As my 43rd birthday came and went with the lunar new year, I celebrated on the other side of the world in different ways. One probably being less of a celebration and more of a painful reflection that also somehow brought a little peace. The somewhat superficial aspects of aging were hitting hard. I’d noticed noticed celebrities my age looking older for some time but had just started to notice the actual people in my life doing the same. The glow of youth had faded and was now only showing through their teenage children. Being plus-sized had always worked against me in a young world of unacceptance and I had always looked a lot younger than my actual age. There seemed to be less judgment about my weight. and, while looking young hadn’t been the biggest deal, it was suddenly working for me in a way it never quite had before. Besides keeping doors open in a more “relevant” age group for the life I was living, also in regard to climbing the scale as one of the more attractive people of my own age. Still, it felt like a loss over all. Who I was looking at was others, not myself. There was also a feeling of life being over for people my age in a way. The sun setting instead of rising or shining high in the sky. My developing serious health issues and the more common “age” and size issues (like the state of my knees) added to the spotlight of having lost our youth. Even if I had managed to process all of that OK at home, living a lifestyle of those half my age added to the mix for just the right formula to create a midlife crisis. No fair! When I looked up the age of midlife, results said 45. I was still supposed to have two more years! Not having support around wasn’t doing me any favors.
My birthday on Feb. 8th was peaceful and one of the best I remembered. Reflecting on my life, it had become what I’d always dreamed of in some way. I was living in a different part of the world on a beautiful island where my life revolved around adding to the lives of others, rescuing dogs, writing and spending my time being out and active in nature. My students made me feel so special on my special day. It was like a holiday for them. They drew pictures and gave me little gifts like candy. Even my bosses got me a tiny (cute but gross) cake and the Jeju horse key-chain they didn’t even know that I had been wanting. The irony was not lost on how so many had try to get it right before, usually on a larger scale, and it hadn’t worked. The little things were what did. Also doing something that reminded me of home when going to an expat bar that had a tiki beach vibe with surfer videos. I lucked out in being able to treat myself to a a burger there as they had just opened back up that day after a month of being closed thanks to Covid.
I had a hard time with my birthday. Not because of the age thing but because of the painful memories attached to it. Especially the fresh ones from the previous year. I always still wanted to celebrate as well which made it a conflicting personal holiday. Given as such, I decided that I wanted the real celebration to be by myself with a little pampering that I hadn’t been able to afford for years. I still reserved the weekend before in case any friends wanted to celebrate, though. I wasn’t holding my breath as I didn’t have many friends on the island but Kathy at least really wanted to do something since her birthday was a success. Meeting up at a CU convenience store that actually had a pool (though empty) with an ocean view, I had first gone to the unimpressive bar she had originally wanted to meet up at but was over by the time she arrived. The irony was once again not lost as being at that convenient store ended up being my favorite part of the day. Physically I felt horrible from a bad insomnia night but we still managed to head back to the City Hall downtown neighborhood for one of our normal-style nights out. The most special part of the whole thing being how much it mattered to her and the effort she made.
The next weekend was indeed a great (mostly) solo celebration. I had specifically been looking to rent a hotel room that had a hot tub I could lounge in that overlooked the ocean and had decided on the one in a neighborhood I enjoyed called Aewol. The place was unimpressive when I arrived but the outdoor hot tub (I had originally wanted indoor for fear of bad weather) was right along the black volcanic-rock beach and private enough to spend many a soaks wearing my favorite birthday suit. The tub was quite small, though, which I got a kick out of because Gaelan and Leo were going to stop by and I had told them to bring their bathing suits. Once I saw the size, the joke commenced about how I was worried they were going to think I was suggesting something more than just an innocent soak.
Before they came, I made it to a cafe I liked on the coast not too far away and a small Italian restaurant I had been wanting to try where I, of course, got the most cheesy dish. Then onto one of my favorite touristy beach bars, Sunset Cliff, where I snagged one of the lounge beds on the top floor to watch the sunset over the ocean. The couple finally joined me after hitting a famous doughnut spot called Randy’s and brought me a mint chip one that I wasn’t impressed by. It was nice to mentally turn it into a birthday cake at least. In the cabana, Leo sugar-crashed and fell asleep while I, fighting the side effects of insomnia patch, struggled to socialize with Gaelan regardless of how much I was envying her. Later we went and popped some cheap bubbly while soaking our feet in the hot tub. It ended up being plenty satisfactory, though I was still getting a kick out of the idea of all of us stuffed in there.
