Saturday, June 15, 2013

How Salsa Saved Me (and helped me ruin my life)

I wasn't going to post this because I've done my best to keep this blog rated PG and keep the exploits I'm ashamed of off. But, as I was reading over it and fixing things here and there I realized how important salsa was in my life in Korea and how it's become an integral part of my life. My friend, Kiki in this story (all names are aliases), asked me to write about the impact dancing has had on my life. She said it could be any length, and as I'm very wordy, it ended up being 10 pages in MS Word. To my regular readers, some of this may be repetitive, but I guarantee there are some things I never told you. Enough of my introduction. Here is the story of how salsa saved me (and helped me ruin my life). Nothing is embellished or fictional.

To Kiki and Rosemary: you are more than acquaintances to go to salsa clubs with. You are the friends who kept me going in the spaces between dances.

In the spring of 2009, I turned 21 years old and got on a plane to South Korea, vowing never to return to the US. I was running away, not so much from something, although I felt I had nothing to anchor me and prevent me from leaving, but rather I was running away to something. I was running away to a future, a life I would build from scratch with my own hands. Why I chose South Korea is another story in itself. I would find out a few years later that I have “severe rapid-cycling bipolar II disorder”. This helps explain a lot. But at that time, I was alone on a continent I’d never visited before with two suitcases and a backpack, a very basic knowledge of the Korean language and history, and no plan.

Fast forward to summer 2010. After having returned to the US for a torturous 7 months to finish my university degree, I was back in Korea at Seoul City Hall signing marriage papers with my new Korean husband whom I had known for almost exactly one year. My future was bright and rose-colored and made of dreams and butterflies. I knew that this was what I was running away to when I first left the US and that my happily ever after was about to start, despite the strange misgiving I had felt when I saw his face in the airport and felt nothing. I was 22; he was 23. We started a small fusion burrito restaurant in Andong, touted the most traditional city in Korea. After 3 months we declared it a failure and I started looking for jobs in Seoul. During my 7 months in the US and the 6 months in Andong, I lost touch with everyone I had befriended in Seoul. It was a new start again when we moved to the big city in late November for my job at a prestigious multinational company.

It was my first real job. I became close to one of my coworkers, a Canadian woman, Kiki, who had been at the company a few years. She had recently taken up salsa dancing and was so enthusiastic about it that I can’t think of a word in all the 4 languages I’ve studied to describe her passion for salsa. She loved it even though she couldn’t discern a rhythm in the music, saying that salsa music sounded like someone had put a bunch of chopsticks in a can and thrown it down a flight of stairs. She incessantly invited everyone she talked with to join her salsa class. Her goal was to have someone to go to salsa clubs with when she got good enough. I saw a lot of her, so naturally I heard a lot about salsa.

When I was little, my parents wanted me to try a lot of different activities so I could find what I liked. I tried gymnastics, swimming, soccer, ice skating, ballet, and finally later stuck with horse riding and piano. I still play piano often and compose music for fun. I remember that my least favorite activities were soccer- I sat in my defensive spot and plucked grass most of the time- and ballet. My connection with music has always been strong, but since that ballet class I disliked, I always assumed I would be a terrible dancer and never felt an urge to try again despite the musical talent I was lucky to be born with.
One day Kiki was pestering me to go to her salsa class again. I finally gave in and said that I would go once if she would just shut up about it. I talked to my husband about it and we went together. I loved it; he liked it. 

We rearranged the budget (I was the only one working so money was tight) and we started taking salsa classes with Kiki. For the first time since the restaurant, we had something we could do together with a goal. It strengthened our marriage. But, like many other things (like jobs), he decided after a couple months that it was too difficult and was causing him too much stress and making him feel inadequate, and we quit in the spring of 2011. I was not happy about that, but he was the jealous type and I couldn’t keep dancing like that with other men. That was the end of my brief foray into salsa.
Just kidding! This would be a very lame story if that were the case. But “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” My love affair with salsa would only truly start after I left my husband. In July, almost exactly a year after we married, I kicked him out of the apartment. Our marriage had been on the rocks since shortly after we moved to Seoul. I had seen some hope of making it last when we started learning salsa together, but his inevitable resignation was another sign to me that he would never be capable of following through with anything.

