It has been one year, one month, and one week since I left good ol ‘Murica and landed in the peaceful sovereign of the Republic of Korea. Against all superstitious odds, 2013, whilst living on the 13th floor, was by far the most fun, adventurous, and most growth-inducing year of my life as a person, professional and partner.
In this blog I will give you the 13s of 2013. I will hit on aspects of my previous 9-month review blog entitled My Korean Baby, published in October, by giving updates (nothings is repeated) on certain aspects of life that I adore and despise about living in this Eastern gem. Most of all this will be a conglomerate convergence of pros, cons, anecdotes, history, current events information, personal revelations, hopefully funny moments, and a look to the future. I will be back on USA soil ≈ August 1, 2014.
Mantra of the last few months…
I will finish this year-review blog posting if it kills me.
… at the very least, please humor me and read at least half and scroll through it all. I admit, it took heart and soul to finish this lengthy beast.
One Year of Korea- Glass Half Full
1) The job- the Kiddos
Have I had stressful days at work? Yes. Have I ever felt burnt out? No. Do I doubt for one moment that teaching in some capacity is for me? No. This is the first year in my life that I never once had a sick day, despite being more sick than I have ever been before. If I even dream of calling in ill, I think of the cute, over-achieving little faces that peer at me every day, and crawl my tired ass out of bed. I freakin’ love my job!
My mom asked me, “What do you think your students tell their parents about you?” Hmmm… I think it might go a little something like this: I have a white, plump teacher with yellow hair (the term blonde does not exist here) from America who is obsessed with cats, gives out awesome stickers, and I never want to be caught alive without my homework. We can have a game day, ice cream party, spelling bee, pizza party, etc. if we work hard as a class and her room is always really really cold, so as a rule, I have to bring a sweater.
Below: 13 year-old Edward shows me his display of legos that he brought in to class to impress me. I have had Edward for over 1 year now and I love him 🙂
One blistery winter day, I entered the classroom with a shudder. I felt a bit chilly because I had just come in from outdoors wearing a long sweater, no jacket, a hat, but no mittens.
“Teacher, are you cold?” Jenny asked expectantly, excited that she may have caught Teacher as the frosted one, for once.
“Yeah, a little bit. I forgot my mittens,” I replied.
“That’s okay teacher. Just put your hand in ‘rock’. That’s what I always do when I forget my mittens,” Jenny aptly advised.
Rock, of course, refers to the ubiquitously played ‘Rock-paper-scissors.’ Rock-paper-scissors is utilized all over Korea to make a range of minor to epic decisions. This game is seen as completely fair, final, and avoids any awkward analysis of what might be logical, hierarchical, or deserved solutions. Even business men decked out in expensive suits can be seen energetically throwing these hand symbols late at night over dinner or on the street. So now, every morning on my commute, with or without my mittens, I always think of Jenny’s succinct, yet perfect advice: just do ‘rock.’
Above: Rambunctious Rachel and sassy Jenny display their cute teddy bear mittens. And on another day, Chris’s package from his mother arrived. The girls are sporting Chris’s winter boots, which take up half of their body size.
Some students like sassy Jenny can make me belly laugh, others take my breath away. The ingenuity and depth of imaginative introspection expressed in the following passage is impressive, not just because it is a 10 year-old boy writing it in his second language, but more importantly because his awareness gives hope for a culture where feelings expressed by the male gender are squelched:
I felt the feelings of how handicapped people are indisposed. When I was in puberty, I felt that I was not a normal person and not special too. I was just an object of ridicule. And I could have chosen the extreme measure of suicide. There was great suffering in my heart, but not on the outside. Now I’m sufficiently satisfied in this life and thankful for my parents.
Above: Elliot decapitates a Snowman donut.
One day I asked my students to tell me their dreams. Although they asked over a dozen times, I adamantly refused to give any further instructions. This is very challenging for Korean students, because they tend to lack creativity and a general ability to make decisions on their own. They are taught from a young age to produce whatever the authority figure asks of them. If they have no clear direction, they are often lost. I wanted them to live suspended momentarily in this feeling of discomfort and come up with something truly genuine. Here are their dreams, exactly as they were written. If there is a number beside the statement, it reflects how many students wrote this down, otherwise 1 is implied.
- I want to be a designer (2)
- I want North Korea and South Korea to be one (2)
- I want no wars or fighting (3)
- I want no children to be lost
- I want no children to be starving (2)
- I want people of the Earth to stop killing zebras, tigers, cheetahs, and other wild animals
- I want to be a police officer because police can do anything
- I want to be a boxer
- I want to be a terrific doctor (2) because I can get lots of money (1)
- I want to get a cell phone (2)
- I want to eat lots of delicious foods (2)
- I want to get a dog or cat (2)
- I want to live in an amazing house, large like a castle (5)
- I want to be a diplomat
- I want to be a scientist
- I want to be immortal (2)
- I want to get a dragon
- I want my family to always be happy
- I want a brand new Nintendo X1,000,000,000
- I want my family to stay healthy with many loves (2)
- I want to be a judge
- I want to be rich
- I want to always be happy
- I want to be a news announcer
- I want to be a teacher
- I want every wish of mine to always be granted
- I want to be an athlete
- I want to travel all over the world
Above: Some depictions of the student’s dreams. Below: The sun and moon. Can you guess which is the sun? The red one. All over Korea, the sun is displayed in red. If you ever ask a Korean kid to draw the sun, they would immediately pick up a red crayon. A USA student would promptly pick yellow.