The next day I made it to a Mexican food restaurant they had told me about the night before and then to do my favorite thing there on the island: go on an Olle hike. It never failed to lead through the beauty of why I had moved to Jeju Island and that particular time introduced me to a beautiful cafe I vowed to go back to at the end of the hike. I even bought myself a birthday present at the beginning. Another of the Jeju horse key chains though that being a symbol of the Olle.
Getting lost about three hours in (half way having been planned to be my stopping point anyway) I made it back to the spot I had found, Res Cafe, before rain started coming down hard. Later I made it to a BBQ place by my hotel that had a long line the night before and I was curious about. Well, I sure did find out why. It was delicious and cheap. My server was also cool which made it my birthday grand finale as well as a chance to romance myself as it ended up being Valentines Day. The next morning gave me the chance for one last soak before grabbing a taxi to head to the hospital for a doc appointment and then onto work. It had been a great birthday.
A lot of self-reflection came with the territory of being a dreamer. So did birthdays. Doing what I was and accomplishing what I had had brought me a level of peace I’d never been able to find within myself. While it caused challenges in other new ways, so did age. Having realized my goals and dreams, I could keep those growing, but it was also time to come up with new ones. I didn’t necessarily need to accomplish them though. I just needed a place in my imagination to escape to. A canvas for all the color of my imagination.
Doggo rescue continued to be my main focus throughout the month. With the two brothers off, the pooch from the back of the building became my focus. So did the pup I had flown to Seoul that hadn’t made her flight because she was too young. I just felt too damn heartbroken for the young man adopting him to not get involved. He was great and trying so hard to help. I was determined to make it happen for him. After very quickly finding an emergency foster dad for the little girl (another amazing American young man), we joined forces to find a new flight and support each other. Let me tell you, adopters like him were a big part of what kept my fire burning.
The big win in rescue for the month came when the owner of the dog chained up behind the building said (on the day before I was scheduled to move out) that I could take him. Going full-time meant that I was moving to an apartment provided by my hagwon that was luckily pet-friendly. I had been turned down a couple times in the past by the property manager when asking about taking in the pooch so I hadn’t expected much that time when finding a volunteer who spoke Korean to call and ask if I could at least take him for shots and neutering. Feeling exhausted and being a little sick (I wouldn’t find out for another month that I had bronchitis), I had all but given up when a woman who had volunteered to build his shelter pushed me to at least try for that. The call from the translator was when the owner finally said that it was OK to just take him. What a surprise! Heading out on the move the next day, I was excited to ask for name ideas on social media and eventually went with the suggestion of that same volunteer who had pushed me. Saja, which meant lion in Korean. Somewhat fitting with all that fluff around his head, though he was more of a teddy bear in personality. He also probably looked more like one come to think about it.
Before I had gone on that birthday staycation, I had had to figure out a doggie-sitter as I hadn’t expected to have a pup at my pad for the weekend away scheduled. It didn’t take too much work as I lucked out when an acquaintance and his two friends from Seoul ended up staying in my pad while I staycationed at that hotel on the coast with a bathtub that overlooked the ocean. It also helped in that I was more allergic to Saja than I had ever been to a dog before. A second bonus was that my fit acquaintance got him out for long walks more than I would have been able. Important given that Saja didn’t like being inside and was such a chill boy that he would just lay on the tile floor in the foyer when in the apartment.
The move and my birthday passed and it was back to regular life. My new apartment was on the other side of a big road from the apartment my first hagwon had provided so I was almost right back where I had started. I had never explored the direct area, though, since I had assumed that it being so close to my first apartment on the other side of the main street close-by meant that it would be the same. Nope. The new side, just one block away from work, actually had some cool restaurants, cafes and even a wine spot across from me. Rare for the island. I even finally managed to check out the bowling alley close by I had passed a few times. It looked somewhat ancient from the outside so I hadn’t expected much before going inside but it turned out that it was nice!
Besides exploring the neighborhood, I had a less fun kind of exploring to deal with that came from a full day of cleaning the apartment since the previous teacher hadn’t exactly left it scrubbed. I also had to figure out what half the stuff was that he and his wife had left behind. I told them before leaving that they could leave it; I knew it must be overwhelming doing so much for the move back to a different country. It was inconvenient none-the-less.
