“I felt like I fit in, but definitely did not.”

“When I went back twenty-five years later, I was faced with something almost alien to me; it felt right, but it didn’t; I felt like I fit in, but definitely did not.”

~ Noah Cho

I read the above in a Catapult article where Noah Cho writes about a conversation between he and Michelle Zauner. It struck a chord with me.

This is how I felt during my first visit back to Korea, in January of 2013. I was fortunate, that year, being able to visit the country twice. The first time was for work, the second time, that June, as part of the 2013 Journey class.

January was hard because I didn’t know what to expect. I had travelled before but, this was the first time it would be Korea. My birthplace. My first time back since I was 18 months old. Even more difficult was that I had a job to do, and that came with a schedule to adhere to along with a “bubble” of people that I would always be with.

So while I, of course, was trying to take everything in, I was constantly distracted with the task at hand. In hindsight, it was an emotionally confusing couple of weeks where I was being pulled into different directions, constantly.

The June trip was much more pleasurable and gave me more time to understand and process, while at the same time introduced me to far more of the country than I went in expecting. So much so that even now, in 2019 (six years later), I’m still processing what I saw, felt, and learned.

Just over a week to go

“No matter how far you travel, you can never get away from yourself” ~Haruki Murakami

I’m collecting inspirational quotes in preparation for a series of presentations, workshops and meetings that I will be facilitating over the Summer. I’m charged with a lot of new responsibilities (at work), and really want to be sure that I take the right approach in “activating” my team to achieve the set goals and objectives we all face.

In my collecting, I’m findings words that are extremely relevant to my upcoming journey back to Korea. I still can’t believe I’m going back. In fact, I leave just over a week from today!

Recommended reading: Korea, The Impossible Country

korea_bk_cover_1205

Last Christmas, my parents gave me a copy of Daniel Tudor’s Korea: The Impossible Country (Amazon link). This was before my first trip back to Korea (since being born there) so, I rushed to read through it before boarding my flight.

I was pleasantly surprised with how much I learned. And though it contains a lot of history, Tudor does a great job in connecting the history to show why it is relevant today. The book winds between culture, politics, and economics presenting a broad snapshot for the reader to view.

This was very helpful in my visit to the country. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Korea, whether traveling there or not.

Thank you, reader

I want to thank you, the reader, for taking the time to keep up with me on my trip. I had no idea that so many of you were reading (and only learned from the tremendous feedback I’ve been receiving).

Originally, I didn’t plan to blog for this trip. I was worried about whether I could post on a regular basis while still being able to enjoy the trip (I took breaks from social media and the internet in general, which was much needed).

I’m glad that I did post updates here.

Thanks again.
-P

Travel Day, ICN – LAX

Incheon Airport

This morning, I woke up very torn. Not wanting to leave Korea yet really missing my wife, friends, family, and (yes) even my cat, I packed up all of my things and waited for my taxi to arrive.

The remainder of our group was shuttled to the airport in two waves. I was in the last wave with Edie and Jared. Though tempted to take another walk through the city, I refrained out of fear that I wouldn’t make it back to the hotel in time for the taxi pickup.

As the taxi drove us out of Seoul, to Incheon, I couldn’t help but notice the city’s beauty from afar. I began to wonder whether I was romanticizing it in my own mind, simply because it was Korea. But, as we passed by all of the bridges crossing the Han river, I knew that this was truly one of my favorite places to have visited.

Once at the airpot, I breezed through security (no taking off shoes, which I loved). With about 90 minutes before my flight, I spent the time reflecting on the past couple weeks. I really had an amazing time.

The flight was an uneventful 10+ hours. The ajumma on the aisle seat and I (in the window seat) high fived each other when the doors closed and we realized that the middle seat was unoccupied. I didn’t sleep, opting to watch movies in a daze while attempting to stifle my coughs and nurture my sore throat.

After a quick shuttle ride, I finally arrived home. Michelle was waiting for me with the front door, and her arms, open.

Then, the utter bliss of sitting on your own couch, and sleeping in your own bed, after a long hot shower in your own bathroom. No matter which country they are in.

On saying goodbye to Korea…

I know that I’m not going to be able to sum everything up in one post but, I’m still going to try. Settle in because this is going to get lengthy…

First and foremost, I am extremely grateful to Reuben for inviting me to be a part of his GMS Committee for the 2013 SO Winter World Games. Without his invite, I would not have had this opportunity to travel to Korea. And though it never really feels like I do enough to “earn” this trip, I hope that my being at the Games is worth it to him, the GOC, and the athletes.

To my friends, the GMS Committee
Reuben, Mike, Tim, Pat, Kim, Edie, Mel, Melissa, and Shawne: like Athens, I walk away feeling absolutely privileged to work with you. I love our team. I love how our skills compliment each other. I love how our personalities, though different, work well together. You are what make this experience fun.

Marly and Jared, I am happy that you two were able to join us for our time in Seoul. I really enjoyed meeting and spending time with you.

Tim: thanks for being a patient roommate and putting up with something I only thought my wife had the resolve to put up with, my snoring.
Mike and Jared: Jjimjilbang, keep your eyes up. Even Tim knows this.
Pat: Keep on Facebooking!
All: never forget McLovin or his friend (just) Carl.

