Thursday, August 21, 2014

Set the Wayback Machine to...2009

I tried to be a homebody.  I really did.  In November of 2008 I moved back to the States, to see how that would work out for me.  It didn't.  I gained back all the weight I lost after moving away in the first place and then some, and had probably $4000 on the two credit cards I had (which had been very nearly cleared when I went home).  I loved working at Barnes and Noble, but it was not good for my waistline or my pocketbook, and I felt fairly disconnected from everyone.  It's not that I don't love my family - I do - but living in Iowa to make them happy made me miserable, and it was only a matter of time before I set out again. 

I ended up back in the Middle East.  This prompted a lot of people to ask, "But didn't you hate it there?"  As a matter of fact, no, I was not a bright ball of sunshiney joy when I lived in Bahrain, but my analysis of the decision to move to Ras Al Khaimah, the northernmost of the United Arab Emirates, factored in - among other things - the fact that I was mentally prepared for the things that made my year in Bahrain so hard.  So I went, and that move was where this blog actually began five years ago.  Happily, since I was not as zealous a blogger as I am today, there were plenty of memories to choose from, and I went with the road trip to Fujairah I took with some friends that fall.
First and foremost, I want to thank Melissa for these pictures.  I forgot my camera that day, and if it weren't for the fact that she's a picture taking maniac, I wouldn't have anything to remember it with, and it was a fun day.  She'd just rented a car and was raring to go anywhere and everywhere.  One of the guys we knew suggested Fujairah, which was several hours' drive southeast of RAK.  Along the way we stopped at a beach which Socrates...

...Oh yes, this was the beginning of THAT long, painful association...

...suggested must be popular with the Russians, based on his translations of the signs in Cyrillic.  In the background you can see "Snoopy Island," which looks slightly like Snoopy lying back on his doghouse.  We winced at the heat on the sand, even in October, and piled back into the car quickly enough.
The point of going to Fujairah - other than just getting the hell out of RAK - was that they had an old fortress.  We weren't allowed in the fort, for some reason.  I don't remember if it was just closed to the public or if we went on the wrong day, but we had a good time climbing around it and taking pictures.
There was also a museum nearby, which we did go into.  Did we learn a lot?  Not really.  Did we have fun?  Absolutely.  If I remember right, Melissa was excited to have someone who liked taking goofy pictures, and both of us posed for more than a few!
On the ride back I claimed the front seat.  It was hilarious to see our three guy friends crushed together in the back.  Although it took some time to get settled in Ras Al Khaimah, it was not the disaster that my year in Bahrain was.  Not only was the school a higher caliber school but I had friends, and ten years overseas have taught me that this is what really makes a difference, and what you will actually miss when you do move on.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Set the Wayback Machine to...2008

As I mentioned yesterday, I kept coming back to Korea because of the people, particularly Bronte and my Dark Lord and Master.  Well, you can't call yourself Evil Incarnate and not expect your Spawn to follow suit.  This is how he came to have a surprise party thrown for his 39th birthday.
We talked about the idea at school, and later I went to her mom's shop and we worked on the plan some more.  I was sure he was going to figure out what we were up to because that night his wife insisted I stay at the shop until my Dark Lord got there to give me a ride home.  Somehow, we got away with it.
The three of them picked me up at the park in the 'Dong across from GDA - the story was that we were going out for dinner to celebrate.  Instead, the Spawn and I ran off to the playground, and my Dark Lord and his wife got out of the car to follow us.  He got the shock of his life.

The party was a big school secret - all of the teachers were invited, as well as some of his friends that the Spawn had to get me contacts for.  Bronte had already moved on to Greece, but she provided the music by burning us a collection of her favorite tunes - one of the things she'd shared with our Dark Lord.

One of my favorite things about my time in Korea was belly dancing, and since my Dark Lord and his Spawn had been there for my first performance - a hafla that Azhaar put on just for me - it seemed fitting that I would dance at his birthday.  I had two choreographies I'd been working on at the time: Sonia's Art of the Drum Solo (with a few modifications by Azhaar), and the veil routine we'd put together to Massive Attack's "Teardrop" (which I'd first experienced another year in Korea, courtesy of another friend). 
Teaching at a hagwon brought together an eclectic bunch of 20-somethings from all walks of life every single time I did it.  It was absolutely crazy, and I loved most of them even though I often had little in common with them other than the black sheepishness that led us to move to the other side of the world in a career move that I've often thought of as Russian roulette.  There are really no guarantees that the school that you're signing a year of your life away to is going to follow through on its promises. 