Ironically, it was the story of our love that did the most to tear me away from him. He decided he wasn’t cut out to be a chef after working in a restaurant for 3 days, which is what he had gone to college for, and that he wanted to be a writer. I told him I’d give him one year to write a book and if he failed he’d have to get a job and never give up again. He chose his topic as our love story, which was actually a good idea and probably would have been a hit in Korea. Young, brave, intelligent, white American girl runs away to Korea and meets a young, poor Korean dreamer for a language exchange. She barely speaks Korean, he speaks even less English. A year later they marry and start a restaurant together. They get a cute puppy and move to the big city. She gets a corporate job and he becomes a (famous) writer. They speak mostly Korean at home and she loves Korea and Korea is great! That book would have been a bestseller in Korea.

After two months, I asked how it was coming along. He said he’d finished the outline for the entire book and was almost done with chapter one. Four months after that, I asked again, trusting he’d made good progress because he was always talking about how hard he was working on it. He said he’d started over a few times and had written the whole outline and was almost done with chapter one. Soon after that I stopped sleeping with him. A couple weeks after I stopped sleeping with him, I came home very drunk from a work dinner. I don’t remember paying the taxi driver, taking the elevator to the 7th floor, going into my apartment and removing my shoes, or making it to the mattress/blanket thing on the floor (very Asian sleeping apparatus). I don’t remember my husband taking off my clothes. I remember that I couldn’t move and that I didn’t want him on top of me. I remember him having sex with my motionless body like a necrophiliac.

I was 23 years old when I kicked my husband out of the apartment that I paid for but was in his name. I let him keep a key so he could come get his things while I was at work when I didn’t have to see his face. He liked long hair so I’d been growing mine out. I immediately cut it off. I look better with short hair. I had quit salsa for him. I started going to class with Kiki again. She said it would be good for me, and she was right. I started to think of myself as single and took off my wedding ring. I held my chin up and slept alone at night. I had been so involved in my marriage that I had almost nobody to turn to but Kiki. We ate lunch together and had coffee breaks together even when she was transferred to another building about a block away. We watched YouTube videos of salsa dancers and dreamed of the day we’d look like that on the dance floor.

A couple weeks after I cut my hair I came home from work and took off my shoes in the doorway as usual. I switched on the light and right in front of me was my husband. “Hello, honey,” he said. “Your hair looks nice.” I contemplated running but walked in instead. On the table was a “romantic” meal of a $5 pizza and a bottle of Pepsi, and a bouquet of flowers. This from the chef I married. I asked him what he was doing in my home. He said it was in his name so it was his home. His father had kicked him out, ashamed that his marriage had failed, and he hadn’t told his mother because he thought he could win me back. He proposed that we be roommates. He said he wouldn’t touch me if I didn’t want him to. He was cold and calculating. He was a boy in the body of a man with nothing to lose.

I kept calm and called Kiki. I packed a carry-on sized suitcase with essentials and went to the subway station. An hour later, near midnight, I knocked on Kiki’s door. She told her husband and kids that the power and gas had gone out at my apartment and I needed a place to stay while it was fixed. I took my suitcase with me to the office the next day and spent the greater part of an hour trying to find a place to leave it, finally putting it in a subway station locker. I asked a coworker I trusted to look up cheap residency hotels in the area, but the only thing I could afford was a goshiwon.

A goshiwon is a living arrangement born out of limited available space, a large class divide, and grueling study habits necessary to pass tests designed for fierce competition. Just before I started middle school, my parents got divorced and my mom moved into a condo which had a surprisingly large walk-in closet in my bedroom. We always joked that a person could live in that closet. Whoever invented the goshiwon must have had the same epiphany and was very economically minded. When I first moved to Korea I spent 6 months in 2 different goshiwon, and I promised myself that would not happen again. I try not to make promises anymore.

On the bright side, this particular goshiwon had a private bathroom just large enough to stand up in, and the window actually opened to the outside instead of to a hallway. And, as it was near a university (also only 2 subway stops from the office), most of the tenants were near my age instead of creepy old divorcees and widows. I spent about $500 per month on this closet with a bathroom and internet access, and I was also paying the $500 or so rent on my old apartment that my husband had decided not to live in anyway because it reminded him of me. In retrospect I should not have done that but I wasn’t thinking clearly at the time. I think I can be forgiven given the circumstances.

Needless to say, I did everything I could to spend as little time as possible in my goshiwon room. By this time, Kiki and I were confident enough in our dancing to go to the ‘beginner’ salsa club, Top. I can honestly say I never slept with anyone I met at Top. I did, however, become quite popular and unofficially join a social club with Top regulars. This was most likely because 1. I was the youngest person to frequent the club, 2. I’m American, and 3. by that time my Korean was pretty fluent.