I would like to thank all of you for your extreme compassion given to me these past few weeks. I think you all understood what this trip meant to me, being back in Korea for the first time since birth. You gave me space when I needed space, you never prodded me with questions, and you were there when I needed friends to be there. That means so much to me.

To my new Korean friends
Seung-Hee (Sharon), Jung-Ki (Johnny), Young-Kyo (Chris) and Mountain: 감사합니다
You helped me to acclimate to here. You helped ease some of my personal fears and hesitations. Thank you for being there and, thank you for all that you did for us. If you are ever in Los Angeles, I will do my best to do the same for you.

To Michelle, my wife
Even though we never had a chance to meetup while here, know that you were with me everywhere I went. I love you.

To Korea
Thank you for being some of the most beautiful landscape that I have ever seen.
Thank you for your food servers, transportation workers, store owners, hotel workers, and everyone I spoke to, you have all been friendly, hospitable, and very helpful.
You are my home away from home.

During yesterday’s Seollal Festival, while the folk singers were performing, I cried. It happened when I realized that it was the last day of my visit and that I didn’t want to leave.

I’ll return soon…

Korea, Day 15

Korean drum performance at Hanok Village

Getting back to the hotel late (after the jjimjilbang) came back to haunt me as I forgot to charge my camera battery for today. I know, right? What kind of photographer doesn’t have a charged camera battery ready to go at all times?

Today was one of my favorite days of the whole trip. We’re fortunate to have had a chance to be in Seoul for the Lunar New Year, and today we ventured to Hanok Village for Seollal festivities. Like any festival, there was lots of craft booths, street food, vendors, and performances.

Hanok Village was especially neat as we also had a chance to tour 5 different hanoks (traditional Korean houses). They were gorgeous and each one uniquely designed based on resources and class of the owners.

We took in performances by Korean drummers and four Korean women folk singers. I especially enjoyed watching the crowd, seeing families interact with one another. There were so many little children dressed in hanboks, all of which would make your heart melt. I also watched a few kids make their own kites and then run through the main courtyard in their attempts to get them airborne.

Between all of us, I think we tried every variety of street food offered by the vendors. We tasted everything from savory to spicy to sweet. And sometimes, all three sensations at once. There were sweet pastries filled with bean paste, sausages, chicken skewers, different varieties of candy, grilled octopus, and even beondegi (steamed silkworm pupae).

That afternoon some chose to explore different part of the city as we slip into smaller groups. I went off on my own, opting to ride the subway a few stops away from our hotel and wander back on foot. I strolled through quiet neighborhoods, markets and past stores (closed for the holiday). My favorite part was wandering through a park, being the only one there, and taking time for some personal reflection.

Our last meal together took place at another Korean BBQ restaurant, located right across the street from out hotel. We were lucky to find anything open. All in all, another great meal.

Korea, Day 14

bridge at Namsan Park

Today we say goodbye to one of our group. Tim headed back home (to New Zealand) in the early afternoon so we spent the morning wandering 14 floors of the Shinsegae Department Store, including the underground shopping in the subway stations below it. One could get lost window shopping all of the different goods offered there.

The “food floor” was my favorite because of all of the different samples we got to try. If we hadn’t already eaten lunch on the 11th floor food court, we could have easily made lunch out of the food samples on this floor. I did buy some Korean varieties of tea to take home.

We spent the afternoon wandering around Namsan Park, at the foot of Namsan Mountain. It was peaceful and almost empty (most of the people left Seoul for the Seollal holiday weekend). We stopped for tea at the tea house located at the end of the park, which was quite nice.

In the tea house we met Devin, from Delaware. He had only been in Seoul for a few months, coming here to teach English. We invited him to join our table and enjoyed sharing stories and sights we’ve seen. I invited him to join us later, for dinner.

Not only did Devin join us for dinner, he brought his friend Carl (another American). An online friend of mine, Patrick B. also joined us. It was yet another good meal with lots of conversation. Definitely one to remember.

Then, the night really got started. Mike convinced a few of us (Mel, her husband Jared, Mike’s wife Marley, Marly’s friend Cindy, and I) to join him at a jjimjilbang (Korean bath house). Tim and Mike had discovered it the night before and were adamant that we needed to do this.

The bath house separated genders, one floor being for women the other for men. Once you pay the entry fee (12,000 won) you are free to enjoy,. They gave us wristbands with bar codes and a locker key (for our clothes). From there, we stripped down (completely) and enjoyed a deep cleanse shower, 6 different kinds of spa/pools, saunas, the “ice room”, and more. I indulged myself in a 60 minute massage which, turns out, was much needed.

It was 2:30 AM before we returned, via taxi, to our hotel. I cannot put into words the bliss and level of relaxation the jjimjilbang gave us.

A quick Q & A

I’m a little behind on blog posts and uploading pictures (time flies when you’re having fun). I thought that I would use this time to answer some common questions I’ve received through email.

Are you the tallest Korean?
Far from it. From what I have seen, I am definitely above average. But I have passed a few who were in the 6’5″ range.

What is the craziest thing you’ve done on this trip?
There’s nothing that I would characterize as “crazy”. It’s an overall mellow trip, spending time eating, drinking, and exploring the touristy areas of Seoul. I did venture out to a Jjimjilbang (Korean bath house) but more on that in another post.

