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Martial Arts

Patterns. Our lives are ruled by these. By routines, by threads of familiar incidents that repeat themselves in some form.

Since 2013, I have noticed one grim thread: Once a year, I keep facing the possibility of death. I don’t think this is happening on purpose, or that anyone is after me. I think these events are just caused by an odd coupling of bad luck and not thinking clearly because of stress. They’ve happened enough to me that I’ve started to call them NTEs, short for Near Tragic Experiences. Here is a catalog of these so far:

NTE #1: A Close Call on a Mountain (2013)

Thank you, Buddha. Really.

Thank you, Buddha. Really.

In 2013, I thought I was going to spend the last minutes of my life on a mountain. I was hiking for a project, and, thinking it was a day hike, packed accordingly. Unfortunately, it was a bigger mountain than expected and I didn’t beat the sunset upon my descent. I spent about 10 to 15 minutes blind in the pitch-black mountain. Branches scratched my face. My arms flailed wildly. I thought I lost the trail, but I knew there was a temple nearby. With my feet, I gauged where the trail was sloping down—surely it leads to an exit!—and saw a flickering light on the corner of my eye. It was too early in the year for fireflies. I followed it and saw that it was a lantern. And in fact, I had found the trail and the rest of it was lit by lanterns because the temple nearby, usually dark and closed at this time of the night (because hello who hikes at this time of the day), celebrated Buddha’s birthday on that day. It was May 17th, 2013.

(I previously wrote about this, which you can read here.)

NTE #2: Almost Burned (2014)

Last year, I moved to Manila and lived in a hotel. Pro: It was near my family’s house, it was convenient, it was near my dojang. Con: It was in the red light district, I would wake because of people next door getting busy or fighting, the infrastructure wasn’t fantastic. Manila is not the easiest city for me to live in, but I had to hit the ground running for an art residency and my first solo exhibition. At the end of six months, I was unhappy, felt completely voided of energy, and was wondering what to do next. One night, the cafe right below my room caught fire, and we had to evacuate. Hours later, I watched the old building burst into flames. We got out just in time. This was what was left of my room (actually, that’s the cafe; the room caved in and the bed went through the floor).

What could have been my coffin. It's awesome to be alive.

What could have been my coffin. It’s awesome to be alive.

Unfortunately, one thing I learned that year is that when you think you can’t feel any lower, you actually can.

NTE #3: Nearly Suffocating in a Public Bath (2015)

Everything was fabulous. Until my vision started blurring.

Everything was fabulous. Until my vision started blurring. On the left is the *amazing* public bath and on the right is the shower where I was puking my guts out.

In a visit to South Korea, I spent my last day in one of their public baths. It was a jimjilbang in an airport. How convenient! It was starting to freeze in Seoul, so I was immensely joyous at soaking in water that was heated to 41°C. Perhaps I was in there for too long or perhaps the sudden changes in temperature were too much for me, but when I went into the shower I started feeling faint. My vision started blurring, my chest started to tighten, and I had a seriously hard time breathing. Just before I passed out, I willed myself to breathe and to sit down. A few minutes of wheezing and vomiting passed before I finally left the shower where I met three Korean ajumma (middle-aged ladies), who looked annoyed at how long I stayed there. Still dizzy and nauseous, I bowed multiple times and apologized sheepishly while I tried to hold myself on a wall. They gave me the Unblinking Ajumma Death Stare. You Koreans know what I’m talking about.

I find the sauna story hilarious now but at that time, I really thought I was in deep shit.

Each time I faced these events, survival instincts kicked in. “I refuse to die in the dark on a mountain/in a hotel in the red light district/nude in a bath with all of these other naked people!” I think going through these things sucked, but all things considered I’m pretty satisfied—proud, even—of how I handled myself. No screaming or hysterical sobbing or anything. I just remember the realization in my head that “Shit, so this is how it goes down.” I also remember mentally telling myself, “Don’t panic. Breathe.” And what went through my head when I was out of danger: “Bitch I’m alive! Woohoo!”

Actually, during and in the immediate aftermath of nearly falling off cliffs, or burning to death, or asphyxiating, I remember some of my taekwondo teachers (in particular, their voices, especially when they were screaming commands), mainly because they’ve prepared me for situations like these, although ugly wheezing in a public bath probably wasn’t on their list of what-ifs. Martial arts is the life blood of everything I do; I can’t do my work without it. I was never the best in my classes—I was just the one who kept showing up. And hey what do you know? It actually does save my ass from time to time. Thanks, guys!

