the ripe old age of 23, I developed gout. Can you imagine that? The doctor’s said that I’d always have to live with it, once you’ve developed it, there’s no turning back. Well guess what? Since I’ve made the investment into my own physical wellbeing, I’ve been able to not only free myself from taking daily medicines, at the last full comprehensive health examination I had, the doctor found that my levels of uric acid were normal. They’ve been normal for years now  He didn’t even believe that I used to suffer from gout attacks regularly. I’m as healthy as they come according to the doctor. Rarely, he said, does a patient walk in to his office for a physical examination and have every single result come back as in the healthy range.

So to summarize, here’s my tips for you to get yourself into a better state of health and wellbeing in the longterm, based off of my own personal experiences.

1. Get your mental house in order. – You need to overcome any issues of personal self-deprication and/or notions about losing weight being the key to your future happiness about your body. Learn to love yourself first, and you will naturally be able to find the motivation to stick to a self-imposed regime, This is an important personal step that you need to undertake on your own.

2. It’s not about weightloss really – If you treat this as the end goal of whatever program you have started for yourself, you’re very likely to fail. You must remodel your mindset so that you understand that taking care of your body and health is really about valuing yourself and putting you in the best possible position to feel energized and vitalized to go after other goals and aspects of your life. Think of your body not as a temple like some people say, think of it as a lamborghini. You’ve got to fine tune it, fuel it correctly, change the oil, rotate the tyres so that it is constantly running at its optimum. If you don’t take care of a lamborghini it will deteriorate irrespective of how great it was first manufactured and built. If you think of health and wellbeing in this way, I guarantee that you will make incredible progress. It’s all about valuing yourself.

3. Not everyone wants you to succeed – People who say they’re on your team actually more often than not are not on your team. Especially friends and people that you spend most of your time with. Why do I say this? Well the people around you love you for the person that you are today, which is great. But often this means that they become enablers, they don’t do it out of jealousy or hate. They do it because they enjoy what you bring to the table today. So, if you want to succeed you have to understand that this is an individual journey more than anything else. Signing up for group fitness challenges are great, but at the end of the day, the only one who can push play is you. Which is why I decided to avoid people for a long period of time while I was in this process. My friends love to drink, love to socialize, love to go out to restaurants and eat all this wonderful food. I USED to love doing all those things in excess, so when I decided that I wanted to take better care of myself, people started to wonder why I was avoiding them. It wasn’t personal, it was a matter of life or death for me. Get better, or develop long term lifestyle diseases. I chose life in the end. Not everyone will get it, that’s ok. It’s your life, not theirs and people who truly love you, will also love the new you. People like comfort, and to your friends and family, who you were was comfortable for them. If you challenge that notion, don’t expect everyone to be willing to go with it.

4. Do what feels right to you. – Truth be told, all our bodies are different, they process food in different ways, they react to stress and exercise in different ways, although it’s important to take advice from other people who have done it, you need to listen to your own voice. There’s a completely different perspective I have to weightloss and wellbeing from that of a health professional who has been thin their entire lives. My road to better health was something that was immensely difficult and personal. But the benefit of looking at it as an individual journey is that I know what makes me feel good, what makes me feel lethargic, and which foods I can eat and feel satisfied, and I know what amounts are right for me. The most important thing is to trust your instincts when it comes to your body. monitor as regularly as possible your progress and keep track of it. If you eat too many carrots does it make you gain weight? Well it does for me, but doesn’t for others. The point is, one size doesn’t fit all. The only thing that does make sense is the weightloss formula I revealed to you earlier.

5. Find things you love to do, – When it comes to exercise, you need to find activities that you enjoy. I enjoy running a lot now. I didn’t really at first, but when I was a kid I remember I did make the cross country team at one point, which means that I wasn’t exactly someone who loathed it. Remember that playing a sport that you enjoy is often an excellent way to try and get you more motivated to exercise. However, a word of caution. Playing sport is a great way to get the blood pumping and get the energy levels up, yes. But unless it’s a sport like Soccer or Netball, and you’re playing it roughly 3-4 times a week, you won’t necessarily get the gains you want to see in your body. To make real physical gains, you need to work out regularly. Rugby players are not built the way they are because of playing Rugby, they’re built that way because of the training they do, so they can play Rugby once a week. With a sport like Rugby, the game itself is so jarring on the body, you can’t play it more than once a week or risk real long term damage. That’s not enough to make real gains. So if you hate running, or cycling, or regular sessions at the gym, I suggest that you either learn to love it, like I did or take up a sport that can be played multiple times a week, without putting too much strain on your body.

6. Be Consistent. – This is probably the most important of all. You have to keep going. There will be days that you feel like giving up, sometimes I skip morning sessions because I’m not feeling quite right. But I always try and find a way in which I can make up for that missed session somewhere in my schedule. If I over eat, I add the necessary KMs to my run to cover the extra calories. It’s as simple as that. If your mind has been rewired like I suggested in tip number one, you won’t have any problems with this idea. You’ll also be able to take those rainy days better too. The scale will go up not down sometimes, and there are multiple reasons why this could occur. Take it in your stride, but never think of it as a failure. Most people just give up. But again, if you have changed your mindset about exercise and fitness, you’ll know that that number is not important.

7. Take responsibility. – A recurrent theme throughout all of these tips, so not really a tip on its own, but important nonetheless is to realize that it’s nobody’s duty but yours to take care of your body. Don’t have a lot of money? Fruits and vegetables are just as cheap as a fast food meal. Don’t blame poverty for your inability to eat well. You feel tired today because you had a tough day at work? Don’t blame the students for wearing you out. Get out and exercise like you planned. Own every choice you make, and you’ll find that all aspects of your life including your opinion of yourself will improve in ways you can’t imagine.