Have you eaten anything weird?
I ordered a cup of beondegi (steamed silkworm pupae) from a street vendor, today. Honestly, they tasted pretty good. They weren’t quite as seasoned as I’d heard about, and I think would have tasted better with some sriracha. Most of my friends tried them too. Of course there will be pictures posted soon.

Does everyone assume you speak Korean?
Yes. And I never got over feeling embarrassed that I couldn’t. My one regret is not spending more time learning the language before coming.

Did you search for your birth parents?
No. I knew that I wasn’t going to use this trip to search for them. I still don’t even know if that’s even something I want to do. I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t think about it, though. And, I will tell you that I experienced emotions that most likely will not be posted on this blog. This trip opened up some things that I plan to explore more.

What do the Koreans think about adoption?
I’m not sure. I never had any conversations about adoption with anyone while here. And that was by design.

Did you like Seoul?
Absolutely. I’ve fallen in love with this city. I will never, ever turn down an opportunity to come back.

Did you go anywhere other than Seoul?
Other than the 14 days in PyeongChang (for the 2013 SO Winter World Games) and a half day trip to the DMZ, all my time was spent in Seoul. On my list is Busan, Ulsan, and Jeju Island. I would also love to see North Korea if I’m ever given that opportunity.

Some random thoughts on Seoul

  • Tipping is not the standard but the food servers here are extremely attentive, hospitable, friendly, etc. They’re so good that it irritates me that US servers are so bad and expect tips for doing the bare minimum. An added bonus is that most restaurants have call buttons at each table so you can “summon” a server anytime you need to. 
  • Everyone is connected here! Even the older generations seem to be walking around with smartphones.  The devices range in size from small to obscene, and no one displays any hesitation of using their electronics in public. From the parts of the city I have seen, these people are quite tech savvy. 
  • There are simply too many coffee shops in Gangnam (and most of Seoul, actually). The coffee craze here is a little absurd. Now, I love my coffee but I don’t need anywhere from 3-5 shops on the same block (sometimes right next door to each other). 
  • Small talk isn’t really a thing here yet, if you ask someone for anything they will display friendliness and help you out. 
  • Seoul drivers be crazy. Not as crazy as some other places I’ve heard about but, yeah. Seoul’s drivers be crazy. 
  • I think that, for an American, Seoul is actually quite easy to be a tourist in. If you are new to international travel, move Seoul towards the top of your list. 
  • Korean TV commercials are just as annoying as American TV commercials. 

Korea, Day 13

Lookout tower at DMZ

Many (locals and colleagues) wondered why we wanted to take a DMZ tour. I understand their various reasons but, I am very happy that we did take the time to see it. It’s humbling. It’s a stark reminder that this country is still at war. It’s a reminder of how much this country has been through, and it puts into perspective how resilient the Koreans are in building the economy to what it is today.

For all that the DMZ is, it’s actually quite impressive that it has become a nature preserve. It’s also interesting to look out at the border and see where the treeline ends, being that the North Koreans have cut all of their trees in order to better see potential defectors. Their mountains are also void of trees as they use the wood for fuel (heat) because they cannot afford to import other fuels.

I hate that so many locations, along the DMZ, banned photography as there was so much that I wanted to photograph. 

Also interesting were the attempted tunnels dug by North Korea (four tunnels found, 25 suspected) with the intention of attacking Seoul. We walked 350m down to the third tunnel, then walked to the first barricade within the tunnel) which brought us as close to the border as possible. Again, humbling. 
The bus tour took us to a few different locations along the DMZ, including Freedom Bridge, the third tunnel,  observation area, the northernmost train station in South Korea, and then back to Insadong, Seoul for lunch and shopping. 
We then parted ways with Reuben, our fearless leader, who travels back to Washington DC tomorrow. He is the one who invited us all to Korea as part of his GMS Committee, and every single one of us is extremely grateful for these opportunities. 
I called it an early evening once we returned to the hotel. I’m not only very tired but I had a lot of work to catch up on. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been gone a long time until someone from home (work, friends, family, etc) emails me for something. 
I am in love with this city. While it doesn’t feel like home, I can see myself living here and being happy. There is so much more to do and explore; this is a city that I want to come back to as much as I can. 

Korea, Day 12

Injeongjeon Area of Changdeokgung Palace

Seoul is awesome. It reminds me a lot like Los Angeles, only better (mind you, I’m still only seeing it from a tourist’s perspective). I have not had a bad meal since we got to Seoul. In fact, we’ve taken to walking into random restaurants and have yet to be let down. Even the street food is amazing. 

One of my favorite parts of London is The Underground. Athens had a decent subway. Seoul’s subway is fantastic. It’s clean, quiet, and goes everywhere. We purchased T-Cards, which allow us to load the card to use as transportation passes on subways, buses, and some taxis. We can also reload the cards and use them in some stores (like a credit card). Very convenient. 

The morning began with an incredible breakfast: hae jang guk (picture here). It was the perfect combination of hot (temp), savory, and spicy. So good on cold mornings like today. We then ventured off to Changdeokgung Palace, which was one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen. 

From the palace we headed towards Reuben’s hotel to meet him, stopping for lunch along the way. I love walking through cities and have no idea why I don’t do it more while home. It’s something I have to change. According to my fitbit, the whole day totaled over 20,000 steps. 

We met Reuben, Johnny (one of our translators from the Games), and Johnny’s friend Julie at the Hilton. We then made our way to the top of Namsan Mountain, to Seoul Tower (Namsan Tower). If you ever want to get a bird’s eye view of Seoul, and see how expansive the city really is, this is the place to go. 

