Culture, Expat life, Personal

Summer in the city (3 Months in Denmark!)

This summer has been one of tears, goodbyes, joy, light, and love. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster. Yesterday I cried because I talked to some of my friends back in the UK and I missed the life I had there and all the wonderful people I still know there. I cried because I don’t know when I will be able to see my closest friends again in person. I cried because I’ve been through a lot of frustrations and obstacles to get to where I am now. I cried because I’ve had to say goodbyes. I cried for the bittersweet memories and the unresolved stories I left behind.

But I also smiled because my life in Denmark is better than I could ever have imagined. I’m meeting all the goals I’ve set for myself at work, I have great colleagues, I’m finally getting enough sleep (ish…), I’m in a relationship with someone I see a real future with (which is really saying something), I’m actually getting invited to parties, and I’m just making the most of the good life and not taking a single second of it for granted.

Since the start of my 20s, I’ve either spent my summers in Korea or the UK, or doing little trips around Europe. Talk about pre-pandemic privilege! With the exception of last summer, when I finished up my PhD and took up a temporary full-time office job while looking for my first academic post, I have always felt the desire to move around or explore someplace new. Some of that desire was genuine curiosity and a sense of spontaneity, but it was also a way for me to while away my dissatisfactions. I kept wanting a taste of change, a different environment, because I often felt like whatever I had or was doing just wasn’t it. Going ‘away’ inspired me, and allowed me to indulge the most cliched fantasies of possibility: I’d be a writer in NYC, a fashionista in Paris, a curator in London. I felt like a dreamer passing through an ocean of opportunities whenever I found myself exploring a new place or a big city.

Since finishing up my PhD in 2019, I knew I had to get serious about my future and do a little less of the physical travelling and a lot more of the spiritual, speculative kind of travelling. I couldn’t just jet off to a romantic city every now and again and pretend myself a chic, free, burden-less cosmopolitan citizen (and let’s be honest, you actually have to be quite privileged to sustain that kind of jet-setting mobility). I’ve had to ask myself where I want to be in a year’s time, 5 years time, 10 years time. I’ve had to ask myself what country I’d like to work in – and how far out in the world I am willing to go for the kind of career I want. I’ve had to reflect on what adventure, stability, and home mean to me, and what it is that I value most about life and all that can be experienced within it. I’ve had to think about the kinds of relationships I could and could not part with. And as I’ve discussed countless times on this blog, the answers to these questions were never set in stone or obvious to me. This is because my life and my identity has always been defined by being away from my country of birth. I never really felt like I had an existential constant, or anchor, that served as a foundation for the answer to my purpose.

I think part of that lack of an anchor has to do with my perceived lack of an identity which for most people is greatly shaped by the cultural, legal, and in many ways moral membership to their country/nation/state. Let me put this in the form of a trivial example. In the Western world, the number 13 is considered unlucky if you are superstitious. Where I’m from originally, it is not so – but number 4 is considered unlucky. There’s little things, quirks of culture and belief, that never ‘added up’ from where I stood because I would have the ability to inhabit multiple worlds simultaneously. And those worlds were in constant tension: Does my intuition tell me that the number 13 is bad, or is it 4? How am I supposed to decide which belief systems I pledge my loyalties to? And why does any of it matter? Did my cosmopolitan attitude actually erode the stability of whatever ‘personal identity’ I have?

I’ve met so many people for whom purpose seems to come easy. To them, it’s like, I was meant to become a parent and start a family. I was meant to give back to my country. I want to settle in _____. And I’ve always had this sense that their ability to, literally and spiritually, locate themselves as a stable member of some spatio-temporal environment, was what allowed them to see their purpose.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that I don’t have my goals or principles. I want to be a good person. I want to better myself. I want to take care of my friends and family. I want to foster meaningful connections. I want all the universal things that I like to imagine everybody else wants in their life too. It’s just that I also have to ask: Ok, but which country to do you belong? Where are you going to settle to achieve all those things? Do ‘your people’ actually accept you? Where are you supposed to buy a permanent property? What happens if you have a cultural clash with the person you want to be with? Whatever objectives I had, they’ve always been complicated by questions regarding immigration, citizenship, integration, and belonging.

