Distance Traveled: 7,385 mi/11,885 km
It was MIA for weeks, but the flag has finally made it safely all the way to Tai in Italia!
Speaking of Italians, I can’t make or mangio eggs with garlic and kale and not think of Alicia, or step on to my yoga mat and not think of Alex, or get through just one book without wondering what the analysis would be from Amy. For me, these seemingly trivial fragments of their traits are regular reminders of the whole goodness of an exceptional group of seemingly unlikely friends that I got to be a part of.
Some people make such a lasting impression on you that you can’t help but think of them when certain objects and experiences that preexisted your meeting them, take on new meaning; their memory, any time you encounter those things again. Taina, Puerto Rican-American bonita from the Bronx, is one of those people for me.
Before Tai became a puppy parent, traveled to Italy with airman beau and soulmate, and pursued her master’s in early education, she was another recruit teaching “Kindie English” with the rest of us at Chungdahm Learning Institute. As yet another testament to how to live successfully abroad, Tai was open and curious about living the life of the people in her new foreign home, while contributing her own homegrown influence to the place.
I’ve honestly never seen anything like her ability to work a room before.
Not all but some nights, downtown Cheongju, over-worked teachers would line the bar, slouched over their drinks staring into their beers in place of say, their flatscreen and zoning out while the Netflix status ring loads, as we do in the West; that necessary zombie hour of buffer time needed between work and play, before rejoining the human race. Especially after a hellish week of trying to prepare students for their TOEFL test, which decides what jobs/colleges will accept them and therefore their fates. Some teachers would be more than ready to blow off some steam, and no one knew how to get you to do that better than Tai.
It would start with some half-hearted phrase said in passing to the effect of, “It’s dead in here,” or “I wish they would change the song.” If she was in the mood, she’d walk over to the playlist station and queue up a sure thing, or if she had to, cut sweetly in line and interrupt someone else’s real mood-booster, Alice in Chains heart song, with a go-to like the Prince Royce cover of ‘Stand By Me‘.
Bachata time, bitches.
The upbeat, four-four time and whispery intro dialogue would stir up some semblance of a second wind for me to start making my way to the cleared out space I’ll call a dance floor. She’d take hold of both my hands and call out the steps, “Left, two, three, four. Right, two, three, four…”, emphasizing the last count as a reminder to exaggerate the part where I was supposed to turn up my hip. I’d only realize what I’d thoughtlessly done after noticing that we were the only ones in the joint stirring. I’d look at her feet and tell myself I had filled out enough to no longer justify the crushing anxiety that triggered my flashback to junior high as the only lanky pre-teen plagued with the burning desire to still show up to school dances, even though I didn’t know the first thing about how to pop, lock & drop anything besides all my elbows and knees. Thankfully Bachata is so damn catchy, there would quickly be more girls to cover the line of sight between me and anyone who’d enjoy witnessing that kind of palpable distress.
Three Agwa Bombs later, paired with gracious encouragement from Tai, I’d be convinced I was actually Selena Quintanilla, circa ‘Como La Flor’, or at least that my spirit animal was, or could be. I’d bidi bidi bom bom my way on over to the playlist to fan the flame Tai sparked, and watch her single-handedly transform the place.
I don’t think anyone with Latin blood can listen to ‘Gasolina‘ without bringing down the house.
The spectators would just begin turning their heads to watch our immaculate Sea of the Two-step when I might as well have dragged the needle across the proverbial record to halt the party with the Daddy Yankee classic (by the way that everyone but Tai would suddenly look excitedly unsure of themselves). We weren’t in the Caribbean, but with Korean and English men and women who had never moved (in public) the way that Tai would now be life-coaching them to. Knowing Americans would join in demonstrative support and the rest would follow in full suit, with or without perma-blush, if they were within ear-shot of the best and boisterous girl from the Bronx. I will never forget but can’t publish her descriptive, empowering commands for how to work your body. All in good nature, all in good fun, all every-last-one of us feeling alive on the dance floor. Which got lasers installed all around it by the way, not too long after this became a regular thing. Coincidence? I think not.
Tai’s physical intelligence is just the start, her passion, compassion, reserves of rooftop-wisdom, and enthusiasm for life seemed to naturally fit whatever the situation called for. With all of us being from different corners of the world, it was often through her congeniality, that we connected so easily. And when I think about what I really miss about Korea, it is feeling that shared substance, within myself and the presence of the people around me, that compelled us to take a risk somewhere strange and new, that made these bonds possible.
Until next I see her, it’s Hi-Chews, Reggaeton, rooftop talks, cross-town sing-along bike rides, dodgy Disco Pang Pang carnival rides, hot “gochujjang” chili pepper sauce, and tattoos of Spanish, “Titi”, that keep me the kind of fiery she still reminds me to be.
Ciao for now, next up: the country where the memories and the flag were made! I can’t believe how far it’s gone!