From Namsan Mountain, we made our way to Insadong for tea while we waited to meet up with Chris and Mountain (another one of our translators, and yes, that’s his name). Once the group was together, the details get a little “blurry”. We feasted on Korean BBQ, consuming more pork belly, soju, and beer than we care to admit/remember. It was an extremely fun evening, and a great way to say thank you, and goodbye, to our three Korean friends. Chris, Johnny and Mountain really helped get us through the Games. It’s hard to describe all that they did for us but, we truly appreciate them as friends. 

So, here’s the “deep thought” of the day: It hit me while in the observatory deck of Seoul Tower. And it caught me off guard. While staring out at the 360 view of Seoul, I realized that my birth parents are potentially somewhere in this city. My mind wandered in a hundred different directions from there. I began looking at the different neighborhoods, wondering which one I would have grown up in. I wondered which neighborhood the police station, where I was found, was in. 

I even began wondering if I had unknowingly passed my birth parents, or any relatives, on the street during all of our wandering around. It’s a very strange thing to look at every ajumma and wonder, “could that be my mother?”

And since then, though not always at the forefront of my mind, I am imagining what my life here in Korea would have been if I had never been adopted and brought to California. This is the rabbit hole that I did not want to go down. At least, not during this trip. 

This just tells me that I do have to come back to Korea; I need to explore more on my own time. 

Korea, Day 11 – Seoul

espresso in Gangnam, Seoul

And now the real fun begins!

Not saying that the 2013 SO World Winter Games weren’t fun. It was just a different kind of fun.

Our day started with one last shuttle ride to YongPyong Resort, so that we could catch a bus back to Incheon (about 3 hrs). We couldn’t arrange a ride straight into Seoul, since others outnumbered our group and had to get right to the airport. Once at Incheon Airport, we stopped for a quick bite at McDonald’s (some of us were craving a “taste of home”) before heading out.

We then hired a taxi to take us to our hotel, Provista Hotel in the Gangnam neighborhood of Seoul. The driver was very friendly, making sure to point out some landmarks on the way. He also was sure to help us make arrangements for him to pick us up, on Monday, to take us back to the airport.

Our hotel is awesome! We stayed with the hotel we originally booked (before coming to Korea) and we couldn’t be happier. Here’s why: 1) we have our own rooms, 2) the beds are comfortable and bigger than twin size, 3) the rooms are large, mine includes a loft, 3) there are washer/dryers in each room, 4) western-style bathrooms, complete with automated toilet seats and bidet, 5) room service, 6) coffee/tea cafe in the lobby, and 7) 3 minute walk to the subway. All for just about $100 a night.

And all of those amenities are much needed. After the two weeks we had, we all just need comfort. I’m so very happy with our hotel right now.

We spent the afternoon wandering the neighborhood around the hotel, getting our bearings. Later this evening we’ll indulge in a large Korean meal. Tomorrow, the real exploring begins.

Korea, Day 10 (last day of competition)

me with a Korean drum

We made it!

We finished the last day of competition as strong as we could (being geeks stuck in rooms at computers). Actually, by today many of the venues had finished so some were able to float around to watch some competition. I spent the first half of the day in the IT Center, with Reuben, as we worked to finish things on our end.

By the afternoon, all of us had finished. We took the time to tour the observation deck and cafe at the top of the ski jump tower, at Alpensia Stadium. There’s also a ski museum on the second floor (where the above photo was taken).

That evening, we dragged our exhausted selves back to our hotel to pack. Reuben treated us all to dinner by ordering pizza. This was much needed as we were all looking for something hot and that was similar to back home.

I had a chance to spend some time at the cross country venue to watch athletes receive awards. It was heartwarming to see athletes from all different countries cheer for each other as they all stand on the awards podiums. Definitely serves as a reminder to why I love what I do.

Sharon and I parted ways at the end of the day. She said that she really enjoyed being my translator, and that she will look to volunteer at another Special Olympics event (in Korea) soon. I’m happy to hear that. She handed me a couple gifts and a thank you letter as I left. She is a sweet girl, and will do well when she graduates school.

Michelle and I only had chances to talk by phone during these past couple of weeks. Unfortunately, I never had a chance to get over to her venue (about 30 minutes away from where I was stationed). There’s a slight chance we can meet up in Seoul, so I’m hoping for that.

Korea, Day 9

Mel & I celebrating the end of another day

With just  2 days until the Games are over, many are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. While all of us had had our share of work, I think that Mike and Mel have had the toughest assignments.

Mike’s Games (he is working the Alpine venue) began with logistical nightmares including late setup of electricity and network/internet. That was complicated by a snow plow taking out a power line. He also faced low office supply levels, late shuttle pickups, bad timing, and frozen printers (not frozen technically, actually frozen physically). Mike’s strength is that he can face all of this and still do a stellar job to help make the venue run smoothly.

Mel (working the snowshoeing venue) has had too many challenges to describe here. I have to hand it to her, this is her first tour with this committee and she has done a really good job handling the issues. I’m especially impressed with how she has taken the reins with her GMS volunteers. She has that room working like a fine tuned engine.

