I sat in my bathtub today reflecting on all the things that happened this year. I was born on February 16, 1994. 2/16/94 and the year 2016? It would be no coincidence that this year would be especially special.
I began my year with a trip to Lake Tahoe with a good group of close friends. We spent our days at a cozy cabin doing snow activities during the day and going out to SnowGlobe at night (rave in the snow!).
The next couple of days were spent in the spirit of recovery after a grueling 9 hour drive trip and the accumulation of all the rigorous dancing that had taken place during the nights.
The winter quarter had begun to start, but I was taking this quarter off to go work abroad in Argentina! I had 2 weeks before my trip began, so I spent a week with my roommates and said my farewells to my best buds. I was able to catch my closest friends flaunt their talents in a men’s pageant!
My friends were kind enough to throw me a goodbye dinner! Thanks for buying me dinner My. I would miss them for 2 months, but I found solace in knowing I would see them soon.
Over the course of the next couple of days, I spent my time with my high school friends, I picked up a lost pit-bull puppy on the street, and did some last minute preparation for my first time out of the country in over a decade.
My parents and I arrived at LAX and we said our goodbyes. I was feeling confident and excited for the next 2 months ahead of me. The flight itself was quite rocky with turbulence, and I only had about an hour of shut-eye during the 8 hour flight. I had a whole row to myself which I enjoyed, but I was generally uncomfortable because it had been so long since I last flew. We landed in Lima where I had to wait 6 hours before catching my final plane to Buenos Aires, Argentina.
After numerous failed attempts to ask for the WiFi in Spanish(I took 4 years in high-school…), a kind stranger translated for me and we spent some time chatting. She was a resident of Peru, and was headed to LAX where she had a job on a cruise ship. I thanked her for her help and tried to get a couple minutes of sleep before I left the land of the Inca.
I boarded my 2nd plane which I mistakenly expected to be the same, but it was a lot more cramped than the previous plane. I was scrunched up in the middle of a family, so I asked if I could be moved. I like my private space. Luckily the plane wasn’t full and they directed me towards the back, where I had another row to myself. Jackpot!
I landed in Buenos Aires around 2PM their time. I remember walking out of the airport and thinking: “Wow it’s humid. This is where I’ll be for the next chapter of my life. My parents, relatives, and friends helped fund my trip so I owe it to them to make the most of this experience.” It was about a 20 minute drive to the residence I would stay at, and it was clear my driver did not want to talk with me. I was spending most of my time gazing out the window in amazement anyway, there was a soccer ball for every patch of grass outside.
Omead was the first one in the Sage Corps group that I would meet. He had arrived a couple of hours earlier, and was drenched in sweat when I first met him. He spent his first few hours running around trying to familiarize himself with the area- I thought that was admirable. I took a quick nap and met two other members of our program: Dylan and Adi. I found reassurance in knowing these were the people I would spend my next 2 months with. The four of us went out for dinner at a terrible pizza restaurant and enjoyed good conversation.
My winter abroad opened my eyes to see the diversity that existed outside my California comfort zone. I got to experience what it was like to work full-time at a startup.
Our startup, Technorides, was run like a family business. All work would promptly halt at 1PM and everyone would sit and eat together like one big happy family. It was difficult to get accustomed to at first due to the cultural differences and the language barrier, but I felt like one of their own after a couple of days. Unlike everyone else from the Sage Corps team, Adi and I were lucky enough to work for the same company. Our co-workers took us out to dinner in Puerto Madero, a waterfront neighborhood that hosts some of the finest restaurants.
The restaurant we went to was special because it turned into a club after dinner hours were over. Waiters and waitresses would come and move the tables away as they blew fog into the restaurant. A disco ball would emerge from the ceiling and the upbeat music began to complement the flashing lights that followed.
On the first of February, a co-worker invited Adi and I to bring friends to a drum show. La Bomba del Tiempo played at the Konex theater every week, and it was always a filled out crowd.
The boys and I wanted to do something special for Carnival. The city of Gualeguaychú was notorious for it’s 24 hr/day party scene during the 4 or 5 days of Carnival. We took a long bus-ride to the city, but the beaches were a 30 minute drive away. Loads of people were waiting at the bus station trying to find a taxi, but we decided we would find an alternate mode of transportation.
Against everything our mother’s would have told us, we hopped into the back of shoddy pick-up truck and paid the driver a couple of bucks to take us to the beach. Vamos!
