On long distance relationships…

Whenever I heard about people being in prolonged long distance relationships I was always the first person to say that would never be me. I would always vehemently insist that I would never survive being away from the person I loved for months on end. And marvel at anyone who made it through such trials and stayed together. But I suppose life wouldn’t be life if it didn’t throw a bunch of curve balls at you that you were previously convinced you would never be able to handle.

For those of you that don’t know me (although I’m guessing if you’re reading this you do :p) I recently got married to a wonderful man who just so happens to be American. Being NOT American myself, it turns out, makes moving to America (even if it is to be with the American citizen you just MARRIED) painfully difficult. And has meant that we have now been living apart for 9 months. And when I say apart – I mean on-the-other-side-of-the-world apart.

So I want to talk about what long distance has been like for me – a person who swore she’d never be able to survive it.

Well, it’s awful. Like really, incredibly, monumentally AWFUL. I have experienced some tough situations in my life so far, situations that made me not want to get out of bed in the morning, situations that had me being prescribed anti-anxiety meds, situations that had me shutting out everyone around me. By no means have I had the worst life, but I’ve been through some struggles. And I can without a doubt say that this has been my biggest struggle to date.

Here are just some the myriad of emotions I have experienced over the last few months…

Firstly, when you go from having constant access to the person you love, sharing almost everything in your life with them, every aspect of your day at work, your space, your friends, your hobbies, your trips, your accomplishments and failures, to them suddenly being on the other side of the world (yes, my melodramatic self does love to overuse this rather geographically inaccurate term) you literally have to reconfigure how your brain (and your heart) works. The way you plan out your days and weeks and months completely changes. The times you go to bed and wake up, the meals you cook, the people you hang out with, how you fill your spare time – all has to change. Being a person who certainly thrives on taking care of others, this was no easy feat for me to begin with. And having been lucky enough to find a person who makes my every day so much better with their presence, and so perfectly fit into my heart and into my world – losing that presence devastated me.

Then there’s the whole communication thing… Yes, the wonders of technology mean that communicating in some way or another is now easier than it ever was for anyone before us. But when you factor in a significant time difference which means that almost ALL the time that I am awake and free, he is asleep or at work, and vice versa, no amount of technology can really help. Plus, (and forgive me here babe, you know I adore you and think you are the sweetest, kindest, most wonderful man ever, but also that this is true) there’s the aspect of a spouse who simply is not the greatest at communication to begin with. These things lead not only to a lot of sadness and hurt but also a lot of bitterness and arguing. Something which takes A LOT of hard work to navigate and overcome.

What really doesn’t help is that I am an EXTREMELY emotional person. I will admit that I have done an exceptional amount of crying over the last few months (even for me). I often feel extremely lonely, and in those moments when I do and I can’t reach out to my husband because of the time difference or work, the weight of our seperation can become incredibly overwhelming. There are days when I cannot muster the motivation to get out of bed or the courage to socialise with people, even my closest friends. I know now to allow myself those moments. I need to completely fall apart sometimes so I can get it out of my system (for a little while at least) and then pick myself back up and try and be normal again and keep going.

There were times that I felt irreparably disconnected from him. Something as small as him saying he’d been to see a movie a few weeks back and I hadn’t known about it, would set off feelings of complete despair at how much life we were both living without the other  there. This is something we really had to work at maintaining, the feeling of constant connection, and took a lot of tough conversations and creative thinking. But I think we’ve got it down pat now.

There were and are times when I feel overwhelming jealousy at the people in his life. I know in these moments that I am being irrational, but I can’t stop the feelings of resenting his friends for getting the time with him I should be getting. I want him to be happy and have fun and at the same time I almost hate when he does because it means he’s happy and having fun without me there. This is just something I know is completely nonsensical yet something I cannot avoid. I just have to own those feelings, acknowledge they are there to myself, but make sure I never actually project them onto my wonderful husband because I never want him not to be with his friends or feel guilty for being happy. (I’m sure there may have been times I’ve haven’t fully succeeded but I try my damnedest.)