It started snowing late yesterday afternoon and again this morning. As of this writing, 20cm of fresh snow has turned the landscape into some of the most beautiful I have ever seen. Again, pictures can’t do it justice but watching it pass by provides for a much needed calming moment as the vans take us from our hotel to the IT Room.

I can see why Korea is the Land of the Morning Calm.

I also attended the 2015 SO World Games reception, hosted by the 2015 GOC at one of the resorts, here. I made Mike tag along for possible networking opportunities, just in case he is interested in coming to LA to work. It was a great party with a great turnout. The food was especially good (about a 40 ft buffet).

While that mysterious red gel-pill worked pretty well, we scored some Mucinex and that is working wonders. I’m feeling pretty good and my energy level is back up. I’m just a touch on the stuffy side but can feel it going away. Yay, Mucinex!

I have also discovered corn-silk tea. I need to find this when I get back to the US. So. Good.

Plans for Seoul are close to being finalized. We have settled on our hotel and booked a tour to the DMZ. Our group of translators are also planning to take us out on Thursday night, something we’re all looking forward to and dreading at the same time. I asked Johnny, “Are our livers going to hurt afterwards?” to which he simply replied, “Maybe”. If any of us aren’t already familiar with soju and somaek (a shot of soju dropped into the glass of beer), we will be by the end of the week.

Korea, Day 8

my view in the IT room

Day 8… have I really been here that long?

It’s cold. I think it’s even colder than it was when we first arrived. Even indoors, I’m feeling the cold in bones I never knew existed. I got a kick out of a text, from Mike, letting me know that his printers at the Alpine venue were frozen. Not “frozen” in the technical sense. They were actually, physically frozen.

Another day in the office. Not a whole lot to report but, I would like to reiterate how incredible this team is. I talked before about the knowledge and skill that we all bring to the table, and how our skills compliment one another. These Games really epitomize the power of working as a team. The high level of trust that we have in one another is why we can operate as efficiently as we do.

Yesterday, Johnny (Mike’s translator) took me to our hotel medical room to get some medicine for my head cold. It’s a little unnerving to receive two red gel-pills from someone and not know what they’re called or what any potential side effects are. But, I was desperate, and the nurse was very warm and helpful while I was there. They did help as I’m feeling much better today.

Sharon is still helping me plan out our group’s “tour” of Seoul. Though we already have a hotel booked (in Gangnam), we’re all talking to people to get recommendations on cheaper places and different neighborhoods (Gangnam is the Beverly Hills of Seoul). Sharon did find a motel for cheap but there were some… stipulations.

She called to check availability for 7 rooms, which they have. The “stipulations” were that, 1) over the weekend, we would have to move all of our luggage into a single room so that they could rent our rooms out to others during the day… at an hourly rate. And, 2) we would have to pay the hourly rate for the room that our luggage was being stored in while we were gone.

Needless to say, I felt quite comfortable speaking on behalf of the others by promptly turning that down. I just don’t think I could sleep in a bed that has been rented out multiple times in one day. *shudder*

So, the lesson learned is that there is a HUGE difference between a Hotel and a Motel in Korea. We will stick to the hotel options.

Just a reminder: you can view my photos on Flickr (click here). I haven’t used my “proper” camera yet, as it’s much easier to carry around the iPhone to grab quick shots as I go. The camera will get its use when we get to Seoul.

On why I wish everyone could experience a SO World Games

There’s the athlete, who having never left their hometown, is given a passport and an airplane ticket to spend two weeks in a different country.

There’s the coach who spent countless hours mentoring his athletes both on and off the playing field.

There are families, most of whom have very little financial freedom for travel, who sacrifice, scrounge and save every penny to be here just to watch their athlete compete.

There’s the sport official, who is a highly respected (medical) doctor in the US, who makes volunteering his time at Special Olympics events his passion, putting the athletes above all else.

There are the military veterans, volunteering in a variety of different roles, who praise our athletes as heroes and inspiration.

There’s the athlete who, like me, was adopted from Korea, raised in Oregon, and experienced his first trip back to compete while his Korean foster parents were in the stands (yes this really happened and chokes me up when I talk about it).

And there are tens of thousands of stories, all similar and yet, all the same. Athletes, coaches, volunteers, families  All from different corners of the earth. All here for one purpose.

You, reading this, have a chance to be a part of these stories. In 2015, the Special Olympics World Summer Games will be hosted in Los Angeles. Visit the website, http://www.la2015.org/. Get involved in a local program now.

Please, be a part of this.

I promise you won’t regret it.

Korea, Day 7

From my perspective, it’s been a fairly mellow day. I spent most of it in the IT room alongside Reuben, troubleshooting minor things as our team called in. It’s bittersweet because if we’re bored, that means that the Games are going well. If our plates are full with lots to do, it usually means the Games aren’t going as well as they should.

If I don’t mention this on the blog, Melissa E. will call me out on it: the toilet paper in our hotel room is scented. (Mel is quite amused by it) Though we can’t pin point the scent, rest assured that we’re making endless jokes about it. Toilet humor is a universal thing, regardless of what country you’re in. I can’t tell you what the scent is (it’s not like we can pinpoint it as “pine”, “vanilla”, “new car smell”, etc) but, I will tell you that it’s not just Mel’s imagination.

I am gaining a better understanding of what it is like to not be a minority among a group of people. There are definite differences in dynamics and the ways that you are perceived and treated. It isn’t until they discover that I’m an American that the treatment changes. It really makes you appreciate how people are treated, and how one should treat people. We all can stand to do a better job in the way we treat others.

