Posted on February 15, 2015

I walk though the park sweating on warm weekends, tramping through mud with heavy backpacks, lured by the possibility of meeting people different from myself. Why does being different make it so wrong?

Tea Fairy prefers to live under the sky with her dog, Emma, creating and selling art aimed to bring down the borders of selective favoritism. Equal love and equal support for all. She sticks to her own territories in both Berkeley and San Francisco, equally evading eviction and the troublemakers that regular folk assume she is.

The Sweepers of Haight-Ashbury

Posted on February 12, 2015

I had the opportunity to meet and follow the members of the Haight Ashbury Street Sweepers program. An offshoot of Taking it to the Streets, the Sweepers allow at-risk youth to participate in community service to clean and beautify the neighborhood as a path to achieving a more permanent job. These kids work four days a week and in return are offered a place to live, a job reference, and mentorship.

In San Francisco – particularly the Haight Ashbury neighborhood – there’s a dichotomy of what people consider the “right” way to live but it’s difficult to cross those boundaries once you’ve committed to a side. I love that this grassroots organization enables these individuals to make that change.

I’ve spoken with three of the six Sweepers and was humbled by the type of conversations they had while they worked: physics, theology, chemistry, art, and business administration. Not the things that I would expect homeless youth to discuss while they picked up old newspapers, bottles, and cigarette butts from the sidewalk. I was moved by their past, their ambition, and their dreams. Although I walked into the situation knowing I’d be surprised, I wasn’t prepared for this.


People as Projects

Posted on February 11, 2015

I’m addicted to people. A strange thing for an introvert to say, but this is the breakthrough I’ve been waiting for my entire life. We all have miles of secrecy and share the same fears, have stories bursting to be told, and anxieties about what will happen tonight, later, and tomorrow. We have compassion for each other (however deep it’s buried), and reservations and mistrust. We’ve had moments we’re not proud of, parts of us that we’re ashamed for others to see, and for this we’re all artists curating just the best.

In 2014 I discovered that I love talking with people, discovering things about the world that only other eyes and experiences can bring, and having a brand-new shared companionship. I love preserving those moments in pictures so that the moment isn’t lost to delicate memory.

I promise to share more of this.

Naked & Strange

Posted on December 23, 2014

With the drought hard-hitting the American West, rivers and lakes slowly die before our eyes. The southwest has always been a conundrum, full of deserts and heat, dotted with oases of opulent civilization and rich, famous farmlands.

As the waters fall, the bones of the earth rise into view, exposed and naked and strange.


City of the Dead

Posted on December 6, 2014

In the U.S., you book your cemetery when you’re still alive. When you’re done, your guests wear black, throw a wake, throw flowers, and the cemetery workers to take care of the rest. Someone pays for a stone and comes back later if they’re so inclined. Or, you cremate.

It’s different in Korea.

Walking through these pristine parklands is otherworldly and strange. More than the embodiment of a post-apocalyptic silo civilization, it’s a conundrum. It’s a vast green, smooth, velvety landscape empty of people in a country so crowded with life. Under these hills are stones and tombs so old, so sacredly undisturbed, that we often don’t know who sleeps inside.

There’s some connection here, I’m sure, between the burial practices that are so oddly similar across the vast corners of the Earth.

The Rainbow Hikers

Posted on November 21, 2014

There’s a movement happening in Korea right now, one that’s been blooming beneath the surface of society for years. It slips beneath our notice, and while the epidemic has taken tight hold of its people, the rest of the world doesn’t bat an eye.

Rainbow Hikers: Korean adults aged 40 and up who don the quintessential Korean outerwear in every explosive shade of the autumn landscape. Perfectly color-coordinated, perfectly prepared, these stalwart warriors proudly sport their pants with articulated knees, all-weather boots, gloves, backpacks, hydration packs, sun hats, windbreakers, vests, and walking poles with the greatest pride. Although they’ll never come close to anything resembling a survival situation, they’re ready.

As much as I enjoy poking fun at this Korean trend, I long to join them. There’s something appealing about being ready for anything, and looking good while you do it. Black Yak, Mountia, Nepa… these are all the tenets of this beautifully bright faith.

One day I’ll be perfectly matched, perfectly waterproof, and perfectly ready to walk the 1 kilometer paved trail alongside them and maybe once (just for once!) they won’t look twice at me.

Korea: The Lay of the Landscape

Posted on November 19, 2014

My mother said that she hated the mountains growing up because they always hid how far one could see. She never saw the horizon until she was 16.

Korea is full of mountains, although it doesn’t have much of a reputation for being wrinkly. From above it’s all peaks and folds, gentle ancient hills, softened by dense trees and valleys lined in golden rice fields.

The mountains cradle skyscrapers and clouds, then feel the tickle of the sea and farms at their feet. Although the country has an immensely diverse landscape of its own, the mountains are the threads that keep it all together.

Miss By a Mile

Posted on November 16, 2014

A while back I shared a photo from Humans of Berlin, a Korean girl who left Seoul to find her identity in Germany. At the time I thought I understood her, but my capricious share was mostly a nod to the commonplace conformity of suburban America. Parents who disliked that their daughter wore black.