8. Ask for help. – When you don’t know what to do about a situation, ask people who do. I had no idea how to use weights properly, Kinda still don’t, but I ask people who do. Don’t be ashamed to just randomly talk to someone in the gym. It’s not like they’re perfect either, otherwise they wouldn’t need to be next to you! Try and use apps that can help you track your body performance, move with the times people. See a doctor, this is most important. Doctors are experts for a reason and they will tell you if you’re doing damage to your body in any way. And ask your friends who are athletic already about their routines. Steal some of their mantras, there’s a friend in particular, who I’m sure is going to read this, whose mantras and philosophies I steal all the time. I always look to what she’s eating as perhaps a possible way to enhance my own diet. Make sure you don’t go asking a friend who is in love with fast food for advice though. Because chances are, that advice won’t be particularly useful. And lean on people when you have to. If you feel weak, and you know you’re going to crack, call on that one person, that you know will always have your back. If you don’t know anyone you can confide in about this process then pray, meditate or journal. Don’t keep feelings bottled up inside, it’s what got you into this mess in the first place. However, most people who have a mental breakthrough like I did, often find that that person who they can always count on becomes themselves because they learn to trust themselves and their own ability.

And by the way, one more thing I did, I didn’t tell anyone that I was doing it. Only my closest friends. I didn’t post pictures of my workouts, I didn’t talk about the exercises I was doing, and that was not because I think there’s anything wrong with doing it, sharing your photos on social media can help to motivate others. I kept quiet, because it was an intensely personal situation for me. It was something I knew I needed to do alone. To prove to myself that I was capable.

So this post became far longer than I wanted it to be, but I rarely talk about this with people and its because I get tired of the same people asking me for advice and then refusing to take it, saying that my way was too hard. Well, the thing is, this is my way. I am proud of what I have achieved and I am willing to share my story with people who I think will actually take my advice on board. But, like tip 7 says, it’s about taking responsibility. Every individual needs to take responsibility for their situation and not look to blame external factors, when at the end of the day, it’s all an internal process.

Today, I look at the clothes I used to wear, pictures of myself when I was at that weight and as cliche as it sounds, I look like a completely different person. That isn’t what gives me the greatest satisfaction though. What gives me the greatest satisfaction really is how I feel, my body is so healthy, I can move toward activities in full confidence that my goals and aspirations our now within my own grasp. This was a side-effect of the weight loss. As it has rewired my mind into realizing that I am capable. And I no longer feel trapped by other people’s expectations of me.

Every morning when I wake up and I enter the gym at 6.30am, usually I’m the first person there. I smile and realise that what I’m doing is not merely a workout, but a total investment in my self-worth, my future capacity, and a reflection of my love for this body and what it is capable of. Exercising and eating well is also a sign of my immense gratitude for my body, acknowledging the fact that my legs have carried me to incredibly beautiful places, my arms have allowed me to shape and mold situations into one’s of joy and happiness. It has gifted me a mind that is capable of overcoming obstacles, and before I start running, I genuinely humble myself and at the same time remind my person of the fact that I can achieve anything I desire by setting my mind to it, and combining that mental toughness with a lot of elbow grease, in both the literal and metaphorical sense.

That to me, is what real living is about.

Four Literary Questions

Janet Fitch's Blog

This question was posed for me by a reader on my Goodreads page. For me, the best questions are the ones that make me think more deeply about the issues involved. This was a good one:
 “What makes a great story/book? There are so many writers out there, but only a few get any acclaim, and some of the best posthumously. It is a herd mentality that snowballs into popularity?”
The questioner is actually asking four separate questions here.
1. What makes a great story?
2. What makes a great book?
3. Why do only a few books get acclaim?
4. Is it a herd mentality that snowballs a book into popularity.
I answered them in order–but Number 2 is the one that interests me most.
1. A great story is one which satisfies the question it raises in the beginning. It can be a…

View original post 646 more words

A Requiem for a Friend – Memoirs of the Land of the Morning Calm – Special Post

When someone you love dearly, passes away, they say that a part of you goes with them. That you can never truly get over their loss, you merely become adept at dealing with it.

Death is a part of life, another unavoidable aspect of it that we must learn to come to terms with. The fact of the matter is, as sure as the sun rises each day on our lives, one day, the sun will set on all our time here and so it is that fact alone which should drive us to try to live our lives in a way which best celebrates the gift and potential found in every new day, a gift which we receive with each renewed morn.

The Lion King was always one of my favourite movies.

Last Thursday, my friends and I received the shocking news that one of our dear friends, a fellow former expat had had the sun set rather unexpectedly and prematurely on her life. She meant a lot of different things to many different people. Although she was particularly close to other people who I am closely tied with here, people, who I know are really struggling to get over her loss right now, she also left an incredible impression on me.

And I consider myself lucky to be able to count her among many of my friends. I felt her loss keenly not only because of the past interactions I had with her, which were a complete and utter blast, but also because of what her loss represents for all expat lifers.

To me personally, she was a reminder of how life should be lived, to its absolute limits. She was one of those people who quite literally did not care what others thought of her nor what she did with her time and I always described her character as completely fearless. A characteristic that I’ve always felt missing in my own persona. I admired her for this a lot.

I recall the gumption she showed in walking right up to Mariah Carey at a meet and greet that she had managed to weasel her way into by publicly feeling up the security guard, which led to her getting in without a ticket, and she loudly declared to Mariah that she was from LA and Mariah literally stopped and had a full on conversation with her. My friend had spent the whole session inside the MTV studio screaming for Mariah’s attention so I would be able to meet her. Because she could see that I was frozen in awe at the whole situation, unable to even speak.