I drank with coworkers at least once a week and danced salsa once a week at first. I went on a date with a guy from Craigslist who offered to take me on a helicopter ride to Jeju Island and then never called me again. I flirted with a geek at work I had a crush on, but he would have none of it. I was lonely and desperate and I clung more and more to salsa as I got better and better.

I was hemorrhaging money on two abodes, student loan payments and credit card debts which were largely thanks to my husband, and my new lifestyle that kept me away from home for as many of my waking hours as I could manage. I needed more income, so I hatched a plan. I bought a digital piano for $1500 and put it in a room in my salsa teacher’s studio. We agreed that I’d pay $10 per hour to rent the room to teach piano in English to Koreans, for which I’d make $50 per half hour. He would advertise for me. He even lined up my first student. I must have touched that piano three times and never taught a single lesson. About a year later, I sent it to my boyfriend’s little sister in Busan on the other side of the country.

I found a room in a luxury apartment on the 19th floor of a new high rise on the northeast side of Seoul. I paid the married couple who lived in the master bedroom $1000 per month plus utilities to live there. We all got along great, although I wasn’t home much, and when I was I was asleep. By this time I was dancing at least three nights a week at different salsa clubs and going out with coworkers another one or two nights a week.

One night I went with Kiki to a salsa club I’d never been to before in Hongdae, a party district of Seoul. Our salsa teacher met us there. They were playing a lot of bachata, the sexiest of the salsa-related dances. It’s basically dry humping vertically with style. Two guys kept asking me to dance and buying me drinks. One was relatively tall and rotund, the other quite short and scrawny. I thought them an odd duo, obviously good friends. I tolerated the fat one because I liked dancing with the short one. He was smooth and had rhythm. I left the club with them, assuring my teacher I was fine. The three of us ended up in a hotel. The owner wouldn’t let us all stay in one room, so they paid for two. We all went to one room. It wasn’t how I imagined my first threesome (and only to date) would be, but I was free of my husband and on a rampage, so why the hell not? Before marriage, I’d never had a one night stand or a threesome, and I’d always wondered what I’d missed.

The big one was not big all over. The little one sat in a chair and watched as the big one struggled with the condom I insisted he use. He couldn’t get it up, and frustrated, he eventually stormed out of the room and I never saw him again. The little one smiled and walked to the bed. He had nothing to brag about physically, but salsa dancing had done him a lot of favors in strengthening his legs and teaching him how to move his hips. We saw each other once or twice outside of salsa clubs after that, but I didn’t want to sleep with him again. I felt…. dirty.

Kiki and I would come to call the little one Elvis because his hairstyle was very similar, and he danced a bit like Elvis. He wore really tight pants with crazy patterns: animal prints, polka dots, plaid, stripes of primary colors. And he stole attention when he danced. When others wiggled their hips, he shook them like an earthquake was centered below his feet. When others did meek, robotic body rolls, he thrust every part of his body forward in smooth succession like he was made of rubber. When others reached for the sky, he poked God’s eye out with his jazz hands. Some days he ignored me and some days he treated me like his best friend. He never got to know Kiki well because they never slept together and he couldn’t speak English.

One day he texted me that he wanted to set me up on a blind date with his friend. I told him I was wary of blind dates and not really into it. He said his friend was tall, handsome, and the owner of an English academy (which usually, but not always, means a person can speak English well and has a lot of money). After much protest, I agreed. Oops.

I met my date at Gangnam station in sight of my office building. He led me to a street I’d never walked down before. It was lined with love motels (the kind where you can pay by the hour and there are condoms in every room) and dead ended onto a street crammed with bars and restaurants where people only ordered food to wash down the soju. We went into one such restaurant, which smelled of frying, greasy meat and alcohol and sounded like drunkenness. The sun had yet to set. I had realized by this point that my date was neither tall nor handsome, and his English was worse than my Korean so I had reverted to speaking Korean with him. I now assumed he was not rich either. I hoped his personality would be redeeming. Silly me. After a horrible dinner of the cheapest food and drink on the menu, we walked back toward the subway station. He stopped me in the middle of the street and asked if I’d like to join him in one of the many love motels. I informed him I was not a slut and went home, angrily texting Elvis.