Then there’s the role played by the third wheel in our relationship – my low self-esteem. Self-doubt and insecurities are something that have plagued me all my life, and which got massively heightened through bad relationships in my early twenties. Now, it is absolutely true that insecurities are not something someone else can fix, that you have to love yourself in order to truly feel love and believe in it. No one should rely solely on another person or other people to make them feel good about themselves. But while I think most people know this in theory, carrying it out in practice can be pretty difficult. I have worked hard on myself, for both my own sake and the sake of my marriage, to deal with my insecurities and not let them get out of hand. But again, this is certainly not easy. And having a supportive, affirming loved one bolstering your confidence and reassuring you of your worth and their desire to stick around because of it – does help keep the self-doubt demons at bay when they become a little too much to handle alone. But when the one person who does this for you is not physically around, cracks start to form in your resolve. When things get hard and that person fails to make you feel those things, the insecurities can simply become too much. And living through a reality without that person physically there, makes the fear of losing them for good much more tangible. As with most things dealing with this means being really prepared to explain how you’re feeling and why you’re feeling that way, and to make it clear to one another what you need from them to be OK.

And of course, I can’t forget to mention how (similarly to post-break up feels) you start to hate all cheery examples of love you encounter around you. I have experienced both stages – complete annoyance and utter despair. You will see couples being all cutesy, holding hands, sitting on laps, whispering in ears, sneaking kisses and it will turn you into one of those bitter old hecklers in movies bellowing “Oh, get a room already!” from croaky, smoke-addled voice boxes. And you’ll also see the love interest in a rom-com do nothing more than place his hand on the girl’s hip and you’ll tear up like a hormonal teenager at how distraught it makes you that your own personal Ryan Reynolds could be intertwining his fingers in yours right this moment if he wasn’t ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD. It’s an emotional roller coaster that I’m ahsamed to admit I experience, but one that I simply cannot shake.

My wonderful husband and I certainly have experienced our fair share of tough days – of miscommunication, of letting each other down, of taking our frustrations toward the situation out on one another. These things are going to happen. They happen with couples who see each other every day. But it’s the way you come back from those moments – admitting your wrongs, striving to be better for one another, maintaining your resolve and commitment despite how hard it gets, that really counts.

I will not, for a second pretend this situation has its upsides that “make it all worth it” – I am neither truly that much of an optimist, nor someone trying to sugarcoat the experience for those reading. If I could have done this without being apart from him for one day I would have. But there are ways in which being apart can truly confirm the validity of your feelings for someone and your commitment to being with them.

Despite the tough days and the slip ups from us both, my wonderful husband has remained unwavering from his commitment to our journey. His willingness to put up with my meltdowns, to go along with my silly games and challenges, to spend hours and hours on the phone talking about everything and nothing – continues to reaffirm my love for him and stave off my natural tendency towards insecurity, self-doubt and general pessimism when it comes to relationships and their longevity.

The old adage goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder. And, yea, it certainly does. But, more importantly, what absence can also do is make the mind grow clearer. When you’re with someone everyday and they become part of your routine, part of your every decision, big or small, you become co-dependent and your judgement is clouded within the strengthening love-bubble engulfing you. Not being able to imagine being without them, is almost unavoidable. But if you are forced to be without them you are in turn forced to truly test that theory. You get to go day to day, living what could be an alternate path  for you to choose. You get to experience life independently once again. And you gain a kind of perspective that can’t be bought.

That perspective has taught me something really important. That love – true love that will really withstand the rigours of real life – is not about dependence. It’s not about not being able to live without someone. Because that would be too easy. If I simply have no choice I could possibly make but to be with this person then I wouldn’t truly be CHOOSING them at all. Real love is being able to live without them but not wanting to. Knowing how much happier you are and will be with them in your life, and doing everything you can in your power to make that your reality. Real love is choosing that path despite how difficult it may be. Not because you have no other choice, but because it’s the one you want to choose, because they’re the one you want to choose.

