One month ago, I quit my job.
Around the same time, I also happened to end a toxic, year-long relationship that had been spiraling deep into the danger zone, probably ever since the moment it began.
Though I have a very strong urge to insert pages-long footnotes of detailed explanations to a few of the words in the two starting sentences above (i.e. “my job”, what I mean by “toxic”, my “relationship”, etc.), I will save that for another time and instead, dive here into recapping a most wonderful event I was able to be a part of this week – the TEDxItaewon “Women in the City” Event.
I begin by mentioning my month-long anniversary of quitting my job, because on the evening of my last official day at work, I happened to join my dear friend-mentor-sister, whom I shall call as “A” here, for dinner with a friend of hers, “S” and some other mutual friends. This dinner was to be a sort of “get to know each other” meeting for all of us who had expressed interest in volunteering for the TEDxItaewon Women event. The event had been a project organized mainly by “S”, who had wanted to become active in bringing about positive changes to society, and had been planning and mulling over this event idea yearlong. It was to be held in lieu of a traditional birthday party for “S”, and with a month left to go, she had gathered together a small group of friends and acquaintances, close and new, to join in the cause and co-work to create a fun, meaningful event.
In the chaotic yet liberating and as yet euphoric midst of my breakup and quitting from my job, when “A” mentioned this event to me, I pretty much jumped at the chance to attend and help out in any way possible, for something about the mission statement resonated automatically with my mental and emotional state at the time being. What was the mission statement? Though there was no written statement necessarily set in stone, in short, we wanted to host a gathering in which we could address the issues that women of varying situations and circumstances communally face on a daily basis as working members of Korean society, as well as provide an opportunity for such attendees to network and foster potential mentor/mentee relationships and communities.
Key words that pop up in my mind in tandem with the resonance that such a cause rings within me, are (in no particular order): empowerment, awareness, education, empathy, solidarity, mentorship, wisdom, “a must”, protection, prevention, and hope.
And again, such were the words and feelings left pulsing inside me by the end of the event.
Our first speaker was author, researcher, and expert on all things related to dating, Mrs. Jiyoun Kim. Jiyoun focused her message on the common obstacles faced by men and women when “communicating”, and provided a number of practical methods to approaching one’s significant other when needing to communicate. To paraphrase one of her many pieces of advice (which, she so smoothly and almost stand-up comic-like delivered in an approachable and totally relatable way): effective communication is key; and a relationship without communication is, in essence, devoid of hope.
This really hit me. Yes. Despite her dry and humorous demeanor, I think I actually teared up a couple of times throughout the talk. Now that I think about it, I do remember my heart physically tightening up a handful of times as well. Because…Because a few months into my previous relationship, my now ex-lover had told me to stop expressing my “negative” feelings. Actually, from the start, my ex had been all about avoiding “negativity” – in thoughts, words, everything. This was an approach to life that was completely opposite from what I had been aiming for in recent years (acknowledging, addressing, facing up to, understanding, and working through my emotions, be it negative or positive). But, I figured, as long as it wasn’t a matter of avoiding negativity out of fear, but a matter of being a more pro-actively positive-thinking person, I could give this approach a try. Such was my reasoning going into the relationship and adhering to one of his many life philosophies (though his many-a-deeply twisted hypocrisies would end up coming to surface by the end of our relationship).
In any case, Jiyoun’s talk made me retrospectively re-affirm that my previous relationship had entered into “hopeless” territory long ago, and I can’t help but admit that I found myself still feeling a certain amount of bitterness and guilt, asking confused questions like, “I wonder if things could have been different had I…(i.e. not allowed for him to shut me up like that)?” or, “I wonder if I could have saved the relationship?”; “Did I not try hard enough?” – But I share this, now, only as a sort of journaling and archival process. In the end, I know that I am in my right place, a better place now, single and no longer under my ex’s influence.
Next up, was Hyejeong Sophia Park – a successful businesswoman who chose not the typical and commonly accepted path to “success” in Korea, but followed her heart to China instead, to learn Chinese and prepare for a future in business. She held off going straight to college, and began building the blocks to her future, diverse careers to-be, first with interpretation/translation jobs in China. Eventually, she decided to apply to, was accepted into and graduated from Peking University, with a degree in Finance. Sophia was able to take her experiences in China to write a book, which was the first of several. Her transition to working as a banker in Korea, to running her own wedding business, amongst many other accomplishments (including a love story straight from a movie with her now-husband), was refreshingly inspirational, to say the least.
Sophia’s story gave me hope and courage, for it reminded me that it is okay to go against the current. Actually, more than okay. That sometimes, that is exactly what you need to do to find your own unique happiness in life. And that going against the current not only in career-related matters, but also in love can lead to “dreams come true”, literally.
See, Sophia had pretty much made the “first move” in reaching out to her now-husband for their first meet up: She had been unsuccessfully on the search for a partner who would be able to take time off from work (long-term) to travel around South America with (a dream of hers). Lo and behold, it just so happened that her now-husband, had posted in an online community they were both a part of, of his plans and wishes to travel to various spots in South America! And so she sent him a message online, and well, the rest is history 🙂 This type of effort and even courage may sound like a norm to some, but it does break the traditional, conservative model of courtship that is still fairly present in (Korean) society even to this day.