I've had over 30 teachers, but this is the only photo I have with any of them in uniform. Hmm.

I’ve had over 30 teachers, but this is the only photo I have with any of them in uniform. Hmm. This was right after a test, which explains why I’m so sweaty.

Some things changed in me as a result of facing mortality every year. I give less time to things and people who don’t matter. I make decisions faster. I work on as many creatively fulfilling projects as possible because they might be the last. Facing tragedy gives a layer of clarity to one’s life and perspective. It brings a sense of urgency and purpose to my days. Each time I wake up, I want to make it count. (On a lighter note, I also feel it gave me heightened senses. Not like a spider sense or anything, but I pay more attention to the time of the day, how the air smells, my pulse, etc. I also felt that these events made me a better artist and writer, because there’s a greater range of human experience I can draw from. Bitch, I’m alive.)

Now I know close calls happen to lots of us, but in my case, as they happened to me for the past three years straight—the life-flashing-before-my-eyes bit and all—I’ve decided, surprise, surprise, to turn it into a project.

Anyway, one thing I started last year was to send cards to my friends during the holidays. It really helped to be in touch with my friends from all over the world, especially when I had a serious case of PTSD and depression after the fire. I had friends calling me from overseas and messaging me online because they were afraid for my mental health. (Frankly, so was I.) This was around November and so I got the idea of writing to them—sort of a thank you + Hey Happy Holidays in one go. I’m not much into gushy letters so I decided to let the physical form of the card reflect the time it took to make it.

Last year’s card was an origami Santa Claus on a velociraptor. But why not.

My fleet of Santas and velociraptors is complete.

My fleet of Santas and velociraptors is complete.

 

Ho, ho, ho... RAHR!

Ho, ho, ho… RAHR!

I sent special black belt Santas to some of my taekwondo teachers.

TAEKWONSANTAS. yeah!

TAEKWONSANTAS. yeah!

When I got back from Seoul and after the sauna incident, I realized that thanking people every year for being in your life might not be the worst idea ever. Try it. It takes me about a day or two to do everything and I don’t feel like it’s such a burden. I actually felt lighter afterwards, and gratitude is one of the things that can make you happier and live longer. It’s also a good exercise in creativity; a small card is nonthreatening enough to be a fun canvas. Some of my friends don’t celebrate Christmas, so these (and succeeding cards) are meant to celebrate the New Year.

This year, it’s a card with messages written in UV-activated ink (so you have to place it under the sun for 10 to 20 minutes) and phosphorescent ink (so you can read it in the dark). On the front are instructions:

New Year Card revised outlines-01

At the back of the card is a message in grey. When you place it under the sun, the UV-activated ink will turn purple. In this card, some of the letters are in plain watercolor so you can decipher the message after you give it a solar bath. The yellow letters glow in the dark.

newyearcardback

So I do this to remember the people I’ve encountered the past year and to let them know that hey, it was good to know you. You know, just in case I lose the “Near” in Near Tragic Experience and one day I won’t have a chance to say it. It’s just a small thank you that I send out once a year. Don’t panic. It’s not like I’m in love with you or anything. Hello. It’s just a card.

To make it worth the postage and the carbon, I will make each year’s card really special and worth collecting. In ten years, if you’ve managed to collect at least 5, let me know and you win a prize! No, really. It’s good for nomads like myself to have relationships that last at least that long.

I’ll post them all on this page as I go along.

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This week, I got my holiday presents done. Since most of my friends are scattered worldwide, I decided that origami was the way to go—I can ship them flat. This year’s creation: Santa on a Velociraptor:

My fleet of Santas and velociraptors is complete.

My fleet of Santas and velociraptors is complete.

Ho, ho, ho…RAHR!

Ho, ho, ho... RAHR!

Ho, ho, ho… RAHR!

I also folded a lot of butterflies for those who might not get my sense of humor.

And more traditional butterflies for a safer choice.

And more traditional butterflies for a safer choice.

And finally, black belt Santas for my taekwondo brethren.

TAEKWONSANTAS. yeah!

TAEKWONSANTAS. yeah!

