Anxiety Abroad: Travel from the perspective of an anxious college kid

I was born a worrier. I can’t remember ever making a decision without thoroughly examining every single thing that could possibly go wrong – no matter how extreme. I remember when I was a little kid and my parents would leave home to go get groceries I would worry about them getting into a car crash and never coming back. My imagination would run wild with visions of seeing my mom in a hospital bed and moving to Ohio to live with my grandparents. If someone knocked on the door while they were gone I would hide under my bed, scared that they were there to rob me. I always had a tendency to jump to the worst conclusions no matter how ridiculous they were, and that habit carried over into my adulthood.

Now, if I am on my own I am very rarely in the present. My mind has a tendency to wander, to think about the past and the future: everything that has gone wrong and everything that could go wrong; and that is exactly what was happening last Monday when I stepped on a plane to study abroad in Valparaiso, Chile for five months. As you can imagine, for a person like me who tends to be a nervous wreck… I was a nervous wreck. Of course I was excited and thankful to be going on this journey, but at the same time my mind was endlessly racing. I had never crossed a border by myself before, I had never lived with another family before, I had never touched foot in South America. Plus it’s junior year – the year everything seemed to come together: my new love of Tacoma, my school routine, my relationships with my friends, my boyfriend, my professors. It was all familiar – it felt like home.

Just as I was getting comfortable with my new life at Puget Sound, I was leaving everything I knew. I would have to start all over again in a new country with a new language and new family and friends. I was terrified. . . and thrilled. . . and sad. . . and incredibly happy. This is what I wanted right? A new country, new experiences, time to grow and change. But as I was stepping onto that plane, a million doubts were running through my mind and at this point, there was no turning back.  

Nine hours, two cups of wine, and a couple of desperate attempts at sleep later, my plane began its final descent into Santiago, Chile. I was exhausted and excited and nervous, going over the instructions I had been told for getting through customs and meeting up with my group. Would I get there on time? Would I be able to find them? What happens if they don’t let me in the country? I opened up the window on the plane and immediately all my worries melted away. The Andes mountains spanned for miles out in front of me, their snow-capped ridges lit up by the warmth of the sunrise. I sat in awe, realizing that I was going to be able to call this country and all of its beauty my home for the next five months. For the first time that day I felt ready to take on the journey ahead of me.

The Andes mountains

The Andes mountains from my airplane window 

When I stepped off the plane, any sense of calm had completely vanished. The airport was complete chaos with people rushing to get their bags and long winding lines forming for customs. Airport security could barely control the crowds around them. Plus, everyone was suddenly speaking in rapid Spanish. I was in shock. Every ounce of energy and brainpower I had left was focused on the present: on quickly translating, navigating where to go, what to do, how to get there. However, in this chaos I found a new sense of calm. Everything was so new and exciting and stimulating that I had no time to worry. I had to be on my toes in order to survive.

This inner calm has continued for my first week here. The new language, new town, new people, and new culture are vitalizing. I am constantly learning and experiencing new things. My mind has no time to wander anymore. I am completely and utterly immersed in the present.

For a person like me who is constantly anxious you would expect me to hate travel. It’s full of the new and unknown and millions of things that could go wrong. But I actually love it. In fact, I thrive in it. All of the new stimuli, from the cuisine to the multicolored houses and even being catcalled on the street, force me to be in the present. I think that’s the beauty of travel; it reawakens your mind and body by forcing you out of your routine and into a world of constant excitement and stimulation. Oddly enough all of this new stimuli is somewhat meditative as it holds me in-the-moment and has reintroduced me to the gift of now. 

Completos - hot dogs served with avocado, tomato, onions, and mayo. A traditional Chilean food

Completos – A traditional Chilean food – Hot dogs served with avocado, tomato, onions, and mayo. We had this for Sunday lunch.

A mural on the streets of Valparaiso.

One of many murals on the colorful streets of Valparaiso.