I suppose I can’t blame him for basically telling his friend he could have easy sex with a white girl. After all, remember how we met?

Kiki and I started going to the club where the good dancers went, Turn. Not many people asked us to dance because we weren’t in the social group and we weren’t as good at dancing, but we got a few dances here and there and we felt classy just by being there. Plus, the DJ was adorable. He was very short, rather stocky, and always wore a flamboyantly colored button-up shirt with a suit vest and a fedora. He was very enthusiastic about the music and stepped down from his booth every now and then to dance. He was an excellent dancer.

One guy showed a lot of interest in me, and I thought he was pretty cute. The lighting in salsa clubs is very flattering. Dim and red. Erases wrinkles, pockmarks, and other signs of age and imperfection. We talked and hit it off, and I gave him my number. A few days later he came over. We walked in the garden on the 6th floor of my building and he kissed me in the moonlight. We went back upstairs and talked awhile in the living room with the husband and his female friend. They went to the master bedroom and closed the door, which he said later was to give us some privacy. He said this later in his defense as his marriage was ending because the wife found out about his three girlfriends. The salsa guy (I have no idea what his name was) and I went to my room and had empty sex. I still had yet to see him in bright light, as it was night when he came over and we kept the living room lights dim so we could always see the beautiful night view of the city below. Then I really saw his face for the first time. He must have been near 40. He went home. I never slept with him again.

I was also kind of seeing another guy I met in a different salsa club. He was cute and kind and a good dancer, and he was 29 years old (6 years my senior). He flirted with me a lot and treated me like his girlfriend, holding my hand in public and texting me often. But he never kissed me. After about a month of this, I finally asked why. It went downhill from there. We’re still Facebook friends but I can’t remember the last time I talked to him. It’s probably for the best. The guy lived mostly on milk, eggs, and chicken breast, and worked out like it was his job. I don’t remember what his job was, but it wasn’t a good one. After having supported a man for 2 years, I refuse to date a guy without a good job.

There was also Carls (not Carlos), who owned one of the salsa clubs and the chicken restaurant frequented by the social club I was unofficially a member of. At first we never talked, but after dancing together a couple times, we started to become friends. He became like a mentor to me except that I can’t think of one thing I ever learned from him. He was pretty tall, middle aged, a bit on the overweight side especially around the belly, which was a testament to his capacity for consuming beer. He was balding a little on the top of his head but made up for it with the length of his hair, which was held together in the back in a salt-and-pepper ponytail, and with his generous goatee. He was a jovial fellow, like a Korean Santa Claus. He was also an avid badminton player.

One day in the fall, he asked me to join him for a meeting of his badminton league. I had other plans, so I declined. He was disappointed. The next time he asked I agreed, although I hadn’t played badminton since I was a child in my grandparents’ backyard. I didn’t realize it was a serious sport. We drove to the newly bulldozed and perfectly reconstructed Songdo on the eastern side of Incheon. Little did I know this was a special day when the “national representative” was going to make an appearance. After wondering all day what the hell that was, they told me his name and I Googled it. He’s got a bronze medal for badminton doubles from the Beijing Olympics. To make a long story short, we hit it off, Carls got jealous, professed his love for me, was promptly rejected, and stopped talking to me; and, I always thought I would end up sleeping with the Olympic medalist and I’m pretty sure he thought so too but somehow it never happened.

There was also my faux sugar daddy who drove me home from Top every week because we lived near each other. We flirted shamelessly but I never let it go anywhere. I didn’t see much of him after I moved out of that apartment.

And there was the guy who drove my favorite car, the Hyundai Tuscani (Tiburon in the American market). It’s not my favorite car because I think it’s the best. It’s my favorite car because I think it’s pretty, it drives quite well, it’s reliable as far as sporty cars go, and I could easily one day afford one so it’s not a pipe dream. He was a middle school math teacher, and also a snowboarding instructor. We had many deep conversations, which I loved because he couldn’t speak English so it really tested my Korean. He was patient and always made sure I understood everything he said. He would pick me up, take me to dinner before going to the salsa club, and buy me juice at the convenience store on the way home. He was 16 years older than me and had a son who lived with his ex-wife. I ultimately didn’t date him because he had a row of staples on the back of his head from some surgery I never dared ask about and it creeped me the hell out. I never said I was perfect.

