Monday, December 30, 2013

the end of 2013: a life-assessment

One of my former private students, Amy, a Korean girl living in America (this girl, in fact), emailed me a very nice update on her life. At one point late in the email, Amy wrote:

I want to live like youuuu I feel like you enjoyed your life a lot! As I listen your story I always wanted to live like you.

I almost blushed upon reading this. It had never occurred to me that another person might look upon my life with something like envy, or might view my life as a template for living his or her own life. I certainly haven't looked at my own life that way. In fact, just the other day, I was rather brutally self-critical. Up to now, I'd say I've viewed my life as more of a warning to others on how not to live than as a shining example of good and proper living.

Amy's email, and her obvious admiration, forced me to reassess my situation. So instead of doing the typical "year in review" at the close of the year, I'd like to take this time to do more of a "life in review," keeping in mind that all has not been doom and gloom over the course of my forty-four-plus years.

We'll start with the bad, which is easily encapsulated in the reply email that I sent to Amy. My reaction was a sort of knee-jerk modesty, a polite repudiation of the implications of Amy's sentiments. I wrote:

So... you want to live a life like mine, eh? Well, be careful! Don't make the same mistakes I've made. I've done some very stupid things. Probably the stupidest thing I've done is mismanage my finances. Learn to be smart with your money! When I was young and more idealistic, I thought that money wasn't important, and that people who always worried about money had screwed-up priorities. I was wrong. Very, very wrong. Money is important because money means freedom.

Let's say that you want to go to Fiji for vacation. Wonderful! But how will you get there? You need to fly, of course, which means you need to buy plane tickets. Fiji is far away, so those tickets will be expensive. How long will you stay in Fiji? Two weeks? Then you need to pay for two weeks in a hotel, which probably won't be cheap. You also have to eat three meals a day for two weeks—how much will that cost? So if you want the freedom to say, "I'm gonna go to Fiji next week," then you have to have the money that gives you the freedom to make such plans. Money means freedom.

I still have no desire to become super-rich. I'm not that ambitious. But I do want to live comfortably, and right now, I still can't do that. If you're interested in science, that's good, because you might be able to make a lot of money by working in a scientific field. Of course, it depends on what kind of science you want to do. I have a friend who is an aeronautical engineer, and he makes a LOT of money. He has a Ph.D. in engineering, which means he had to work very hard to reach his position. But now, he's happily married and has two wonderful daughters. And he's rich! I'm happy for him. He didn't make the same financial mistakes I'd made.

So if you want to live a life like mine, OK, cool, but be careful not to make silly, time-wasting mistakes. I still have a lot of debt, which means I don't have much freedom. I just went to Seoul for a few days, but I'll be staying in Hayang-eup for Christmas and New Year's and most of my two-month vacation. I'd love to visit Europe again, to see my French and Swiss friends, but I won't be able to do that for a long while. Lack of freedom. See what I mean? Money is important.

Perhaps the stupidest thing I ever did happened in grad school, right as I was turning thirty. I had gotten the full scholarship to pursue my Master's degree—a scholarship that I'd had to compete for. Along with that scholarship, however, I also got the full suite of scholarship loans. Think: Sallie Mae, to which I still owe my soul. Very unwisely, I decided I would use my loan checks to pay my apartment's rent and other expenses while I studied for my M.A. so that I wouldn't have to work during that time. As I said: stupid. That decision, made in 1999 or 2000, effectively ruined my future and placed me under the enormous debt burden I have today. Whenever Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit starts harping on all those grad students saddled with all that debt, naming figures ranging from $50,000 to over $100,000, I understand perfectly: my own debt is still somewhere in the $70,000-$80,000 range, and will remain so unless and until I find lucrative work.

Since that time, I've had to learn how to live economically and dodge the worst effects of revolving debt. Somehow—and I congratulate myself on this—I've managed to deal with my debt in such a way as not to ruin my credit rating. I make an effort to be on time in paying all my bills. I avoid being too much of spendthrift. Sometimes, I admit, I've yielded to temptation, but because money is a ruthless numbers game, I've paid for my lapses. The best example I can think of is when I bought that lovely, amazing, 46-inch LG high-definition TV, back when I lived in Front Royal. I kept the TV for a couple months, then had to bring it back to Costco so that I could pay my rent (which, at the time, cost almost exactly as much as my TV).

