January 04, 2006
I turned 33 years old on January 1st here in Korea. It's quite depressing, actually. Especially since, in Western terms, I am still only 31. Actually, that's quite depressing too. Where did all those years go? :)
Lindsay, Travis, and I rang in the New Year at a hip hop dance club in a happenin', young part of central Seoul called Hungik (pronounced Hongday). It was fun but anticlimactic since there was no official countdown. The REAL New Year's celebration here in Korea happens on the Lunar New Year (January 29 this year). It will be complete with family gatherings, store closings, and days off work (which I really need since I got no holidays during Christmas).
My Korean teacher and I have become very good friends and last weekend he took me out of Seoul towards the north on a mini road trip. It surprised me, after driving for only 30 or 40 minutes, how quickly we encountered barbed wire fencing around the river that the highway followed. We were at the North. At the DMZ. The most heavily fortified border in the world at the moment between North and South Korea. The DMZ consists of 4 km of mountainous terrain. We drove up one of the mountains on the South side and I snapped a few pictures of some of the mountains in the distance supposedly on North side. Funny how similar the mountains looked. :) There was really nothing out there... a few gas stations, a restaurant.
As we kept driving, we encountered a tiny, commercial village that had a bridge leading to a gate.... the DMZ. We walked up to the gate, which was the furthest we could go as civilians. It was decorated with dried flowers, handmade pictures from children stating "We want to be friends", and peace offerings. It was pretty touching and I had wanted to add my own little memento promoting a more peaceful existance but I had left my purse in the car. About 10 meters from the gate (inside the DMZ) stood a little wooden guard post. I could see the red burn of the floor heater and could hear the guard cough a little amidst the quite music. His job was obviously to watch the DMZ. For what? I'm not sure. But I felt the vibes of standing in a very important and potentially historical place. What's funny is that the small commerical village was actually a small amusement park. So when I turned around to face the village behind the gate, I saw the flashing lights of a ferris wheel and other rides, cotton candy and dried squid food stalls, and heard the screams of patrons going upside-down on the loopty roller coaster. A crazy contrast.... but hey, that's Korea.
November 02, 2005
Okay, this entry will not necessarily be related to Korea, but to the whole world. It's an excerpt from a book I'm reading and I thought it was pretty good.
"The world is run by one million evil men, ten million stupid men, and a hundred million cowards."
The evil men are the ones in power..... hungry for control. They consist of the rich men, the politicians, and the extremist religious leaders.... those whose decisions rule the world and set it on its course of greed, destruction, and domination.
The stupid men are the prison guards, the soldiers, the police men, the missionaries for religious fanatics.... those that enforce the rule of evil men. They are often brave, but they give their lives for a government or religion that merely use their flesh and blook as chess pieces. Those governments always betray them or let them down or abandon them, in the long run.
The cowards.... well... they are the pencil pushers, the paper shufflers, the bureaucrats who let the evil men rule the world while looking the other way and collecting a meager paycheck or an empty blessing. They defend themselves by saying that they are just following orders, that it's their job, that it's nothing personal, that if they don't do it, someone else will. They are the hundred million cowards who know what's going on but say nothing while they sign the paper that condems one man to death by lethal injection or one million to death by famine. They say nothing while signing the paper that authorizes an oil pipeline to be built on an otherwise untouched nature preserve... they are the men who vote for a politician who declares war and promotes hatred via an axis of evil.
Someone told me the other day that media reports about the bird flu are all over CNN. Apparently everyone is pretty scared and the media is having a hayday....
Crap... gotta go. I'll finish this later.
October 28, 2005
All of us walk around with a certain amount of pride in life.... it's a human thing, not a cultural thing. Here in Korea, that pride is called "face". Of course, as in other parts of the world, there are certain people, corporations, governments, and situations that challenge that pride. To not recognize it is ignorant. To ignore it is impossible. And to bite thine tounge and remain civilized is sometimes difficult. But we all face those situations. No one can go through life without ever losing face. At some point during our lives someone will condescend us into shame, fail to return years of loyalty, publicize qualities that we'd rather keep quiet, or "call us on" beliefs and values that, for our own mental stability and peace of mind, we have morphed from harsh reality into concepts that we live by and appreciate.