But we got lucky.

I found belly dance.

Some people found love.

Others found a new career.  I can't tell you how many people I knew who went home and started working on a degree in education, because that year and those kids had that kind of impact.

But I think just about all of us found friends and shared a time that we'll always remember.  Especially those of us that were there that night, 'cause that shit got crazy.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Set the Wayback Machine to...2007

I've only got one photo to go along with this memory, but it's a doozy.  July 2007 saw me going back to Korea for round 3, and although the Powers that Be typically get underlings to fetch new teachers from the airport, the Powers that Be happened to be dear friends of mine, so they came to get me themselves.
When you accept an international gig, the person picking you up from the airport may not recognize you, and as a newbie, you're unlikely to know one squinty-eyed bastard from another, so the underling that fetches you will usually have a sign.  Well, even though I was guaranteed to recognize the people picking me up, my flight was delayed (it's a looooooong history, me and delayed flights), and so my Dark Lord, Bronte, and V decided to get creative while they waited.  They went scrounging in the nearest convenience store in Incheon's arrivals hall, and came up with a soju box, a permanent marker, and a highlighter.  When I walked through the door from customs and immigration, this is what greeted me.

English teaching was never my favorite thing in the world.  I worked my ass off when I was at GDA, and although I can't say I loved every minute of it, I kept coming back to it because of these people.  My time in Bahrain was challenging, to say the least, and coming back to Korea, while challenging in its own way, gave me the chance to relax amongst comfortable surroundings, with much-loved people, beginning from that first moment.

Every expat should be so lucky as to land in such a nest.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Set the Wayback Machine to...2006

My second job overseas was in the Kingdom of Bahrain.  It's a tiny speck on most maps, smaller than a crumb, but my Dad knew where it was when I chickened out and called to tell them where I'd scored a job on my way home from the University of Northern Iowa's hiring fair.

"Where's that?" asked my mom.

Loud sigh, "IT'S IN THE MIDDLE EAST, GLENDA," said my dad.  He was not impressed.  I was, though.  I'd started learning to belly dance in earnest when I was in Korea, and I was eager to live in the culture, to learn about it unbiased by the media, relying on my own perceptions and experiences.  Those experiences taught me that no, Muslims are not all terrorists.  Some of them are zealots, some are hypocrites, some are heartfelt believers (so, basically, just like Christians, apart from a few points of doctrine).  The men can be total and utter assholes, but aren't necessarily.  The women may be extremely kind and utterly gorgeous, or they may not.  It isn't my favorite place I've lived - in fact, I think it was the hardest year of my life, but that had less to do with the culture than it did with the school.  But anyways.
Ramadan began in September that year, and school had hardly even started before we were on a shortened schedule.  The non-Muslim teachers had to be really careful not to eat or drink where anyone could see us.  The kids were exhausted from staying up late partying and getting up early for prayers.  Everyone - and I mean EVERYONE - was thrilled when we finally went on holiday for the last week or so of it...and then it was Eid!  I went with my roommates (whose heinous bitchiness I had yet to truly realize the depths of), these two gorgeous ladies (who I still keep in touch with via Facebook), and a couple of the Lebanese staff, and we had brunch in public in BROAD DAYLIGHT!  If you've never lived in a Muslim country, I don't think you can understand how good that feels.  During the month of Ramadan, depending on what country you're in and who catches you (and possibly how hungry they are at the time), you can be fined or even arrested for eating, drinking, smoking, or hell, even chewing gum in public.  So having a nice meal with friends was a great pleasure.

I mentioned in yesterday's post that being Mormon is really helpful when it comes to finding your feet in a new country.  The church in Bahrain organized a sightseeing day during that Eid, and I brought my heinous, bitchy roommates with me (don't let anyone tell you I don't try to be nice).  We visited Qal'at al-Bahrain, the World Heritage fortress on the north end of the island that is one of the few preserved historic sites in the country.  We also visited the "Tree of Life."  Bahrain is one of the suggested sites of the Garden of Eden, with this big tree in the middle of nowhere supposedly being THE tree.  But my favorite part of the tour was the camel farm.  I got to take a short ride (that didn't even remotely prepare me for the camel trek I would go on when I visited Wadi Rum in Jordan) and even did a camel (a belly dance undulation) WITH A CAMEL!
The last stop on our tour was Bahrain's Grand Mosque, which was airy and full of light.  It's not usually open to the public, but Eid is a special time.  Bahrain is a fairly forward-thinking country, and women are not forced to wear the hijab, but we needed to for the mosque, and we were okay with that.  It was a day full of good experiences, and gave me something to lean on as the days of poorly behaved students and passive-aggressive roommates started to add up.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ten Years, Ten Memories