To this day, I worry over the timing of my bill-paying. Some bills come due when I don't have enough money in the bank, so I have no choice but to go into the red when the auto-deduction occurs, then pay the $36 overdraft fee that follows. A day or so later, I'm finally able to fill my bank account with more cash, but by that time it's too late: I've already taken the $36 hit. On occasion, when I've been staring down the barrel of several overdraft fees, I've called my bank and begged for mercy. Always a humiliating experience. The bank is normally indulgent, and nullifies most or all of my overdrafts in such cases. Life since 1999 has been about dodging financial bullets and trying to eke out a more or less normal existence.

But I can't just credit myself with keeping my head above water. I've had help. There were many times I felt that I was running out of tricks, and some circumstance or some person intervened, just in the nick of time, to bail me out. Friends have stepped in with loans and outright donations, usually stipulating that I don't have to pay anything back within a given time frame. Work circumstances sometimes aligned themselves in such a way that I suddenly found myself earning more money—such as when, in my previous job, I was suddenly able to do extra "curriculum development" work to earn supplementary cash. The work paid a paltry $15 an hour, but that was better than nothing. I also reaped some benefits from the tutoring website I had created, snagging both Amy and her brother Sam. On top of that, I've been able to tutor my goddaughter in both geometry and French, allowing me to earn enough cash to pay back some personal debts to my two brothers, who both helped me out several times.

Despite all that help, though, the walls continued to close in. Eventually, coming to Korea seemed the only viable solution: for someone with my strange skill set, jobs in Korea pay more than do the same jobs in America, and such jobs are more plentiful in Korea. Had my life taken a different path—if, say, I had become a scientist myself—I would never have considered Korea as an option for work. But here I am, and this is probably the best of all possible worlds. Networking isn't something I do well, being an introvert, but my talents (such as they are) are more likely to be recognized here than they are in the States. Korea represents something of a financial last stand for me. Either I make it here, or I get flooded with debt and drown.

I've made other mistakes and have other regrets—about women, about things I've said and done, about what kind of a son I was to my mother—but none of those things has affected my life in quite the way my fiscal imprudence has. So instead of dwelling further on my other mistakes, I'd like to shift the focus, now, to the elements in my life that might inspire a teenage girl to admire the path I've taken.

What have I done right? Well... I don't drink, I don't smoke or do drugs, and I don't fuck around, for starters. That last item probably has more to do with my introversion than with any virtuous inclinations. I'm pretty sure, though, that that's not what Amy's thinking of when she looks at how I've lived. No: what Amy's thinking of is the places I've been, the people I know, and the ways in which I've applied myself.

Places I've Been

Because my father was an airline employee, our family had the opportunity to travel. I haven't traveled as much as some people, but I've been to more places than many other people have. For all of my life, my family has been based in northern Virginia. Both of my brothers still live in Alexandria. NoVA has served as our roots, our anchor. My father worked for Northwest Airlines at National Airport, not a long drive from home. One of the perks of his job was discount air travel. I didn't find out until much later that United Airlines offers its employees free air travel (without Northwest's stupid requirement that the kids dress up when flying), but to our family, discount air travel was a treat: back in the 1980s, we could go to Korea for $50 per person, and domestic air travel cost us almost nothing. So, during my childhood, we visited relatives in Texas and California with some frequency; I quickly got used to riding in planes. Later on, when I was a high-schooler, I was able to fly discount to Korea and France. In France, I spent a month with a host family, the Ducoulombiers, whom I would eventually come to view as part of my own family. That was 1986.

In college, in 1988, I drove with my family across Germany and France, going from Frankfurt to Nantes, and I served as the interpreter between my French family and my American family. That was a headache-inducing experience; I'd never played the interpreter in a fast-moving conversation before. As a junior, I studied in Switzerland for nearly a whole calendar year, staying with a Swiss host family; while on break between semesters in Europe, I visited Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and England. I was in Switzerland in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. In fact, I visited Berlin, with classmates, exactly one week after the Wall officially fell. I was in France for Christmas that same year when the Romanians rose up, captured their dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, put him up against a wall along with his wife, and gunned him down. With my French family, I watched the news footage, astounded, as Romania dragged itself into a new era. I hiked all over Switzerland and practiced pullups during that 1989-1990 school year; I lost a ton of weight, which I gained back upon my return to the States. My Northwest Airlines travel benefits would cease sometime in my mid-twenties, but I think my brother David and I were able to fly to western Europe, Eurailpasses in hand, for cheap. David and I visited France, Switzerland (where we encountered the infamous Götteron dwarf), Holland, Denmark, and Sweden.