There were a couple of campsites set out for people to stay overnight with already pitched tents, so we decided to try our luck and stay there. We dropped off our things and made our way to the beach.
It was an amazing experience. The beaches were filled to the brim with people and we made our way to the water. I tried my luck with talking to a couple of Argentine beauties. They were laughing at my broken Spanish and tried to teach me the lyrics to a song that seemed to be on repeat. I don’t remember a single word. My buddies joined us and we enjoyed our time in the muddy waters.
The rest of February was packed! I did a graffiti tour with friends, visited El Ateno (Theater turned into a bookstore), my co-workers surprised me for my birthday, first time I did karaoke, saw a professional tango show at a theater, did a boat tour in the Tigre River (most contaminated river in the world!), and saw my first ever Polo game and horse race.
In March, I booked a flight to Iguazu Falls, a national park with a stunning view of waterfalls. Before we left, we decided we would stop by Casa Rosada (Argentina’s Presidential Office).
Our Iguazu group checked into the hotel and planned out our trip. We had the option of seeing the falls from both the Argentine and Brazilian side, but we opted to see it from only Argentina’s side. We managed to cross the border to Brazil during our boat tour as well. Getting to the top of the falls was not as draining as I expected. It was a short hike plus a small train ride.
It is often difficult to try to describe the majesty of nature in words. Our group, which I will now refer to as “El Equipo” (Spanish for “the team”), slowly made our way to the main site for viewing the falls. We were crossing bridges where water roared from under. Finally, we got to the main spot.
The thunderous crashing of the millions of gallons of water flowing beneath was an amazing sight to behold and feel. Mist clouds were shot up into the sky due to the strength of the crashing water. I was reduced to feelings of awe and stood gazing into the wonders of the natural beauty before me.
“Fuck safety!” That must be what our boat tour guides were thinking when they brought us into the water. About 20 tourists fit into the small motor boats they had in store for us. We were told there was a pleasant surprise towards the end of the boat tour, but were not quite sure what to expected. Our captain steered like a maniac. Think James Bond stealing a speedboat and trying to get away from his enemies. He zig-zagged around rocks and the boat was nearly tipped over because of the angles from which he was moving. I remember thinking this would not be legal back at home because of safety reasons, but it was all the more reason to enjoy the moment. I just hoped I would live to tell my story.
We finally arrived at the bottom of the falls. It wasn’t the bottom from the picture above, but it was still a sight to behold. The crazed captain steered near to the bottom of the falls where the water began to crash and swerved out. He told us to snap a couple of pictures and we would head on back. It was very cool to see the falls from the bottom-up. As he slowly drifted back towards the direction in which we came, he turned 180 degrees and went full speed towards the bottom of the waterfall. “That’s it, goodbye world,” I thought. I braced for impact as I saw we would crash into a rock ahead of us. The crazy captain swerved again, but we found ourselves stuck on top of a rock, and the water from atop was crashing down on everyone’s heads. I couldn’t see for a couple of seconds due to the torrent from the waterfall. I could see that we had gone through where the water was falling and into the area behind it. I heard the boat’s engine struggling to free us from the rocks beneath us as we slowly reversed. I was still in one piece.
The crazy bastard laughed and enjoyed his moment. He turned the boat around and then turned it around again. He fooled us a second time!
It was an amazing thrill and I’m grateful to the crazy captain for the experience.
We spent the rest of the day with a new friend who shared the same room in our hostel. Mariana spoke English, and was on her way to becoming an anesthesiologist! She spoke to me about the wisdom she accumulated in her 26-27 years of living (forgive me if I’m wrong!) and joined El Equipo for dinner. Mariana and I connected through our shared sense of unusual humor. I began to call her “mama” for the remainder of our time together. I admired that she took her only 2 weeks of vacation all year on a solo trip to Iguazu.
After exploring the falls, we wanted to see what else Iguazu had to offer. We took a bus into the city to explore our options and decided on a bike tour.
Thought: I can’t believe how great of a time these months were. My time thus far in Argentina have been filled with so many adventures and interesting people.
Back to the bike tour. Our guide was extremely personable and had an extensive knowledge of the area. He spoke to us about the plants and fungi that grew in the forest around us. After the first initial minutes of biking around the city, we found ourselves in the heart of the forest, where he would tell us about the history, animals we may come across, and the indigenous Guarani people that we would soon interact with.