The way that minorities are treated in the US is shameful. And, I do admit, I have been a part of that (treating minorities differently). Race and class are just one of the many ways that we, humans, separate, sort and judge. Our assumptions make us bullies and monsters.

For me, being 1) a minority, 2) adopted and raised by white parents, and 3) just now beginning to learn more about my origins, my thoughts and feelings are running rampant while here, in Korea. Most of my questions have no answer and fall victim to the age old argument Nature vs Nurture. How much of me, is me?

It’s not that US views are right nor wrong; they’re just different. I think that we, as Americans, have a lot to learn from the rest of the world. My advice to you: travel the world, and do it with an open mind, Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Learn as much as you can. Then, when you come home, use what you have learned to be a better person.

Korea, Day 6

green tea

Downtime for some of us.

It’s raining, forcing us to cancel the day’s events at alpine, nordic and snowboarding. And though the other sports are still competing, there’s not enough work for all of us.

Some of us could use the downtime to recover (there’s a few still under the weather). I have a head cold brewing but am hoping I can knock it out with some tea. FYI, the tea over here is fantastic. It’s almost enough to convert me from coffee for life. Sharon gave me some “Korean medicine” which helped a little.

One might think that I would use this downtime to explore with the camera but 1) it’s cold and 2) it’s raining. So, no.

Sharon is helping me put together plans for our extended stay, in Seoul, after the Games. There are so many options for us, and so little time, that I think I will have to make it a point to come back.

I’m not homesick but I do miss my bed. I can feel my neck and back stiffening because of the twin bed “spongy” mattress. And, of course, I miss my wife. Tim and Kim (both assigned to Floor Hockey) have done a good job keeping me posted on their Michelle sightings. Both have openly wondered how I ended up with someone as awesome as she is.

On a more personal note, I have to shake this feeling that I’m offending every Korean. I’m so paranoid about going against the common etiquette that it’s making me very shy to interact with people I don’t see every day (while working). For the most part, once they know that I’m an American, they are very understanding about it. But, it’s holding me back.

Part of it is the “fear” of being asked adoption related questions. It’s part of who I am but, I really don’t want to talk about it while here. I can’t explain why other than thinking that it might be a fear of what other feelings the conversation may or may not bring up.

Korea, Day 5

Ra, the asiatic bear

I think I’m losing track of what day it is. Actually, I don’t think I even really knew what day it was since I first arrived in Korea. I have to admit that keeping this blog is helping me track it a little bit.

We’re all getting sick. Ok, that’s an exaggeration (I hope). Our first “casualty” came this morning when Shawn informed us that he was too sick to go out to the venue. I was assigned to take his place, for Snowboarding, at Alpensia Resort. It’s quite the cushy job, considering I am in a heated room with a team of 5 GMS volunteers at my disposal.

They’re kicking butt, making my job even easier. The efficiency and speed in doing everything I am asking them to is quite impressive. They’re also very amused that I’m 6 ft tall, from Los Angeles, and don’t speak a word of Korean (despite my looks, of course).  I was treated to three of them performing the Gangnam Style dance for me, which I found equally amusing.

Tim is fortunate to be working at Floor Hockey, and thus has had a chance to see Michelle before I have. Michelle and I had a chance to catch up, via phone, this morning. It’s fun to see the two completely different experiences we’re having. She is in good spirits and is enjoying herself.

My throat is getting a little on the scratchy side. I’m fighting it off with lots of green tea and Halls. Sharon (my translator) is quite skilled at making me tea, even though I’ve repeatedly told her that she isn’t my assistant and doesn’t need to. She is very nice and is definitely making things easier for me. I think she was happy that we were reassigned to a venue instead of spending another day cooped up in the IT room.

I feel for Sharon. She is staying with a group of volunteers at a hostel-like hotel about 30 minutes from here. She has 9, yes NINE, other roommates and they’re all sleeping on the floor. There’s an adjacent room with 6 others (again, sleeping on the floor) and two bathrooms for the rooms. So, there’s no way I’m ever complaining about sharing a hotel room again.

So not only is she sharing a room with 9 other people, she is stuck to my side every day until Feb 5. That’s quite the feat. Someone give her a medal! Sharon and Michelle have something in common which is, obviously, a very special kind of patience.

Korea, Day 4

snowshoeing venue at Alpensia

The floors, in our hotel rooms, are heated which makes for a nice sensation when getting up in the middle of the night (barefoot) to go to the bathroom. The heaters are strong, and the past couple of nights our rooms have been bordering on the “it’s too hot” side. We had to crack open the sliding door to our balcony last night to cool things down.

This is in stark contrast to the first and second floors of the hotel (lobby and common areas) where they keep the temperatures low (presumably to save money). That, in addition to going outside where temps are still hovering around “smack you in the face cold”, is messing with our bodies. Some of us are getting sick. Thankfully, I still feel pretty good but Tim, my roommate, is getting progressively worse.

The “sickies” loaded up on kimchi jiggae (kimchi soup) which seems to be helping. I keep telling them that kimchi is the wonder (food) drug that cures anything.

Though we didn’t get to attend last night’s Opening Ceremonies, we heard good things about it. Space was limited and very few people secured tickets to sit in the audience. Today was the first day of competition, and we spent most of the time ironing out the kinks in our system as most venues ran their preliminary divisions.