Although I still have incredibly tough days – like, as recently as the day I wrote this post – there is something quite remarkably triumphant about being in a relationship that this healthy and happy and thriving despite this unbelievably difficult hardship we are going through. I feel both proud and inexplicably lucky to be part of this union. I don’t know how I managed to stumble upon such a wonderful human being – one who has been so willing to take this difficult journey with me, and one who is so worth me struggling through it for. But I am so thankful I did.

My Top 10 Korean Foods

So, I know that every foreign teacher in Korea and their friend’s sister’s uncle has made one of these posts but in reflecting on my time in Korea it’s probably best for me to start with the easiest thing – and food is definitely it. XP

The whole experience of Korean dining was something completely new for me when I arrived. It’s all about communal eating. A few main dishes are placed in the center of the table (often the cooking of those is finished or even done completely right there at the table), and these are surrounded by an array of side dishes. Everyone then digs in, metal chopsticks in hand, helping themselves to what they’d like of the dishes. It is full of colour, ritual and spectacle.

KOREAN BBQ

Taste-wise, Korean food presented many obstacles for me at first – the main one being that super hot red pepper and fermented cabbage (Kimchi, the beloved national food) permeates almost all dishes. These, I will readily admit, are flavours that I definitely don’t gravitate towards. But Korea has so many delicious and unique foods to experience, I soon found myself falling in love with its cuisine and even started craving certain dishes over Western foods I had been used to eating. Don’t get me wrong you can’t help but miss those classic staples you grew up eating at home – but here are some of the main dishes, side dishes and desserts that made my time in Korea all that more enjoyable (in no particular order)…

[Please forgive any inaccuracies. I’m only speaking from my personal eating experiences, and often, at first, we don’t even know what half of the things put in front of us are. Click on the captions under the photos to find links to more info, recipes and other bloggers’ thoughts on these foods!]

1. Galbi and Samgyeopsal [갈비 & 삼겹살]

What could be better than lots and lots of crispy, flavourful meat barbecued right in the middle of your table? There are many different types of meats that fall under the delicious umbrella of Korean barbecue. Galbi often includes generous cuts of marinated pork or more expensive beef attached to the rib, and sampyeopsal is thick slices of pork belly meat (similar to what us South Africans call pork rashers). This is served with multiple little side dishes including kimchi, radish, bean sprouts, fermented bean paste, marinated onions, and garlic which you can also roast on the grill. Importantly, it also comes with lettuce leaves, into which you place chunks of the meat along with bits of the side dishes to make a tasty little parcel.

2. Haemul pajeon [해물파전]

I will definitely not do this dish justice in this description, because believe me, it is insanely delicious. Pajeon generally, is a savoury pancake cooked with liberal amounts of spring or green onion in the batter. This variant – and by far the best in my opinion – includes haemul, seafood! This can include octopus or squid, mussels or clams and shrimp. You break apart chunks of this loaded pancake with your chopsticks and dip it into the spicy soy sauce based dipping sauce. I could honestly eat this stuff for days, and it was one of Cody and my favourites. ^^

3. Shabu shabu [샤브샤브]

This is generally known as hot-pot and seen in different variations in many other Asian cuisines (this style, shabu shabu, originates in Japan). It consists of a boiling hot spicy broth in which very thinly sliced pieces of raw meat (commonly beef or pork but also sometimes other meats or seafood) are placed to be cooked – along with veggies like different greens, onions, super delicious mushrooms, and the highly coveted pieces of potato. This dish has many, many variations and at our favourite little spot in Geumchon, had a fun ritual with its different stages. First the cooking of the meat, then the adding of the fresh udon noodles to the broth and letting it reduce to a thick sauce, and lastly the placing of fried rice in the bottom of the pot to become crispy.

4. Mul naengmyeon [물 냉면]

This is one that is going to sound pretty strange to most and certainly would not have seemed appealing had you described it to me 2 years ago – but it has become one of my favourites, especially for the blistering hot summer months here in Korea. Literally translated it means “water cold noodle” and it consists of long, thin, slightly transparent noodles submerged in a tangy, icy broth (and when I say icy, I mean that there are literal chunks of ice in it). It has thinly sliced cucumber and korean pear, fermented bean paste, sesame seeds and is topped with half a hard-boiled egg. You add vinegar and spicy mustard to the broth to give it a nice zing. Love this dish!