This is why you come here

Me just hanging out up a tree.I and the other student researchers in the Woods Lab have just completed our first full week of field work in the Hoh Rainforest, on the Olympic Peninsula. Today I spent four hours suspended in a tree, collecting moss samples, surveying bryophyte species, and hanging lines in the canopy for other data collection efforts. Each of our days has been filled with similar activities, which continue to excite our minds and challenge our ingenuity.

The sheer beauty of the environment we get to work in continues to amaze me. The human eye can perceive the most shades of green, more shades than those of any other color, and I feel as though I enjoyed them all while I was working in the canopy today. And amidst the focus of the work and the adrenaline of the climbing, I was feeling another emotion—belonging. I know that this work is what I want to do for the rest of my life. If not in the canopy of a tree, then maybe under the ocean, or on a small island somewhere just as green.

The process to get here was not a short one. I took a research class this past spring semester to aid in writing the extensive research proposal, as well as other grant applications, to be able to earn this opportunity. But I was assisted the entire way by professors who genuinely want me to succeed, and most of all by my research advisor Carrie Woods. And now we’re out in the field, Carrie and I, and my three lab mates Eric, Kimmy, and Micaela, and I just think—this is why you come to a school like the University of Puget Sound.

We, as four undergraduate students, have been given the opportunity to design our own research projects and pursue them in such an incredible environment as the Hoh Rainforest. We are finally out here doing what we spent so long proposing to do, and it’s a million times better than we could have hoped for. And we get to work with and learn from a fantastic professor and an expert in the field of epiphyte community ecology. That’s quite the student-to-professor ratio.

If you don’t know what you want to do yet, just try it all. Anything I can learn in an environment like this, even if it doesn’t end up being my life’s passion, will continue to make me a better student, and my goal, a better scientist. I have already learned more in this process than I ever thought possible (and I’ve got some great moss facts if you’re interested). No matter what your interests are, even if they’re a mile away from bryophyte ecology, this school can give you the opportunities to explore them. In my opinion, this is why you come here.

What we get to work in every day

McKinley Nevins summer science research at University of Puget Sound is supported by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust’s College Science Research Program.

The Case for Type 2 Fun


I often bring up the “Fun Scale” to describe certain activities. Type 1 fun is always fun – I’m talking about climbing trees, 5.9-5.10a slab, and good food/sex/conversations with people you love. Type 2 is the fun-after-it-happened kind of fun, like some transect work and most mountain experiences. Type 3 is… Well, it’s just NOT fun. At all. Like falling on a cactus. Or getting dehydrated as all hell in the desert and almost dying. (This post by Kelly Cordes describes the scale in more detail for those interested.)

Most people think that Type 1 fun is the “best” kind of fun, because it’s the most enjoyable in the moment. But I disagree. There really is something to be said about Type 2 fun.

Picture this. You’re climbing up a mountain, and you’re fucking TIRED because of x, y, and z reasons, the flies are attacking you from all sides even though it doesn’t make any sense for them to be attacking you, cause isn’t there a bigger, better-tasting creature SOMEWHERE that they could be bothering instead of you, like those ridiculous mountain goats that keep following you because they like the smell of your sweat?, and god DAMN this mountain just won’t give you a downhill (or even a flat!) section to hike on. But then you look down at your chaco-laden feet and look at the incredible mixture of dirt-and-sweat-and-more-dirt that coats them, and they’re still trudging along. Step by step. Over the pink and purple and green of the high-alpine plants that you so missed. Taking you ever-closer to your goal. And then maybe some other things go wrong and you find yourself butt-scooching/down-climbing down the scree/sheer rock face you climbed up on because you literally couldn’t find the trail to save the life of you and thought that yeah, you climb, so this is definitely a good idea! as the fog rolls in from Port Angeles and you think to yourself more than once that HOLY DAMN THIS IS HOW PEOPLE DIE UP HERE. But somehow you make it, an hour later, back to the trail that you found far too late. You’re sore and even more tired than you were before, but you’ve never been so happy to see a patch of dirt in your life. And then you look back at where you were, and you don’t remember how crazy the journey up was, but you remember that you did it. And you realize that you loved every second of it even more than you appreciated the view from the top.