All of us are on this committee because we each have sets of skills that compliment each other. Individually, we can hold our own in our respective local programs and, when we come together as one team, we’re really able to accomplish a lot for these Games. I’m constantly in awe of what we’re able to accomplish with our skill sets and roles complimenting.

I love this overall experience as it’s teaching me patience and new ways of communicating. Not only do you have differing opinions, beliefs, egos, perceptions, etc., there is the language barrier to add to the chance of misinterpretation. This GOC is great. They’re driven to make sure everything runs smoothly, and genuinely count on our advise to help make it happen. There’s a lot of mutual respect between our GMS Committee and the Korean GOC, and it’s making for a very friendly and efficient working environment.

Korea, Day 3

Poor Sharon (my translator), having to put up with my constant “how do you say ____?”

Korea is sometimes referred to as “Land of the Morning Calm”. And it is. The mornings are so peaceful. I’m sure that being up in the mountains has a lot to do with it. The white of the snow, the slight flog, and the trees combine to make some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. And it’s quiet! So very quiet around here. Calm is a good way to describe it.

I haven’t had a chance to photograph as much as I would like. We’re working on a lot of things and by the time I think to grab the camera for a walk, it’s already dark and very cold. I thought about taking pictures each morning, as the shuttles take us to the venues, but leaning out the window of a speeding van, in -1C weather, on a windy road will most likely not make for the best pictures.

But, take my word for it. It’s absolutely beautiful country here. Some of you know that Ventura (CA) is one of the very few places where I always feel like I’m home when I’m there. I did expect to experience a similar feeling here but, it’s not the same. So far, Korea doesn’t feel like “home” to me. Though, I do feel that I could live here and be pretty happy. Almost as if it would be “natural” for me to live here. It’s a difficult feeling to describe and, it may be premature to attempt to describe it.

I did get out to the Alpine venue. There are some slight hiccups with logistics setup (i.e. one of the snowplows took out a power line). Mike dragged me along, if anything for moral support, as Alpine is one of the more difficult setups we have and the hiccups add to our stress levels. It was beautiful on the mountain but I’m so thankful I’m not stationed there. (I took some pics of the setup, and posted to Flickr).

I also secured a constant internet connection for my own computer back in the IT room, so now I’m connected like I thought I would be. I feel much better now. Prior to this trip, I purchased a floor model Sony Vaio (for cheap) so that I can run GMS on my own machine (GMS does not work on Mac OSX). Though I was skeptical about buying another computer, I’m glad I did. Having my own standalone database allows me to do a lot of troubleshooting without tying up the main server.

The food is getting increasingly westernized. This morning’s breakfast? Fried eggs, toast, bacon and hash browns. There was white kimchi and rice, too. I got a hold of the Korean style lunch today, which made up for the breakfast. Dinner was buffet, and mostly westernized food. Though, they had kimchi jiggae (kimchi soup) which was excellent. I can’t wait to get to Seoul for some proper Korean food.

Korea, Day 2

Alpensia Stadium, my home for the Games

It’s getting difficult for me to find downtime to write these posts. Not only because we’re busy during the day but, we’re spending a lot of the evenings in the bar.

I don’t mean to sound like a lush. It’s just that the group is having so much fun catching up (we haven’t seen each other in 2 years). We’re also very passionate about what we’re doing, and a lot of our conversations revolve around the software, SO, and many different things that we’d like to do to improve the way things work. The beer definitely helps us, er… problem solve. Yes, that’s it.

In the Operations center, I’m not as connected (to the internet) as I thought I would be. We’re running GMS off of a government owned/operated server and none of the workstations have access to the internet. My wifi hotspot has no reception in there because we’re located in the “bowels” of Alpensia Stadium, which is all very thick concrete.

We’re still in preparation mode. Our group spent the day meeting with their sport Technical Directors (TDs) so that they go into competition on the same page, knowing who is handling what. I’m supporting our group members from the main Operations center, which is a very nicely heated room filled with computers and the most friendly, hospitable group of Korean GOC members. They’re fantastic to work with.

The food is okay. I think we’ll get better food after the Games, when I’ll be spending a few days floating around Seoul. We’re limited to the food served by our hotel (breakfast and lunch), and now the meals provided by the GOC (lunch). As more people are checking into our hotel, the food is getting more and more westernized. It’s unfortunate, as I would love for all of the meals to be traditional Korean.

Korea, Day 1

Notice the picture on the left of the banner

The banner in our hotel lobby (photo above) sums up our GMS Committee. Our days are filled with behind the scenes, sometimes difficult, work as we’re glued to computer screens prepping for the Games. But, as soon as we’re in the clear to “clock out”, we make sure to clock out. Our “Special Time” consists of food and drink, neither of which we skimp on.

Incidentally, I cannot confirm nor deny the existence of plans to secure the above banner for personal use when the Games are over.

Day 1 (I never count my arrival days as part of the trip) will probably be the easiest day of the Games. This is where we catch up with each other’s lives, get acclimated to the time change, get bearings on our location in relation to where we need to be (all of the different sport venues), and get familiar with the Games setup (in GMS).

Although we didn’t leave the hotel, we do have access to everything we need. There’s plenty of electric outlets for all of our tech and toys, a Korean restaurant on site, a nicely stocked convenience store, and plenty of room to spread out.