5. Fried chicken

Most people outside of Korea would not think fried chicken is a “very Korean” food. But while it may not have originated in this country, Koreans certainly have both embraced and I would dare to say, perfected this more Western fast food. Koreans LOVE their fried chicken, and you will literally come across multiple fried chicken spots on most streets. My two particular favourites are the standard crispy chicken and the soy sauce chicken covered in a sticky marinade (닭강정). Because of their method of frying the chicken twice they manage to make it incredibly crispy and yet NOT greasy. And the chicken itself is always very tender. With the extent of my knowledge of fried chicken sadly being KFC, I can easily say the best fried chicken I have ever had is from the restaurant round the corner from my house in this tiny town in Korean.

6. Bossam [보쌈]

This is another pork based dish (along with chicken, pork is Korea’s most common meat). Pork belly is boiled or steamed with spices. Admittedly it doesn’t LOOK like the most appetizing dish ever (coming out a little grey-ish in colour), but it is seriously tasty. It is served with various veggies, pickles and sauces, and different leaves – sesame, cabbage, lettuce and others – to make little parcels (hence the name literally meaning “wrapped” or “packaged”).

7. Mandu [만두]

Mandu are dumplings and there are, of course, MANY different kinds. Steamed mandu found in little kiosks that open onto the street producing large billowing clouds showing you, you’ve come to the right place. Mandu that boils in its own special soup – one of my first Korean meals and one that taught me an important lesson about pockets of dough that have been submerged in boiling liquid and their potential to scorch the roof of your mouth with the intensity of Satan’s own hell fire. And (my favourite) crispy and delicious grilled or fried gunmandu, which comes in various shapes and sizes, and with all sorts of fillings from veggies, to pork, to (the best, of course) shrimp. ^^ These are a safe option for any foreigner to Korea that’s worried about unfamiliar flavours. You just can’t go wrong with these delicious little parcels of joy (usually accompanied again by a spicy soy sauce based dipping sauce).

8. Japchae [잡채]

Japchae is another noodle dish in Korea, this time consisting of the thin, springy transparent cellophane noodles (made from sweet potato), lightly dressed and stir fried with finely chopped veggies like carrots, greens, mushrooms and onions, along with small pieces of pork or shrimp. Often served in Korean Chinese restaurants and also as a common side dish with other Korean meals – it’s a fresh and tasty dish.

9. Dotorimuk & Nokdumuk [도토리묵 & 녹두묵]

These are a side dish that I don’t think most foreigners pay much attention to, but it is one of the more unusual ones and one of my favourites. They are savoury jellies! Dotorimuk is an acorn jelly, and nokdumuk, a mung bean jelly. They don’t have a particularly strong flavour on their own but get a spicy soy and sesame dressing added to them, and I must say, they’re one of my favourite side dishes by far. The biggest problem about a muk (jelly) though, is actually getting it from the table to your mouth. Its gelatinous consistency makes it hard enough to deal with on its own, add some slippery sauce to it AND the fact that you’re using flat metal Korean chopsticks and it becomes a major task trying to consume this stuff (often resulting in much embarrassment when in the company of Koreans). Mastering the management of the muk is a skill but once you’ve got it down, it’s so worth it.

10. Patbingsu [팥빙수]

Korean desserts are strange. They often involve things that are not actually particularly sweet and things which us westerners certainly wouldn’t consider a decent contender in the arena of sweet treats. I mean beans, sweet potato and gelatinous rice cake are not things that scream indulgence to me – and the best desserts should at least be a little indulgent, right? Patbingsu however, despite the fact that a main component of it is red bean, is surprisingly good. The bottom of the glass or bowl will be filled with a ton of shaved ice – and those are the two standard ingredients featured. The flavour combinations of the toppings are endless, from condensed milk to cookies to cheesecake to fruit! My favourite by far has to be the Cafe Bene strawberry one, with strawberry ice-cream, strawberry syrup and real strawberry chunks all in the mix! (I am not the hugest fan of the whole red bean thing but usually the flavour of the toppings compliment or even mask their flavour.)

