Wandering (Heart and) Seoul

Two months ago, I set off on a journey that would take me across the U.S. by plane, train, and automobile and eventually land me here in the bustling city of Seoul, South Korea. After years in social justice advocacy, education, and activism, I called a timeout, left my job, sold my things, stuffed a few boxes in friends’ garages and attics, took my cat to my parents’ house, and said goodbye (for now) to friends, loved ones, colleagues, and a city I’d called “home” for over ten years. I told myself I was “leaving the movement,” like this fellow activist now living in Panama. I would wander the world, and I would breathe, and I would write, and I would get back in touch with the parts of me I’d pushed away for the sake of the greater good.

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The decision to leave came from a sense of desperation. The world’s weight was too much, the work we were trying to do was too much, and I felt trapped under it. It felt like doing something drastic was my only hope. Continue reading “Wandering (Heart and) Seoul”

Noli Timere: On Korea Pride, Orlando, and Learning to Not Be Afraid

Saturday a week ago, I went to my first Korean Pride festival in Seoul. It began before noon, and despite my propensity to run on “queer time,” my friend Suzanne (who was visiting from San Francisco) and I managed to jump on the subway in time to make it to the festival’s opening. We came prepared with rainbow gear–suspenders for me and a tie for Suzanne, which we kept tucked in pockets and bags, ready to don when we got there.

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Photo courtesy of Suzanne Vargas.

As we rode the escalator out of the City Hall subway stop to the plaza where the festival was being held, our ears were met by loud, joyous music and our eyes by the sight of hordes of police officers wearing neon yellow vests. As celebratory as the music sounded, we soon realized that it was coming from a vocal group of anti-LGBTQ protesters gathered just outside of the subway station exit, singing songs about 예수님 (Jesus) and 하나님 (God) and holding signs about our salvation, urging us to turn away from our sin.

It was like South Carolina all over again. That final stretch of the SC Pride Parade in Columbia with lines of glum-faced protesters holding signs condemning us to hell. The first hill of the Upstate Pride Parade where preachers held out Bibles and yelled verses into the rainbow-filled crowd. Story after story from my friends–of the church’s condemnation, of religious parents kicking out their LGBTQ kids, of Christians claiming they could “pray the gay away.”

The protesters were loud, and more across the street were less joyous–yelling in Korean on loudspeakers with words I didn’t know but a message I could understand. Continue reading “Noli Timere: On Korea Pride, Orlando, and Learning to Not Be Afraid”

A Channel of Peace

Written a few days ago, in a small notebook, on a quiet bench underneath the trees. (Post dated to match when it was written.)

I’m sitting inside a Buddhist temple in Japan, listening to the rain fall through the leaves. We thought about skipping the temple today because of the weather but decided it might be quieter if we went in the rain anyway–so we bought umbrellas at a Family Mart (one of the many convenience stores that dot both Japan and Korea) and finagled some train tickets and headed out from the station to a small town about 20 or 30 minutes outside of Fukuoka.

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I’ve been really grateful for Keyes’ skills during this part of the trip–they doubt their Japanese skills sometimes, but so far, they’ve been great. I also hope that this quiet time at the temple can help my inner introvert recharge. I’ve never traveled this long with someone, and while Keyes has humored my changes in temperament, I fear I’ve gotten a shorter and shorter fuse with them–and I realize it’s probably because I haven’t taken much alone time (even though they’ve offered it). (Note to self for future travels: If traveling with friends and loved ones, build in some solo time every few days.) Keyes has been patient with me, though, which I appreciate. Just trying to return the kindness by working my way back to being kind.

So here we are. Just outside of Fukuoka, the sound of the train rumbling by and disappearing. Rain on leaves, slipping into streams that flow down the mountain. Perhaps the first actual quiet we’ve since we stood on Vargas Plateau in California. Quiet. And present. And here.

2016-06-04 19.15.33.jpgAnd yet, part of the reason I need this here-ness is because my thoughts have been both in the past and on the future. Continue reading “A Channel of Peace”

I Was Once in Love

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I’m sitting in a beautifully decorated kitchen in a hostel in Yeosu, South Korea, sipping on tea and listening to the newest K-Pop in the background. It feels like I could be in a K-drama myself. Plot lines spin outward as I journey toward a better understanding of myself and others–and I find myself in love again.

I have returned to the place that I used to be. A place I once explored in my early 20s, a place of seas and mountains and noisy markets and giggling schoolgirls and a house by the sea. It is much changed. The Yeosu I knew from 2006 has turned into a Yeosu that hosted the World Expo in 2012. Where once I felt like we were the edge of Korea–far from the bustle of a city like Seoul–now there is a KTX bullet train that takes us from Seoul right into the heart of the city in under three hours. Where once there were only love motels or expensive resort hotels for travelers, now there are multiple hostels for backpackers like me. Where once I had to decipher each sign with my newly learned Korean and was grateful for the occasional sign in two languages, I see English everywhere. Google Maps now actually tells me which buses I can take to which parts of the city, while Yeosu maybe wasn’t even mapped before. My home by the sea has been converted into a successful seafood restaurant, thanks to the efforts of my homestay mom. And my homestay sister, my closest ally-turned-friend during my time in Yeosu, who I met when she was in her first year of high school, is now in her mid-20s and working (too hard) in Seoul. She’s now older than I was when I taught here in 2006-2007, which she was shocked to realize when we met up last Christmas.