These people, corporations, governments, etc come in two categories: those that help us save face, and those that help us lose face. I, in particular, can think of two different examples of people that I am very close to. My dear friend, Cindy, is extremely sensitive to preserving people's pride, she would never correct you in front of someone or try to "one up" a story. That quality within her is amazing, admired, and extremely appreciated. On the other hand, my ex-husband, who is a wonderful person at heart, is a perfect example of someone who helps you lose face, someone who can make you feel two inches tall simply by the tone of his laugh and can condescend you into questioning your own opinions, values, and ultimately your own self worth.
Apparently, it is a fact of life that we accept, however much we despise it. But it's rude and can be regretable, as the tables are so easily (and always guaranteed to be) turned. It is an ultimate karmic force. I think the more you cause others to lose face, the more face you will lose in return... or the more you will simply have to deal with the consequences of those actions.
October 26, 2005
One of my students told me a very old, very popular Korean folk tale last night. There was this bird that would fly south every winter and return to Korea in the spring. After the migration, the bird always came back to the same location in Korea. It was a farm owned by a very honest and hard working man. The man was not rich, and he worked very hard to put just enough food on the table for his family. Often, his family went hungry.
One year in the spring, during a short break in the bird's migration back to Korea, the bird was bitten by a snake. The snake, while not poisonous, damaged the bird's wing so bad that it was very difficult to make the flight back to Korea. After an arduous journey, the bird finally reached the farm and its favorite tree, but could not stand up straight and fell to the ground in pain and exhaustion.
The farmer recognized the bird and saw that the bird was in trouble on the ground. The farmer wrapped the bird in a soft towel, repaired its injured wing and nursed the bird back to health during the warm spring months. The bird's wing was healed and it regained its strength in time to fly south again for the winter.
Upon the bird's return to the farm that next spring, it brought back a piece of fruit to the farmer and dropped it on the ground where it had laid injured only a year before. The farmer saw the fruit, and even though he did not recognize it, he picked it up hungrily and cut it open for food. Inside the fruit were odd looking seeds that the farmer planted into the ground.
That spring, the seeds from that odd fruit grew into a big tree. The big tree produced more odd looking fruit, and the farmer was happy to have more food for his family.
One day, when the fruit was ripe enough to be harvested, the farmer cut down a few pieces for his family to eat for lunch. Upon cutting open a piece of the fruit, he found that it was filled with precious gemstones. He became very excited and cut open another piece. It too was filled with precious, valuable, sparkling gemstones. The farmer became rich and never again had to worry about feeding his family.
Unlike the honest and hard working man, the farmer's brother was lazy and deceitful and dishonest. The farmer's brother, upon seeing the wealth provided by the bird, decided that he wanted to share in the same fortune.
The farmer's brother found the bird during the spring and injured the bird's leg with his bare hands. After breaking the bird's leg, he repaired it and nursed the bird back to health in time for the migration.
Just like before, that next spring, the bird came back to the farm and dropped a piece of odd looking fruit. The brother, greedily waiting for the package, ran over to the fruit and quickly cut it open for the fortune giving seeds. Instead of fruit and seeds, however, a tiny creature emerged from inside. The creature began to grow into a large monster with one horn and a hammer. The monster started to chase the farmer's brother and never stopped.
October 24, 2005
Believe it or not, I am learning Korean. Not really how to prounounce things, but how to read and write the gooble-di-gook.... all those characters that look like lines and circles and squiggles. No, really!!! No..... really!!!
It is all beginning to make sense!
How do ya like me now?!?!?!
The problem is... I can read words in Korean, I just don't understand what most of the words are.
Words like pissan (expensive) and mannayo (meet). But I'm learning more every day... or at least on those days that I'm not too tired.
Lindsay and Travis made it to Seoul. A little stressed out in the beginning, but they are fine now.
Must go teach now!!!
October 19, 2005
There was a protest last Saturday..... through the streets outside the office. It was loud, with a 25 piece school band, and with seemingly hundreds of students waving large signs in the air adorned with colorful Korean hangul (Korean alphabet characters). It looked like a party, and I could understand why some people would be inclined to join the festivities without really understanding why.
As it turns out, students were protesting a raise in college tuition fees. From what I am told, people protest for everything here. It's their way. Some expats wrinkle up their faces in a look of disgust when they speak of Korean ways. But this particular freedom, the freedom to protest, is probably taken for granted in our society. Korea hasn't had the autonomy in it's war torn, troubled past. It's been invaded, ransacked, burned, pillaged, abandoned, left for dead, and then invaded all over again. It's been fought over by superpowers and ignored by economies, much like a vulnerable puppy, the runt of the litter known as Northern Asia. If I were them, I would exercise every right I could also.