Like many others, I so desperately wanted to make 2020 ‘my’ year – a fresh start in a new decade. My first academic job contract was due to end in May 2020 and I had to find something to do next. But then the pandemic spread all across Europe and I had no idea where I could go given all the chaos. I could barely hold it together the first three months of 2020. It took blood, sweat and tears for me to figure out how not to get deported from the UK when my visa ran out mid-pandemic, to stay in Europe, not have to move back in with my parents all the way in Korea, and somehow land my dream job – all at the same time.

And what do you know, I somehow managed to figure it out in the nick of time, and now I’m here. The answer I was looking for all year was Denmark.

It’s now been 3 months since I relocated to Copenhagen, and I’m so grateful. The world has shown itself to be a scary place, full of tragedy, disappointment, resentment, violence, fear. And we can probably all agree that 2020 has been a dark and disastrous time, on many levels, for humanity on the whole. We’ve collectively and individually ached for the things, people, and ideals lost so early on in the new decade. But I take my experience of this year thus far as a true gift, in spite of the tears I’ve shed. I will forever count myself lucky to be able to say that I’ve thrived and endured in my own way, at this strange juncture in human history.

I’ve started to appreciate the beauty of staying put in one place, making do with what is, observing the interesting and beautiful things around me, caring more about those that mean the most to me, and learning to love the small and simple things. The work I put in all year to be right here has meant that my life doesn’t consist of fantasies and dreams anymore. Rain or sunshine, my wish is my life. I cherish it, and I’m content. I’ve been chilling, working, living, meeting new people, and enjoying the city at a very leisurely pace. This country is not perfect, nor is it ‘my’ country by any means, but it’s a beautiful stopover if nothing else. I look at these photos I’ve taken over the summer below and honestly think the city is a sight to behold at every single hour of the day. I’m here to embrace it and make the most of the experiences it has to offer me as a young and ambitious woman trying to live a good life, a beautiful life, a meaningful life. That’s all I can do to continually create my own realm and sense of belonging. And the beautiful memories I’ve made this summer make my heart sing. I hope I can look back on this time, Summer of 2020, and remember that life can be simple yet full of meaning. A life worth living.

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Bristol, Bristol, Culture, Home, Uncategorized

Bristol (Bedminster)

Bristol has this reputation of being the next best thing after London when it comes to desirable places to live in the UK. I’m pretty skeptical about that reputation. The supposedly “cool” features I read about Bristol are way overblown, like the fact that Banksy is from Bristol (most of his works in Bristol have been destroyed, by the way), that Massive Attack is from Bristol, that it’s “cheaper than London”, or that it’s a “diverse” and “multicultural” place (diverse or multicultural in terms of what?). Truth is it has its fair share of flaws like any other major city: it’s difficult to find housing, it has a homelessness problem, there are stark inequalities between neighbourhoods.

Having lived in the city for a number of years of course gives me a different perspective compared with that of a non-resident or tourist. But I’m also surprised at how unsentimental I feel about Bristol now, despite having left the city under such exceptional and bittersweet circumstances. I mean Bristol really is the place I’ve lived the longest since legally turning into an adult. I had many Big Life Moments in Bristol, like getting my PhD there. And so many people I care about and have extremely close and meaningful relationships with still live in Bristol. In the past year especially I was really “finding my way” and gaining important experiences in terms of my career and relationships – despite many mishaps.

