My first trip to Hong Kong since graduating university

Understanding 24

A year in highlight

The idea of reflecting at the end of every year and writing new year’s resolutions for the next never appealed to me. I lived for almost 23 years feeling as though nothing significant ever happened in my life, but this year was a little different. In fact, so many things happened, I felt as though I need a moment to mull over the changes that have taken place.

Reading the city in Shanghai

2016 started off as a roller coaster.

I was sent at the end of 2015 by my design studio in Berkeley to complete a half-year stint as a landscape designer in Shanghai, China. No stranger to living in new places, I still found living in Shanghai tough for reasons I have mentioned before, On top of all the cultural and social differences, I felt burnt out from “living” in the office. Due to the fact that I was living in company housing and because of the time zone difference between Shanghai and Berkeley, I was constantly working from morning until night. In a way, the schedule was not much different from the studio days of recent past, but the difference was that I did not enjoy the work. My studio was solely focused on projects in China, which meant having little control over the creative direction of the project as designers. We were more CAD and modeling monkeys on tight deadlines, churning out unimaginative, non-contextual work that only served to benefit the developers. Before the end of my contracted time abroad, I felt as though I had betrayed my own profession by allowing myself to draw these designs that lacked environmental and social sensibility. Despite feeling this way, I continued on with my job because I did not have the momentum to leave and to pursue what I had wanted to do for the past two years: writing and photography.

Luckily for me, when I returned from Shanghai in May, I got fired for insubordination. I refused to keep working 9+ hour days without proper compensation and to sacrifice my health for work that was not in line with my passions. This was the final push that convinced me to return to Korea, but it was not the event that set everything in motion.

Ayumi Tricia Tsuzuki with squid kites at the Berkeley Kite Festival, 2015

Late January of this year, I lost a close friend who was both a sister and inspiration to me. Ayumi Tricia Tsuzuki was a free spirit that always allowed her passions to guide her life. I too tried to live my life outside the influence of others, but the freedom she had was so much more pure, simple. I envied that.

Tricia and I (2014)

Growing up in a Chinese household, I was always made aware of the importance of appearances. My family always criticized my freckles, the way I brushed my hair, and the clothes I chose to wear. The only thing for which they could not chastise me was my academic results. I was always a good, responsible student (save for the fourth grade), and to accomplish anything less than perfect frustrated me. Although the people around me never vocalized their thoughts on my scholastic achievements, I internalized their expectations of me and let it guide my life direction, because I wanted to make their perceptions of me my actual reality.

People expected me to take the usual route of a high-achieving student, and I thought my life would follow that preconceived plan as well. Since I was young, I imagined myself graduating from a top-tier university, finding a high-paying design job at which to work, and continuing with that until I had no more rungs to climb. But once I started down that road, I found myself doubting my place in the life I had so carefully crafted in my imagination. Although I felt that way, I could not simply walk away without a plan on how to feed and house myself.

When I returned from traveling in Korea in early 2015, I wrote a 5-year plan to save money so that I could freely pursue photography and writing on my own terms. During my five months in Korea, I lived with the Park Family for one month in Gapyeong-gun. As a result of living and spending Chuseok with them, I produced a photo-essay about the modern construction of family. For two almost years, I could not forget the joy I felt in producing that piece, and to continue that practice of observing and telling stories was what I wanted. If I were brave enough to let my passions sweep me away, I would have never returned to America. It was only this year that I found the courage through Tricia. She was only 37 years of age when she passed away. Despite living like a saint and being a positive influence to everyone around her, she succumbed to forces beyond her control. The senselessness of her death reminded me that life was too short to delay the pursuit of the things that made us feel alive.

La Foodio members (UC Berkeley Class of 2013 Landscape Architecture students + Cory and I) at my Shanghai farewell party (November 2015) — Many of us have moved out of the Bay Area to pursue other callings, but we all try to meet at least once a year

A month after I was fired, I moved back to Korea with a vision and only an inkling of how I would go about fulfilling it. Luckily for me, the people and organizations I met two years ago were there for me when I needed it most.

The Park Family making songpyeon during Chuseok (top); WWOOF Korea CEO meeting with a WWOOF host on Jeju Island (bottom)

One of my biggest supporters since two years ago was WWOOF Korea CEO KIM Hye-ran. After I published the photo-essay that changed my life direction, she reached out to me to let me know how much she enjoyed my work and wanted to support me in the future. I was not ready to continue my project then, and so when I returned to the US, I kept in touch with her and occasionally asked for her help in contacting important players in the slow food movement in Korea. In return, I helped WWOOF Korea out sporadically editing their website and other important documents. When I met her for the first time this year and told her about my plan to document the lives of organic farmers through photo-essays, she gave me her full support.

My increasingly hip life: Farming Ogye Black Chickens (left); enjoying dinner in Hallim-ri with a citrus farmer and his family (right)

Since June, she has assisted me in documenting 5 farms and has given me a platform on which to connect with farmers and with important players in the slow food movement. As a result, I was able to produce Mother of Chickens along with a few other essays that have yet to be published.