She on the other hand, was determined that I would be able to meet my lifetime hero. In the end, she dragged me over to Mariah, and I managed to have a small chat with her where I asked her when she would ever visit New Zealand. Of which Mariah said “soon, I promise I’m gonna try,” a promise she made good on late in 2014.

When we left the meet and greet, I remarked to my friend that I really wanted a poster of Mariah’s new album, of which seemed to cover all the walls in the MTV studio. To which my friend replied with a deft swipe of her hand that netted a poster off the wall into her purse in one swoop. Not a single part of the poster was damaged in the daring action. She triumphantly handed it over to me in the taxi as we left that evening.

She was fearless I tell you, and her passing has renewed my determination to live my life with less fear and more as a reflection of my hopes and dreams for what I want in this lifetime.

The death of a friend or family member is always a difficult proposition for anyone to deal with. The closer someone is to another human being, the more difficult it can be to detach from them if they’re taken away from you suddenly. This is especially true for family members in particular. So when the passing of a sister, brother, cousin, mother, father, etc. occurs we always defer to the family as the people most affected by the tragedy. It’s a common convention in every culture.

But after living as an expat for many years, this arbitrary line, the one that we draw between friends and family becomes inextricably weakened, so much so, that there ends up being little differentiation between the two.

You know it’s true that this could be said about any deep friendships that form between two or more people, even at home, not just living abroad. However, there’s something entirely different about being an expat ‘lifer’ where it is far more common to see this narrow separation between friends and family disappear over a much more unexpected and abbreviated time frame.

I think it’s important that we recognize why and how people become expat lifers. Not just intrepid travellers, as I truly believe that there is a difference between the two. People go abroad for a variety of differing reasons and motivations. Others may wish to disagree, but I tend to group their reasons into three loose categories.

First, there are those that are seeking a better life for themselves and their families, I would classify them as economic migrants or those in search of better job prospects because of the waning economic opportunities in their own countries

The second reason would be a desire to seek out new experiences or adventure. Many believe that the world has a lot more to offer than the narrow and limited form of existence that their local societies provide them with. They want to sample the delectable array of experiences that the world has to offer.

The first two alone doesn’t usually lead you on a path that makes you a ‘lifer’, because they are characteristics that don’t necessarily push you to detach from your home in the long term. Most people, who fall into the two aforementioned categories, have their eye on a return home in the not too distant future. They normally have a pre-defined timetable as to when this will occur.

What usually makes someone a ‘lifer’ is a third factor or reason added to the two previous ones. Almost every expat I know who has become a ‘lifer’ ie decided to stay away for an extremely extended period of time, does so because they don’t feel like home is really home anymore.

Often, not always, there was some sort of a climactic event, or turning point that shifts their world upside down, so they leave, or for someone like me, they just don’t feel like they belong there, people just don’t get them. So they go abroad and stay abroad trying to find that place or gain the ability to exercise enough of those issues in the hopes that they maybe able to return home. Often when they do return, they find that place still doesn’t understand them. Lifers will tend to return to their place of origin and after a period of frustrated failed re-integration, then find a way to leave again, they often find that staying in one place really doesn’t suit them.

When you go abroad without a sense of home having to be fixed in one location, you often end up finding a home unexpectedly, but not within the space found between the confines of four walls, you find it within the comfort of shared experiences with people from all around the world who are walking the same road as you are.

Yes, love is often what unites people together, but I believe that it is suffering or perceived suffering that bonds people together in unshakeable loyalty.

You have to understand that if you leave your country in hopes of finding something that you find lacking in your own home, in some ways you are a little broken inside. And when you come to a country like Korea, where more often than not, you don’t speak the language, know nothing about the culture and find it extremely hard to assimilate to a country that often shuns outsiders, feelings of isolation are amplified and enhanced. So when you meet someone else who is in the same predicament, other differences such as cultural background, personality flaws, typically friendship breakers everywhere else, become incidental, allowing you to bond in common suffering, that eventually leads to the types of connections and love that are usually reserved for family members.

I know of so many lifers in Korea that have had this experience. I myself have created a network of expat friends/family that are now spread all over the world, people I have a connection with that is as close to family as one can get, without sharing the genetic material to biologically prove it.

These are the people that are there with you when you unwillingly have your expat heart broken by that irresistible local who doesn’t play by the same rules of engagement that we do.

These are the people that are there with you, standing at the counter of the police station while you try desperately in vain to explain how a local harassed you on the street first, leading to an altercation in which you had to defend yourself, meanwhile the perpetrator having the advantage of being able to use the local language and custom, make use of this ability to get away with this injustice.

They are the people that you call on when the local tax office or immigration office changes its regulations again, and you unknowingly have been fined an exorbitant amount that will force you to miss your next rent payment. They lend you the money till your next payday and after the whole sordid ordeal is done, they’ll be there waiting for you with a bottle of wine and pizza ready to listen to you curse endlessly over the long and unnecessary process till the wee hours of the next morning.

And in my personal experience, they are the people that take you to the hospital, bring you food and water, play nurse because in Korea nurses only provide medicine, not bedside care. They try to communicate and wrangle with the administrative staff over your medical bill when they too have limited language ability, they call your family regularly when you’re being operated on to allay their fears, and spend nights by your bedside providing comfort for you as you try to come to terms with the coldness and cramped nature of a Korean hospital which churns through patients like cattle, where you literally are treated like nothing more than a number.

And of course, these are the people that you also share the good times with. They are the ones that take long weekend trips to islands with you that even you didn’t know existed, having pork belly barbecues by the foreshore on an icy island in the middle of a frigid Korean winter, sleeping in tents with a million others on the same beach, attending various festivals that celebrate obscure things like watermelons, mud, ice fishing, tug-of-war ropes. Travelling to exotic locations that you could never have imagined would be possible looking out the window from your pigeonholed home existence.