The gender division in Korea is pervasive, persistent, and overall frustrating, especially as an educator. Time and again I have mentioned how my girl students try far harder that most of their male counterparts, but for what? Probably 70-80% of my girls will wind up as housewives, whether they want to or not. This proclivity towards achievement is squandered by cultural demands and lack of support for the female professional. The expectations of gendered norms begin young.
To test this notion, I asked my students (both boys and girls) to write a list of positive and negative aspects of each gender. Below is what they came up with. During this activity, one boy ask me if women can work out? In my flabbergasted attempts at a reply, I retorted, “Haven’t you ever seen women in the Olympics?” He nodded yes, but did not get the connection. I explained that women in the Olympics need to train, just like the male athletes. He then asked, “Sooo… can regular women train too?” Sigh… the belief about gender abilities starts young… real young.
One might argue, as did one of my students that some of these characteristics listed below are ‘natural biological differences’ between the genders. Perhaps some, but I would argue that the majority are not, especially after having been raised in the USA where being healthy, fit, strong, assertive, and in control as a woman are possible and preferable in many instances.
Positive Boy Traits
- Boys have superior sports condition
- Boys can memorize well and see roads
- When boys fight with friends, they soon become friends again
- They are brave
- They are good at exercise (4)
- They are strong (4)
- They have lots of friends
- Sometimes they are handsome
- They can relish the games with which the girls are never allowed to experience
- Their friends are friendly
- Boys can wash their hair easier than girls
Positive Girl Traits
- Girls have light and thin voices
- Girls are very cautious and careful
- Girls have the ability to talk well
- They are kind
- They are good at work
- They have good handwriting (2)
- They do not use lots of energy
- They concentrate well (3)
- They like to hear, “You’re pretty!”
- Almost all girls are good at studying
- Girls are good at making things (like clothes)
- Girls are not as noisy as boys in the classroom
Negative Boy Traits
- Boys can get into trouble easily because boys’ personality naturally cause trouble a lot
- Boys are not superior at talking
- Boys have very low voices
- Boys fight too much (2)
- They are too fast (?)
- Their handwriting is almost always awful (2)
- They cannot cook well (2)
- Their rooms are dirty
- They smoke
- Their concentration is terrible so the teacher punishes the boys
- Several boys do not pay attention to their teacher
- They are noisy
Negative Girl Traits
- Usually girls don’t have loud voices
- When they are adults, they are smaller than boys
- Girls like shopping or decorating things
- They are weak (3)
- They are not good at exercise (this very student asked me if women ever exercise?!?!)
- They are not brave
- They have a maximum of 5 friends
- In history, women do not have power
- Girls have to tie or decorate their hair
- Excellent girls have to help the teacher because girls can help solemnly
- They are noisy when it is a group of only girls
- It is harder to wash hair for girls than for boys
- They like to by many things while shopping.
2) Access to Asia
I LOVE traveling! So far we have traversed Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam. Highlights that I did not mention in my October blog include our couples’ massage and cooking class in Chiang Mai, Thailand, our island tour in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand, and the day spent on the catamaran in Cebu, Philippines with some of my favorite people. Please refer to my former blogs if you missed any of these details. Our most recent travels brought us to Hanoi, Vietnam. Chris, Laura and I agreed that the best part of the trip was kayaking in Halong Bay, basking in the peaceful serenity of the impressively striking surroundings.
3) My Espirit Family & Affiliated Friends
I still adore, admire, respect, and laugh with my Espirit crew. My Espirit family and friends include the children, my coworkers, boss, principle, and all of the people dating, friends with, or business-affiliated with anyone our group. I would estimate the total around 60 people, minus the children. I feel closest to about 10 of them, and enjoy seeing everyone else. This is the first work environment where there are micro-frustrations between people, but no clicks, no retaliation, no separate competing factions. In addition, for the firs time in my life, I have a solid group of friends, not just so many factions that I attempt to blend. The diverse array of individuals already effortlessly meld together.
In Seoul, Halloween is a spectator’s sport. Koreans come to the foreigner district to watch all the crazy foreigner’s dress up. They take a plethora of photos with the same intensified curiosity as a National Geographic photographer would while filming an undocumented species mating for the first time. The moment we stepped out of the cab, Chris was encircled with a gaggle of people wanting to take pictures of him or with him. He was dressed as the joker in a chef uniform with a bloody fake cleaver. It took us at least 30 minutes to languidly walk two blocks because there were lines of individuals/groups waiting take photographs. Chris LOVED the attention and soaked it up! I finally left him in the dust of fame to go eat with my friends.