Images from this year’s farming adventures: Ogye Black Chicken Farmer LEE Seung-Sook (top); Jeju tangerines (bottom, left); Choseokjam farmer and volunteer bringing home corn (bottom, right)

Farming played an important part in convincing me that Korea was where I wanted to be, but the most important factor was the neighbourhood of Mullae-dong. When I stayed in the village for two months, I fell in love with the rawness of the environment and the sincerity of the artists. Despite the many physical changes that had taken place in the neighbourhood, the people did not change. The more artists I met and started to work with, the more I felt as though I was destined to be a part of this village.

Mullae villagers: PARK Ji-hoon writing calligraphy during the Mullae Night Market (top, left); LEE Hyo-ju grinding coffee beens (top, right); the sole survivors of our all-night Christmas Eve party (bottom)

Mullae also supported me in reaching an important milestone in my adolescent photography career. After completing (The Night Belongs) To Artists project that I dreamed of two years ago, I somehow convinced Bittarae owners, K.Chae and SONG Kwang Chan to host my first exhibition. Not only was I grateful for the opportunity to display my work completely on my own terms, having my work displayed at Bittarae was also meaningful to me as it was one of the first places I visited in Mullae. It felt as though the exhibition was not only a display of my work but a telling of my history with Mullae.

Although it may not seem as if I have accomplished much in six months, it has been the most meaningful six months of my entire life.

(The Night Belongs) To Artists Exhibition with a feature by K. Chae

Looking in, many people have expressed their admiration towards me for pursuing the trajectory that I have this year. So many of my friends, especially young people under 30, wish that they had the courage to quit their nine-to-five that has little to do with their real passions. They wish that they were brave enough to do what I did, but rather than overcoming the initial fear of uncertainty, momentum was the most important factor in this year’s events. The lack of fulfillment from work and Tricia’s passing both pushed me towards leaving the US, and the support of people in Mullae-dong and WWOOF Korea have kept me going despite sporadic moments of uncertainty. My rather dramatic move was not only physical but mental as well.

Christmas Eve party in the village (left); brunch in a stairwell on Christmas Day (right)

As someone who has spent a good portion of her life feeling alone, I thought it impossible for me to feel other kinds of loneliness, but I was proven wrong. Although I could always contact my friends back home in the US and communicate with a few English speakers in Korea, I felt as though I were missing a deeper, mental connection. I still feel that way sometimes, but instead of becoming depressed about it, I have begun to accept my loneliness as simply a natural state that comes and goes.

My move also changed my relationship with money, but not in the way one might imagine. I have never been a big spender; some people may even call me a saving addict because of how little I spent. Although I never grew up poor, I always felt guilty about spending money even if I had earned the money on my own. My inability to spend money stopped me from enjoying myself at times. When my friends would invite me out to eat, I sometimes felt as though it were a waste of money and would stay home to cook instead. Since coming to Korea, I truly began to feel as though saving money, at least to the degree that I have, was excessive. Money will always be there when I need it, but time is evanescent as well as the moments I now have the ability to enjoy with my friends.

As for making friends in Korea, living in Mullae has been an absolute godsend. Thanks to the guest house in which I now live and the magical coffee shop just downstairs, I have met so many incredible artists that have brought new perspectives into my life. Most importantly, they have encouraged me to keep working towards my goals even when things seemed to not go as planned. When I first met many of the artists in Mullae, I felt discouraged by their success and by my own lack of progress. Then they reminded me that they all had at least six years of experience on me, and I was only six months into my own career. My life was just beginning, and there was no reason to be discouraged over the success of others.

(The Night Belongs) To Artists: Opening performance by SEO Jeich and LEE Kuk (top, left); a visitor “enjoying” my photo (top, right); the end of the exhibition opening party (bottom, photo courtesy of SONG Kwang-chan)

From this past year, the most important outcome from my newfound freedom and all the goodness and difficulties that have come along with it is my newfound interest in living. Although I have still yet to explore so many different parts of the world and the varied ways of living in them, the world always felt a little small to me. I was forced into adulthood very early on in my life. Starting when I was six, I took on much of my own parenting responsibilities because my caretakers did not concern themselves with me. Although I always had more to learn about being human, the lack of care by the adults around me and my resulting lack of life direction led me deep into depression. By high school, I felt as though I was ready to end my life because I felt no joy, no excitement from the thought of living; my daily life was simply a compilation of unfinished tasks given to me by school and by people who pretended to care about me. But since returning to Korea, I now have a goal that is entirely my own, free from the constructed expectations of others. The unexpected challenges of this year have not discouraged me but have instead made me feel as though the world became large and mysterious again.

Hiking Halla Mountain with my friend in December 2016

The environment in which we live our lives is as big as we want it to be, and my only hope for the next year is for the world around me to keep expanding. I want to continue to feel as though there is more for me to accomplish and to continue to find myself as a person. With what this year has brought me mentally and physically, I am looking forward to what the new year will surely bring.

Thank you to all my friends that have been supporting me. Let’s make 2017 a good one!