Happy holidays!

On my last day in Korea, I took my second pilgrimage to Kukkiwon, World Taekwondo Headquarters. I’m kidding about the pilgrimage; I wanted to go shopping in the taekwondo stores on the way. At Kukkiwon, it was amazing to see a class in progress. Look: adults! People my height, if not taller!

A class in Kukkiwon

A class in Kukkiwon

Round the corner from the gym and above the cafeteria, I walked up to the Kukkiwon Museum, which was closed the last time I was there. It was fascinating to see all this memorabilia from competitions around the world.

Check out this championship cup from Nepal:

An early championship cup.

An early championship cup.

It was interesting to brush up on taekwondo graphic design:

Old posters

Old posters

And look at this old hogu made of bamboo:

An old hogu made of bamboo

An old hogu made of bamboo

There were some posters from championships in Manila:

More graphic design from Manila

More graphic design from Manila

I’m remembering my first pilgrimage here.

 

The most hilarious moment during my weekend, a summer camp with the kids from my taekwondo class in Daehyeon Beach in Boryeong, was this 17-year-old personal mystery finally solved:

DSC07260

Behold, the fate of taekwondo boards once they’re broken. The masters reuse them to fire up the barbecue grill to make bulgogi (Korean barbecue). Cycle complete.

While exploring Korea, which slowly becoming one of my favorite countries, I’m a bit fascinated at how it has little-known connections with The Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters, one of my favorite TV shows of all time. Here are two that have been stuck in my head for a while and required a blog post:

1. Hwacha

A hwacha is a weapon developed during the Joseon dynasty that can fire multiple rockets in one go. I found one on display at the King Sejong museum in Gwanhwamun station, though I’ve seen others in various places in Korea.

I hope it works.

I hope it works.

The Mythbusters confirmed the hwacha’s effectiveness in the episode, “Alcohol Myths.”

2. Yellow Scream

Kim Beom, a Korean conceptual artist, has a 31-minute video where he demonstrates how to embed screams into a painting in a manner that imitates Bob Ross. I saw this in the Nam June Paik Art Center in Gyeonggi-do.

In Yellow Scream (2012), Kim discusses his materials, than proceeds to scream, “Aaah!” near the brush while he is applying the paint to the canvas. He adds screams of terror, confusion, agony, and even high-pitched ones of happiness.

Still from Kim Beom's Yellow Scream (2012)

Still from Kim Beom’s Yellow Scream (2012)

Still from Kim Beom's Yellow Scream (2012)

Still from Kim Beom’s Yellow Scream (2012)

Still from Kim Beom's Yellow Scream (2012)

Still from Kim Beom’s Yellow Scream (2012)

I was laughing by myself in the projection room. This will be one of my favorite art pieces of all time. Looking up Kim Beom online, I was happy to see that he also did graduate school in SVA, and even happier to know that he has a thing for clouds, too.

This reminded me of the Mythbusters episode when they asked whether ancient sounds could have been embedded into pottery. Alas, I couldn’t find a video, but they definitely busted that myth.

A clear sky at N Seoul Tower

A clear sky at N Seoul Tower

It was a beautiful clear Sunday at N Seoul Tower, whose observatory is the highest spot in Seoul. Amidst the locks of love, lovebird chairs, and kitschy space-themed elevators, what I really enjoyed was the warriors at the base, wielding swords at a demonstration I happened to come across.

Old meets new. Again!

Old meets new. Again!

But yes, the view was great, too!

Seoul!

Seoul!

(Seoul)—Today for Valentine’s Day, I made origami hearts for all the local people here, mostly from my taekwondo class. I love the quiet meditation that origami brings and sometimes use it in my work. But for this, my goal was to give the locals something they probably haven’t received before. From what I’ve seen, some Koreans give each other flowers and chocolates on February 14th, but I haven’t seen paper valentines. Or at least these kinds of valentines:

fancy origami hearts by yours truly!

Fancy origami hearts by yours truly

I was tempted to write, “You’re waegukin (foreigner) loves you!” but I decided against it. Baby steps, people, baby steps.

Kidding aside, I made these because aside from the fact that I like them, the people I’ve met here have been so lovely and generous despite the apocalyptic language barrier. I just wanted to let them know I’m trying, too! Kamsahamnida!