Coughing my brains out as I got set up, I worried that there was mold in the walls or the nasty old mattress in the bed that was provided. Super-cleaning and putting up a fight to have the unreasonable old ajumma landlord/owner replace that mattress (it was told that it was over a decade old), I didn’t have any more energy to keep trying to figure it out after that. What I did have the energy for was to figure out how to get a table I adored and couch with a foldout option for a reasonably small price off of our local “marketplace” Facebook group. I knew having pups around would almost ensure damage so was pretty happy with what I scored. Especially since the sofa-bed ended up being used as a full-time bed with the new mattress on top of the foldout as the bedroom became a doggie den.
The month’s unexpected fun started when a stranger reached out on Facebook asking if I would be willing to dog and house-sit for a fee over the summer. I had originally said yes right away because I thought she was someone I had met who I had been looking for the same. It turned out not to be that person but it looked like a great gig all the same. Not only was I going to be paid 500k won, I would also be infiltrating the expat community with my animal rescue goals, hang with a new doggo, stay on a different part of the island, Airbnb my own place if I was lucky and, maybe the biggest score, they were going to let me use their camper van. Hello camping every weekend it wasn’t raining and practicing for my own van down the road!
There was also a small score in throwing my hat in the ring when seeing that a woman was looking to promote a plus size clothing line in Korea and was offering free outfits to those who would do a photo shoot in them. An instant double-score in that not only would I get some free swag but it would also help to get back in touch with myself physically. Any kind of feeling good about looking good had been dormant for too long. Not to mention being in touch with any kind of sexuality. What I had been in touch with was having a hard time with the signs of aging that had been hitting. First experiences of my body being on a decline, especially when living the life of a young person with no one my age around…I was still on a slow slope of feeling worse instead of better.
The doggo stuff continued, of course. The woman who was originally thinking she was going to adopt Saja decided she was just going to foster almost instantly. It caused an instant situation for more work but was still a great help to have him in a better environment and she helped not only with fostering but also covering cost and rides. We were able to get some of the shots and microchip covered at the shelter, so that had been one little bit of help before passing the torch, but there were still more and I was pretty worn out of emptying my bank account for strays.
As soon as I had known that that Blue/Latte, Jeju/Pumpkin and Saja were leaving, Em had asked if I could take over fostering one of a litter of seven from her blueberry farm rescues. That was coming coming up but first I and another volunteer went to Eun Suk’s personal rescue to volunteer with cleaning and to talk about a litter she was hoping I’d take. That made for two directions that the upcoming fostering situations would be hitting. When Emily’s rescue pup was dropped to me first, it was at school when I was working. I was happy that he was just the sweetest people-loving boy and the students adored him. They possibly even had an even better time than when playing market the day after. Nothing beats a puppy!
Soju is the super cheap rice wine drank on a normal basis in S Korea. That made his name hilarious. Especially to Koreans. It mixed well with that sweet and mild temperament to make him a hit around the neighborhood. The one hiccup I was about to find out was that he was possessive of belongings and treats at home. Saja came back later that week for a couple nights to get neutered and Soju was an asshole to him for the first hour and a half. Luckily gentle Saja just played submissive and they were soon besties.
The biggest move for the month was when I decided to finally buckle in and buy a car. Nothing nice; just a $1k beater for animal rescue. I checked out two cars in that range and, without even having my Korean drivers license, I put down a deposit on a little dinky white car and immediately naming it the Rescue Rocket.
As usual, my social life was more of a side note with my favorite culinary experience being when Gaelan, Leo, Kathy and I finally made it for the dak-galbi they had told me about at Christmas. It was a dish Leo had said was his favorite Korean food and I had been curious about ever since. Damn was he right. It was nice to finally like something Korean. It was also a nice hanging with friends whose relationship seemed to be becoming more distant. I was getting sick of trying and they had been on the island for way longer than me so had more than enough of a social life to try to keep up with. Especially with the challenges Covid presented.
Man was I hungover the next day. I still managed to make it to brunch with Kathy at what was to become one of my favorite local spots though I couldn’t eat. We didn’t make it to the bowling alley as originally planned until the next week though. We had a blast once there, at least, and were quickly talking about coming back. Soju and I hung with the people working at the wine shop a few days later. Beyond finding a cafe and BBQ place right by me to try out later, that was about it. I was satisfied for the moment. It was a good month.