4) Public Transportation
As I stated previously, I ride subways, buses, and taxis. I love that I can walk out the front door of my apartment building and within an average of 30-90 seconds, hail a taxi to wherever in the city that I want to go.
5) Growing our Relationship
Chris’s work schedule has been absolutely insane since October. New inexperienced management wreaked havoc at the Canadian restaurant where he was a cook. They reduced Chris from 5 days a week to 4 days a month! In the need for more hours, Chris began a second part time job as a head chef and teacher at an academy in Gangnam. He instantaneously connected with the staff at the new job and enjoyed the little kids who love petting him while stating the obvious, “black.”
Meanwhile back at the restaurant, waitresses, cooks and bartenders were dropping like flies because they either got laid off or couldn’t take the new bitchy regime that was stressing the bottom line at the expense of food quality and quality service. Thus, the owner was forced to come crawling back to Chris, pleading for him to become head chef at the restaurant. Chris agreed to take the position for the culinary experience it would give him, but adamantly refused to quite his part time job because he had little faith that they wouldn’t stab him in the back like they did to everyone else. Abruptly, Chris began working 5- 7 days a week for weeks on end.
Despite the heavy workload, our relationship has continued to grow in unique ways. On one of our many date nights, we met at a restaurant after work and unbeknownst to us, we wound up wearing the exact same outfit! A week later, we made the same exact facebook post within minutes of each other. We can now complete each other’s sentences and we still enjoy teasing each other mercilessly like an old married couple. While relaxing, we have been catching up on a few of our favorite shows: Moonshiners, Chopped, and Top Chef.
Chris’s skin condition is still present, to his chagrin, and is one major reason why Chris will be returning to the USA before me, on March 11. My parents found a radically effective topical treatment that at least minimizes the symptoms and impedes the spreading. The condition is stable and much less severe than before- no more chocolate boy pealing his exoskeleton. The experience of living together for the first time in a tiny space while dealing with medical issues has taught me that I need more patience and compassion. Despite my shortcomings, I am proud of being a dedicated partner who always looks for solutions and is committed to maintaining romance, communication and understanding in our relationship.
6) Korean Food
Korean food options are endless and endlessly delicious. I feel very blessed to have developed a relationship with a Korean woman who I teach private lessons to that has a fondness for eating. She loves to take me to lots of different places just to get my reaction to the food. Free food, a cultural endeavor, and terrific company… yes, please! On this particular occasion, we drove 45 minutes out of the city to the base of a mountain. There, not one foreigner could be found. I felt like I was getting the insiders scoop on traditional Korean culinary fare. We ate Jun (seafood kimchi pancake), salad, Jukume (spicy octopus/seafood sauté) and icy Muksabal soup. Muk is a generic term referring to a starch made from grains, beans, or nuts such as buckwheat, sesame and acorns that have a jelly-like consistency. Such foods have little flavor on their own, so muk dishes are seasoned with soy sauce, sesame oil and chopped scallions, and mixed with various vegetables.
7) Multifarious Activity Options
On lazy days or nights where we stay in, Chris and I like to use Korean masks to help treat our pollution-laden skin. Almost all masks here come in sheets… that don’t exactly fit Chris’s face correctly; however, they are super effective! lol
Below: One random Saturday, after teaching an adult class, John and I ran into all the Kakao talk (smart phone application for international/national free texting) emoticons in Gangnam! That is a peach, not a butt! I had thought it was a butt face all year!
Gyeongbuk palace the morning after fresh winter powder.
Traditional tea at a hannok Tea House in Insadong.
Euro-American style breakfast at Flying Pan in Gangnam.
Ice skating on Seoul Wall Street.
Smoking hookah at the Rainbow Lounge in Gangnam with Laura, Chris, Ellie, John, and Jesse.
Ice Sculpture Museum with Laura in Hongdae.
BBQ dinner with about half of the teaching crew.
Hello Kitty Cafe in Hongdae.
Namsan Tower (highest viewpoint in Seoul) with Ellie, Laura, Jesse and John.
8) Time to Read & Write
I went on several informational interviews with previous English teachers in Korea before I moved to Seoul. I wanted to know all the possible trials and tribulations that lay ahead of me. I wanted to hear real advice from people who had gone before me. One piece of information bestowed upon me was to revel in my personal time, to reflect, meditate, and feel free of the many obligations that await me upon my return. This nugget of kind advice has been in the back of my mind ever since.
This year, I have been reading books, articles, and watching documentaries none stop. I feel indebted as an educator to be constantly learning and to acquire as much knowledge as I can about the world around me. Some people may have found me to be a bit of a recluse at times when I get on a high of reading or writing because I completely stop going to nighttime activities for a few weeks; however, I try to remain balanced and true to myself… whatever that cliche means.