I’d not fathomed the implications of that girl’s statement, how much higher her wall had towered around her in Korea, than the piddling suburban picket fence had for me.

In the time I spent exploring the cities, the mountains, and everything in-between of Korea, I realized the bullet I had dodged, had I, with the flip of a butterfly’s wings or a moment of circumstance, not been born in the USA. The rules that bind society here – the importance of fitting in, the piercing claws of tradition and pride – those are all things that would have chafed deeper than I could ever imagine.

This is a country steeped in history, racked with war, and even today stocks cabinets of gas masks and oxygen tasks to protect its residents against the angry brother to the north.

There is so much that I respect and honor here, but it couldn’t have been my home.

Through traveling through Korea I thought I’d find myself closer to my roots. Instead I found an appreciation for the life my parents have given me, and for the life I’ve found in this free, beautiful place called San Francisco.

It Takes a Village

Posted on October 7, 2014

Along my travels, I’ve reveled in medieval castles in Germany, the stoic, hard streets of Ukraine and Hungary, the crumbling stones of the UK, the chaotic technostorm of Japan, and the languid, classic beauty of France.

But there was one journey I’ve never had words to describe. My own country, to Korea.

This is the old Korea, the forever Korea that is always painted on the walls of smoky bulgogi joints and on disposable place mats advertising soju and cheap beer.

Korea is certainly not the oldest civilization in the world, but what makes it different from many others is the fact that it’s remained largely unchanged until recently. South Korea is known for its music, electronics, and the DMZ. Traveling outside of the major cities is more difficult for those who don’t speak Korean, but in good company it’s worth the trouble.

Yangdong Village,  too cutely called a “folk village,” is famous for being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Seeing it summarized in an dry, local tour book, I assumed it was like many other historic sites I’d already visited: a couple of empty, preserved houses with a gift shop and volunteer reenactments.

Boy, was I wrong.

Pulling up, all you see is a huge parking lot. No houses, just new and modern concrete walls, freshly shaved grass, and brand-new, still-bandaged baby trees. Walk through this new part, and then you come to a long dirt road. A few clay tiled roofs begin peeking through the trees, then suddenly – apart from the small welcome booth and a sad-looking coffee shack – you’re transported back in time.

This is the old Korea, the forever Korea that is always painted on the walls of smoky bulgogi joints and on disposable place mats advertising soju and cheap beer. It’s the Korea that everyone wants to remember, whether or not they have ever been to Yangdong Village. It’s the Korea my parents grew up in.

A small, friendly woman came out of the welcome booth and offered to show us around. We walked with her to the house at the top of the first hill, which was built in 1500. The late summer day was still and hot, the air was filled with the buzz of cicadas and the view from the garden wall overlooks the village in the valley, the mountains on one side, and miles of golden rice paddies on the other.

This style of house was the kind that mom used to live in when they escaped the area during the war, with the central courtyard, a boys’ wing and the girls’ wing, and the fire tunnels under the house that heated the floors. And with a view of the thatched-roof houses down below where servants lived. It’s so strange to think that my mother, a former Director of IT at an international newspaper, had grown up in such a place that seemed straight out of a movie.

A woman came out of one of the thatched-roof houses just below. She had passed us on her bicycle when we were walking up the dirt path and now she was bending over the grains of rice on the ground, spreading them on a blanket, rippling them around to dry in the hot sun. She had baskets of nuts and garlic and all kinds of things stacked outside the other buildings of her house.

This is how it’s done, how it’s always been done.

As we followed the pathways through the hills, we discovered so many things you’d never see today: men’s meeting houses, persimmon trees loaded with fat vermillion fruit, private garden plots growing sesame, turnips, soybeans, and cabbage, bright dancing songbirds, thousands of mating dragonflies, hornets, and yellow gingko trees. There was even a huge pond that was growing a large variety of mythical lotus plants (which I had no idea were so tall, and existed in so many varieties), and a stone bridge across it.

Here was everything one needs to survive in a village where time stands still.

And aside from the residents, we were the only people there.

When we got to the bottom of the hill, we saw a handwritten sign at the entrance of one of the thatched-roof houses advertising treats for sale. We walked up and a cheerful, friendly old woman came out and showed us what she had. She had sikhye in water bottles and brittle and those delicious fried cake things that I ate way too many of when I was a kid. She and mom talked for a long, long while and I could tell that this was the best part of the trip for her.

There are countless historic landmarks in Korea, but few as poignant as Yangdong Folk Village. I had spent three mind-numbing days staring at crumbling statues and grave mounds, but the minute I stepped into Yangdong I truly understood the significance of a country that had an ancient heritage that stayed ancient right up to my parents’ generation. I understood how close history was, not because of the museums and plaques and tours, but because history had been happening right until our politics and wars beat down the doors.

And suddenly time sped up, and here we are now in the country of condos, K-Pop, and Samsungs.

Where does all that time go? Is it here, still, stuffed between the hills? Will it die right here if people don’t keep driving 50 km out of their way to have a random conversation with an old woman of an ancient village?

I hope that it continues to live and breathe and stay exactly the same as it has for another 500 years. Only time will tell.*

See more memories in the gallery.


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