And that’s the thing about type 2 fun. Sometimes, it really fucking sucks. It’s miserable, and you question everything you knew about yourself and your abilities as a human. However, in the process of complete suffering, you grow. Type 2 fun is all about being uncomfortable, and it is through discomfort that we grow the most. And eventually, the stuff you used to find to be Type 2 fun becomes Type 1 fun – your comfort zone grows as you do.

College (and research, in some parts [like writing the proposal, not so much the research work itself – that is definitely Type 1]) is much the same way. It pushes you to be uncomfortable. It prods you and pokes you and sometimes it feels like you’re going to die under all the work you have. But then you get through it, like you do when you climb a mountain – by either slowing your pace down, or speeding it up so you can take a rest at the top of the hill. And you realize that you’re stronger and capable of more than you once thought.

So other people can have all the Type 1 fun they want. I’ll take Type 2 any day of the week.

IMG_6122 2 IMG_6123 IMG_6128 2


First-hand impressions of Trump in Poland

Hello again,

I’m writing now, a month after my original post, from Warsaw, Poland, where I planned to spend the month of July. Long story short, things have not gone to plan, and my research has now taken me back to Budapest. The details of my troubles getting access to the archives would only be interesting for those sad and lonely souls* who enjoy discussions about Eastern European bureaucracy, so I’ll stay away from that as a topic.

*I am one of those sad and lonely souls who enjoy such discussions myself.

Instead, I’ll write about Trump’s visit to Poland a few days ago, which I observed first hand with a lot of interest. For transparency’s sake, I think it’s important that I say that I was part of the anti-Trump demonstration in Warsaw on the day of his speech. Poland has been one of the most pro-American countries in the world over the last century. The modern Polish state’s birth out of the ruins of European empire after World War One is tied to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s ideas about the right to national self-determination. Since then, Poland suffered under Nazi and Soviet occupation during World War Two, and experienced the worst that being in the Soviet Union’s Cold War sphere of influence had to offer. Even the best efforts of communist propaganda could not sway public opinion away from the US. Since the Cold War, and especially after Poland’s admission into NATO, US military presence in Poland has been a pillar of stability — the perceived threat presented by Russia makes Poland an extremely welcoming place for American troops.


“Always Close #safertogether”


Even so, the amount of support for Trump was surprising. On the days around Trump’s visit, I saw more Make America Great Again hats than I ever would have thought, and I saw multiple displays of the confederate flag. Given Trump’s history of shying away from strong statements about his commitment to NATO and how flippantly he has treated Russia (Poland is strongly anti-Russia), one would think that there might be some worry about Trump in Poland, but this was not the case.

I think this is an indication that the the main phenomenon the democracies of the world have to deal with right now is understanding and responding to the prevalence of ethnic nationalism among their constituents. Decrying ethnic nationalism as simply “racist” and not engaging with the difference in ideology, is, I think, useless. For a Polish ethnic nationalists such as those in PiS, the current ruling party, the Polish nation is defined by Catholicism and a national historical narrative that highlights only the times of Polish victory or heroic martyrdom. There’s nothing political about it.

I reckon Trumpism to be very similar. Americanism is not understood as being defined in political terms, but rather in a mercantilist, hard power-based framework. Trump has no need for soft power, which the US has historically used to promote democracy around the world, or at least pay heavy lip service to it. Enemies such as fascists, communists were defined by political terms. With Trump, the US’s enemies are not those who undo democracy such as Erdogan or Putin, but those who are viewed as living fundamentally different lives than the West. Trump and PiS share this worldview, and therefore, share a disregard for a democratic processes when their societies face existential threats. The Confederate flags and general support for Trump in Poland, then, is something beyond support for Trump himself, but rather, an celebration of alignment in world views. For a country with history of foreign control, both at the ideological and hard power level such as Poland, having the world order’s leading country support the country’s worldview is tremendously powerful. I think it’s safe to say the we’re currently in the midst of a global upswing of confidence in the idea of ethnic nationalism, and this plays right into the hands of Trumpists, while dealing true liberal democratic around the world a strong blow. 

