The perils of staycations (as told by an anxious person)

Let’s see, how to summarize the past 3 months of blog silence?

December

School life: an easy downhill slide to the end of the year filled with English pop song games and fun trivia quizzes containing such categories as “guess the celebrity from their baby picture” and “which of these countries has the larger population?” Students: generally cooperative and respectful. Personal life: simply put, unexpectedly stressful and emotionally draining.

January

Two days of half-successful, half-disastrous English camp. Then mind-numbing deskwarming (especially mind-numbing since I’ve already planned a lot of lessons for the coming school year), cleaning and organizing my living space, and a “staycation” in which I avoided the bitter cold and the terrible air pollution by remaining indoors. (In Korean, the pun is “Where did you go on vacation?” – “방꼭”, which sounds very similar to “Bangkok” (방콕) but means “I just stayed in my room”.)

Sounds like an introvert’s paradise, right?

It turns out that this is not a very restful activity. At least, not for the anxiety-prone. Even the anxiety-prone introverts of the world.

Or maybe it’s just this anxiety-prone introvert.

Anyway, with all of my productive activities taken care of and no travel plans, I spent a week ‘staycationing’ with mostly just my own thoughts. Even though I thought I was relaxing – sleeping in, reading, watching Netflix, etc. – it turns out I was also developing a massive internal stress factory, deep within my consciousness. Each morning of sleeping in prompted later and later nights of sleeplessness, racing thoughts, old anxieties resurfacing and new ones cropping up out of nowhere – for no apparent reason other than that I was too well-rested, aimless, and un-busy to relax.

It seems I had way too much free time, and in the vast emptiness of it I unwittingly allowed anxiety to take over my mind and my body (which, thanks to my disposition, it is wont to do anyway, but under normal circumstances I don’t feed it and it remains small, weak, and manageable).

Admittedly, the anxiety might have also been pent up during the previous stressful month, just waiting to burst through the surface when I no longer had to be “on.”

By the end of the week, I started noticing tightness and some pain in my chest. By the end of the following week, it got so bad that I went to the Korean ER fearing a heart issue (which was quite the experience by itself*). (Also, this is the constant conundrum of the hypochondriac: go to the hospital and look like an idiot for being worked up over mild symptoms, or don’t go and die of a serious disease??? In this case I decided I didn’t want to take any risks.)

After 4 hours in the ER, a blood test, a chest x-ray, no less than three ECGs (at first they thought they spotted an indication of angina which needless to say was not very reassuring), and a consultation with the hospital’s heart specialist, the doctor concluded that everything looked normal and the most likely cause was stress. (Story of my life. Literally.)

*In short, the Korean healthcare system = extraordinarily cheap, but also extraordinarily overcrowded and unhygienic, striking extreme distress and disgust into my hypochondriac / microphobic soul.

February

The first week of February marks the start and end of the “3rd semester” (trimester?) in the Korean school year, culminating in the 3rd graders’ middle school graduation ceremony on the 5th day.

My symptoms improved while I was back to teaching, further indicating stress as the underlying cause and that the distraction of work kept my anxiety at bay – which is both a relief and a concern. Exactly who does my brain think it is, exercising so much un-/subconscious power over my body?!? Obviously my conscious mind did not request a simulated heart attack. My symptoms are real and yet not “real” at the same time.** It’s a frustrating cycle in which anxiety creates symptoms which creates more anxiety in response to the perceived health threat, leading to even more exaggerated physical symptoms and even more crippling anxiety and hypersensitivity to the slightest bodily sensations… and on and on. Self-imposed torture. Very difficult to control and not spiral.

**But I’m still not willing to 100% commit to saying that it’s not a serious health issue, because, my anxious mind whispers with an unsettling little nudge, you just never know. (my superstitious mind knocks on wood) (my rational mind rolls its eyes and attempts to speak logically but is immediately drowned out by the much louder voice of irrational fear) (I am much sounder of mind than I’m making myself out to be, I assure you) (really though, shouldn’t I just hire a personal doctor to follow me around and check my vitals all the time? wouldn’t that be easier? makes total sense, right?)

giphy

*laughs nervously* (via)

Time capsules

Last year in March, I asked my 2nd and 3rd graders to make “time capsules” – to write down all of their favorite things, their hobbies, their best friends, and to write a short letter to themselves. For the whole year, I kept their carefully-folded time capsules, labeled by class and student number, in a box on my desk.

