The Power of the Pencil

Based on the title, you might think this post is about writing, but it’s not.

I first learned the real power of the pencil a few years ago while I was teaching on a small island in Korea. One of my friends organized a fundraising event for an orphanage in India. As part of the fundraiser, she encouraged her fellow English teachers to create a lesson about the children in the orphanage, share it with their students, and then hold a “Bring a Pencil to School” day.

You see, the children in Jeju, who sit in wired classrooms with abundant materials and supplies, who carelessly throw partially used pencils in the trash, have no inkling what it’s like for students in other parts of the world who live without such luxuries.

The idea behind the fundraiser was this: One small act, like a child donating a pencil, could have a greater positive impact on the world. And it worked. The fundraiser was a huge success. The orphanage in India received loads of pencils as well as a sizable monetary donation from the Jeju expat community. More importantly, it raised awareness and gave everyone involved, children and adults alike, a renewed sense of gratitude and appreciation.

Recently, this beautiful idea has touched other parts of the world as well. A former member of the Jeju community, who is now living and teaching in Hong Kong, decided to hold another donation day. But this time, the pencils were sent to Bangladesh where I had the privilege of delivering them to an elementary school in a small village.

Now, most of the students at this particular school aren’t orphans, but their learning conditions are incredibly basic, and their families are very poor, so purchasing even one pencil can be a burden. But thanks to one teacher and her class in Hong Kong, that burden has been relieved, and an entire school of Bangladeshi children are positively beaming with joy.

See how powerful a simple pencil can be?

Now it’s your turn! Please share your ideas about small acts with big impact.


Defying Fan Death – One Night at a Time

A couple years ago, some friends and I were sitting around, drinking mediocre beer at some hof in Jeju when the subject of fan death came up. The conversation went something like this:

Me:Fan death?”

Friend: “Yeah, Koreans won’t sleep with the fan on because they think it will kill them.”

Me: “No way. You’re kidding.”

Friend: “Nope. Ask anyone. They really think they’ll die.”

Me: “But how? That doesn’t make any sense. How would it kill them?

I imagined rogue fan blades flying through quiet bedrooms, severing heads and limbs.

Friend: “They think it steals their oxygen.”

Me: Speechless

The topic came up countless more times during my two years in Korea. Each time, I couldn’t believe an entire population could believe such ridiculousness.

My two fans. They haven’t killed me yet.

My favorites were the tales of heated arguments between American guys and their Korean girlfriends. The boyfriend, who wanted to use the fan on hot summer nights, would explain the scientific impossibility of death by oxygen-stealing fan. The girlfriend, fearing for her boyfriend’s life, would frantically insist that the fan could — and would — kill him in his sleep.

Well, I hate to break it to you Korea, but for the past four months, I’ve been sleeping with not one, but two fans, spinning at full force each and every night — and I’m still alive! In fact, I’m pretty sure that, if it weren’t for those fans, I would have overheated to death. (Yes, I know that’s not a thing.) So really, in my book, fans are life savers, not takers.

From Wikipedia: Fan death is a widely held belief in South Korea that an electric fan left running overnight in a closed room can cause the death of those sleeping inside. All fans sold in South Korea come with an automatic timer that turns the fan off after a certain number of minutes. In general, scientific consensus holds that fan death is a myth.”

I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that an entire technologically advanced country could hold on to such an absurd belief. But then, I guess it’s really no different than religion. I mean, some of those stories are truly preposterous … but we believe them anyway.

What crazy cultural beliefs have you discovered in your travels? 

Awkward Tales from the Korean Bath House

A boundary-bending experience from May 2010.

Photo courtesy of Plate Full of Onions

In Korea, there’s a huge bath house culture. Everyone, foreigners included, love going to the Jjimjilbang (찜질방). I started hearing about these magical places shortly after I arrived in the country. For a mere 5,000 won ($5), you can relax and pamper yourself all day. For 10,000 won, you can stay overnight. It sounded amazing, but I was a little intimidated by one thing: You have to be completely naked. Continue reading

Revisiting First Impressions

As I sometimes (ok … more than sometimes) struggle to adjust to my new life in Bangladesh, I find myself thinking about the challenges I faced when I first moved to Korea. The story below, originally shared only with my friends/family on FB, keeps popping into my mind. Looking back on it, I realize how much I’ve learned in the last couple of years. For one, I can now read Hangul (even if I still don’t know what most of it means).

March 2, 2010:

I keep hearing how important first impressions are in Korea. Your life will be great if the people at your school like you. If they don’t, you’re screwed. It’s intimidating to say the least.