On my time off, I choose to peacefully graze English bookshops with seemingly boundless time, searching for the next page-turning jewel to curl up with. In the past 13 months, I have forced myself to write, even when I don’t want to, for multiple reasons. One, I deeply regret not writing when I traveled through 10 countries in Europe. Two, I want a time capsule and reflection on my cultural/educational experiences while here. Three, I don’t want to have to explain this to all of you when I get home! Just checking that you are still paying attention ^^
Here are some of my recent reads. I would highly recommend reading A Single Shard, The Bookseller from Kabul and A Gesture Life. These three changed my heart in different ways, each written with depth of characters and range in diction. A Gesture Life is an incredibly introspective portrait of an ethnic Korean man who was raised and fought for Japan, but lives most of his life as an immigrant in the USA. I liked this one best.
9) Restaurant Etiquette
Dining at a traditional Korean restaurant is an experience in and of itself. It is freakin’ awesome for so many reasons!
First, it is cheap- a dinner time meal, where afterwards you may have to be gluttonously rolled out the front door like Violet from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory because you are so full, can cost as little as $8 per person (alcohol included). No tip. No tax.
Second, with every meal comes banchan (side dishes) with as many refills as you desire. The side dishes vary at each establishment, but can include kimchi, seaweed, soup, fish, pickled radishes, bean sprouts, etc. This way if you still want to go out with friends, but don’t have the cash or you just want to drink and not eat, you can still nibble on something at the table.
Third, everyone shares everything. At first I thought I wouldn’t like this because I am very territorial over my food, but I LOVE this tradition because you get to try so many different dishes at once and there is no awkwardness or need to ask others if you can do so.
Forth, the portion sizes are hearty and contain heart healthy ingredients.
Fifth, there is a bell on every table to ring when you need the waitress. This is ingenious. It should be in every single restaurant in the United States. It is best for the garcon and customer. Imagine, not having to wait for a server to come in your area in order to flag them down while your food gets cold. As a server, it either buzzes directly to them to let them know that they are needed or bings lightly above the table. The entire atmosphere is efficient, communal, and tasty!
10) Planning Trips
If anyone knows me personally, he or she knows that I am a planner and an organizer. Planning trips is the perfect past time for someone like me and has kept me perpetually busy all year.
Chris and I are planning a 3-full-day romantic getaway to Jeju Island, Korea February 28- March 3. While on Jeju we are going to be trying some local delicacies like seafood hot pot and horse tartar, going to museums, hiking along the cliffs, posing under at least one waterfall and just genuinely enjoying couple time in the outdoors.
Next, tentatively, is a trip to visit my friend and mentor Carly in Taiwan in July right before returning to the USA. I have not booked tickets, figured out dates, or confirmed all details and expectations with Carly yet, but I will keep y’all posted on this one.
11) Being ‘Special’ as a Foreigner
I like being in a calm, controlled, predictable environment where ironically, I am not expected to conform to the norm. I touched on this topic slightly in a recent blog about my friend Laura visiting Seoul. Korea is a collectivist culture, which means that the focus is on the group, not the individual. Evidence of this can be seen in every day life. Koreans are not rule breakers. They ask permission instead of forgiveness. Americans do the later. Being a deviant from any kind of norm is feared and avoided like the plague. This can be wonderful because it promotes stability, lack of fear, less violence, respect for elders, order and control, an ease to every day life; however, it diminishes creativity, hinders individual expression and forces an entire culture to lack critical thinking skills and problem solving abilities.
Being a foreigner in Korea has been the best of both worlds for me. As a person with anxiety, having an expected crowd and culture to move amongst is quite relaxing. People in USA are aggressive, opinionated, and seemingly constantly ready for confrontation. In Seoul, if I do something wrong or don’t feel like following the ‘rules’ that day, I am forgiven because I am a ‘silly’ white foreigner. I actually really like the collectivist consideration for one another. I am not looking forward to moments of individualistic, selfish and entitled yearnings of the West back in the USA, most likely because it will be overwhelming for me to process and I will no longer feel special as one who is ‘allowed’ to do as I please.
Surprisingly, no one has ever asked me about the severe language barrier here. I learned enough Korean to order at restaurants, communicate in a taxi, and say and understand cliché phrases like hello, goodbye, thank you, a few expletives, etc. Other than that, it really has not been a problem for me. If anything the lack in ability to communicate verbally has pleasingly simplified my life. If I ‘need’ or ‘want’ something, I have to consider the strength of this desire in the context of the effort involved in getting it done. This ‘burden’ has allowed me to brush things off my shoulder and live more modestly.
I absolutely love not knowing what people are saying around me. This sounds strange, I’m sure, but so often in America, I would find myself easily irritated by stupid, mindless, opinionated, ill-informed chatter that seemed to be the norm. Here, I feel like I am pleasantly in my own world for a lot of the time. I put on my sunglasses, pop in my ear buds, and walk with the bustling crowd as I observe the animated world pass me by. I get my English fill through teaching and all my friends.