I didn't go abroad again until 1993, when I spent two weeks in Korea with some cousins in Seoul. I was a high-school French teacher in Arlington, Virginia, at the time. The following year, I went to Korea to work, and worked in Seoul from 1994 to 1996. I came back to the States and lost my direction for a bit before deciding, in 1999, to go to graduate school—religious studies at the Catholic University of America in DC. In 2000, while still in grad school, I visited Korea again, trekking down to Haein-sa, a famous Zen temple. I stayed at the temple for three days and spoke with several monks; this reinforced my keen interest in Buddhism. I graduated with a Master's degree in 2002, and later that year, I was back in Korea again. I worked privately until 2004, laboring under my enormous debt burden, and joined a hagwon called EC that year, where I made a few friends. Having had enough of EC's nonsense after seven months of bullshit (crazy boss, nightmare schedule), I jumped ship and became an English instructor at Sookmyung Women's University, my mother's uni, in 2005. I taught there until 2008, and those were the best three years of my working life. Everything about university life was better: better hours, better pay, better vacations.

In 2008, though, I had a hankering to try something different: a walk across America. So I finished up my contract with Sookmyung in April of 2008, came home, trained, and began my trek. Three months, 600 miles, and one knee injury later, I called it a day: I didn't want to cripple myself. I had walked from Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, to Blaine, Washington; from Blaine, I had followed the I-5 corridor down through Seattle, Olympia, and Centralia, all the way to Portland, Oregon. From Portland, I struck east along the south side of the Columbia River, passing through Cascade Locks and The Dalles, and eventually hitting Umatilla. After that, I curved back northeast until I reached Walla Walla, Washington—city of the onion, valley of the grape. I met so many interesting people along the way: Sikhs, Seventh Day Adventists, Zen Buddhists, Unitarians, Episcopalians, communal Methodist-socialists, conservative biker "home church" Christians, and hardcore atheists. I still have quite a few recorded conversations about religion that I'd like to transcribe and maybe put into another book like Water from a Skull. I'd love to complete the walk someday, too—although this time I'd be smarter in my planning and prep.

I stayed with my folks from September 2008 until April 2009, hoping to return to my walk that spring. But I couldn't restart the journey: my mother had developed brain cancer, and that banished all thoughts of returning to my personal quest. For the next nine months, I was there for my mother during her sad, inexorable decline. She died on January 6, 2010, and for a while, my life became unmoored. I moved to Front Royal, Virginia, later that year, having secured employment with the Educational Testing Service (ETS) as a TOEFL essay rater. Work was sporadic and didn't pay very well; my bills were even higher, now that I had spent two years not working at all. The following year, 2011, I switched over to YB and began working as a tutor for kids ranging from grade school to grad school. The work was much steadier at YB, and there was an added therapeutic benefit: after Mom's death, it was important for me to reconnect with the human race, and working with these kids—even the difficult ones—proved very helpful in that respect.

But as I noted above, even employment at YB wasn't enough to get me back on my feet, financially speaking. So I moved back to Korea this past August and have been working as a university prof. The pay isn't stellar, but it's enough to allow me to wire money home to keep paying my monthly bills. I've also been paying down some of those personal loans, and once I start working with KMA this coming February, I can begin paying more bills and debts down even faster. There's also the chance that I might change professions this September and become a staff writer for nearly $60,000 a year. 2014 is already looking much more positive than 2013 did.

People I Know

I told Amy and her brother Sam many stories about my friends. I have only a small cluster of very good, very close friends; the word friend isn't one I use lightly. True friends aren't the fair-weather type: they don't just hang out. They share your burdens; they know your secrets; they're familiar with your loves and hates. I'm proud to have the friends I have—people like Mike, Dr. Steve, Dave, Tom, Charles, Jang-woong, Bill, and others.

But I'm also proud of the friendly acquaintances I have, too. These aren't friends in the deep sense, but they're people with whom I'm on good terms. Some, like Jean-Pierre the baker, based at the Cordon Bleu on Sookmyung's campus, are guaranteed to thrust a freshly baked baguette into my hands every time I come around for a visit. Others will reach out with an unexpected, undeserved loan whenever I whine on the blog about my finances. Still others will faithfully comment on some or many of my blog posts. It's reassuring to be surrounded by such good people.