Snack foods! Seaweed and dried shredded squid… [김 & 오징어채]

The list is supposed to be my top 10 foods, but I couldn’t do this post without mentioning my two favourite Korean snack foods! Seaweed is obviously something included in a lot of Korean cooking. One of the ways in which it gets sold in stores is in little individual packs of rectangular sheets. This is used with certain dishes to eat with plain rice but I fell in love with it as a snack food in its own right. Its crispy and salty and therefore gives you the satisfaction of eating chips but obviously in a slightly healthier form. Secondly, dried shredded squid. Dried squid is a hugely popular snack in Korean – sold everywhere from amusement parks to movie theatres to, of course, the convenience stores on every street corner. One thing you have to be very careful of though, is avoiding the sweet squid variations. Peanut-butter squid is popular (a concept which seems utterly absurd to me), and other variants are simply sugar-sweetened. But the purely savoury, salty shredded dried squid is the closest thing to that feeling of nomming on a nice chewy chunk of biltong that I can get in Korea, and I love it!

Jumping in…

A year and a half ago I was preparing to travel overseas for the very first time and I had no idea what was in store for me. It’s hard to remember what it even felt like to be me back then. So much has happened, so much has changed. My life has taken a path I never could have predicted – and I love it! But all the ups and downs of this adventure, and those that I’m sure are to come, have made me want to take another crack at this whole blogging thing.

Right now I am at a really weird place in life – straddling three countries on three different continents simultaneously. I am living in South Korea where I have been teaching for nearly a year and a half now. In a month I will be returning home to South Africa – the place I spent the first 23 years of my life, and where I know, no matter where else I am in the world, my heart will always remain. And at the same time I am working on all the paperwork to get me to America where I will be moving to live with the love of my life who I just married about a month ago.

I came to Korea with no idea of what to expect. The only glimpse I’d had into life here was from the copious amount of English teacher apartment tour videos I’d watched on YouTube. It was the most terrifying and exhilarating thing I’d ever done – venturing out into the world for the first time, alone, to work in a country I pretty much knew nothing about for a year. But I needed it. I needed a way to see more of this incredible planet. I needed to broaden my horizons. I needed to take a giant leap and experience something bigger than the little bubble of my existence at home. So I jumped and didn’t look back.

Flying from Durban to Johannesburg to Dubai to Seoul

Flying from Durban to Johannesburg to Dubai to Seoul

I arrived in the country, was greeted by a sign bearing my name at the airport, and was driven a very long way from the bustling city full of high-rises, to my school in the middle of the rural Northern countryside. After a 20-something hour flight I dozed off for a lot of the drive, but was certainly wide awake when we entered the area where my school is located and I saw a couple of military tanks chugging along the road in front of us. (My school is located relatively close to the DMZ and is within walking distance of one of the military bases.) I would find out later that seeing military vehicles of all shapes and sizes, and passing groups of young soldiers doing training exercises, was to be a normal part of my walk to the bus stop at the end of my work day. But needless to say, being greeted by this right upon arrival had me more than a little uneasy.