This week, almost exactly 1 year later, I asked them to answer the same questions and write briefly about what they did or accomplished last year, and then handed out their time capsules. I was tickled to see that a lot of them were excited to get them back and immensely amused at the comparison of their opinions then and now. Most of them had forgotten all about it too, so it was a fun surprise.

Sometimes simple is best

We also played what I called an “alphabet challenge game” – which I thought they would think lame (especially because NO ONE cares what happens during this week and a lot of the other teachers just show movies and let chaos reign supreme), but they actually loved it. I give them a letter, and their team has 30 seconds to write as many words as possible starting with that letter. Spelling mistakes are allowed, but not abbreviations or Korean words written in English. 1 point per word.

After a few rounds I make them stick to a particular category as well, like food, animals, or countries. Then I tell them to only choose ONE word in that category and starting with that letter, but it has to be different from all the other teams or they don’t get a point (like Scattergories). They loved this. Which, as a teacher, is like…

A happy farewell…

I was particularly thrilled that my 3rd grade students (15-16 years old) were, overall, really wonderfully behaved this year right to the very end. My previous experience with middle school 3rd graders has been at times traumatic, struggling with apathy and disrespect at the end of the year to the point that even my “good” or “favorite” classes left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. But this year my kids were truly SO good, sweet, and cheerful, and I will remember them fondly as the first set of kids I taught for the entirety of their middle school life, from 1st year through graduation.

…and a second attempt at relaxation

The graduation ceremony was yesterday, and today I’m back to deskwarming. Next Thursday is the Lunar New Year holiday, after which I’ll have one final week of staycation before the 2018 school year begins. This time I’ll hopefully give myself enough to do to keep the ever-creeping anxiety at bay and avoid any more ER trips. (But also, hopefully I don’t contract any life-threatening illnesses.)

Perhaps my fellow anxiety-filled humans can relate.

And for those who are most definitely not hypochondriacs, right now you’re probably like:

I know. Trust me, I know.

Disclaimer: As I have mentioned before, my hypochondria is real (although self-diagnosed… is that ironic?) but typically not strong enough to interfere with my daily functioning. My attempts at humor surrounding my anxiety are not intended to trivialize mental or physical illness. If illness anxiety disorder, or any form of anxiety or mental health concern, does interfere with one’s ability to work, interact socially, or generally enjoy life, it is best treated by a professional.

 

Advertisements

Just another Friday

Closing out the week with mixed emotions.

We’re now just a couple weeks away from the longest public holiday Korea has seen in ages (possibly ever?) – a 10-day break at the start of October for Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving); the Chuseok holiday is normally only 3 days long, but the government has extended it this year for the mental health of the nation and combined it with Hangul Day (celebrating the birth of the Korean writing system) which fortuitously falls on the following Monday.

But, we’re also seemingly inching closer and closer to Something Happening on this peninsula. Thus the mixed emotions.

I will say that the added fear (or at least concern) has once again put things into perspective, though, and even the hard days at school are, relatively speaking, a joy to experience. Because, y’know, we’re all alive to experience them.

Side note: no one is panicking here (far from it), but I don’t know that that’s comforting. I think South Koreans are basically numb to this threat because they’ve been living with it for so long. Also, there’s very much an attitude of “there’s nothing we can do, so just carry on,” which I sense stems from Korea’s long and at times harrowing history of being controlled (often brutally so) by other, bigger and more powerful nations.*

*DISCLAIMER: I am not an expert in Korean history or culture and this is just my opinion.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that the Koreans in my life are extremely concerned about me being home alone on holidays such as the upcoming Chuseok, but nobody bats an eye when I stay home by myself on American Thanksgiving Day or Christmas day.

I know why this happens, of course. To them, Chuseok and the Lunar New Year are mandatory family days, so anyone who doesn’t have family to be with on those days is in a sad and lonely situation – not realizing that to me these are just another nice set of vacation days with no additional meaning.