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These are just reflections and thoughts from a hostel common room; there’s a reason I’m not on the editorial board of any prominent news sources. Feel free to chime in with your own thoughts.

Research? Or Closure?

한국에가고싶어요…. 한국에돌아오고싶어요. 나의엄마보고싶어요. 

Translation: I want to go to Korea….I want to come back to Korea. I want to see my mom.

These three sentences are probably the most complicated sentences I can manage to string together in Korean. I can say this much as well as some basic restaurant and travel phrases. The thing is… I’m not a tourist, I’m not a Korea-enthusiast (e.g. Koreaboo), I’m not a KPOP fan, and I’m not majoring in international studies with an interest in Korea. I am Korean. I’m Korean-American; more specifically a Korean Adoptee. For my 2nd Summer Research grant, I will be living and researching in Seoul, South Korea for 30 days. I’ve returned to South Korea on 2 separate occasions but this will be the longest and most in-depth experience yet.

On March 9th, when I marched up the steps of Jones Hall to pass my application on to the powers that be, I paused for just a moment outside the building. March 9th also happened to be my 21st birthday. I paused for a moment to think about what it would mean to receive the Summer Research Grant in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences from the University. I paused to think about my mother and whether or not she was thinking of me on my birthday. I paused to think about all of my potential subjects and their stories. My summer research is an Oral History project of Korean Adoptees who have returned (indefinitely) to South Korea. I’m recording narratives of return and hoping to map the diverse journies from birthland to adopted land and back again. My goal is to record a community’s history and find out how the phenomenon began in 1998/1999-2007, when almost no Korean social worker ever believed adoptees would even come back to visit. I know that some of them will be stories of joy, found families, and amazing personal growth. However, I also know that many stories will be stories of pain, rejection, and failed adoption. So, I paused outside of Jones, and for just a second, I considered turning back and foregoing my application. I was worried I would find things about adoption that I wouldn’t be able to emotionally handle, I was worried that living alone in Korea for 30 days would be too taxing, and I was worried that my motivations for doing this research were far too personal and not academic in any way.

Here’s the question: Am I truly doing this research for the pursuit of knowledge and justice for the advancement of understanding human history? Or am I using University dollars to go on a 30-day personal journey to find more closure in my birthland where I had always dreamed of moving since my first visit in 2009? Am I doing this to scope out if returning would be a good option for me? I struggled with these questions while I wrote my application, when I handed it in, and when I received my notification of acceptance. When I received my notification of acceptance, I went to a friend and confidant of mine. I asked them, “Am I doing the right thing? Is this okay? Am I actually doing real research or am I just going on some sort of self-discovery?” They looked at me and simply replied “Why can’t it be both?” In that moment I remembered something really crucial about what it means to be a scholar of Art, Humanities, and Social Sciences. In fact, I had no idea how I could have forgotten because it is my favorite aspect of these disciplines. In the arts, humanities, and social sciences students often pursue scholarship that allows them to self-explore, feel their emotions, and share their experiences with those around them.

So again…

한국에가고싶어요…. 한국에돌아오고싶어요. 나의엄마보고싶어요. I want to go to Korea…I want to come back to Korea. I want to see my mom. While it is unlikely that I will ever find my mother (less than 10% of Korean Adoptees do), I hope that by living and learning in Korea with other adoptees for 30-days, I will come away with not only historical knowledge of the history of adoptees but also with a found-family of my own.

I hope you stay tuned.

-김 재우


Me, June 2016 at Eastern Social Welfare Services in Seoul