Tag Archives: saying goodbye

So I’ve decided to move to South Korea. Seoul, to be precise.

When I tell my friends I’m moving to Korea, I have three common reactions:

Common reactions to my move to Korea

Common reactions to my move to Korea

But seriously, it’s to do an art residency in Seoul. While it will be my fourth home city (“home” being anywhere I’ve lived in for at least six months because really, it’s probably the only criterion I have left), it’s my first time to live in East Asia.

Seoul, my fourth home city

Seoul, my fourth home city

A big part of choosing South Korea among all other countries is, duh, taekwondo, which I have realized has way more impact on my creativity than I think I give it credit for. Yes, I expect training after studio hours to be the most badass there, so I have high expectations for Dojang/School #15 and Sabonim/Master #29.

Korea, land of taekwondo. Oh la la! Hurray!

Korea, land of taekwondo. Oh la la! Hurray!

I only had a few weeks to pack as much Korean in my head as I possibly could, as I don’t think taekwondo terms will help much. For future expats in Korea, check out the incredibly helpful and hilariously engaging videos of Eat Your Kimchi and SweetAndTasty, which I’ve also written about in a previous post.

Simon and Martina of Eat Your Kimchi

Simon and Martina of Eat Your Kimchi


Professor Oh and Friends

Thanks to the internet, I have come with things like deodorant, bedsheets*, and bras that will fit me—things that are apparently very hard to find in Korea.

Things I was advised to pack

Things I was advised to pack

And so the past two weeks were of doing what I now call The Expat Thank-You and Farewell Rounds (Part 7) of saying goodbye and having conversations with close friends and mentors. Closing another chapter through conversations, no matter how short that chapter was, is important to me, hence the lightning round of brunches, coffees, lunches, dinners, and drinks that make me question the human need of saying farewell over carbs. It’s quite sad to leave again, but I choose to look on the bright side. I am looking forward to uninterrupted time of continuing my work in a country that values tradition, skin care, and taekwondo as much as I do. Woohoo!

Ciao, friends! See you soon!

Ciao, friends! See you soon!

In the past nine years, I’ve always headed out west, and so this should be quite an adventure. Truthfully, it kind of feels like I’m going to another planet, or a parallel universe. I’m going to pretend the entire country is a dojang to minimize any untoward cultural misunderstandings. The bowing, the removal of shoes before getting in the room, shaking hands while touching your elbow—I’ve been doing this in taekwondo for the past 16 years.

Thanks to taekwondo, I feel that the chances of me unwittingly insulting a local are radically decreased.

Thanks to taekwondo, I feel that the chances of me unwittingly insulting a local are radically decreased.

It seems like only six months ago when I packed up my life and said goodbye.

Oh wait, it was.

Well, here goes nothing.

*Edit: So I’m here in my studio and they DO have bedsheets, or at least something that covers the bed. What the hey, internets. 

A farewell illustration I made for my taekwondo school, because I’m a sentimental crybaby.

Three days away from New York. I need to kick something.

Rewind to last Friday. I always spend part of my last day in a country in my taekwondo school. Call me strange, but for me having the final words from my masters is almost like being blessed by Buddha.*

*Sort of. Give me a break; it’s hard to keep moving.

Taekwondo is the bedrock of all my beliefs, perhaps even beyond art, science, writing, and design. It is the one thing that has remained consistent in all the years of traveling and starting over, and as such, is the one thing that has never failed to give me a sense of stability and groundedness. It has been a way not to just let off steam and counter depression, but also to channel all my energy into something that is positive. It will always be my second home.

It is the closest thing I have to a religion. I could probably do without drawing, writing, or tinkering around for a few days, but I go stir-crazy if I can’t train. I’ve trained everywhere—old buildings, white sand beaches, the streets. Even in graduate school, I missed out on most of the design talks because I would always be in the dojang every night. (Was that a confession? Oops.)

It’s an addiction whose seed was planted early. I started doing this when I was thirteen, but I only took it really seriously in the past eight years when I started moving a lot. I got my black belt after fifteen years—quite a while, but starting anew is a side effect of a nomadic lifestyle. The fact that I do this has always surprised people; surely someone who hugs and squeals as much as I do couldn’t possibly be doing something so…tough. I suppose it’s what has given me the confidence to be as open and happy; it’s quite comforting to know that I can take care of myself in potentially dangerous situations. Or at the very least, I know I won’t die without putting up a fight.

Mirrors and masters

Martial arts has always mirrored my life, including all the professions I’ve ever touched. Consider design. Long before designers came up with things like “gamification” or ways of incentivizing and motivating people, martial arts have always used a belt system to “promote” you from one level to the next. Everything from the uniforms, to how the belt is tied, to structure and hierarchy, is designed, way before we ever earned badges or became mayor of something.

Training in Asia, Europe, and America has given me some insights on how differently people see martial arts, and by extension, their personal worldview. Students in Asia are always the youngest I encounter; it’s something ingrained in them (us) from very early on. In Barcelona, it was a mix of young athletes who are set on competing, as well as older ones who’ve done it for years but just want to keep training for the love of it. In New York, it’s always the most eclectic bunch, which is probably why I learn so much about life from watching students progress.


For the most part, I find people who either want to try something new or do what I have come to define as “escapist training” – they want to transcend the usual daily grind. Occasionally, I encounter those who find their careers unsatisfactory, or have rocky relationships that they want to think about. They find the urge to kick the crap out of something to let out the frustrations of the day. I kind of like this application of martial arts; while we can’t actually go to war (unless you’re in the military or security or related professions), we can at least use it to fight our personal battles.