12) The Expat Community
Despite being an obvious extravert, I am apprehensive in large crowds and restless when meeting new people in grand venues. The great thing about the expat (for the context of this blog, an expat is someone who lives and works outside of their home country) community is that the vast majority of the people I meet are cultured, educated, globally concerned, energetic, full of adventure, kind, open-minded, curious, and inviting. The people I have met here lust for novice experiences, foods and conversations. Politics, feminism, religion, relationships, delicacies, language… all of the above is on the menu for discussion or experience. Many newcomers, including myself at one point, were pleasantly surprised at how quickly one is welcomed, invested in and cherished as a member of an ideological and physical group.
13) Not Wanting to Leave…
For the twelve previously stated reasons, and I’m sure so many more, I do not want to leave this beloved country. I have so much opportunity, love, excitement, learning, and growth in my life right now. How can I just cut it short? Korea has and will always have a hefty chunk of my liberal bleeding heart.
One Year of Korea- Glass Half Empty
1) Treatment of Women
I could, and potentially will, write a book on my experience as a second-class citizen as a woman in Korea. This topic infuriates me, depresses me, scares me, but mostly impassions me to work for female societal progression throughout the world. The truth of the matter is that I can escape any time I want and fly back to a much freer, albeit still unequal, USA and forget this ever happened. But I won’t. I couldn’t live with myself if I tried. The Korean girls in my class who work their asses off can not escape that boys get called on first, get a huge chunk of their parents resources and attention, can be interrupted by a male of any age at any time and just have to deal with it, and will most likely, despite all their hard work to become career women, be stuck at home raising children that they may or may not want.
Feminism in this day and age is about choice and equal options. If a woman wants to be a stay at home mom, then awesome! Go for it! Korean women do not have this choice. They will be a family shame if they do not produce an heir and satisfy their husbands. The irony is men treat women as objects here, not equal partners, and are almost always ‘mama’s boys.’ How does this work? The woman he marries will most definitely become a Mom.
For those few who do make it to a company like LG or Samsung, they suffer horrendous adversity, harassment and a thick glass ceiling. Few, if any, women reach high-level positions within these companies. There are no daycare services here, so one must send the child to be raised by a grandmother (only on the mother’s side, because the husband’s mother is only willing to maybe care for a boy child). This is what my uber successful hairdresser has had to do since she opened her own fancy salon.
A dear friend of mine, who will remain nameless, is subjected to commentary about her physical body and wardrobe choice, unattractive ‘assertive’ personality (she is a mouse compared to me), her lack of being feminine enough (she is super girly), her unlikelihood of having a successful family life due to her choice to work, and so much more that I simply do not have the strength to write because it is so heartbreaking, at one of the aforementioned global companies. She has no resource to protect herself because she works in HR and if she makes a comment it will put a personal stain on her resume for life (people talk). She will be viewed as a fussy, complaining bitch that couldn’t hack it in the industry. It wasn’t made for women anyway according to Korean culture. Women are good at looking pretty, doing service jobs, and nurturing children so that they can follow in the exact same mindless steps as their parents. AHHHHHHHH
I haven’t even skimmed the surface yet. Some more anecdotes to come include advertisements for gyms that satisfy Korean women that must include women without muscles, a woman who convinced her husband to get a vasectomy after too many kids by offering a Lexus, and women at work who wear pants appear to be trying to pretend to be a man and thus shaming their bosses.
Pollution has become an ever present, grey, ghostly umbrage lingering over the city of Seoul reaching it’s slovenly, illness-laden talons down amongst people’s health, options for daily activity, and manifesting in acidic rain. When I blow my nose, it isn’t always green or clear… often, it is grey. This has only been the case for me in Korea. I have at least two other coworkers who can confirm a similar experience. The principle at school often seriously advises us not to walk the 2.5-mile trek home because it may ironically be ‘bad for our health.’ December and January were particularly languorous months for me. I figured that it was just the inevitable rearing of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), otherwise known as seasonal depression. After visiting a physician, it turns out that I have 5 times less the amount of vitamin D than I am supposed to. Thanks to the city life, working indoors and outdoor activities inhibited by smog, I have for the first time in my life, had a lack of sun.
According to the Chosunilbo newspaper in Seoul, toxic Smog from China engulfs Korea on a daily basis. The concentration of ultrafine particles is often at its worst between December and March, with most of the smog comes from Beijing and surrounding Hebei Province. The smog crosses the West Sea and reaches the Korean peninsula anywhere between six hours and a day later. Meteorologists say the smog is diluted as it crosses the West Sea, but 40 to 50 percent still reaches Korea.