One day I went to a normal club with a group of people after the salsa club closed and we didn’t want the night to end. I was dancing merengue to hip hop music with an old Mexican man who was way too into me for my taste when a tall, skinny, young Korean guy (just the way I liked them) took an interest in me. I didn’t have any alcohol that night. I just want to make that clear. I gradually shifted my focus to him and we danced close. He gave me a cough drop for some reason (I wonder to this day if it was actually some kind of drug, but I didn’t feel any effect) and we started kissing. He took me to the exclusive club area on the second floor and paid the bouncer to get in. We undulated to the music, as close as two strangers can be in the dark. He led me up a few flights of stairs to where the lights were off and piss dripped from the stairs above. He pulled out his small, half-hard penis and tried to squeeze it into my pants while standing upright, ignoring the sound of footsteps on the stairs below us. I stopped him. This was ridiculous. I went downstairs and danced with his friend. I went back to the main club and looked for the people I’d come with but they were long gone. A white guy grabbed my arm at the bar and told me in French that I was the most beautiful girl in the club and could he buy me a drink. I answered in French that I was sorry but I liked Korean guys. He didn’t let go and insisted. I repeated that I wasn’t interested and pulled my arm away. He left a bruise. I left the club. I napped in the subway station and took the first train home.

The 6 months after I left my husband are a blur. I didn’t eat much, I made up for lost sleep on the weekends, and I danced every moment I could. I lost 10kg (22 pounds) by December and bought size 8 clothes for the first time in my life when I visited the US for my friend’s wedding and Christmas. I was ecstatic.

I had worked out a way to get a work visa so I could keep my well-paid corporate job. After 6 months and countless promises, it fell apart at the last minute. They gave me one week’s notice and no severance pay. My husband and his father had been calling my boss and me making threats and demanding that I sign the divorce papers I’d kept putting off until I could get the work visa. I signed the papers. I was thin, dressed in Calvin Klein, and in high heels so I was taller than my husband when I met him for the first time since I’d left. When I saw him in that courthouse, he looked terrible and reeked of cigarettes. That was the end of January. I would not hear from him again until the summer, when he wrote me a long email saying he understood, he was sorry, and he wished me all the best. I never answered.

I barely got out of bed for the next two months. This was especially hard for my new boyfriend, who had been an intern at my company just before I lost my job. He graduated 6 months ago and works there now. He is doing very well. I asked him once why he stayed by my side through that depression even though we barely knew each other. He, always logical, said that I had been a strong, confident, successful woman before, and he knew I would be again. He was right. He was often right. But he wasn’t right for long.

During my depression, I didn’t dance. I gained back half of the weight I’d lost. I barely talked to Kiki. I was done sleeping with strangers and coming home after midnight. I was done with the job that had brought us together. I felt like I was done with life. When I got back on my feet (another story), I started dancing again. Dancing had become a barometer of my mental health. In April, I met with a renowned psychiatrist. I had done my research and I was pretty sure I had bipolar II disorder. I was right. He put me on drugs. There aren’t really drugs made for bipolar disorder. There are drugs for schizophrenia and for epilepsy that work, so I was on antipsychotics and anticonvulsants. I stopped chewing gum to reduce the tension in my jaw. I started paying attention to how things made me feel. What the triggers were for both extreme moods.

Hypomania is a state found in people with bipolar II disorder and cyclothymia. To my knowledge, these are the only groups that experience it, although there are also people with just hypomania and no depression but I believe they call that manic personality disorder. Don’t trust me on that; I only have a minor in Psychology. Hypomania is not like the mania of bipolar I disorder, where people become delusional and lose touch with reality, often hearing voices much like schizophrenic people. It’s more subtle than that. So subtle I thought I was just happy to be free of my husband until I lost my job. Then, in the midst of the deepest depression I’d ever felt, I looked back on the havoc I’d wreaked in my life over those 6 months.

Hypomania is dangerous because it is marked by impulsiveness, risk-taking behavior, spending lots of money, starting multiple projects and never finishing them (like piano lessons in English), and sexual promiscuity. Check, check, check, check, and check. While salsa mitigated some symptoms by being a regular physical activity, providing positive social interaction, preventing insomnia by exhausting me, and being an outlet for all the extra energy I had, it also gave me ample opportunity to make bad decisions and spend lots of money.

After starting treatment, while dating the boyfriend who had been by my side during my depression, I continued dancing but without all the bad decisions. Salsa became part of my identity, just like being a pianist always has been. I was the white girl who was fluent in Korean and danced salsa. I could always depend on salsa, especially when I needed some catharsis. It was hard to gain access to a piano so I needed something else.