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Watching the Korean countryside fly by on the KTX from Seoul to Yeosu.

When we arrived in Korea late last week and took the train into Seoul, Keyes told me they felt my air change–the feeling and emotion around me turning into a peace they said they’d not felt before. I felt it, too. Standing on the train, crossing from Incheon to Seoul, watching the mountains and seas come into view, I felt a shard in my heart give way, some blockage shift, this homecoming. This isn’t my place, and yet it is. In any crowd, it’s obvious I’m a foreigner. I don’t belong–and yet I do. Continue reading “I Was Once in Love”

The World is a Big Small Place

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After months of planning, piles of stuff hauled to the thrift store (two pickup trucks full, to be exact), selling my trusty Toyota Corolla, dropping off my cat at my parents’ house (bless them), and days and weeks of goodbyes, my round-the-world journey officially launched last Tuesday.

It seems like a big thing, right? A thing people think of doing but rarely do. That big, “What if?”

It was a “what if?,” but was fed until it became a “yes,” became a “why wait?,” became a, “now.”

As a friend said once when I was discussing doubts about this undertaking, “What would you regret on your deathbed one day? Not taking some job here or there or not taking this risk?” Continue reading “The World is a Big Small Place”

Breaking Up with Myself

My departure date is about a month away, my lease is up at the end of the month, and moving out of South Carolina has begun in earnest. But I shouldn’t say “moving out,” really–it’s actually more like “divesting myself of almost everything I own.”

Extreme, perhaps, but with only a pack on my shoulders (and a little space in storage offered by a friend from church), I’m slimming down in terms of my worldly possessions. But it’s a strange process.

With my stuff strewn across the floor, or boxed to give away, or being carted out the door, almost every last piece of it, I feel like I’m breaking up with myself.

And in a way, I am. Continue reading “Breaking Up with Myself”

Travel the Mystery

The day I made my decision to change everything, the rain came down in sheets. My friend Keyes and I were in their car, pulled over in a parking lot by an empty park. It was dark. Streetlights cast strange shadows onto my skin, the water making the light shift and change. I clenched my teeth and swallowed down the thickness that had gathered in my throat. “I just–I don’t know how to go on,” I said.

It was late summer in Columbia, South Carolina–August, one of the most oppressive months. While our friends in other, more northern regions of the U.S. were considering pulling out light sweaters and working on some fall cleaning, the humidity of the Southern summer continued to smother us. It was two months before the floods that would wipe out whole neighborhoods and wash away our roads, and about two months after a young white man had walked into an A.M.E. church in Charleston and killed nine black parishioners. I’d gone to the protests that summer to take down the Confederate Flag and watched, riveted, while our legislature debated its removal into the quiet hours of the night. About a month after the shooting, I stood next to fellow South Carolinians and cheered as the South Carolina Highway Patrol honor guard lowered the flag, feeling the crowd’s exuberance. I sat on the steps of the State House at sunset the next evening and watched as families of all colors lingered on usually empty benches nearby and eyed the place where the flag had flown. I felt the sense of lightness left in its absence. It wasn’t everything, and it wasn’t enough, but it was something.

Change was in the air. Red states are rarely great places for social advocacy, but as a queer, gender non-conforming feminist who had lived in the South for almost 20 years, I’d been working for change for all of my career, and I’d been surprised by the spaces in which change took root in South Carolina. Early in my professional career, I’d co-directed the Vagina Monologues and seen the intersections of art and advocacy coalesce and catalyze. When I worked at a rape crisis center, my colleagues and I had gone into middle and high schools and taught about gender norms and healthy communication and consent and sexual assault. More recently, working full-time at an advocacy organization serving the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community, I’d driven corner to corner across South Carolina teaching healthcare providers and domestic violence centers and youth programs and other groups about how to treat LGBTQ clients in respectful and dignified ways–and thus improve their outcomes. And I was always surprised by how many people–even in the most rural of areas–wanted me there, wanted the knowledge, and were so enthusiastic about what they’d learned.

But although change was happening, it wasn’t happening fast enough. It was hard enough to fight against systems of oppression “out there,” but worse, I’d realized how entrenched they are within advocacy movements, too. Sure, I felt support with each “thank you” I got after each presentation, and every “I’m so glad you’re doing this,” and each “your work is so important.” But I felt like I was fighting the system within and without, and I didn’t know if I could continue any longer. Continue reading “Travel the Mystery”