You spend Christmases and Easters with them, birthdays, NYE parties, celebrate milestones like anniversaries and graduations, and for my North American friends, you spend Thanksgivings with them, openly exchange feelings of gratitude for having them in your life, making it just that little bit easier to be without those whom you love the most that are thousands of miles away from you. Over time, they don’t come to replace these people, they eventually become added to the list of those who mean the most to you in this world.

Growth is found in all of life’s experiences yes, and we all go through them irrespective of our location. But when you’re an expat, you go through these life changing experiences with other expats, they function literally where your family is meant to. As a result, they become your family in a much shorter expanse of time than even you had ever expected.

These people are there when your world inexorably expands past its pre-defined limits, an experience that you can’t describe to others in your life who through not fault of their own, just don’t have the reference point to able to comprehend the magnitude these events have on the shape of the world and future you see for yourself. And through these experiences, you form a bond that even time and distance will never be able to erode.

So on Saturday evening, I made my way after a 12-hour shift at my teaching job to one of my expat friends home’s here in Seoul where we held our own kind of requiem for our friend who had become family to so many that are now spread out around the world.

And in true style, our requiem celebrated her life the way that she loved to live it, with plenty of laughs, a lot of wine and spirits as well as a Whitney Houston marathon that degenerated into a makeshift international karaoke session that probably made the neighbours in three different countries reach out for their ear plugs. It was a beautiful experience as it was shared with other members of her expat family that were across oceans in New Zealand and Japan via Skype. It would have been even more international had the link we tried to set up to Madagascar been able to establish a more solid connection.

There are a lot of cliche memes that we see pop up on our newsfeeds that talk about how family isn’t always about blood etc. etc. And we all have those people in our lives who we consider to be more like family than some of our own flesh and blood. These people are who we unmistakably call family.

For expats, this situation is something that occurs far more frequently and more unexpectedly than others for the very nature of the situation we are in.

Brought together by circumstance and bonded through adversity, united in love for one another is an inevitable occurrence that comes with living this lifestyle.

This post is dedicated to Ana Estrada, a force of nature that was taken far too soon from all those who loved her. May she rest in peace. But we suspect that she probably isn’t resting too peacefully as she’s more likely to be partying up there with Whitney and Michael. You touched so many people around the world, Ana, your memory lives on in all those who were lucky enough to know you. 

Trying to Fit In – Part 2 Memoirs of the Land of the Morning Calm

To say that I look a little different 7 years on from when I first arrived in Korea would be the understatement of the century. I know it is difficult for a lot of people to believe who didn’t know me from back home or have only met me over the past few years, but when I first arrived in Korea I weighed a cool 60 kilos more than I do today. That’s right, I was in the morbidly obese range. So you have to appreciate how strikingly protuberant my person was in the midst of this ‘small’ Korean town that I had moved to.

Add to the mix the fact that I had hair that went down past my shoulders, which I had had braided into cornrows before I left New Zealand, and which sat atop of my beautifully tanned complexion, it was plainly obvious that every time I stepped out in public in Geoje-do, I was going to draw attention. What kind of attention? Well, unsurprisingly, it was more often than not, the negative kind, I have always had people stare at me. Foreigners here in Korea will tell you that it’s strange to be stared at by the locals, but It’s nothing new to me.

One thing that I do not like, is that although I hate it, I accept Koreans staring because they just don’t get to see many foreigners. Well, in 2008 that was the case anyway, what I don’t like is when Foreigners stare at me as if I’m a freak. I always think to myself, surely there has got to be brown people where you come from? Anyway, the point is I’m used to people staring at me and it’s not because I’m model material or anything.

Ever since I was a little kid. people stared at me because of my eyes. I remember walking through Manukau Mall as a teenager and a bunch of older kids stopped me while walking past where truetone records used to be (these experiences can haunt a kid) and they all stood in front of me literally, as they put it” ‘buzzing out’ at the fact that I had red eyes.

I also remember this one time when I was at Georgie Pie, it was in Otahuhu, before it was turned into McDonalds. It was after school, and I was Form 2 at the time. I was attending De La Salle College. I was on crutches as I had just had an emergency hip operation to save me from a future permanent limp that doctors had unexpectedly unearthed via an x-ray. It was so urgent that I was x-rayed in the morning and went in for surgery that evening. It would take me 6 months of rest before I could walk without the aid of crutches again. To this day, I still have those metal pins in my legs that the doctors inserted.

My Mum had sent me to Georgie Pie to get something to eat while she and my Uncle worked in their little sewing shop up the road. As I collected my pie, I went to sit down at an empty table, and there were a group of Samoan kids sitting at the table next to me. They proceeded loudly in Samoan to critique every aspect of me, and they started with the fact that I had eyes that looked like I was a drug addict, said that I was probably on crutches because I was beaten by my drug dealer, probably too fat to walk unaided and I had on the uniform of that “gay” school De La Salle (they were wearing Otahuhu College uniforms).

They didn’t think I was Samoan, otherwise I would have understood what they were saying and they would have been able to tell by the look or reaction on my face. Unbeknownst to them, my mother had taught me well in the arts of deception. or what we Samoans call “le kea” (not to care, ie. ignore the haters), well I had the outward appearance part down, but the inside part I’m still working on.

I did keep a cool demeanour, also well aware that starting a fight with a bunch of 5 oversized senior Samoan kids who looked like they had to repeat 7th form 3 times was probably not a good idea when you’re on crutches and barely out of primary school.