It’s just a sort of sad irony that no one will ever come to me a few days before Thanksgiving or Christmas and say, “Are you okay? Aren’t you lonely? Will you talk to your family?” the way they do for Korean family holidays.


Covering advice-giving with my first years. I asked them to each write a problem, real or imaginary, on their paper, put them all in a bucket, then pick a random one and write advice for the anonymous person. And  I got responses like this:

20170915_135105

“I want boyfriend… I’m so very lonely…” “You should always live the solo” (a.k.a. be forever alone)

20170915_135117

“My problem is school fight… I want to disappear school fight!!” “You should no fight.” Solid advice.

20170915_135051

“I have a poop accident to toilet #whatshouldido” “Go to you restroom. OK?” Love the use of a hashtag. Hope this wasn’t a real situation.

yep.

Updates

The weather: hot again. shoot.

The students: surprisingly good, for a monday. on the whole. i continue to be astounded by the formerly disruptive and/or comatose (depending on the day) boy who now participates in every part of class and tries to answer questions and use the key expressions. what happened to you child. i mean, i’m not complaining.

a different class was being way too talkative and one of the girls turned to me and said “it’s too noisy to study… 맞죠 (is that right)?” and was very proud of herself for remembering the grammar structure they’ve been learning (too adj. to verb). also incidentally, it was too noisy to study.

My first interaction with the principal: he wandered into my office at the end of the day and asked my co-teacher (who shares my office) how long i’ve been at this school. (safe to say he probably doesn’t speak english.) she answered for me, and i nodded my head and smiled to hopefully show him i know something. he then seemed to ask my co-teacher whether she teaches chinese or english. then he left. WHAT DOES IT MEAN?!?

My physical state: hot. ridiculously hot. the tease of fall makes it even worse when my un-air-conditioned office climbs towards 90 degrees. also, apparently, tired. one of my students asked if i got punched in the eye. nope, just my dark circles and the lamentable lack of fat around my eye sockets. note to self: get more sleep (or at least do a better job on the under-eye concealer).

My mental state: hoping that peace of a sort is maintained amidst current geopolitical tensions. (knocks on wood in an i’m-not-superstitious-but-also-not-NOT-superstitious kind of way)

It’s Friday

About to clock out on this sunny Friday. Another week completed in our educational marathon towards summer vacation – unfortunately still very far off even though we’ve already had our second wind and are waiting on a third that will probably never come.

Thank goodness for air conditioning.

Next week is the speaking test, and I no longer trick myself into thinking that means a week of taking it easy for me. It means a week of staying extra late to review the audio recordings and check all of the grades and make sure I’m being fair.

anyway.

A short anecdote for today:

Yesterday I left school a bit late, and our elderly security guard/janitor had just locked up the back exit. He saw me try the door, and I gestured that it was okay, I’d just go around to the front doors.

I turned the corner and heard him yelling frantically “HELLO! HELLO? HELLO!” to make me come back. I went back and he waved me over and showed me, “This. Push,” electronically unlocking the door. I thanked him in Korean. It was quite hilarious and adorable. I’ve greeted him in passing a few times before. He has to be like 70ish years old; who knew he had a couple English words tucked away in there?

A little middle school humor

I gave my after-school class this comic template – it’s supposed to be based on the Disney animated short “Paperman,” which we had just watched. Two of my middle school boys decided to take the story into their own hands.

20170419_160006

Text:

Man 1: Who are you?!

Man 2: I’m a boss

Man 1: [casually smoking a cigarette] Ah… I’m sorry…

Man 2: Not smoking in company… [throws paper plane directly into Man 1’s mouth]

Man 1: [clearly distressed] Ahk!

Woman: Are you crazy? Don’t eat paper airplane!

Yeah, duh guys. Don’t eat paper airplane.


My last class of the day on Fridays is a squirrelly, goofy bunch of 14-year-olds, with whom class feels much more like a rodeo than an educational environment. As is the case with all classes at this point in the semester (1 week away from midterms), their behavior has been on the decline.