So the night before my first day of school, I was stressing out about what to wear, what to say, and basically how to show respect in a language and culture I don’t understand.

I had all sorts of nightmares about what could go wrong, but I never imagined what actually did. Continue reading

Christmas Without Christmas

Holiday displays are few and far between around here, so I was surprised and delighted to stumble upon Jeju’s symbolic stone grandfathers dressed up like Santa.

First of all, I just want to say, “Wow!” I can’t believe it’s been six months since my last post.

I’ve started several posts over the past several months, but I haven’t had the time (ahem, focus) to finish them. Today, though, I started writing and was actually compelled to follow through, and here’s what I wanted to share:

Yesterday, I was walking through Emart, which is basically the Target of Korea, looking for gifts to take to the local orphanage. (A bunch of us expats are hosting a party for the kids on Christmas Eve morning.) Although the purpose of my visit was steeped in holiday spirit, I still had to remind myself it was Christmastime. Continue reading

Korean Massage: An Awkward Introduction to Cultural Differences


Flickr photo by crisp1986

People who love massages (me!) will admit the experience can be a little weird. Getting undressed and lying vulnerably on a table while a stranger touches your body takes some getting used to, even in your own culture.

Move the experience to a foreign country where you barely speak the language and the potential for awkwardness skyrockets.

In my one year and three months in Korea, I’ve had two massages — the first when I was brand-new to the culture, the second just last week. Both times, the awkward factor outweighed anything I’ve encountered in the States.

Well, except that one time in Vegas, but that’s another story.

Last week, I was most confused by the amount of time the woman spent massaging my face. In the 90 minutes I was there, she must’ve spent 45 of them on my face. I loved the way her fingers magically danced around each of my features as she applied cream after cream after cream — each one smelling more heavenly than the last — but I kept wondering if/when she would pay some attention to my arms and legs.

She had already spent a fair amount of time on the rest of my body, including a vigorous chest and stomach massage, which I could have done without (you’ll see why later), but she seemed to be ignoring my limbs. Finally, with about 10 minutes to spare, she turned her attention to my extremities.

Unfortunately, it was in the form of punching. I don’t know about you, but I am not a fan of punching — during a massage or otherwise. I could have done without that part as well.

Korean massageMy first Korean massage, though, was the strangest. The whole process was unfamiliar and new — from the little dress and disposable undies they gave me to the whitening cream they put on my face.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Koreans are obsessed with bleaching their skin. The shelves are stocked with skin care products boasting whitening powers, and it’s almost impossible to find sunscreen without bleaching agents in it.

The sun is definitely an enemy as well. Women wear hats with huge UV-protecting brims, long sleeves and gloves, even in the blazing summer heat, all in an attempt to have porcelain skin.

But I digress. Let’s get back to the massage.

So I was lying face-up on the massage table with my eyes closed when I felt not two but four hands on my body.

Part disturbing, part delightful, I wondered if this was normal as the woman above my head whispered words I couldn’t comprehend to the woman at my feet. My self-conscious mind imagined them critiquing my foreign features and countless freckles and taking bets on my age. I really wished I had shaved my legs.

My self-consciousness increased when two of the four hands pulled the top half of my blanket down to my waist, completely exposing my breasts, and began massaging my chest and stomach. The strong yet gentle hands didn’t exactly touch my actual breasts, but they got close enough for discomfort.

Not once, in all my countless massages in the States were any “sensitive” areas of my body uncovered. I wasn’t used to this. This was distracting. I tried to quiet my mind by rationalizing that this technique was probably great for my digestive system, but really, I just wanted it to end.

I kept wondering if my friend Bethany, who was in the next room, was having a similar experience. (She was.)

So this is what I find most interesting about all of this, especially now that I’ve been here awhile: Korean women — when it comes to breasts — are much more modest than American women. Walking down the street, you’ll see countless young ladies in the shortest skirts and highest heels imaginable, but you will never ever see a hint of cleavage. Yet, in the massage setting, and in the bath houses, they are clearly more comfortable with nakedness than most Americans.

Why is it that I don’t feel self-conscious in a low-cut shirt that would be considered scandalous in this culture, yet I’m uncomfortable baring my breasts on the massage table? And why is it the opposite for Korean women?

I imagine it has something to do with the different ways our cultures view sexuality, but I’m no expert. If anyone has any thoughts, please share!

Don’t forget to vote for me in the Biggest, Baddest Bucket List competition:

Day 30 – The Final Challenge: Reflect and Share

I’ll definitely be sticking to the easy version of today’s challenge.