I did not expect the bike tour to be so entertaining! It was extremely difficult to bike uphill, but it was a great exercise. We were able to interact with the indigenous Guarani- who sang us a song, and saw some amazing sights. We kindly tipped our guide, and he joined us for a couple of beers in our hotel. These people are so awesome!
At night, we decided to go back into the city in hopes to find people almost as cool as Mariana and our bike guide. We enjoyed pizza and beer with an Isreali army commander, his girlfriend, and their Argentine friend. He had amazing stories to tell, and answered any questions I asked him. Our trip to Iguazu was spectacular!
My days in Buenos Aires were counting down. In the next few days, my startup took Adi and I out for drinks, and El Equipo went to a Cirque de Soleil show. I had a heart-to-heart with the CEO of my company, and he gave me some advice about my direction in life.
I told my parents I would come a day later than I was. I messaged my older brother to have some sort of fail-safe in case my parents got too anxious. One of my best friends, Daniel- who shares the same name as my brother, picked me up from LAX and drove me back home. I’ll never forget how my dog completely disregarded me and went straight to pounce on my friend instead of his owner. My mom heard me greet her in Korean and initially thought I was my brother’s friend. She took a second glance and screamed in excitement. I love playing jokes on my parents like that. I get my trickster spirit from my dad, who pranks my mother all the time. My parents embraced me gave me a warm welcome. It was good to be home.
I had a weekend to settle in before school started. Most of El Equipo was still in Argentina and were en route to Patagonia, where they would see more of nature’s beauty. I envied them, but I was happy to be home and to see familiar faces.
For one of the classes I enrolled in, we had the option to create a mobile app or writing. Naturally, I wanted to showcase the skills I had learned in Argentina working as an Android Developer, so I chose to do the former. School was back in session, and I made it a point to excel after a long break away.
During this time, I was working 10 hours as an undergrad researcher in UCI’s Donald Bren Hall while juggling school-work. I felt I had attained the skills necessary during my jam-packed time in Argentina, so I was comfortable with juggling work and school.
I had a good routine going on for my Spring quarter. I was doing well in classes, balancing work life, and had been exercising regularly.
Things were going great, but I’d be remiss to not acknowledge a big hurdle of my Spring quarter. I went through a difficult breakup situation, but I am able to see now how it has shaped me into a better man. I had good friends who stuck by me during my time of struggle, but my attitude began to affect my friendships.
It took me some time to repair these relationships with those who were caught in the crossfire of my angry rampage following the breakup. In the end, it was all a learning process, and I am grateful to be in the current situation I am in!
Finals were over, and I was able to score a full-time job at the research lab. My professors took us out on food outings, boat rides, and an invitation to their house when my mentor finished his PhD program.
I was working 6 hours a day, and as long as I was working my required 30 hours a week, I could take as many days off as I wanted. Working from home was also an option! At one point, I was at Crystal Cove beach every day of the week, and camped in Sequoia for a weekend.
I decided I wanted to experience newer things before school would start again. The summer had already been productive, but I knew I could do more. I decided I would embrace my American roots and take up arms. Another close friend of mine and I went to a shooting range to test out our skills. Target practice!
Next up was the Mt. Baldy Hike. This was the most difficult hike I’ve ever done in my life! It took us a whopping 8 hours to complete the whole thing! I was the first in my group to reach the top!
With the Fall quarter approaching, I decided I would pick up another job with Swoopin. I felt I could handle the workload, but I would later find that it would be quite the challenge!
It was around November when I realized how great the year has been. I had began making stronger relationships with amazing individuals much like the people I met in Argentina. My new roommates, strangers that I would meet at Starbucks, and old acquaintances that I would become very close with. The school quarter was difficult because of the 2 jobs I took on, as well as the 30-day comfort zone challenge I decided I would do.
At the end of the quarter, I prevailed. I found success in the comfort challenge, and did well enough in my classes. I spent the past few weeks working on this blog, reading more than I’ve ever done, and designing my life the way I want it to be.
In the end, 2016 was the year I began chasing the things worth fighting for. I shed off the metaphorical exoskeleton of my past and metamorphosed into a stronger human being. It was the year I took great strides in deciding how I want to live my life. It was the year I grew the most, and I foresee amazing things to happen in the future.
Thanks for reading!
Paul Joon An