In December 2012, I finally gave up the long fight to get a work visa. I had been working less than legally and it was eating away at my nerves and becoming a stress for my benevolent boss. With my tail between my legs, I returned to the US not to my Midwestern hometown but to the west coast. It’s now June 2013 and I don’t have a job yet. I don’t have medical insurance and ran out of medication long ago. I live in a house with my brother and 4 other people, which can stress me out. Stress is not good for bipolar people. Neither is being lonely. For the first month, I cried myself to sleep. I wanted to go home to Korea where I had friends and a pseudo family. I wanted to be special again. I wanted to find where it was that it all went wrong and do it right so I could have a future. I still feel that sometimes.

In January 2013, I found a salsa club. In Korea, I learned to dance on 2, which means girls put their right foot forward on beat 1. Here, most people dance on 1, which means girls put their right foot back on beat 1. I expected that, so I went to the group class that starts at 8pm and lasts until open dancing at 9:30. I learned how to dance on 1 but was so turned around I danced like a beginner all night. I went back the next week. 

By the end of January I was a decent dancer and I had made three friends, each born in a different country. One of those is now my best friend and I don’t know what I’d do without her. I’ve slept with another twice but his family wouldn’t approve if we dated because I’m white. It’s okay though because I have a boyfriend I’m head over heels for. He wasn’t so happy when a Mexican guy I met in a salsa club raped me about a month and a half ago. My brother doesn’t know about that. Almost all of my friends here I met either by living with them or through salsa dancing (a couple indirectly). My boyfriend doesn’t dance. I met him online. Who knew the online dating thing can work sometimes? The rest of the guys I met that way were creepy, friendzoned, or fell flat.

I am now a better dancer than I ever thought I could be, and I’m still improving. I stopped taking classes after the first few months in Korea, and have been learning on the dance floor at salsa clubs for almost two years. When I dance, I lock my attention on the eyes of my dance partner and anticipate his directions. I follow intricate patterns like water follows the path of a riverbed. My body knows where the beat is without paying attention to the music, and I merge with the sound and with my partner. We are two bodies, slaves to the rhythm, stepping and turning like marionettes possessed by Pan. With the right partner, I laugh and joke, my mirth mingling with the guitar’s melody.

Each type of music and dance has its own flavor.

Salsa is dramatic, the beat racing your heart and daring your feet to move faster than they should be physically capable of doing. It is elegant and wild at the same time like a cheetah in motion. It is intricate and simple, it is closeness and space, it is harsh staccatos and languid melodies, it is contradiction in its raw and refined form.

Merengue is whimsical, sexy, and playful. It’s a tease. Your feet march to the downbeat as your hips rise and fall with the upbeat, a gyrating syncopation echoed in your shoulders. Your whole body sways uncontrollably from the floor up in a controlled fashion. It’s about pushing and pulling, winding and unwinding pairs of arms. Your heart drops in your chest with each space between the drumbeats. The melodies and bodies spin drunkenly as the beat pushes on unwaveringly. It is ecstasy captured and bottled, released into a song and dance.

Cha cha and cha cha cha are languid. I’m personally not a fan and usually consider it rest time, as do the throngs of salseros and salseras at the bar downing water. But the few on the dance floor vary from looking like people in an old folks’ home, down to the nostalgic look in their eyes, to the girls with the sex kitten eyes who shake their hips suggestively at each cha and the guys who gape and grin. It is young and old, a handing of the baton and an evolution of an outdmoded dance.

Bachata is dessert. It is two bodies becoming one and bending together like two halves of a rubber band. It is love, longing, regret, pleading, lust in the voices of singers like Prince Royce. It is the shrill twang of the guitar and the rolling rhythm that begs you to roll your hips. It is understanding the music and your partner so intimately that nerve impulses travel directly from the speakers and the leader’s body to your body without routing through your brain. It is the forbidden touch of a friend or stranger and the false promise of more, and just when you’re almost lost forever in the music and the closeness it’s pulling away and turning, shaking off the touch with a suggestive twitch of your hip. It feels like kissing in the rain or flying in a dream. You know any boyfriend in his right mind would be jealous to watch you dance with another man, and that makes it sexier, because it’s not actually about sex and the misconception makes its true nature your little secret. It’s about the music and trusting another person with your body, knowing he won’t take advantage of it. It is leaning over the railing on the edge of a cliff just enough to get a thrill but not enough to feel like you’re going to fall. It is letting someone else move your body for you in time with the music.