At its core, martial arts have little to do with the BS of the world. You either do the kick or you don’t. I see it as a method of reflection or problem solving— all the questions in your mind can be translated into movement, similar to how I’ve felt in dance. I’ve come to appreciate how it turns into a thermometer of a sort; how I feel during the day becomes so obvious and manifest by how well or poorly I train.

Bullies and therapists

It’s so incredibly beautiful the way I’ve seen people who are not competitive athletes apply this in their lives. I’ve observed kids who were bullied become more confident and sure of themselves, and adults who have made serious life decisions because of what they’ve realized through the sport.

Once, I encountered a pint-sized five-year-old who greeted me at the door after a belt test, jumping up and down and proudly holding the pieces of a board he just broke. And I wonder, what if all kids could do that and grow up believing they can do anything, that everything can be as simple as breaking a board with your foot?

Once, I helped teach a woman who sobbed every time I touched her wrist when teaching her self-defense. She told me that she once came from an abusive marriage, and all the grabbing reminded her of those awful times. Another woman came to me and said that because of training, she felt like wakes up with a lot more purpose. Always when I hear these stories, I’ve thought that some of the techniques should be a requirement for everyone, no matter what age you are.

Perhaps on a more sheepish note, most of my masters have been my therapists of a sort. I am almost embarrassed, but not quite, to say that I have cried on the shoulders of a lot of black belts over the years (because, you know, they have no choice but to listen), and now that I actually am one, it’s a testament to how titles really don’t matter. I suppose I have traumatized many a stoic traditional instructor (who I bet was laughing hysterically inside) who have had to put up with me over the years.

Some things I’ve learned so far

The belt doesn’t matter. Seriously. I see blue belts kicking the butts of black belts all the time. (From what I’ve observed, blue—the fifth color in most belt systems—is the time when I see people getting good. They’re now familiar with the foreign terms and have gotten used to testing and are committed to getting their black belts.) It’s kind of how it doesn’t matter what one’s degree is. The belt is just the thing that holds up your pants. And on that note…

Getting a black belt doesn’t mean much if you get lazy and stop. It’s like getting a degree and then not using it. Don’t get me wrong; It takes years of hard work to earn one, but I’ve always seen it as a lifelong commitment. When I finally “graduated,” I was relieved I didn’t have to start over again when I went to another school, but it wasn’t like the belt gave me superpowers. Training went on; the only difference was that I had to hold the kick pads sometimes. And it’s a lot more embarrassing if you forget things.

How you do taekwondo is how you do everything.

For BB

Is it possible to ever say goodbye to New York City?

The past two weeks, I have been gaining weight from all the brunches, lunches, dinners, coffees, mid-lunches, desserts and other invented rituals as I say “So long!” to New York once again.

This is the sixth time I am leaving a country, so by now, I know the drill. Moving to another country is quite different from moving to another state; it involves immigration papers, customs, another currency, language, and time zone. Life has gotten simpler the more this happens to me. Two years’ worth of stuff have been packed in three boxes and shipped. I don’t accumulate much anymore.

We all have our quirks. For me, it’s saying goodbye—it’s important to say goodbye! It marks the passing of time, of “properly” saying thank you for being a part of my life, whether voluntarily or otherwise. I have had rituals that were very traditional (dining out), adventurous (climbing a mountain and hiding a pepper plant in a castle for my friends to hunt for), and nonexistent (I once just left without notice). All have had different results. For this time, I think I prefer the simple ritual of having a conversation—the last one I will have with them face-to-face for a while.

It’s not just about the ritual, because it’s always good to get together with friends. Each move represents a switch, violently or not, of career directions and personalities. I’ve been a research scientist, a human rights something-or-other, a journalist and an editor, an artist and a poet, and an interaction designer. I’m quite curious (and clueless) as to what will happen to me on this leg of the journey now. And because of the chronic change, usually when I say farewell it does mean the end for most of the people I have known, who will likely never have a reason to reconnect with me ever again, who may at one point shake their heads, wonder, and go back to the anchored desks of their (relatively) stable and mortgaged lives. Sometimes, goodbyes are heartstoppingly lonely.

But they also have their entertaining side. Just what is it with farewells that makes people say the juiciest things to me? I’m quite positive I would never have heard a lot of these “confessionals” otherwise. It’s no wonder that travelers turn into storytellers in one form or another; one by one, the people I leave behind keep spilling their guts out without me having to prompt them. Amidst all the Thai lunches, American breakfasts, Japanese dinners, and English teas, I have been privy to the hidden lives of friends and colleagues alike. The secret identities, the love affairs, the hidden longings are all revealed to me like a discontinuous soap opera or graphic novel. It’s almost like they think of me as a bottle in which they can keep a message, to be tossed into choppy waters and never to be seen again, except maybe for the stranger who will pick it up on the other side of the ocean. Perhaps then I can whisper that secret, and create a legend out of that piece of gossip. Sometimes, I think they want me to.

The stories I have collected over time remain with me, long after the memory of the place has all but vanished. Sometimes, stories are all that I carry.

To say goodbye means to die a little inside, because I feel that I am leaving a part of myself behind in all the people I have met and cared about. And so once more I feel a bit lighter, a bit rootless, a little sad, but indescribably happy that the two years have meant oh so very much.

Is it possible to ever say goodbye to New York City? Nah, I’m sure I’ll see you all very soon.

For everyone I have met in NYC on this round.