In the end, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I had to deport myself out of the UK with no chance for proper goodbyes thanks to the ongoing lockdown. You’d think it would feel like leaving part of my heart behind. You’d think I’d agonise about the “what ifs” I never got to live out on account of everything. But no. I only cried tears of joy because I felt like I finally arrived when I made it to Denmark, having spent the last couple of months in Bristol feeling like I had somewhere else to be, yet nowhere to go and no chance of going. When I finally got out, it was as if I was released from some kind of purgatory. I’d been futilely waiting for answers to questions people still stuck in the UK have to ask themselves constantly – “What is my immigration status? Will I or won’t I get in trouble with the Home Office?” Still, my ambivalence about Bristol is not merely down to this hassle. I think I had my moment of “I’m ready to leave Bristol” for a pretty long time now, like way before this new chapter in Denmark materialised. But how did that feeling come about? I’m not sure.

It makes me think a person’s relationship to – and experience of – a place has more to do with the meanings a person happens to attach to that place, rather than about any ‘objective’ feature about it. You won’t love a place just because it ticks a bunch of boxes. You won’t hate a place just because it doesn’t. And while it’s certainly true that we can measure the “good” of certain places with lots of factors, I think a person’s physical placement in the world really is like an intimate relationship. It’s a type of relationship that is not only characterised by lofty ideals (like when people buy a one-way-ticket out to big cities to make their dreams come true), but also by one’s being embedded somewhere physically, spiritually, and in Time (like if I were to say, “I am a true Bristolian now”). Of course, there’s lots of reasons and explanations for why a person may come to be in a particular place. Yet how a person makes do with that place, how a person fits in with that place, and the veering back and forth between love, hate, and everything in between for that place – that seems to me as inexplicable as the constancy between pairings of significant others through thick and thin. There’s always an X factor when it comes to how we end up seeing, being, and treating ourselves in different parts of the world. Any thoughts?

Well, maybe I’ll save that topic for another day. I can’t believe I’ve just become one of those people who feels compelled to share some banal life story just to share a couple of pictures, ha ha. But I do still want to mention some things about Bristol that really did grow on me. I can’t complain about the food scene (if you ever visit – do ask me for recommendations for places to eat), the lovely aerial views you get in different neighbourhoods thanks to all the hills (though I hated the actual hills), the Harbourside on a sunny day, the circus artists you see juggling or slacklining in basically every green space, the fact that people play psytrance of all things on the boombox in family-friendly parks, the general celebration of creativity and artists around the city, and the cool/weird/wild music scene and night life enjoyed by most age groups without shame (inexplicable 4am bonfire raves in the middle of the street and all – if you live in certain areas).

Now, one place I do think brings together some of the likeable elements of Bristol quite nicely is North Street in Bedminster. Bedminster is a neighbourhood fairly close to the Harbour. It houses plenty of pubs, restaurants, and cafes – on a “normal”, nice day, the place would be teeming with people (I guess in the UK a nice day is just one that doesn’t rain and isn’t impossibly chilly). I even used to work at the Tobacco Factory Market, which hosts some of the best food stands in Bristol and is one of the liveliest place you can be on a Sunday afternoon in the city.

Even during a lockdown, the length of North Street is a great place to explore because there’s so much street art to look at. Normally every year in summertime it plays host to Upfest, the largest street art festival in Europe, which explains the particular abundance of murals in the area. Last year a Greta Thunberg piece was commissioned by the Tobacco Factory which went on to get approval from Greta herself and garner worldwide attention. I’ll share below a couple more pieces that I spotted on North Street. I’ve identified all the artists responsible for these wonderful murals, so do check them out as well.

Beautiful work by Bristol-based artist Nick Harvey (Kin Dose).
Fantastic psychedelic piece by Bristol-based artist Andy Council
Another one by Andy Council.
Photo of me walking past a collaboration piece between L7 Matrix, a Brazilian artist, and Paul Monsters.
Zoë Power‘s mural above Zara’s chocolates. This has got to be one of my favourite pieces.
Recognise any robots? This piece is by Angus, another Bristol local who utilises ceramic and mosaic! Unfortunately my fixed-lens camera didn’t capture the entire piece, but above the mosaic it is written “Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge!” 🙂

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