When I had the bright idea to attempt multiple challenges in a single day, I didn’t consider the fact that this challenge falls on a Monday, my most draining of the week — not to mention a Monday following the big beach volleyball tournament. Sun and sand and sports make Angela a very tired girl. I barely have enough energy to type this post, but it’s the last day of the challenge so I must persevere!

As you can see, I’ve completed the self-portrait part of the task. Notice the fat lower lip that complements my lovely sunburn? As they say here in Korea, “Nice-uh!”

Okay, so let’s get down to the reflecting and sharing part of the task.

I’ll start with a funny story.

Yesterday, my friend Stephen asked me how the challenge was going. I was telling him about it when another male friend interrupted us to compliment Stephen’s hair. It was slightly awkward, and I was a little irritated that our conversation had been derailed by a superficial observation. Then I remembered the Day 18 challenge, Share Every Compliment. My reaction changed from irritation to appreciation. I then explained Day 18 and commended him for speaking the kind words. He replied with something like, “Yeah, I always share every compliment. That’s why people think I’m creepy.”

I had to laugh because his delivery was awesome, but also because it’s true, and it reinforces the discussion that occurred on the Day 18 blog page. Compliments, sadly, are a tricky business.

While we’re on the subject, I noticed something else about compliments: I’m not as good at accepting them as I thought.

This weekend, I proved that, while I may not be a star volleyball player, I can serve the ball pretty well. It’s the one contribution I felt I made to the team. Ironically enough, every time my teammates would praise me after a string of solid serves, I would mess up. It’s like the pressure of the praise was too much for me to take. Clearly I have more work to do in that department.

Let’s see. What else did I learn this month?

Well, for starters, when I created the list, I couldn’t help but imagine how the challenges might turn out. I didn’t really have expectations, but I had general ideas about what I would do to fulfill them. None one of them played out as I thought they would.

For instance, Bin Laden’s death occurring on Day 2 (Avoid the News) was almost comical. Who could have predicted that? Or the fact that the documentary I chose is now influencing my vacation plans. Or that, on any other day besides today, I might be able to make more eloquent observations.

It strikes me that this is exactly like life: Unpredictable and connected — always.

Alright, it’s time to wrap this up, but I can’t publish this final challenge without acknowledging my father and uncle. They have been the ultimate — and unexpected — steadfast participants during this 30 days. Hearing their stories and having their support is a gift I will always cherish.

Thank you to all the other people who have shared feedback and kind words as well. It really means a lot to me.

One last thing: This challenge confirmed for me that it’s both easy and fun to spread positive energy. Let’s all do it more often!

Thank you for participating. Please feel free to add your comments to any of the challenge posts at any time.

Day 29: Give Someone Flowers

Twice a year there’s a big beach volleyball tournament on Jeju to raise money for a local charity. A bunch of foreigners and some Koreans, too, get together for two days of camping, eating, drinking, and of course, volleyball. Normally, I just go to the tournament to hang out and support my friends, but this time, I was on a team.

The tournament was on the other side of the island, so I left my house at 6:15 a.m. on Saturday morning, camped Saturday night and didn’t get home until 10:30 p.m. Sunday night. Obviously, this means I had to complete both the Day 28 and Day 29 challenges while participating in the tournament.

As planned, the entire weekend involved picking up lots of trash and helping to clean the beach in the spirit of Day 28. For Day 29, it involved picking flowers.

The day’s events made it difficult to go to a florist and buy a big bouquet of proper flowers, but Jeju’s landscape made it easy to stop and gather a tiny bouquet of wild ones. (Not the ones in the picture. That’s a photo from last summer. I failed to take a photo for this challenge, but the bouquet was yellow and lavender. Close enough, right?)

As I picked them, I imagined I would give them to my dear friend Rachael. She’s always a ray of sunshine in everyone’s world, and I knew she would be delighted to receive the simple gift.

That was my intention, but that’s not what happened.

As I was searching for Rachael, I noticed another friend sitting on the beach, keeping score for one of the games. As soon as I saw her, I knew Rachael wouldn’t be getting the bouquet. (Sorry, Rach!)

This other friend has had the most hellish few months of anyone I know. Numerous heartbreaking things have happened to her and the people she loves, and I just wanted to give her a little moment of beauty and sunshine. So I sat down next to her, handed her the flowers and told her just that. I hope it helped.

And I hope this challenge allowed you to lift the spirits of someone in your world.

Oh, and if you were wondering … no, nobody gave me flowers, but that’s okay with me. ; )