Halfway through their stinging and horrifically inaccurate critical analysis of me, I quietly made my way out the side door, taking my pie with me and throwing it in the bin on the way out. For once in my life, I had actually lost my appetite. They laughed heartily as the door closed off behind me. I remember thinking to myself, talk all you like, I don’t know you from a bar of soap, and I’m pretty sure one of these days I’ll be moving on and out of this neighbourhood onto bigger and brighter things, meanwhile this group will probably end up never leaving our collectively shared ghetto. Chances are, I was right.

The experience though and a whole host of others had a long lasting effect on me. For this reason, I have never been comfortable walking around in public, even at home. Weird huh? Imagine having to teach yourself that you are allowed to walk in public without having people stare at you. I kid you not, I had to learn that.

In fact, one time when I went back to New Zealand for a visit, I also decided to visit family in Samoa. When I get on the plane in Auckland, it was strange for me for after so long not seeing more than one or two Samoan faces at a time, to see so many Samoans sitting and staring straight at me.I’m sure my fellow Samoans out there can attest to be familiar with experiencing that glaring, almost daring to challenge look Samoans give other Samoans when they are silently judging them..

I know that it’s what we do, but before I took my seat, I was so tired of being stared at by my own people, after being stared at for the past I can’t remember how many years by Koreans and other foreigners, that I yelled in frustration across the fuselage in Samoan:

“What the hell are you guys staring at? Haven’t seen a good looking person in a while have you?”

Everyone’s heads rapidly lowered below the seat line.

Truth is, having visible defects to my body and not being able to fit in, even in New Zealand meant that I thought that I would be relatively prepared for what was bound to be a regular occurrence in Geoje-do: Koreans staring at me. I thought, meh, nothing new. Everyone already stares at me anyway.

But I can honestly say that I was not prepared at all for what would ensue when I first arrived in Korea. For starters, where I was, I was the only foreigner on that side of town. So it already guaranteed that I would stick out like a sore thumb. But what it was that got me was how little shame Koreans had in coming right up to you and staring at you, like really stare at you, like in your personal space, almost kiss you stare at you.

One time as I was walking through the supermarket I had an ajossi (older gentlemen) literally come up to my face and point his finger so close to my nose that I swear he could have picked it if he wanted. He rambled off in Korean about something that definitely revolved around the size of my nose, laughed hysterically and dragged his friends over to come and stare at me too.

When I moved towns, one time I was sitting outside the bus terminal waiting for my bus to Seoul when an old man came up to me and literally pinched my nose! Commenting on how big my nostrils were. He was clearly in his late 60s or70s, there was no way I would be able to win an argument over this situation if I tried to cry out at the seeming injustice of it all. So I let him walk off in the other direction as I tried desperately to locate my dignity that had just been trampled so carelessly on by this man probably from the Korean war generation.

And then there was the other ajossi who on the street in the middle of the night, stopped me as I was walking home from work to declare loudly and inform me that I was the fattest person ever, and I was black!

“Wow! you fattest person, and you black”, Were his exact words. Of which the second part was untrue. But to certain Koreans, anyone not white is what is called a “Hookin” or dark person.

I tried to step around him and continue on my way, as a person of colour, I know how easily these situations can degenerate into me being led away in handcuffs.

Being a person of colour, with a Samoan temper, trying to escape an overbearing Korean, in a highly prejudiced Asian society made that likelihood even more probable.

I thought that perhaps me walking away would clearly signal my intention that I wasn’t interested in being his entertainment. Instead, he took it as an invitation to be my friend, he obviously thought that he had been charming enough and proceeded to accompany me unwantedly on my walk home trying to elicit a conversation.

“Hey you American? Hey Bro, wassup Man?” I kept walking. And when he got no response from me after about tracking me for 200 metres or so he declared even louder “Fuck you!”

And that was the end of that. Crazy, it appears, appears everywhere, even on the streets of Korea.

Now this was the response I got to my presence from people on the street. There was an even more interesting response that I received from my boss and work colleagues.

Now I’m not going to lie nor shy behind the fact that although I never trained specifically to be one, I am a quality teacher, I always have been. I even won an award for it later on when I moved provinces. Teaching for me comes naturally because let’s face it, I was a difficult student, so I only responded to quality teachers who became my model for effective classroom management and excellent knowledge transmission methods.

But I would also be lying to you if I said that I believed that my value and ability have always been recognized here. Particularly in the first school that I taught at. That’s because I believe that as with most teachers who are not white, I was judged a lot on my appearance by my employer as well as some of the students I taught and the parents who were, unfortunately, prejudiced. I don’t want to make a sweeping generalization, and  detract from the the fact that almost just as many, if not more students and parents were not prejudiced and actually provided me with some incredibly supportive moments in my time in Korea.

For instance, I remember I had a class of first graders that I always taught on Monday and Wednesday at 2pm. They were the brightest kids in their grade and I adored them. They also enjoyed having me as their teacher. There was one kid, I still remember his name, Sam, he was the sweetest little boy, and he loved our class and playing all the games that I had organized. Always did his homework and was eager to learn and please the teacher. He was the weakest of all the students so he tried extra hard to catch up to the level of the other students.

One day we had a new student join the class who was not used to having a foreigner let alone a big foreigner like me in the classroom.. And this boy proceeded to try and make fun of me because of my size. Sam who had become rather attached to me, turned around and scolded the new boy, “Patrick teacher is not fat.” he protested loudly. “Don’t say things like that about the teacher” and the boy replied, “He is FAT” Sam screamed at him even louder, “No he’s not, he’s not fat, he’s the best teacher!!!” And the rest of the class joined in, telling the new boy to zip it.