Ways I've Applied Myself

By nature, I'm a thinker, but more abstractly, I'm given to self-expression. It's hard to shut me up, despite my introversion. Maybe that's why I write, and why I draw, and why I like theater as much as I do. This blog, which is all about self-expression, will probably be the largest monument to me after I die. At this point, more than a decade after it came into existence, the blog contains enough of me for readers to figure out my predominant moods and attitudes and convictions. It's a confessional journal—uncomfortably so, sometimes. It's even gotten me into some trouble recently... but I can't talk about that. It's allowed me to continue practicing French: I've translated several French-language articles into English, and have written entire entries in French (like this one). It's allowed me to show off my mediocre brush art and cartoons and Photoshop work. It's kept me on my toes whenever I've written something controversial; readers have chimed in with disagreements. It's kept me honest whenever I've said something factually incorrect; readers sometimes swoop in to set me straight.

Not many people read this blog, but that doesn't matter: the people who do read it are very faithful, and faithfulness matters more to me than popularity. At least there are some witnesses, out there, to the various ways in which I try to apply my skills and talents.

In Sum...

So all in all, it's been a weird life, a difficult life, but also a good life. I've traveled and lived in an assortment of far-flung places. I've been exposed to different cultures, both while abroad and at home. There's so much that I've done wrong, but there are some things I've gotten right. Especially in recent years, I've begun to understand what it means to take the reins and be responsible for my own future; it's easy and convenient, I think, to pretend that my life is more the result of happenstance than it is of choices that I've made along the way. I forge my future. I always have.

If Amy wants to live a life like mine, I do sincerely hope she avoids my mistakes. I hope she has a chance to travel, to be exposed to many different cultures, to experience all that this big world has to offer. I hope she learns a third language—maybe even a fourth or a fifth, if she's willing and able. I hope she learns about new foods, new dances, new ways to reckon the passage of the seasons. I hope she grows up and becomes a truly worldly woman—not in the bad sense, but in the sense that she feels, as the French would say, bien dans sa peau: comfortable in her own skin, no matter where she might find herself. I hope she can look back decades from now and say, "Yes; this has been a good life."

And I wish the same for myself.



Anonymous said...

Hey, I really enjoyed this, and I always say that, money equals freedom. I hope you can find more peace and happiness in 14. Thanks for writing it.


John said...

Money may not buy happiness, but it affords you the freedom to pursue happiness.

I think you are a little too hard on yourself regarding finances. The student loan debt burden millions of young are saddled with is nothing short of scandalous.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but had you lived your life differently who's to say it would have turned out better. As Jim Croce put it "after all, it's what we've done that makes us what we are."

We can all look back and say if I'd known then what I know now, I wouldn't have made that "mistake". But in my life at least, those mistakes led me to places I'd might not have otherwise gone. On balance, I'm not convinced things would have turned out better.

Unknown said...

Just paid off my student loans last summer. $74000 in one lump sum, and now am completely debt-free. I realized that if i didnt pay it all off i would never be able to and it would hang over my head for the rest of my life.
(The balance was actually just over 100k... but i negotiated it down. Dipped into retirement savings to get it paid off)
Do i feel free? I dont know how to describe the feeling. Bittersweet, i guess. That is a pretty big chunk to see gone. Yet I no longer have that burden.

Kevin Kim said...

The three "J"s!

Joey and John,

Thanks for your comments. John, you're probably right about the paths we take in life.


Damn—quite an accomplishment! Congratulations on no longer having the debt monkey on your back. You'll immediately notice the breathing room whenever you make your monthly budget: no more goddamn revolving debt to muck up your life. Me, I've got debts.

About $87/month for self-storage.
$138/month for car insurance.
$342/month to Sallie Mae, that bitch.
$213/month car loan payment.
$253/month OneMain Financial (for a $7000 loan).
$247/month for an eMax student loan.
$25/month minimum payment on a Chase Amazon card.

Some of the above debts can never be totally paid off, of course, given that they're for services I've retained (self-storage, for example).

I'd like to work my way upward: start by eliminating the Chase Amazon debt first by paying off that credit card, then pay off the car loan and the OneMain loan, which would free up over $400/month right there. Next, I'd like to tackle the eMax loan, which is about $12,000 if I were to pay it down in one lump sum. Finally, there's the beast—Sallie Mae, with over $50,000 to be paid down.

With time and patience and fiscal discipline, your situation will be mine in a few years. I'm a little bitter that that'll be happening around the time I turn 50, but hey—better late than never. And really, whom can I rage at? I have no one to blame but myself.

hahnak said...

i worked at cua for about six months or so in 2001. i was working at um university college from about 1999 or so, then quit bc of a co-worker to work at cua, then went back to my same job at umuc (situation resolved) and stayed there until 2003.

surely our paths crossed once during that short stint at cua!

i still hope to meet you face to face one day.