I can tell you, with great confidence, that is is cold outside. Not Southern California cold; it’s more of a “it’s so cold that when I feel the air on my face it feels like someone has punched me” kind of cold. It doesn’t help that the hotel lobby is kept in the high 50s – low 60s on average.

We’re especially enjoying our hotel’s frozen pool (click here for picture). We have tentative plans to purchase a grill, charcoal, variety of meats and veggies from the convenience store to host a poolside bbq. The only thing holding us back is the fear of being punched in the face by the cold.

The food has been pretty good. We haven’t experienced anything out of the ordinary. It’s interesting to see the varied reactions to kimchi and some of the other banchan (Korean side dishes) that is served with our meals. Beginning tomorrow, we’ll be eating with other GOC volunteers on a preset menu which will offer both Korean and western-style cuisines. This is good as some of us are already missing our eggs and bacon breakfasts. Though, I really enjoyed my beef rib soup for breakfast, this morning.

I’m having fun catching up with my friends. There are some good conversations, both work and personal, that I’ve been looking forward to having. I love these experiences and am very excited for the next couple of weeks.

Travel: LAX-ICN

Bibimbop served by Korean Air

Korea, I’m back!

After a long day of travel, I arrived at Incheon Airport just after 5 PM, a day ahead of Los Angeles. From Incheon, we waited for the rest of the GMS Committee to arrive before boarding a bus to PyeongChang, which added another three hours to the day. As expected, by the time I got to bed, I had no idea what day/time it was.

The flight was an uneventful twelve hours (a good thing). I had the window seat and sat next to two Korean businessmen. The three of us didn’t say a word to each other the entire flight.

Of course, there were some crying babies on the flight (how is it that every flight has a crying baby?), and I traveled with 100+ members of Special Olympics Team USA. Overall, it seemed to go well for everyone.

If you ever have a chance to fly Korean Air, two things to keep in mind:

  1. The flight attendants are amazingly helpful and friendly. Compared to US-based airline flight attendants, there’s no competition. Great experience all around. 
  2. Order the bibimbop (photo above). It was one of the best airline meals I have ever had. If it was served to me in any other setting, I would never have pegged it as “airline food”. 
The Korean Air gate attendants and flight attendants repeatedly addressed me in Korean. I could tell that I caught them off guard by replying in English with “I’m sorry, I don’t understand”. And I’m experiencing the same with some of the hotel staff and other guests. Though it doesn’t bother me, I do regret not studying the language a lot more before this trip. 
I’m posting pictures on Flickr, so you can keep up with more there. Here’s the link: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ptaillon/
I’m renting a local phone and a personal wifi hotspot so I’ll be connected while here. I’m hoping to post here on a regular basis, so stay tuned!

Things to look forward to, and things not

Today is “travel day”. While you’re reading this (if you’re keeping up with the blog every day), I’m flying from Los Angeles to Seoul. The flight is just over 12 hours (and thankfully, direct), and Seoul is 17 hours ahead of Los Angeles. So, when I land *does calculations* my body will have no clue what time or day it is.

Here’s hoping that I’m sitting in my window seat, in a relaxed state, with no one else in my row. Or better yet, here’s hoping that a Korean Air attendent decided to exhibit extraordinary customer service by upgrading me to first class. Of course, I’ll update you on how it all went in my next blog post.

Things I’m looking forward to:

  • Seeing parts of the country I was born in. 
  • Experiencing new foods, culture and people.
  • Being a part of the Special Olympics World Games experience.
  • Spending time with the GMS committee*
Things I am not looking forward to:
  • It being as cold as people are telling me (though, I prefer being cold to being hot). 
  • Being on an airplane for twelve hours (I love travel but, flights over 5 hrs irritate me).
  • Missing our cat (I know, when did I become a cat person, right? She’s in good hands, staying with Michelle’s sister until we get back). 
* About the GMS Committee: the GMS committee is a group of people with above-average knowledge of the Games Management System (GMS) software that Special Olympics programs use to manage competitions. Some members, like me, work for a Special Olympics. The majority are volunteers with their local programs. We are selected by Reuben (Special Olympics Inc) to serve as advisors and additional support for the Games Organizing Committee (GOC). We’re there to help train their users, troubleshoot, and provide ongoing support throughout the Games. 
In 2011, my first experience as part of the committee, there were 13 of us. We come from all over the world, one from Ireland, one from New Zealand, another from Trinidad, one from the Bahamas, and the rest from the US. This time around, there are only 11 of us. I’m also no longer the “newbie”, as Melissa is joining us from Wisconsin. (two of our members from 2011 couldn’t make this year’s Games). 
This is one of the most fun groups to be around. I really appreciate how easily we all get along. There really is never a dull moment with them (as you’ll see throughout these blog postings). 

On journaling my experiences

Many have asked if I plan to write about my experiences and emotions being an adoptee returning to Corea. I’m not sure how much of that will make it to this blog but, I am planning to write daily in the Moleskine journal I’m taking with me. 
There is a very good chance that I’ll be returning to Corea later this year (in June). If that comes to fruition, I think those two weeks will be filled with more emotion and self-discovery than this current trip. June’s trip will allow me a lot more freedom to explore the country, people and communities. This trip, I’ll be glued to a computer by day and (hopefully) a heater/bottle of soju by evening.