It's not to say that Korea is without it's disgusting social views. I read an article in the newspaper last week about custody battles over the children of divorced couples. It took me a long time to realize what the article was saying. When I think of a custody battle, I think of a fight to keep the children... an enduring battle for the right to raise one's own children for the well-being of the children. Of course, the issue is not necessarily without it's ulterior motives, some people fight for custody simply for the punishment and pain it would cause to their former significant other. But needless to say, there are certain assumptions that come to mind when thinking of custody battles. On the contrary, this article was addressing the issue of overflowing orphanages due to a significant rise in divorce rates. Apparently, here in Korea, when couples divorce, they fight to rid themselves of responsibility for their children. Being unmarried with children is bad for your image. It takes away from a potential social life and makes it nearly impossible to remarry. There is no such thing as being a single parent here in Korea. The term does not exist and I think a single man or single woman would be hard pressed to know exactly how to handle the situation. Funny how it takes the cooperation of two individuals, some reassurance from another party or simply one person to make the demands and the other to carry them out, in order for people to function as a family unit.
The collectivist culture is very difficult for us westerners to understand. In the five dimensions of culture, Korea is said to be 82 percent collectivist, while America is 91 percent individualist. That's a big difference. It is my opinion that this collectivist culture spawns (to the outside world) an unnecessary and somewhat disgusting obsession with image. That's why Louis Vitton, Gucci, and Guess are thriving businesses. That why you are considered nothing if you are not fashionable and good looking. And that's why divorced couples fight to rid themselves of responsibility of their children. Very, very sad..... to us. But it's the way it is here, and I would bet money on the fact that it's exactly the way they like it. I don't think they'd change to western values of individualism if given money to do so. Individualism can be lonely. Individualism won't encourage your neighbor to help you rebuild your house after a fire. Individualism austrisizes our elderly into nursing homes, our friendships into nothing more than e-mail, and our possessions into things that are not to be shared.
On the flip side, collectivism breaths conformity..... it discourages people from thinking for themselves, standing up for what is right, and it throws children into orphanages for the sake of the self.
As a side note, I have recently made a request to a co-worker. I made him promise to ensure that I did not leave Korea with an adorable little orphan, despite my bleeding heart.
What to do about all this?
I mean, it's good to know what's wrong with the world. But even in knowing, and seeing all the bad things, you know you can't change it. Many things in the world have gone from bad to worse because people have tried to change them. My only hope is to ease some of the pain and suffering that plauges the unfortunate. Become a comfort, a safe haven, or simply a good friend.
October 13, 2005
5:30 AM - Wake up, go to work, teach.
11:00 AM - Get off work, eat, go home, sleep.
3:30 PM - Wake up, eat, go to work, teach.
9:30 PM - Get off work, go home, eat, sleep.
That is my life. The "split schedule" as the office calls it, is taking it's toll on me. All of my time not at the office is spent sleeping. I work for six hours straight on Saturdays too, no break unless a student is absent. I made the mistake of going out last Saturday night. My only day off was spent sleeping all day and then NOT being able to go to sleep Sunday night in preparation for my early Monday morning alarm.
But... no complaints. I mean, that's what I'm here for, right? It would be terrible if I didn't love the job so much. It's really that great.
In between that last 9:30 PM "get off work" and "go home" stretch, I religously stop off at a 7-11 and get a snack..... cookies, milk, steamed bun, kimbap (rice snack), whatever. Anyway, the other night I couldn't decide what I wanted and I was looking around and came across a bag of peanuts. The outside looked like a potato chip bag, but there were peanuts on the front. The odd thing was that there was a picture of a happy, smiling squid with one of it's tenticles outstretched and wrapped around one of the peanuts.
Can it be?
I don't even want to know (shudder).
October 07, 2005
So, I learned recently that I turned a year older when I landed here in Seoul.
Apparently, I am 32 years old in Korean age. That really stinks, don't you think? You see, it goes like this: when you are born, you are automatically 1 year old. THEN, you turn a year older during the Korean New Year, which is the same as our new year, January 1.
So all of you with birthdays in December get a double whammy. You could be technically 2 months old and be considered 2 YEARS old here in Korea. Bummer.
I tried (by myself) to get a cell phone the other day. It was pretty funny. I walked into the cell phone store all confident and such, and when looked at funny (must be the white skin) by the girls behind the desk, I made a universal sign for "phone".
"New phone," I said. "New number."