Winter smog carries more ultrafine particles and is more hazardous than the sandstorms that blow over here in spring. According to the National Institute of Environmental Research, around 20 to 30 percent of sandstorms consist of ultrafine particles, but smog contains 60 to 70 percent. Dust can cause asthma and other respiratory illnesses as well as cardiovascular diseases, but the most hazardous substance is ultrafine particles that are not filtered by the bronchial tubes and directly enter the lungs, where they can cause pneumonia. Smog also contains toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and arsenic. “Unlike sandstorms, smog contains various chemicals and heavy metals that react with the sunlight and multiply,” said Chun Young-shin at the Korea Meteorological Administration.
The Chinese government does not reveal data about the origin of pollutants, but the most polluted parts of China are along the east coast, which is near Korea. Chung Bok-young at the Environment Ministry said the Korean government hopes to gain access to Chinese data while offering to share clean fuel technology with China, but it will take some time before the trilateral group can be formed, which is difficult given current political tensions and historical traumas on all sides. “The only thing we can do right now is to try to predict exact smog levels and prepare to deal with it as best we can,” said a KMA official.
At least it isn’t as horrific as China… where one can see pollution from outer space and where the sunrise needs to be broadcast on a gigantic screen in the morning for all to see (featured in the above shots)?
3) Health Concerns
When I moved to Korea, I lost 15 lbs and then gained them back. I am still working on consistently incorporating exercise into my weekly routine. I have been keeping a food journal and eating better though! I have completely stopped smoking. I smoked for 7 weeks… dirty, disgusting, nonpareil stupidity. As I stated above, I do have a severe lack of Vitamin D and I am now taking supplements and feeling much better. I have sustained a seemingly continuous sinus infection while in the ROK, for which I have developed a characteristic inurement to. I tend to have a unique ability to cope surprisingly well with painful physical ailments. For example, in Europe, I traversed 11 countries with glass shards uncomfortably ensnared in my foot. I only got them removed when I returned to the USA.
Unfortunately, I have suffered yet another weird foot condition. When my friend Laura was visiting, I was wearing a non-routine set of boots and stepped oddly on my foot. Since then I have felt sharp shooting pain in the main pad of my foot near my toes every time I step as I am walking. I have been x-rayed, had blood work done, and taken anti-inflammatory medications- nothing! No stress fracture, no arthritis, no sign of tendonitis, and yet the pain persists…
4) Korean Bathrooms
Seoul is the 3rd largest city in the world, incredibly modern and high tech, yet the bathroom experience in Korea has been very anxiety provoking and frustrating for me. I had no idea how much I cherished the comfort and convenience of reliable, consistent and available restrooms. There are a multitude of distresses when it comes to using the bathroom in Korea. Warning! My ensuing complaints come from a base of pure privilege from my lived experience in the USA.
First, will there be regular toilets or squatters? I refuse to use squatters unless it is an absolute emergency. Unlike many Koreans, I find it incredibly difficult to balance on my haunches while trying desperately to get ‘everything’ to go where it should. Luckily in Seoul, 90% of the time, one will be able to fine European-style toilets. This is NOT the case when traveling outside of Seoul.
Second, most restrooms are unattached to the actual establishment one is visiting. For example, I might be at a cozy BBQ restaurant and want to excuse myself to quickly use the bathroom. It is the dead of winter and I will have to traverse outside to an external building through chilling corridors to get to a toilet. Not only is the process laborious and shocking to the physical self, but is also confusing and detrimental to my prior ebullient mood. Oh, and the bathrooms will either be freezing cold with no heat in the winter or ridiculously toasty in the summer, with no AC. In the final effort to destroy all previous equanimity, only after relieving myself, will I tragically realize there is no toilet paper. Thus, I return to the table shivering, lost, with wet panties and a sour mood.
Third, Korea does not supply toilet paper in the bathroom, at least one cannot guarantee this. Starbucks and movie theatres seem to be the only reliable places. Therefore, I must carry extra tissues for emergency in my purse.
Forth, the sewers are not strong enough to support the paper waste. Therefore, one is suggested to throw all toilet paper (including piss, poop, and blood-laden pieces) into a receptacle inches from the toilet as one sits, or possibly balances awkwardly, to do his or her business. No thank you!
5) Being Financially Challenged
Being financially challenged has been our own doing. We haven’t been flagrantly irresponsible with our money. We simply, yet mindfully, chose to use it to travel. When in Korea, do as Koreans do- spend selfishly. As of February 1st, six months later, we finally paid off all of our trips (Cambodia, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam, and Chris’s return ticket to the USA ≈ $9,000). I still owe money to my father, which I will repay when I return to the USA. February and March we decided would be savings months for Chris’s ‘rebuilding life’ money in the USA. April, May, June, and July I will use to build up savings for my own return to the homeland.
Due to recent relational trauma within the last 2 weeks (which I will describe in more vague detail later on- oxymoronic- I know), we have been ‘treating ourselves’ as a couple and spoiling me: perfume, diamond necklace, sushi date, fancy cocktails, hair, makeup, eyelashes, stylish ear buds, etc. As Donna and Tom from the acclaimed TV show, Parks & Recreation, would say: Treat Yo Self.