Effectively I had been defended by a group of 1st graders, 6-year-old Korean kids had come to my defence, a 23-year-old grown man finally felt protection and care by a group of children who were scarcely out of nappies. It warmed my heart a lot. Because I had felt completely unsupported by my boss and the school management.

The fact that I was fat was one strike, the fact that I was brown and not white was the second strike, and it was made none too clear to me that my appearance was what made my boss hesitant in allowing me to teach certain classes, where parents believed that my apparent physical deficiencies impacted in their view, my ability to teach higher level students. And then I was told that some students were leaving the Hagwon (Academy) because of me. (This was a complete lie in the end)

My boss did not like me much. And these “revelations” of students leaving due to my ‘lack of ability’ were not helping my cause. I remember one incident when exhausted by the relentless number of classes I was meant to teach on my schedule, I put my head down on the desk during my break and put some music on to listen to and try to relax a little. I was feeling rather burnt out. All of a sudden I was startled by the fact that my boss came from behind me and literally punched me in the back — talk about knowing when you’re not wanted.

I turned around to see who it was, and it couldn’t believe that it was actually him, a boss actually hitting an employee, a foreign one at that too. He then proceeded to scold me for being lazy. We used to teach from 2pm-8pm with 5-minute breaks between each class, so it made a total of 6 hour teaching blocks each day, for a total of 30 teaching hours a week. Sure, I was lazy.

To make things worse, I was in complete shock, I didn’t know what to do, it was not something I had expected to ever happen. Before I could respond he left the room. I thought about going after him and punching him square in the face, or making a big scene, and screaming him down.

A couple of things stopped me. The first was I knew that it would guarantee my dismissal and deportation if not jail time. The second was that it would guarantee he wouldn’t have to honour my contract and pay me out. Luckily for some reason I thought calmly and collected in this situation and reacted in a restrained manner, otherwise my Korean journey would have ended right there and then.

Another incident that nearly ended my tenure in Korea, and my life too, occurred one Sunday February morning in 2009. I was nearing the end of my contract and I was eager to get out. One of my best friends had ended up replacing my friend who I was working with at my school in October so when she arrived we ended up getting up to some pretty crazy shenanigans. One night out we went to our favourite bar in Geoje called J’s Bar. The crew there were awesome, they named drinks after us, and we would be able to drink for as long as wanted, often keeping the bar open for us long after closing time.

After a particularly raucous night that ended with me back in my apartment completely wasted and trying to figure out who I was, as per usual. I decided that I wanted to have some deep fried pork cutlet or Donkas. So I popped some into the pot of oil that I had on my stove, and I went back into my room to watch t.v. Still being half-cut, I fell asleep and luckily for me, there was an electric wave that shocked me awake, and I saw the fixture in my room explode in a flash of light which alerted me to the fact that something wasn’t right.

I opened the door to my room which led to the kitchen and I saw it, the entire stove top, the overhanging cupboards, the exhaust hood, and much of the kitchen itself was on fire! The plastic everywhere was melting. My boss lived upstairs and I knew that I was in big trouble then, if I didn’t get the fire under control I would be bringing down the entire building. I didn’t have a fire extinguisher but next door, my neighbours who were also my bosses’ brother and sister-in-law did. Luckily his brother-in-law was home as I went banging onto his door for help, he came through and helped get the fire under control.

We managed to catch it before it got so out of control that it would have burned down the whole building. If I hadn’t woken up I would have died, as there was no way out of the apartment beside through the kitchen, and this thoroughfare would have been completely blocked if the fire were allowed to continue on for a minute or so longer. I was too far up to jump safely to the ground too, besides there was a whole host of spiky and jagged rocks at the bottom awaiting me if that were to be my route of escape.

I remember standing outside in the cold in only my thermal underwear and a t-shirt, watching the fire service go into my apartment and inspect it for structural damage and thinking how incredibly lucky I was to survive this near miss.

Accordingly, I had to pay for the repairs to the apartment considering I caused the fire and stayed with my friend until it was done.

It was after this incident I tendered my resignation and looked for a new job. My boss was happy that we could end on amicable terms. I left my contract a couple of months early and I didn’t really have enough money to go home at this point, so I had to stay in Korea for another year.

I went to live in a town called Dangjin, working for their education office, which was in Chungcheongnam-do province, only an hour and a bit bus ride from Seoul.

And this is when everything changed for me. My luck turned greener, and the tumultuous start I had gotten off to in Korea, came to an end.

It would be the end of a rollercoaster/nightmare and my life would start to change in ways I had never expected, pushing me toward my future and giving me a new appreciation to a side of Korea that I didn’t realize existed.

The First Vision – Memoirs of the Land of the Morning Calm

I remember distinctly what he told me, that last conversation before I boarded that plane, the one I had with my new boss. It still remains etched in my mind. He said that I would be teaching in one of the most beautiful parts of Korea, an island I was enthusiastically informed of. That conversation left my mind filled with all sorts of possibilities. Being someone who has an overactive imagination, being so tantalizingly vague was an unfair thing to do to me. If you don’t give me specifics, my mind wants to fill in all the blanks as much as possible. Obviously as I was craving a new beginning after leaving my life in New Zealand which had fallen into disarray, my mind was desperate to cling to all the wonderful possibilities the term ‘island’ promised me.

This was highly problematic, because  the term island carried an already well-formulated vision in my head. An island is closely associated with insanely beautiful beaches, mild, bordering on tropical weather, majestic sea breezes laden with refreshingly salty winds that carried on into lazy evenings where one would drink a special beverage overlooking the ocean, counting the many sails that dotted the watery horizon.