Every Friday, the bell rings and I go into the classroom, and one (or more) of them has drawn a goofy cartoon character on the board saying “집가고싶다…”

But today, the cartoon character’s weekly lament had been written in English: “I want to go home.” I would consider that progress. Of a sort.

The comforting things

1.  The sound of someone else vacuuming. This is no doubt due to the countless nights growing up when I was snuggled cozily in bed listening to Mom vacuuming downstairs before I drifted off. Thus I feel irrationally safe and cozy when one of my apartment neighbors starts vacuuming and the sound drifts through the thin walls. (Which also means it doesn’t work when I’m the one who’s vacuuming. Too bad, right?)

2.  The crackles and pops in the quiet moments of an old black-and-white film (1930s-1950s). I just love this sound, again because it brings me back to childhood and weekend evenings spent watching old movies (expertly selected by Dad from his vast mental library of old movies) on the sofa with my family.

You can kind of hear the crackling in the background of this clip – actually, it’s not really the best example of what I mean, but I mostly chose it because it’s funny and I love this movie.

“Something horrible has happened!”

3.  The gentle spread of burning warmth after eating food with just the right level of spiciness. I enjoy eating spicy foods, but unlike the other items on this list, this love developed very recently, only since I came to Korea.

4.  When pain finally starts to subside. When you can feel the headache, the cramps, whatever it is creeping out of your body, the resulting not-pain brings a soothing lightness.

Everyone has their own list. What’s yours?*

*That’s the part where I pretend my blog has an actual following and audience participation. LOL.

an interview with myself

(Double post today because the first is not directed at my general audience. This post IS directed at my general audience and particularly dedicated to my few very loyal friends & family who check this blog every day, and who every day have had their hopes dashed for quite some time. Sorry it’s been such a long wait!) (Oh, and this post is also very goofy because I just needed something to start me writing again.)

Q: Where have you been, Maddy? THIS BLOG HAS BEEN DEAD FOR 6 WEEKS. 6 WEEKS!!! What the heck?? What’s your deal?

A: Yes, well, I have been busy, uninspired to write, living my mundane life but the good kind of mundane. I’ve been very Zen this school year. Taking stresses and surprises in stride. Not letting my feathers be ruffled, my mellow be harshed, my buzz be killed, my vibe be ruined. So to speak.

Q: Uh… okay then. So how are your co-teachers this year?

A: One is very sweet and motherly but much busier than last year because she got a promotion and has Bigger and Better Things on her mind.

Another is actually a year younger than me, which was a huge surprise because I’ve never worked with anyone even close to my age at a Korean middle school. Not sure if that’s just luck or if younger teachers tend to go for the elementary school positions. Regardless, we share an office and it’s really nice to have someone to relate to.

Side note: I’ve discovered, upon chatting extensively with said co-teacher, that being surrounded exclusively by well-meaning ajummas (35+ yrs) for my first 2 years in Korea has led me to have distinctly OLD PERSON TASTES in Korean food and culture. Which I find hilarious.

The next is as old as the hills, and he spends every class we have together:

A) intermittently yelling “HEY! CUT IT OUT!” at the kids in Korean when the whim strikes him
B) asleep
C) staring into space with tortured eyes as if by staring hard enough he might Apparate himself out of the classroom

Occasionally he raises a hand from his chair in back and says “Maddy, wait” and lectures them for a good minute. As far as I can tell, “Maddy,” “wait,” and “OK” are the only English words he knows how to speak.

He seems to be a bit of a gruff old dear, though (I have no way of knowing for sure due to the language barrier). The kids who aren’t scared of him seem to like him – but come to think of it, not sure if it’s affection or just a desire to poke and prod the bear because it’s funny and they know he won’t do anything worse than growl a little.

Q: Wow, what entertaining descriptions. That’s fantastic. Bravo. Alrighty. Moving right along, how are the students this year?

A: They’re possibly the same as last year. Possibly better. I’m not sure. I’m too Zen to figure it out. (See answer to Q1) Sometimes they’re cute and hilarious and adorable and lovable, and sometimes I swear they flew straight from the depths of hell into my classroom just to torture me.

But I don’t carry it home with me. All the stresses or disappointments or failures in the classroom stay at school. This may not be something a “regular” teacher can do (i.e. not an expat ESL teacher), but it’s a benefit of this particular job that I’ve finally, in Year 3, learned to enjoy.

Nevertheless, the kids know me well, I know them well (except for the 1st years; we’re still kind of getting acquainted), I know my school, and I know the teaching ropes. So it’s been good, overall. Quite good.

Q: Great, great. You sound so enlightened and cool and stuff. You’re probably like the very first person to ever figure this teaching stuff out. Er… next question… I didn’t think this far ahead…

A: True. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision to do this interview, after all.

Q: Well, um… hmm… what’s your favorite color?

A: Blue.

But actually, I just always say blue automatically because that was my favorite color when I was a kid and I never reexamined it as I grew up. Even though maybe I’ve changed my mind and I just never thought about it. That’s got to be a metaphor for something about life.

Q: Stop trying to be cool. What did you eat for breakfast?

A: Coffee.

Q: That’s not breakfast.

A: That’s not a question. And I never eat breakfast. Never have, never will.

Q: Okay interview over. It’s getting weird. People will think you have a split personality or a massive ego.

A: Agreed.


In all seriousness, I have edited and polished some old drafts and lined them up to auto-publish this week. Maybe it’ll boost me back into it, but if nothing else, at least I’ll have a few posts up after a long hiatus.

Jetlag

I wrote this post shortly after coming back from my 7-day visit to America – a 13-hour flight away, and 24 hour journey in total from one home to the other.


Sunday, February 26th.

Do you know why time travel is impossible? It’s not because we don’t have the technology yet or because physics and science say it can never be. It’s because our frail little bodies can barely take traveling across time zones, let alone the time-space continuum. Pretty sure we’d shrivel up and die on the spot if we ever did manage to land ourselves back in 1697 or 1919 or 2015 or whatever.

I spent the last 5 days since my plane landed feeling like I’d been hit by the Korean express train itself. It was the most severe jetlag I’ve ever experienced. In all my trips to and from Korea, I’d never really understood what people meant by this incapacitating jetlag thing until now.

To be honest, the last few days were a fever-like blur of sleep, sleepiness, and wakefulness at all the wrong hours. I recall unpacking everything immediately upon arriving home on Wednesday morning and then promptly sleeping for 6 hours, and from there is a memory montage of nap after nap (almost feeling the need to recover from one nap by taking another), crawling out of bed to eat something at inappropriate hours such as 2 a.m., waking up feeling fine at 9 a.m. but becoming overwhelmingly exhausted 2 hours later.

It really does describe an illness, but I suppose that’s what jetlag mimics at times. Upon googling, it seems there are a myriad of symptoms that can be caused merely by having crossed a few time zones while thousands of miles up in the air.

I don’t know whether I was fortunate or unfortunate that I had those 5 days to recover before returning to work, since maybe having the rigor of a schedule and an obligation would’ve helped. Or maybe not. Yeah, probably not.

Regardless, 5 days later I seem to have pulled through. I no longer feel like a toxic fog is eating my insides from the brain down. Whew.

My recollection of the visit itself feels similarly blurry as I scan through the memories that stand out – singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love” with my sister as she strums her ukulele… sitting in the kitchen with a bunch of former coworkers who took time after a long day to eat and laugh together on a weeknight… watching my friend walk down the aisle looking like a princess… being surrounded by my extended family for a lunch gathering during which we packed Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and every other missed occasion into an intensely uproarious, laughter-filled, warm, bright, happy few hours… and hugging my best friends and family as I said goodbye again.

 

On the embracing of music and the acceptance of irrationality

*Edit: So it’s bugging me that I mixed the use of the verb “embracing” and the noun “acceptance” in the title, but I’m not going to change it. I just wanted to note it. In case it’s bugging anyone else.

So here we are in the midst of another week of deskwarming. (Well, here I am. I don’t know where you are.)

Each morning I half-jog through the breathtaking cold to school. I have enough walking time to listen to about 1.3 songs, so I have to choose carefully. These days I’ve been going through Bastille’s “Wild World” album, song by song.

There’s something to be said for learning an entire album by heart and deliberately embracing each of the songs on it, even if you don’t initially like some of them. Not to force yourself to be a “true fan” of a particular group – I dislike that attitude, personally – but to watch and feel how certain songs grow on you. After X number of listens, the lyrics or an inflection in the singer’s voice make you feel something. (You obviously have to start out with an artist you like, though.)

Plus, through repeated and dedicated listening, you get the added benefit of creating a powerful memory capsule embedded in that album, and even if those memories aren’t purely happy ones…

I attempted to write my next sentence several times before realizing that I’m only trying to paraphrase Joe Henry (“God Only Knows”), and he says it better, so:

The worst of life looks beautiful as it slips away in full retreat.

Yesterday I decided to publish my old Yeongju trip post, and I might publish one or two other lingering drafts as I finish up the first round of deskwarming this vacation season.

Next week I have vacation, which I managed to join with the Seollal (Lunar New Year) long weekend to get an even longer vacation.

After that it’s back to school for one of the more absurd aspects of the Korean academic year: the random February week.

The length and purpose of this week varies by school, but for my middle school we will have three random days of class (Thursday, Friday, and Monday in the first week of February) – and not even normal class, but classes that are 10 minutes shorter than the usual time – followed by a graduation ceremony for the 3rd years on Tuesday.

And that’s it. Then we’re back to vacation – “spring vacation” instead of “winter vacation” – until March 2nd.

Why?

WHY, KOREA??

I really can’t fathom the reason for this, as it needlessly breaks up the much-needed vacation time and accomplishes little to nothing in the way of education for the kids, since A) in 3 days with 35 minutes per class, there’s barely time to delve into any topic and B) they literally will not care since these classes have no bearing on their grades and all they’re thinking about is vacation.

I guess I have it easy, since I believe some elementary schools go for a full week or so. And it’s really not the end of the world to teach a few random classes, I suppose.

But I really dislike irrationality, especially when it’s so deeply and stubbornly ingrained in a system.

(If there is a plausible reason for this week being plopped in the middle of vacation, I will stand corrected.)

uncollected thoughts

 

The number of barely-attempted posts in my drafts folder grows.

My lack of inspiration wrestles against both my desire to write something real instead of a list of life updates and my itch to do something productive while deskwarming (having already planned future lessons as much as my still-recovering-from-last-year brain will let me).

But not everything in life has to be structured and “just so” and exactly according to the plan in my head.

Various people have tried to tell me this since I was about 2 years old. I think it was only after my prefrontal cortex became fully developed that I started making a conscious effort to relax my own standards for perfection, organization, rigidity, structure, schedules.

Coming to Korea was simultaneously a cause and effect of that relaxation, I suppose.

Okay, so I still have a to do list and I still plan things about a week in advance, but compared to 5 or 10 years ago when I would be consumed with anxiety if I didn’t have everything perfectly ready 2+ weeks ahead of time, I’m doing much better.

in other news

It’s cold. The cold snap hit this week finally. It had been downright balmy here the last few weeks.

The carpenter who lived and worked (emphasis on the worked, and by worked I mean attempted to break the sound barrier with his power tools on a daily basis) next to my apartment has moved out. A shoe cleaner has moved in.

Goodbye whining and grinding at all hours of the day and night. Goodbye sawdust and wood shavings floating in through my windows. Goodbye weekends spent gritting my teeth to stop from screaming out the window “FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, STOP IT!” Happy New Year to me!

Speaking of which, I don’t intend to post about my goals for this year because the act of publicly declaring a goal can have the unintended psychological side effect of making your brain pat itself on the back (er, pat itself on the cerebellum?) and say “Well done, well done, mission accomplished.”

Essentially it releases similar endorphins to those you would get from actually completing a goal, and so, feeling satisfied and happy with yourself, you immediately lose all motivation to pursue those aims.

Nevertheless, I have high hopes for you, 2017.

20161228_144928

Handmade card from one of my sweetest 3rd grade girls, who is starting high school in March.

20161228_144936

I’ll miss her!