 Next Tuesday marks the tenth anniversary of my arrival in Korea as a terrified greenie - a fact that astonished both myself and my Dark Lord and Master (who was the largest part of the reason I was terrified back in those days - it took me a while to realize he was just a big bunny rabbit) when we discussed it on my way through Seoul at the beginning of July.  To celebrate, I'm setting the Wayback Machine to count down a memory each day from each of those ten years to share with you....

The problem with doing one memory for each year you've lived abroad is that unless you moved at the beginning of January, you're really looking at 11 calendar years.  I've solved that problem by ringing in my first memory with the time we rang out 2004.  Another reason Korea was hard for me at first was because I didn't quite fit with the teachers who were at GDA when I got there.  One of the wonderful things about being Mormon, though, is you'll always have a second place to look for friends, and the Seoul English Branch is where I found my first friends overseas.  It was wonderful, because it had the eclectic mix of black sheep you expect to find teaching English in Korea, but with the added bonus of us all sharing the same standards.
We started our New Year's Eve at Bennigan's by Seoul Station, and then packed our way onto the subway to go to Jongno 3-ga.  It's an intersection in central Seoul that has a big bell tower named Bosingak, and that night it was packed with tons of people.  What would New Year's be without some fireworks, you may ask, and that's a great question - we obviously had some sparklers.  What the photo doesn't show you is that lots of people (including my friends) had Roman candles, which we were shooting into the air over this crowded intersection next to an old, wooden pavilion.
There was also swinging.  And swaying.  And music playing.  We were dancing in the street.  Over the three years I lived in Seoul I came to love their traditional drumming and dancing, and it was impossible to resist being swept up into the action.
How much do I love Korea?  SO much.  I've told you so many times you probably want to barf every time I start.  One of the many, MANY reasons is the fact that it's a night owl's paradise.  Not everything is open 24 hours, but it's damn close.  When everything finally ground to a halt in Jongno we went to Hongdae.  It's a university area and the only place I've really ever gone "clubbing."  We found a cafe and warmed up for a while before going to look for a DVDbang.  We picked out a couple of movies and split into the two rooms set up as personal home theaters.  Somehow most of us stayed awake - I remember the movie my group watched being really good.

We ended the night at the 63 building - a skyscraper in the financial district that has an observation deck.  We watched the first sunrise of 2005 from there, and I felt I was finally starting to feel at home in Korea. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

An Art Teacher in Hong Kong

The fact that there are no penis shrines in Hong Kong is kind of a drag, because I came up with the perfect title for such a blog.  What it lacks in phallus worship sites, though, it makes up for in art.  This is good, since my whole reason for going there during this curst bad time was to check out the logistics of an art-related school trip. 

If you are in HK and you want to get out of:
A.  The Heat
B.  The Rain
C.  Both
I suggest a museum day.  My second full day was my museum day, although I lost interest after the Museum of Art, which was excellent.  Their exhibition of Qing and Ming objets d'art had one of the best exhibition guides I've ever seen.  Throughout the exhibit were curio cards with a picture of one of the pieces on the front and an explanation of the particular aspect of this era's masterworks it embodied on the back.  They made a brilliant souvenir, and, since I went on Wednesday, free.
As I mentioned in my last post, the Museum of Art is on the promenade, and on the ground surrounding the building they have a sculpture park.  The current exhibition is "Heaven, Earth, and Man," and while the title didn't make an enormous amount of sense to me, I enjoyed seeing the sculpture anyways.

I was also happy to find some street art in Hong Kong.  Actually, since it was so bloody hot and I didn't feel like getting heat rash in the name of a school trip that probably won't come here, I didn't end up chasing down any galleries.  That made finding street art a welcome boon.  I was especially pleased to see yarn bombing on this hand rail.  I've never seen yarn bombing anywhere other than the internet.  To see it in the actual world made it a real thing.