"Saegot," I even whipped out some Korean.
The girl that I was sat in front of looked quite worried.
"New number?" she asked in broken English.
"Yes.... um, I mean Ne," I was trying to make it easier on her by using Korean. Little did I realize it wasn't working.
She began frantically making phone calls. One right after the other. She looked flustered as she apparently could not connect with anyone. After about 10 to 15 minutes, she finally appeared to get an answer. She spoke in very hurried Korean. Then, unexpectedly, she handed the phone to me.
"Hello?" I asked.
"Hello. You have to take your business elsewhere," someone on the other end of the line said.
"Oh? Okay," I stumbled.
What do you say to that?
So I walked out.
The story goes on from there but it is long and drawn out and equally as frustrating. Needless to say, I still do not have a cell phone. I am going to register as an offical alien (hee, hee) today.... which will aid me in getting a bank account, cell phone, etc.
It is all very difficult to get anything done around here. The company seems to pretty much forget about you when you arrive. Luckily, I have made some very good friends at the office and they have offered to help me out.
I moved into my apartment... um, I mean my 10 x 14 square foot room over the weekend. I had to go shopping for all the necessary apartment accessories, so it ended up being a pretty good weekend. Had an interesting time in the supermarket/department store. Many odd, odd things that smell like fish.
I went out on Saturday night. First to the international area known as Itewan (It-tay-wan) that is right next to an American Military base. The American military presence is interesting. The only channel on TV that comes in without subscribing to cable is the AFN (American Forces Network). Not a bad channel, actually, they play Larry King Live in the afternoons and Survivor on Sunday nights. Too bad I don't have a TV anymore. Anyway, the Itewan area is weird. More white faces than Korean.... and you can find Mexican restaurants, scrambled eggs and country fried steak with gravy, and cheap Miller Lite. Like I said, I was weirded out by the whole thing, but was told I will be very appreciative in the future when I need my "back home fix." After Itewan, I went to a Korean hip hop club. It was actually very fun. I ended up dancing until 4 o'clock in the morning.
September 28, 2005
I am not only surviving here in beautiful, sunny, bustling Seoul, South Korea..... I am actually enjoying myself quite a bit. I have not been sold into slavery (yet), but instead am taking advantage of the 75 degree (F) weather and extensive mass transit systems.
My first few days were a blur. My plane arrived at 5:30 in the morning last Wednesday. I was picked up from the airport, carted downtown to my hotel room, told to change clothes (into something a little more professional), and then taken from building to building to watch training videos and to sit in on and observe classes. Needless to say, around 5:30 PM I stumbled my way (via bus... I have no idea how I found it... beginner's luck, I guess) back to the hotel and crashed...... slept 14 hours and by training day #2, I was fine.
Friday marked my first day of work. I was pretty much thrown into it, but it is such an easy job it is very easy to wing it. I'm just basically having conversations with people; asking them questions and then correcting the grammar and pronunciation in their answers. One of my collegues put it best, "This is the easiest job in the world."
Impressions of Seoul.... well..... it's big. And very Asian. But if you take away all the signs written in gobbel-di-gook, the language, and the foreign food, it's just like another other big city.
Image is very important here. Fashion is huge. Labels are important, but they seem to overlook the label-thing if you have white skin.
Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme are actually fashion statements. Apparently, the idea of a great date is going to Krispy Kreme and Starbucks. Where else is carrying around a box of Krispy Kremes a fashion statement?
Clothes are actually cheap, but everything else is expensive!!! A bottle of Panteen shampoo is $6.80. Yikes.
The food is excellent. Meat, rice, and spice. Plus loads of vegetables. The ever-so-popular kimchi (pickled vegetables) is served at every meal. You get a bowl of rice, a big bowl of meat in the middle of the table, and then like 700 side dishes.
My hotel room is very cool. Very IKEA-ish. Very streamlined and zen-like. I will begin looking for apartments today on my break, so we'll see if the housing is the same. One crazy traditional thing is that the heating is in the floor. I guess because most people sleep on the floor. Dunno.
It was initially very difficult for me to get around. My Korean is quite poor and not many people speak English. I have gotten lost, but only once. The organization I'm working for here pretty much leaves you on your own when it comes to transportation.
Went to the market on Saturday and the Palace yesterday (Sunday). It was very nice. Old ruins in the middle of the city. That's Seoul. Old ruins in the midst of massive high rises. It's pretty cool. I hope to send pictures soon.