I blame the lottery of birth for making me this way. Being brought up in New Zealand, a sub-tropical group of islands, and regularly holidaying in my ancestral homeland of Samoa, two of the world’s most stunning island groups, my standards were already impossibly difficult to match. To this day, no island I’ve visited has been able to surpass the majesty of my homelands. And I don’t say that in any form of arrogance. If you’re from where I’m from, you know what I mean. If you’re not, then you better get out there and visit those islands before they become forever altered by the forces of climate change and human negligence.

So it was with great anticipation that I was seeking to land and live on an island in a foreign country that promised so much in terms of a new cultural experience for me. But what kind of cultural experience was I going to have? As I mentioned earlier, I had no clue where I was moving to. The only thing I knew about Korea before I left for Seoul was that it had hosted the Olympics in 1988. It was New Zealand’s most successful Olympics until the London 2012 games in terms of medals collected, so I knew that it was a somewhat important country if it were granted the rights to host one of the world’s greatest showpieces.

Short of that, I knew nothing about the place, I knew no one except my friends who had jumped into contracts a few months before me, and I was fortunate that I would be starting my contract at a school where my friend was already teaching. I was to be posted on the island of Geoje, in the Gyeonsangnam-do Province, deep south, as south as you could go in South Korea before hitting the ocean.

In fact, Geoje-do itself is an island that is connected to mainland Korea via a bridge, where it joins up with mainland Korea at the town of Tongyeong. Geoje is so far south that it’s actually faster to reach Fukuoka in Japan by boat than it is to take the bus to Seoul, the capital city of the Republic of Korea.

As my Singapore Airlines flight began to near Incheon airport, after what felt like a lifetime of being in the air, including my 1 hour stopover in Singapore, where I failed to follow the air hostesses instructions of taking the skytrain to the next gate. Which proved a stupid error as I found myself literally walking off one plane and running on to the next.

You see in New Zealand, airport gates are very close to each other. And not having been to an airport any bigger than Auckland International Airport before (which I thought was the best airport in the world at the time), Gate A1 and B2 seemed like it would be just next door to each other. Instead, I walked for an entire hour to get to the next gate where I would board my connection to Seoul. Singapore’s airport quite literally is bigger than most of the towns in New Zealand. And there was my first lesson about the miniscule nature of where I actually came from.

So as my plane began its descent into Incheon International Airport, I was terrified more than anything else. My short experience of Singapore really brought home to me the fact that I really was just a small fish in this massive ocean and as excited as I was, I didn’t know what I had actually got myself into. I suddenly realized that I had not even performed a single google search about Korea once before leaving! Can’t imagine ever traveling like that again! As I looked out the window, it was a hazy day, and I couldn’t quite see much as we were approaching

As we began our approach, most of what I saw was grayness. And then all of a sudden there was Seoul, some distance away. I knew that the airport was very far from the centre of Seoul as my friends had informed me. So the scale of the city that I would later move to and call home for 4 years was not quite apparent at that point. But what was apparent by this brief look, was that it was not a place whose buildings showed much diversity.

I bore witness to row after row, for mile after mile of square looking rectangular boxes that rose from the ground in the most random of places. There would be mountains, rice paddies and then these tall buildings that would appear in clusters. There would be industrial areas, and then more random buildings that popped up into the sky in a scarily uniform pattern.

One of my British friends summed it up perfectly when he described it as an experience of mistaken identity. It seemed as if we had landed into a communist paradise, that somehow our plane had gone off course and landed in Pyongyang not Incheon. For what I was to learn later, is that those buildings that looked like carbon copies of long rectangular boxes were in fact apartment blocks. And for a country like Korea where space is at a premium and the population is at seemingly bursting point, making use of limited space is somewhat of a national talent crafted out of sheer necessity.

Before I knew it, the plane hit the runway, and the first thing that I noticed was that unlike when a plane lands in Auckland, where the pilot slams on the landing breaks to try and lessen our speed as quickly as possible so we don’t run out of runway, it seemed like the pilot had an endless supply of track to burn off our excess speed. And when the plane finally began to slow down, I realized that we were nowhere near the gate. In fact, it seemed like an eternity before the plane even began to get near the terminal. And when it did, I was shocked at the scale of the airport.

We kept passing gate after gate after gate, and there were what seemed to be a sea of airplanes all over the tarmac. I had never seen so many planes in one place at one time before in my life. Just imagine that in Samoa, where I would regularly visit, the airport is only used when a plane comes in, which normally means that there’s only really one plane at the airport at a time. That same plane would refuel, and fly back to the host destination, usually Auckland, which means that only one group of passengers arrive and leave at the same time from Faleolo International Airport. And Auckland International, although a busy airport by New Zealand standards, it’s not really by international standards. And most of the planes at Auckland International have the Koru of Air New Zealand on their tails. I’m afraid to say that that Summer’s day in 2008, I saw so many different symbols on the tail of these planes that half of them I had never seen before.

I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, entering the great hall to see the Wizard, but overwhelmed and intimidated by the awe-inspiring sight that lay before me. I thought for certain that I would be on the first available flight back to my homeland once this contract was over.

Finally, after battling through scores and scores of people and luggage I managed to clear customs, I entered the arrivals hall, and it was some experience. Incheon International Airport is the best airport in the world in my opinion. It’s massive, modern, efficient and easy to get around. But on that day when i landed it felt cold, unwelcoming, impersonal. It was the first time I had ever gone to a destination and not have anyone wait for me on the other end. I got out of the airport and I was confronted by a sea of people who were waiting for their loved ones, or tour groups, or business guests.

When I realized that there was no one waiting for me, it hit me there and then, it was time for me to finally grow up. I had been dependent on others for so long, for my family to help me if anything went wrong, for my friends to lift me up when I was down, from now until this day, the most important thing that living in Korea has taught me, is that there is no one responsible in this life for you but yourself.