For a long time, Hong Kong's street art was the domain of one man, the self-proclaimed King of Kowloon.   Since his death in 2007 there has been public pressure to protect his legacy, but I was pleased to see that other artists were continuing the tradition - perhaps not in his medium, because he was a calligrapher, but at least were making public works of art.
The last day I was there, I decided to take a friend's advice and ride the trolley along the length of Hong Kong Island, and stop by the IKEA at Causeway Bay for some frames.  Well, on my way to IKEA, I saw a poster advertising an exhibit about the art of Studio Ghibli at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.  This seemed like a start at making up for the fact that I didn't make it to the Ghibli Museum when I was in Tokyo, so when I brought my haul back to the Mansion I went online to figure out where the Heritage Museum was.  It turned out to be "way out there."  (Not really, but considering most of my wanderings were confined to a fairly limited space, Sha Tin is pretty far out of the way).  It was a cool show and I'd wished I could have taken my students who are interested in animation, because I think they could have gotten a lot out of it.  However, my feet were worn the heck out and it didn't seem to be that well air conditioned and I was just kind of done with Hong Kong, so I didn't stay long.

And speaking of being done with Hong Kong, that's all, folks. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Harbor Town

One thing that Hong Kong bests pretty much all comers in is a stunning skyline.  My first evening there I pretty much did nothing but stroll along the Kowloon promenade and admire the island from afar, watching the day turn into night.  (And, okay, looking - unsuccessfully - for a Starbucks.)
I don't know whether or not it has anything to do with coming from way the hell in the middle of the US, thousands of miles from a coastline, but watching the water is fascinating to me.  Unfortunately I haven't lived that many places that have a good waterfront.  Bahrain and Ras Al Khaimah each had a corniche, but I never spent much time on either (although the Hilton beach resort in RAK was fantastic). 
The promenade in Kowloon (which includes the "Walk of Stars," which, again, didn't impress me that much), was bustling, and made for some great people watching.  I found that the wall behind the Hong Kong Museum of Art was just the right height to sit on and had a non-stop breeze blowing through, which I desperately needed on that first night.
On my second full day I found my way to the Star Ferry pier and bought a ticket to the Hong Kong side.  The Star Ferry has been running across the harbor since 1888 and is number one on the "Top Ten Most Exciting Ferry Rides" list as published by the Society of American Travel Writers. 
I am an American and I write about travel, but I have no idea by what criteria they were judging.  While my trip to Hong Kong and back on Star Ferry was comfortable and pleasant, I wouldn't call it exciting.  (If you want an exciting adventure, I suggest the ferry from Aqaba, Jordan to Nuweiba, Egypt.  Hoo, buddy, that's one that will stick with you for years!)

My last night in Hong Kong I went on another boat - the Grey Line harbor cruise.  I had to make my way to the other end of the Kowloon waterfront, to Hung Hom pier.  It was around 7:20 when I got there for my7:45 boarding (better early than late), and although the sun had set everything had a bluish sort of glowing quality.  I had to laugh a little at the guys fishing, in spite of the "No Fishing from Pier" signs, and had to wonder about what they were hoping to catch.  I'm sure the water is clean and the fish are healthy, but then again, I always find water in China sketchy, and in spite of the fact that it's open to the ocean, there are a LOT of people in Hong Kong.

The harbor cruise made me wonder what those cruises my family goes on are like.  The main cabin was a big room with a buffet at one end and a Filipino band (I think - aren't all cover bands in places like this Filipino?) at the other, and tons of tables scattered in between.  The food was fairly bland and involved a lot of seafood, so mostly I just ate fruit and marshmallows dipped in the chocolate fountain.  The band accompanied the "Symphony of Lights" performance, which is supposedly a big deal in the world of light shows, the world's largest, but since this is the first light show I've ever been, I've never been to a light show.  Not at the Pyramids.  Not at Petra.  I watched the sparklies on the Eiffel Tower for a few minutes, but I was far away at the top of the hill in Belleville, so I don't suppose that counts.  So I didn't know what to expect.
I might not have known, but I'd hoped for fireworks.  I'd seen pictures with fireworks being shot off the sides of the buildings, and that looked cool as shit, but there weren't any fireworks last week, and this has left a bad taste in my mouth for light shows as well as cruises.  The light show was kind of neat, but it's hard to work up that much enthusiasm when nobody's blowing anything up.