Lost in the music, I am not burdened by my past and my fears of the future. The demons that chased me away from my home and across the globe do not lurk in the shadows. The decisions I’ve made have no consequences, and my heart is not a botched-up reconstruction of the infinitesimally small fragments it’s been shattered into time and time again. I am not a shell of the person I had the potential to become but never blossomed into. I am not angry for no reason. I am not bipolar. I am dancing, and that is all there is, and it is exhilarating.

What started for me as a way to shut my friend Kiki up ended up quite possibly saving my life. If I hadn’t gone to that salsa club in January, I would have no friends except the people I live with, only one of whom I actually consider a friend. 15% of bipolar patients commit suicide. After all I’ve lost I contemplated it often. I feel like a failure in life. I was brave and resourceful and did well for a short time in Korea and for what? I can’t even get a job in my home country. But it’s okay. I have my family, a piano in my house, salsa at least once a week, and friends who really care about me. I can count on those things, and half of them are thanks to salsa. Thanks to my personal salsa fairy, Kiki, who taught me to say, “screw it all and just dance!”


  1. Hi Kristen,

    This blog ends on a positive note, but I've been catching up on your blog, so my post is probably in response to all of your posts in the last year.

    It can take a really long time to get a job, especially if you are not willing to take just anything. I know that some of your feelings and state of mind may be due to your mental health, but personally, I think it is impossible to be an overall failure at 24. Of course some things won't turn out the way you hope, but after giving it your all, you have to find a way to accept that some things are out of your hands, and that's okay.

    I feel like you are making the mistake a lot of twenty somethings make of believing that you should have everything sorted out by now, and becoming delusioned that your initial dreams didn't come true. The quarter life crisis is a thing for a reason, and you are firmly entrenched. I am only a couple of years older than you, but I work with a lot of people who are close to retirement. They have all had many jobs and lived many lives. It gives them stories to tell. You have stories to tell and you'll have more.

    I don't know what type of jobs you are applying for. Admin positions are often boring, but they are a good way to get in the door of a company. Then once something else opens, you can apply for that. Also, since you have this blog, you may be able to find work as a Virtual Assistant.

    These may not be a good fit for you, but I'm sure you'll think of something. I read another blog by a woman who participated in the English assistant program in France. When she came home, she didn't really want to be in the US anymore, nor did she want to work for anyone else, so she started a blog called The Rule Breaker's Club. I think it would be useful for you whenever you start making new plans.

    1. Thank you for reading and for your input. I know that this is just a phase, and I'm sure many people all over the world can relate. I'm volunteering for the Red Cross and have met a guy in the field of providing case working and psychological/psychiatric services to refugees. I'm thinking of going back to school for clinical psychology and refreshing my French, which I was once fluent in. I could easily work in that field and help the refugee community greatly. If I had gotten a job right off the bat, I'd never have found out that such a field exists, so this period of unemployment has actually helped me find a niche I would like to fill.

      Part of the reason I keep writing and letting it be so melodramatic is that when it all works out and I find a place in the world, people who are lost in their own lives will be able to see that someone like me who had lost all hope could make it. I hope to be an inspiration for people like me.

      Also, this phase of returning to my home country and not fitting in is part of the answer to the question, "what if I had run away to the other side of the world?" Because I did, and this is what happened. It's not always pretty, and the grass is not always greener. Be happy for the choices you've made in your own life and don't regret the ones you didn't.

  2. Have you tried working with a temp agency or a recruiter?

    1. I have done a couple temp jobs here and there and actually got a job as a recruiter, but lost it after 3 days because of some internal miscommunications. Basically, my boss's boss didn't know she hired me and didn't want me in the first place so he made her get rid of me so he could transfer someone in from another branch. She was fired about a month later. After that I stopped trying my luck in that arena.

      Part of the problem is that I'm in Silicon Valley and I'm not technical. Actually, that's pretty much the whole problem. This place is paradise so the competition is fierce, and the non-technical career field is small. It takes most people at least 6 months to find a job here, so I'm not the only one.

  3. If you haven't already, you should file charges against the guy who raped you. Good luck with the job search. The economy is picking up, albeit slowly, and you're still young, so you have your entire life ahead of you.

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