6) Living in a Jail Cell
Just a reminder for those who forgot, our room is a 10 x 10 ft studio with a 4-foot hallway that has a 2-burner kitchen and a washing machine across from the tiny bathroom. The bed (which is a futon taped to a single bed) takes up 60% of the space. Chris is 6’8’’ and neither of us are petite persons. Basically, we have been on living top of each other for the past 10 months.
I like to keep the AC blowing on me directly in the night. He prefers the heat fan. I relieve myself quietly; he tries to blow up the building to pieces with explosiveness. I cook lightly with grape seed oil or butter. He likes all things fried. He is a morning person. I am not. You could see how these few differences would cause minor tensions to arise, yet surprisingly we actually live well together. We always dish about our days together, enjoy watching our favorite TV shows, gossiping, cuddling, and the basic silliness. IF (and that’s a big if) our relationship continues, we plan to get a two-bedroom apartment and a cat together in Minneapolis a few months after my return.
Unfortunately, just after my last ‘review posting’ in October, we had a terrible bout with black mold that had developed and spread rapidly within two months. Chris had to throw away some furniture, bleach and then wash everything in the apartment. Thankfully, we are now safe.
7) Missing Christmas & the Minnesotan Winter Wonderland
There is nothing that compares to the magical, shimmering, silent crispness of the first heavy snowfall of the year. The birds are South. A fire crackles in the hearth. Plumps of snow fluff off occasionally from evergreen eves as the icicles begin to form along the edges of the home. Ornaments of meaning reflect resplendent memories and family ties as they hang perilously onto the verdant tree as kittens pass friskily undertow. The scrumptious odor of cookies baking and sound of Perry Como make the mood cozy and tight. Christmas Eve at Grandmas is full of boisterous voices, a spread of food offerings, and candlelight midnight mass. All of that was missing this year. Although I was tremendously blessed with my best friend’s presence for Christmas, Christmas in Seoul did not feel like Christmas at all. I spent it with friends eating, seeing a movie and smoking hookah.
Conversely, a reprieve from the arctic blast that Minnesota has been devilishly delivered and continues to be delivered this year is mostly a blessing. Although I am not able to take part in snow days, or snow at all for that matter, I take a moment to parallel “missing work,” from the incredible 1999 cult classic Office Space, to “missing a Minnesotan winter.”
Bob Porter: Looks like you’ve been missing a lot of work lately.
Peter Gibbons: I wouldn’t say I’ve been *missing* it, Bob.
Walking to work in 20-45 degree Fahrenheit weather all winter has been lovely. Here is a look back at the past 2-3 years of Minnesotan winters… that I ‘kinda’ miss in the cozy-looking-from-the-inside-out-onto-the-picturesque-white-winter-land-but-don’t-have-to-go-to-work-or-shovel-or-freeze-my-ass-off kind of way:
Love you mom and dad and I definitely missed the ceremonial putting up of Christmas decorations and our ‘special box’ ornaments with Bing Crosby singing in the background. Mom and dad avert your eyes momentarily to the italicized portion… my parents taste level and gaudy tackiness when it comes to Christmas decor in no way reflects my aesthetic point of view; however, it does feel like and look like home to me, so I missed it desparately!
8) Missing American Food Options
My cravings are odd, varied, and random. I miss specialty sushi rolls. While the sashimi is actually fresher and grander in quality of selections, the rolls are almost non-existent here. I am lavish in my sushi desires, so I feel like I am missing out on some of the most indulgent options. I miss warm cornbread with butter melting in the middle. Not one day has passed where I haven’t dreamed of biting into a bulging burrito from Chipotle. Multiple people have actually messaged me this year to let me know they are thinking about me while eating at Chipotle. This fills me with such feelings of rage, jealousy, yearning, and contempt towards these persons for even making me remember this delectable treat that I am thousands of miles from. However, moments later, I consider their pure consideration of me kind and I am briskly brought back to reality.
Nevertheless, I do miss ice water, garlic mashed red potatoes, sriracha sauce and the most mouthwatering combination that no one else I know has ever thought of- cornflakes and blue cheese. Don’t knock it till you try it. I miss blue slushies from the gas station that I never purchased back home, but will devour upon return. I miss butter and cheese that is less than $10 and any available frozen pizza. Ovens are not used in Korean cooking, so I desperately yearn to bake beats, homemade pizza, meatballs, tarts, etc. I hate tiny one-sized french fries portions that are the equivalent to a small fry at McDonalds and then I am double bitch-slapped when they assume one packet of ketchup will suffice. Ohhh hell no! To further degrade the eating and drinking experience, lattes start at $5 and a pint of ice cream at $8.
9) Sensory Overload
10) Paleness & Straightness
I am as white as the alabaster wall in my apartment. I think I am actually almost translucent at this point. I have never been paler in my life and I do not like it for the most part. “For the most part…” I am the ideal skin color here (which is a mind fuck in and of itself because of course all Koreans have a yellow or tan tint to their skin naturally), yet I find myself still yearning to have a healthy tan and rosy cheeks, kissed every so gently by the sun. The worst part about being white is the cultural obsession to maintain an unhealthy objective: skin bleaching masks (some which have caused permanent irrevocable damage to its victims who abused the products), summer parasols, and the constant application of sunscreen are ubiquitous here.