Subsequently, having declared my independence, the first thing I did as a truly independent person was make a stupid choice.

I had been informed that I was booked on a connecting flight from Gimpo Airport to Jinju (Sacheon) Airport, where my new boss would be picking me up from. So in order to get to that airport, I was to take the airport bus from Incheon Airport to Gimpo Airport, which would cost me less than $5.00.

In the commotion and the hustle and bustle that was the overwhelming attack I was under by taxi drivers in the arrivals hall, I fell victim to paralyzing anxiety and fear, and was talked into taking a premium taxi instead of going out and getting the bus. So what should have been a $5.00 bus ride ended up being a $100 taxi ride. At the time, I had no sense of what the exchange rate was and how the won (korean currency) worked. So I had no idea hat I had just blown $100 on a taxi ride. All I felt was relieved that I was going to be taken to my destination simply and directly and comfortably.

It was on this ride over to Gimpo that I finally got a sense of what Korea’s landscape was like. Let’s just say that I was not particularly impressed. The weather was very pleasant, but the scenery was not.

The greyness of the skies didn’t help, neither did the size of the highways and the dead look of the greenery that seemed more brown than alive. The marshland around the airport wasn’t very inviting, and I consoled myself with the fact that I would be going to an island, and that surely it would be much better than the city that my taxi driver seemed determined to make disappear into a streak behind us as he pushed speeds of 120km per hour. At one point, I actually turned to the driver and asked him in a very diplomatic way: “What’s the speed limit here?” hoping in vain that a Korean taxi driver would pick up on my innuendo!

Upon arriving at Gimpo International airport, I found that this airport was smaller and more resembled Auckland International. It was here though when things became even more awkward, I had to wait a few hours for my connecting flight to Jinju, and so I popped out the front to quickly open my carton of holiday that I had brought with me from New Zealand and eagerly looked for comfort through one of my many vices, cigarette smoking, and when I was in the middle of my third drag, I was suddenly confronted with a soldier carrying what I thought was something that looked like a machine gun!

I was flabbergasted, I had never seen a gun before. And it’s always a rare sight in New Zealand to see military personnel in uniform in a public place like this. I froze and felt for certain that he would find any reason to point his gun at me (I watch too many movies). So when he finally walked past me in that slow deliberate, glaring, watch-like military style, I hurried back inside and went to line up for my flight.

It was here where I experienced my first Koreanism. The airport was very busy that day, as it usually is at Gimpo, which functions as both a domestic and international airport. At the time, every passenger had to pass through one gate to enter the departure lounge that led off into different departure gates. I went to the back of the line and waited for the line to move forward.

Astonishingly, after 5 minutes of standing in the line, I hadn’t even inched one centimetre forward. But I knew that people were being processed because I could see people emerging on the other end. When I looked properly at what was going on in the line, I realized that I was the only one lining up!

People were entering the queue from all directions, from the side, some people had walked around me and pushed ahead, others just walked straight up to the counter without even bothering to see who was there behind them. Naturally I was enraged, but I noticed that no one else had even batted an eyelid at what was going on. Instead everyone else was joining in on the free-for-all. A light bulb went off in my head, it was time for me to join in on the fun. I found myself pushing forward, and prior to that, I had been quite careful of my size, knowing that I am much larger than the average Korean, I didn’t want to hurt anyone. But at this point I realized that I had much smaller women in front of me deliberately putting up their elbows to force their way through.

It was time for me to drop the niceties and found that my body had responded in tune. Before I knew it, I had pushed my way forward and was at the front of the queue.

Let’s just say that pushing in line took a lot of time to get used to over here, but when I leave, I have to make sure to leave that practice behind, because in New Zealand, that’s how you end up in hospital.

Needless to say, I was relieved when our plane finally touched down in Sacheon. This little regional airport was more of what I expected. It reminded me of Hamilton airport’s old tin shed arrivals building. My boss was there to pick me up, and he was nice enough. Although from the get-go, it was obvious he wasn’t comfortable about my weight. At that point I didn’t really care, I had been traveling for what amounted to about 24 hours, and I just wanted to get to this promised island that I had been waiting to inhabit.

And when Geoje finally came into vision, it was unlike any island I had ever imagined before. Not only was it a heavily urbanized island, it stunk a familiar stench. The sea breeze was not fresh, it carried the stink of pollution. I recognized the smell from when Auckland’s now pristine waterfront thanks to the America’s cup makeover it received, used to also smell of the same stench.

But it was much worse, this island was being used as a manufacturing ground for Korea’s shipbuilding industry, one of the biggest in the world. Not only that, the island was plastered with neon lights, there was a starbucks in front of a huge shopping complex, there were cars everywhere, and as I arrived in the evening, I arrived just as the first shift of Samsung workers finished from work, and they flooded the streets in their astronaut-inspired uniform on what seemed to be an endless procession of motorbikes. The air was thick and heavy with smog, and when I was finally brought to my apartment, the tiny space that I was given as my humble abode brought home to me the fact that I had done something that I was completely unprepared for.

Luckily for me, my friend had prepared dinner for me, she brought it over, and that evening she was flying out to Shanghai as I had arrived during a long weekend, June 6th is a public holiday here in Korea.

As she went on her merry way, I ventured out to the local supermarket to see to some essentials like toothpaste and perhaps getting some supplies. I quickly found that I recognized nothing, couldn’t understand anything or anyone and I quickly retreated back to my apartment that evening.

I closed the door behind me, looked at my flower covered bed spread, dived head first into the pillows, covered my face and began the inevitable shivering.

I turned off the lights, and began repeating to myself.

What have you done?

Before long it was morning.

Modern Day Samoan. Desktop Activist. Unrelenting & Unqualified Social Commentator

%d bloggers like this: