Watching Korean television news on mute whilst listening to the Rolling Stones is a strange experience.

After my last school break, this past Christmas, I was lucky enough to get to visit Thailand. I wrote a fairly vague blog post describing more of how amazing I felt during that trip than the actual details of what happened. I was only there 8 days, but things got “REAL” as my co-travelers and I started saying in reference to just how jam-packed that short week was with awesome sights, insane parties, and once in a lifetime experiences. It was such a bizarre week (in a good way) that even while I was in the thick of it, it felt like a distant dream. I came home and was immediately stressed by the daunting task of recording everything that we did/saw so to clue in my growing number of eager blog fans (aka both of my parents).

Welp. Here I am again.


So, I went to Japan this past week.

It was intense, for lack of a better word. It’s a strange occurrence when you go somewhere for one reason and come away with waaaaaaay more than you expected. It’s like going to the general store for toothpaste and winning the 1,000,000th Customer Award. The doors open and your eyes are already on the aisle where you know the toothpaste is. You’re minding your own business, anticipating all the goodness that comes from fresh, minty breath and an alarm goes off. Balloons of every color rain down on your head and people are jumping up and down and hugging you and this seemingly mundane task is now the most exciting thing to have happened in quite some time and you get a big prize and walk out of the store an hour later with a lifetime supply of dish soap and mini white powder donuts.

I went to Japan thinking I’d dig some dirt, move some debris, rack up some karma points and call it a trip. I knew I was in for emotional sights, it being I was on the way to tsunami ground zero. But, I’d seen this stuff before on TV and I remember what Charleston, SC looked like after Hurricane Hugo when I visited family as a kid. I didn’t realize I was about to get a lot more than I bargained for. A perspective that can come from no other experience is now deeply ingrained in my psyche.

Digging little tin lunch boxes and sweet pink knitted baby sweaters from mounds of rubble that seem to never end is an experience that will stay with me forever. It’s hard to come back to comfy Korea and my cushy job and complain about my internet connection being fussy when I’m coming from being face to face with that large a scale tragedy. The devastation in Ofunato and its surrounding areas is indescribable. And let’s not forget that we are about 5 months out since the earthquake and the tsunami. I can’t even wrap my head around what it must have looked like the day after. The sadness hangs in the air like unwanted summer humidity. The loss seems to swallow everything. It’s palpable. I never thought I’d be able to see an emotion like this. The visuals are so strong and shocking in person that they create this heavy emotional weight I never knew could exist. The eeriness of mounds and mounds of sorted waste; metal here, wood there… have made an unwelcome cameo in my dreams every night for over a week. I will never shake what I saw there. What I felt there.

I feel incredibly lucky to have found All Hands and been given the opportunity to volunteer with their Ofunato project. I can’t think of anyway to use words to do my experience there justice except to say that it was life changing. And while I believe it is human nature to be more easily affected by what is sad and depressing than what is happy and uplifting, the thing that had the biggest influence on me wasn’t the tragedy itself, but how the people of Ofunato were dealing with it.

I think I may have maxed out my lucky card this past week because not only did I make it to rural Japan on a series of planes, taxies, and buses by myself (without a lick of Japanese, btw) I just happen to be there during the most festive time of year. Japan makes a big to-do celebrating Tanabata every year and while it usually lands on July 7th, this year the lunar calender obviously had me in mind and it was pushed back (for some lunar reason or another) to August 7th. Tanabata is… hard to explain (or understand, for that matter.)

Let\'s let Wikipedia do what it\'s good at.

Even though I was only in high school, and not that aware of anything that had to do with anything other than myself or boys, I vaguely remember what the 4th of July in 2002 felt like. Well, I would akin Tanabata after the tsunami tragedy to the 4th post 9/11. ((Disclaimer: I am by no means comparing those two tragedies. I am simply trying to describe a feeling of community and undeterred spirit.)) There was a sense of encouraged excitement everywhere. Like, we will make this a HAPPY celebration, dammit. So, each night after myself and the other volunteers slopped off the mud and the muck from the highways and rice paddies, we’d go out to these community centers, fire stations, event halls, etc. and help prepare for the Tanabata celebration and festival.

It really was a turn of good luck and being at there at just right time, because I got to tack on to my volunteering experience, a cultural experience I wasn’t even expecting! The Japanese people were incredibly warm and nice and so thankful for us just being there. The Tanabata prep was about 60% work and 40% of just standing around, but that’s what they wanted. The sense of community was so strong that they even wanted to include us into it. Us foreigners who didn’t speak a lick of their language or really understand the festival that we were helping get ready for. This gave a leg up to my week being one of the most satisfying and complete of my life. I was happy for a million reasons last week. The atmosphere was amazing, the people were some of the best I’ve ever met, the organization felt strong and wholesome and I was a part of something so big and important. The Japanese were committed to enhancing my cultural experience. I felt like I was helping and doing some good for someone other than myself. It really was one of the best weeks of my life. I met friends I will never forget, I saw things I will never forget, I learned lessons that I hope to pass on to my own children one day.

The tsunami was horrifying and tragic beyond words. I went to help out and do my part for completely selfless reasons. A sentiment of goodwill and the reasoning that social responsibility must be confronted… that’s it. Just goes to show that when you do something with no reward in mind, the reward becomes bigger than you imagined. Bigger than yourself. Bigger than you can describe. Bigger than a tsunami.

Below are some pictures of working hard and some are of playing harder.

A friend of a friend who’s in my writing group is a photographer and has been working on this Ex-Pat Apartment project where she’s taking photos of us waygooks in our natural habitats. Scroll down for my post.

This Kentucky Girl

Her gallery show was last night in Seoul and I missed it obviously, as I was all trains, planes, and automobiles trying to get home from Japan. In other news: I will be posting a lenghty discription of my trip and unbelievable experience with the All Hands group as soon as this intense, Level 10 exhaustion subsides. For now, check out their website too to see a pic of me getting down and dirty on the highway, showing my country girl roots by expertly shoveling mud.

Click. Scroll down and I\'m one of the last pictures.

It is really wet here. I mean, reallyreally wet.

I knew when I signed on for life in Korea that a “monsoon season” of sorts would be part of the deal. I guess I didn’t think it through too well… What I didn’t realize is that this type of rain, and for this long, can put a damper on just about every aspect of your life. Don’t get me wrong– this isn’t life RUINING rain (unless you live Northeast of Seoul, which in case your life may actually be at risk currently) but it is life ALTERING rain.

You know that scene in Forest Gump where Forest is writing those heatbreaking letters to Jenny (that we all know she’ll never read because she’s too busy with drugs and disco) and he’s talking about how the rain comes in so many forms (not unlike shrimp)? Let me confirm what the old simpleton was trying to explain. Rain has many identities. Angry and hard. Fast, powerful, and relentless. Unforgiving and selfish to your prior plans. Rain is both an early bird and a night owl. Rain is scary and vengeful at times, and gentle and docile at others. The rain in the last few weeks has been an excellent example of real consistency. Like a determined marathon runner, never letting up. It just kept coming and coming with no clear end in sight… until it happened.

The clouds rolled away, for the first time in what seemed like centuries, and the sun came out. Let me confirm something else. Seasonal mood affective disorder is no joke, my dry friends.

Yes, the sun came out and the clouds lifted, but more importantly the big, yucky black cloud over my spirits and the spirits of my students and co-teachers lifted as well. I remember evidence of this “cabin fever” type phenomenon in college when the first nice spring day would come around and every one would go ape-poo crazy. The temperature would just have crept above freezing and **SNAP** every kid on campus is in shorts and t-shirts, climbing trees and rolling around in the grass. Things around Kids Club haven’t been quite this physically drastic with the rain/ no rain scenario, yet an obvious change did occur last week when the sun gave us a (fleeting) glimpse of a less soggy existence.

I guess I don’t have to explain that puddle free life didn’t last all that long.

The rain returned with a kind of fury behind it I thought the universe saved for large scale natural disasters only. Monica Teacher went back to writing the weather in the mornings on the classroom white board with a black marker. “The weather is RAINY. AGAIN.”

Monsoon season is in full swing and seems to be determined to leave a lasting impression on this Southern girl who’s accustomed to a sunny summertime of sweltering beach days and warm, breezy boat trips, not rain boots and severe weather warnings.

My prayers go out to the lives lost yesterday in and around Seoul due to the rain and the mud slides. I pray for the lost souls and the families who are less a member this morning.

I’ve been stressing over my trip to Japan this weekend… worried about the threat of earthquake and another tsunami. The rain and the tragedy that took place here in Korea yesterday just reminds me that weather related chaos and turmoil can happen anywhere and each day of bright sun and blue skies should not be wasted, should not be taken for granted. Beautiful weather is not deserved. It’s a gift and I’ll make certain to be extra thankful the next time I’m gifted. Hopefully that’s sooner rather than later. The people of Seoul (and myself) could use some sunshine.

It’s time to get opinionated. In today’s war torn, drought ridden, natural disaster prone, poltically unrested world, one can find many things to form an opinion regarding. What’s today’s topic, you ask? The war in Iraq? The legalization of narcotics? Obama’s hyped up bail out plan? No, my friends. We’re taking this to a whole new level of important/urgent… the pros and cons of South Korea’s infamous Mud Fest.

When I think back to last May, when I faced the bizarre task of telling my friends and family that I would be leaving my life in NYC to move to another continent, I remember searching the internet for pretty much anything that looked positive that had anything to do with South Korea and its ex-pat community. For my parents it was a strong, safe, and foreigner friendly government. For my family it was positive extra circulars like hiking clubs and climbing classes. For my friends it was a diverse and easily accessed party scene. All of which, I’d like to point out, are of equal importance to me.

Mud fest was one of the first things I came across.

Muddy Mud Mud!

Pictures of foreigners turned mud people were in abundance. There were bikinis and laughing people, sunshine and ocean water. It look amazing. Great. An awesome time. I was pumped. When I saw that the festival wasn’t until the next summer, I became anxious knowing I’d had to wait almost 9 months. When I came to Korea and was first introduced to my co-teachers, I think our introductions went like this…

Me: “Hi. I’m Monica! Y’all interested in going to Mud Fest this year?”

Imagine my surprise when I was bombarded from every direction with negative comments comparing Mud Fest to spring break, frosh week, and/ or a drunken military themed, PTSD fueled mud orgy/ weekend long mosh pit.

Well. All this nay saying didn’t scare me off. Oh NO sir. I do my best, and always will, to be an optimist and with this comes giving people and in this case public party weekends the benefit of the doubt. I just couldn’t imagine that something this seemingly playful, community driven, and filled with childlike excitement could really be the DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND in a muddy disguise. Sound over the top? Well, I was getting some over the top (and totally inaccurate) information.

I would like to take this opportunity to stand on a very tall **and muddy** soap box to dispel any and all rumors that cast a negative light on the popular Mud Festival held each year in mid-July in Boryeong, in the Republic of Korea. I, MoniKorea O. Phillips, of sound mind and competent judgement, hereby stand by the fact that Mud Fest is good ol’ fashioned fun and should not be missed. With this I will also issue a disclaimer that maybe Mud Fest is not the place you want to take your Great-Grandmother or conservative father-in-law. It is not California’s Disney Land, nor is it Amsterdam’s red light district. I wouldn’t want to spend a month in all that muddy craziness, but one night was awesome! We met a lot of awesome people, rolled around in the awesome mud, and drank some awesome beachy cocktails. Given the opportunity, I would most definitely go again and I wouldn’t change a thing. Except maybe the part where I got totally blistered by the sun and screwed up my left foot in a rambunctious pick up soccer game.

The moral of the story? Don’t let party poopers poo poo on your excitement. If you wanna get muddy and act like an idiot for one night in your life (on your b-day weekend, none-the-less) then, GO FOR IT. Because it’s probably gonna be GREAT! And all those stick-in-the-mud nay sayers can go eat mud.

The other day I was either bored or manic (not really sure which) which led me to take a secret video of each of my students in my first grade reading class. I recorded about a minute or two video of each student reading and at the end of class let them watch the videos. They thought this was hilarious. I thought it was a good learning tool. I wanted them to see how well they each listen and pay attention, if they keep their eyes on the book, etc. Most of the videos would be boring for anyone else to watch other then the 6 year-olds in my class, but I figured I’d share one as a look into a day in the life of Monica Teacher.

I am always posting pics of my adorable kinders. Let’s give the first grade some love too, shall we?

Also- this is James and I think he is unintentionally hilarious. So watch. Enjoy.