The color of one’s skin throughout modern history, and potentially even before, is actually a social construct- not only highly thrusted upon society by the media-marketing evildoers, but also by the desire for status. In Korea, being white means that you are not from the country, do not have to have hard labor jobs, have modernized. Alternatively, in the USA, being tan is a sign of privilege- being able to take off work, escape to cabin weekends, leisurely partake in boating or sunning activities, or invest in fake and bake orangeness. Being white indicates a factory, office, or other more restrictive job. People pay to maintain the status they want to project, either consciously (in Korea) or more subconsciously (in USA).
Whiteness of 2014:
The Bronze of 2010:m
As I stated in my October blog, I have felt self-conscious here because, although my skin is their definition of beauty, my size, my voluptuous hair, and style cut across the grain. No one is rude to me because of this but I definitely sense the ‘otherness’ of my look. I want to see people that are fatter than me, fluffy, with a variety of looks, yet still considered stylish and beautiful. I want to be in a place where individual style is appreciated and reigns over monotonous uniformity… long straight hair, straight bodies, and straightforward fashion. I love that my hair can be ‘sex-tossed’ like Carry Bradshaw’s, or curled, or straightened, or a beachy nest. In Korea, one must always look like a polished 1950s housewife. I am trying to start the trend that curls and unbrushed hair can also be acceptable. My students just tell me that I forgot to do my hair that day. I sigh and say they are right for lack of the strength to communicate the aforementioned rant.
11) The Considerate Lack of Consideration
On the street, people of all ages, walk in a zigzag pattern in a monotonously languid manor. Unlike America and Europe, the right and left parts of the street or sidewalk are not designated for a certain direction (aka it is one huge cluster fuck ALL the time). Girls in heals are ubiquitous and walk slower than snails. Businessmen teeter between hugging each other and vomiting on the street side from alcohol consumption. Some just stop and stand in the middle of the sidewalk with no attempt to move to one side to allow the flow of the masses to continue. People my age walk as if they have no where to go, yet I do?! Everyone seems to lack complete awareness of others, as if there is no one behind them trying to get somewhere. This drives me nuts to no end!
12) Lack of a Social Justice Orientation
In general, most of the Korean population is self, family, and country concerned. Absolutely nothing is wrong with this; however, global awareness and plight of others, even within their own culture, is seen as something self-administered- a punishment for wrong-doing. My students, who just finished reading Oliver Twist, had to give report on perceptions of the poor before and after reading the novel. Every single student said that before reading the novel, they thought that poor people are rare and that they deserve to be poor because they must have done something terrible. Now of course they realize that there are circumstantial reasons as well as systemic structures in place that make it dreadfully unlikely that one can get out of the cycle of poverty. After picking apart their opinions, I realized that it is a major difference of world view, per usual. Koreans take care of Koreans. Families hide shameful behavior of their own family. Alcoholics, those with mental disorders, people with disabilities are not sent out to fend for themselves as many Americans are, but are instead, kept internal. Domestic abuse occurs, but women do not flee.
After traveling throughout Europe, my students commented on how unpleasant it was for them to see beggars ‘EVERYWHERE.’ I asked them how uncomfortable it must be for the beggar? They had literally never thought of that. I also explained the vast issue of hunger in USA and their minds almost blew to pieces in front of me. This type of critical thinking about society and the interconnectedness of the global entities, corporations included is not isolated to teenagers… it appears to be quite pervasive.
13) Potential End of an Era
Two weeks ago, Chris and I suffered a major fissure of trust in our relationship. Despair and darkness raged in me as I tried to put pieces together from the last five years to figure out what was true and tragically what was just an illusion. Despite having the best year of my life and our relationship, foundational problems continued to exist: in me, investment into Chris’s hobbies, a critical air, and openness during stressful times. In him, a crisis of identity- fruition of masculinity, a defeatist attitude, resistance to fulfill potential for the fear of failure, and most importantly a lack of a ‘unit’ mentality, substituted with passivity.
Chris desperately wants to stay together. I have my days where I do and other days where I don’t; however, I am not just going to walk away. An investment of this magnitude combined with the raw truth that he is my best companion with complementary characteristics cannot be discarded. Tentatively, we are attempting to heal and rebuild. I have appreciated the love and support from both sets of friends and family- abroad and in the USA. It has been particularly moving for me to see the outpouring of concern because I have had the fortune of surrounding myself with a community of people who I find imperative in the extension of my own identity, and a collective stanchion. You have all reflected the qualities that I hope to project in this world. Please continue to send your positive energy to us. The result, if you can ever have one in a relationship, is thus a cliffhanger for all involved, including myself…