The walk from my school to my bus stop during sunshine-y spring

The walk from my school to my bus stop during sunshine-y spring

I had learnt how to say hello, how to introduce myself and how to say thank you, and so this was the full extent to which I could communicate with my vice principal and principal upon meeting them. But they were able to convey two things very clearly – one, that they were very happy to welcome me to the school and two, man, was I tall! When they took me to my apartment, my vice principal opened the door, looked at the bed and turned back to me with a worried look on his face. He proceeded to use enthusiastic hand gestures to ask if I was too tall to fit on the bed. Of course, the length of the bed was just fine, but his very real concern was my first inkling of how truly NOT Korean-sized I was – a feeling other foreign teachers here know all too well. Thankfully my co-teacher (the Korean teacher who I’d be working with in some classes and who is basically charged with my handling and management) spoke great English. He took me to the grocery store to get a few bits of food to get me started. I was so overwhelmed by this point I think all I went home with was some cereal, a bag of apples and some Korean pastries he’d recommended. (These would be my first experience of Korea’s strange conception of sweet v.s. savoury. They were definitely a sweet pastry with a sugary glaze on top, but their filling included garlic and herbs. Accordingly, I would learn pretty quickly that if something is cheese flavoured, be it a muffin, pastry or chips – it will be super sweet. However I should never expect something that is chocolate flavoured TO be sweet in the slightest.)

The garlic herb pastries that are sweet...

The garlic herb pastries that are sweet…

Once I had been dropped off back at my apartment, it was around 9 or 10pm at night. I packed away my first little haul of groceries and went to set up my laptop. At the grocery store we had looked for an adaptor its cable but couldn’t find one. And it was at this point, just sitting there with my laptop on the floor unable to turn it on with no way of plugging it in, that I had my first little moment of panic. I had gone across the world to a country where the one person I knew lived about 6 hours away, where I couldn’t speak the language and where EVERYTHING seemed different. I had a little exhaustion fuelled cry for a couple of minutes and then discovered to great elation that the cord for the TV fit my laptop. And once I had the distracting security blanket of the internet returned to me – I felt totally ok.

The view from my apartment window

The view from my apartment window

I was incredibly lucky, despite being in a pretty rural area, to be in a place with an amazing community of foreign teachers. I made friends instantly and met so many people who lived close by. The morning right after I arrived I was shown how to use the subway into Seoul – a quick 40 minute ride away. And assimilation into life was surprisingly easy thanks to all the help and support I got from the other teachers around me. I travelled around the country, experienced the incredible culture, took in this place that was unlike anything I had known before and made amazing memories with some very special people who I know I will always be able to call friends now. And they certainly made the moments that were tough – those of homesickness and missing family and friends – a lot easier to deal with.

The Korean subway system

The Korean subway system

Our tiny little town of Munsan does not boast much, but it does have one “foreigner bar,” our beloved Pink Mong, where the amazing owners speak English and where a lot of the teachers hang out when they stay in the area on weekends (instead of going into Seoul or trips elsewhere.) As I mentioned before, we are a stone’s throw away from the DMZ and JSA (Joint Security Area) – an army base where American soldiers work with the Korean military to maintain security at the border with North Korea. So often the American soldiers hang out at this bar too. And after being in Korea for just a few short weeks it was here that I unknowingly met the man who I was going to marry. Somehow a soldier born in New York and an English teacher from South Africa ended up in this same tiny little middle-of-nowhere town in South Korea – and as horrendously cheesy as it sounds, it was totally meant to be.

Munsan subway station

Munsan subway station

It’s been a crazy whirlwind since then, growing closer and closer, starting to date, getting engaged, him finishing his time in Korea and getting sent to his next base back in the U.S. and me flying to New York to marry him. ^^ I know it sounds insane to some – marrying someone after only dating them for a year. If it was someone else, I would be critical too. But again, as horribly clichéd as it sounds, when you know, you really do know. I adore Cody. He is such an incredibly kind and generous and good human being that I know he is the person I want to be with, to continue this exciting and turbulent journey of life with, and to start a family with.

Getting married in New York City

Getting married in New York, photographed by the lovely Joy Sun

It has by no means been an easy road, especially over the last few months. Me not being from America means that the processes to get me there are lengthy and complicated. And this means a lot of time apart. I am certainly taking strain at the moment. It’s not easy going from having your other half by your side every day, to having that ripped away from you without any guarantee of when you’ll be able to be together again. But I know it is, of course, so worth it. Nothing truly worth it ever comes about without some hard work or struggle to get there.

Hopefully this little blog space can be useful as an outlet to reflect on this amazing adventure I undertook and to express some of the frenzied jumble of emotions and thoughts I’m experiencing at this particular part of it.

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