One of Sophia’s final words of advice to us women out in the audience, was, for us to have at least some kind of an idea of the type of man we would like to be with. Again, for some, I know, this is a norm. But though I do not understand how this is possible, I was bizarrely just the type of girl who had not known what type of a man I wanted to date or marry. Even from my first boyfriend to my most recent, I realized that I had not had a clear idea of my ideal spouse/boyfriend/partner (and likewise, neither did I have a clear picture of the ideal spouse/girlfriend/partner I wanted to be, nor of an ideal relationship I wanted to be in). “A”, who is a trained life coach, had been very patiently guiding me through just exactly these types of questions in the earlier stages of my breakup. To hear Sophia mention this again at the event felt like more than mere coincidence to me, and at this point, all I can say is that I look forward to fully embracing the hints and nudges that the universe is sending me, to really delve deeper into these concepts this summer 😉
Last but not least, we had Mrs. Booyeon Lee Allen, diplomat from the U.S. Embassy take the stage. She began by remarking how meaningful the night was for her, as it would be the first time in Korea where she is giving a speech, fully in Korean, for the 18 minutes of stage time she had been given. Booyeon shared with us tips she wishes she could have told the young Booyeon of the past, who dealt with probably the same issues that members of the audience were currently dealing with. These tips include becoming the best at your job (whatever you may be doing, focusing on the task at hand), setting your own set of principles and priorities, and being active in creating/being a part of a community of women who can share their struggles with each other and provide a network of support, encouragement, and empowerment.
As Booyeon had duly given the audience advance notice of, some of her advice, like, “setting your own set of principles and priorities”, she knew, would not flow well with the Korean audience. For example, let’s say being with your family for dinner is a priority of yours and requires your getting off work at exactly six o’clock (a concept that is referred to in Korean as “kal-tweh” – kal means sword/knife, and tweh is a shortened version of the Korean word for “getting off work”. Hence, leaving the office “on the dot”, sharp as a “sword”, etc.). A typical response to such a prioritization would be, “That is only possible in America!”(such responses being naturally based on seeming realities of impossibility in current Korean society). Wittily, however, Booyeon told us that, actually, change is possible, because “The U.S. had been just like that [Korea] in the seventies also!”. Booyeon and the audience laughed in bittersweet acceptance of this seemingly still backward, nonetheless prospectively hopeful nature of the corporate culture situation in Korea. Of course, sometimes work calls for late nights, no matter which country and generation you may be a part of. However, a positive shift in the general workplace culture has been made possible in the states and would be made possible even in Korea, through what Booyeon describes as a silent revolution – it doesn’t always take mass demonstrations or riots for individuals to affect change in society.
Recalling one incident in the past where she and several of her colleagues had been in a meeting with former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, Sung Kim, in which none of their proposals were accepted by the Ambassador, yet everyone was able to walk out laughing pleasantly, Booyeon reminded us that kindness, or kind charisma, goes a long way in the workplace as well.
I found myself drawn to the way Booyeon was able to share her inspirational story to us in a very warm, down-to-earth, and mother/aunt/sister-like way. I was also gratefully amazed to observe a similar type of captivation and gravitation displayed by the audience members – some of which may share her bicultural (or even, multi-cultural) upbringing and experiences, but most of which may very well be coming from a purely, or at least mostly Korean background. To top it all off, Booyeon’s Lean In Seoul members had also attended the event, just going to show the strength and support that a close network of women can tangibly provide to one another.
Though I risk being misinterpreted as being somewhat reverse-discriminatory against beloved members of the opposite sex, men – with all due respect, this event allowed me to realize that there are certain undeniable connections that women are able to make with each other in a unique way, as members of the same sex. And, yes, there are certain types of encouragement and support that can only be provided by women, for women. Just as the word “brotherly” exists in its full essence and fairness, I think I am merely referring to a “sisterly” solidarity I was viscerally reminded of by the night’s end.
For a girl who could have had her world crumble apart in a self-destructive, as well as others-destructive way (because oftentimes, heartbreak and unemployment can do that to a person, regardless of whether or not it’s self-induced), the opportunity to be part of the TEDxItaewon Women event was a godsend that helped keep my world together during my time of distress. There were moments throughout the past few weeks when I wanted to vanish off the grid and just go hide in my cave pretty bad, and I figure I will still need some time to fully heal from the wounds of the previous chapter of my life (technically, I am still in half-hermit mode even as I write this recap, haha). Nonetheless, my resonance with the cause behind this event and the passion of our fellow organizers and volunteers enabled me to resist my instinct to take flight and instead, fight. To fight not only for the sake of my own life, but to fight for something good. Something more than me.
Looking at the bright faces of the audience members as well as all three of our wonderful speakers, and also all of us who worked together to making this night come to life, I felt nothing but immense gratitude for everyone involved and at the possibility of events like this taking place. And, on a lighter note, just the fact that I was able to have a fun night doing something meaningful with like-minded people, made me feel warm and fuzzy all over in a way that I hadn’t in a long, long while.
In the big picture, this is only the beginning. One night may or may not change one life. One night may or may not bring about lasting change in a community, city, society, a country. But, so long as we recognize the inevitably continual and accumulative nature of such efforts to empower, educate, raise awareness, and bring together those who must find growth through solidarity, and keep forging on, I believe that whatever the cause may be, visible change will take place and make its place permanent in our world some day.