Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year to ME!!!

Damn Seoul Uyu's Banana Milk. Dammit to hecks.

Let me explain.

This post was supposed to be about the fantastic, awesome time I had last night. I was going to meet Min Gi at a party with all our friends in Daegu and then he got tickets (with seating!) on a train to Busan that had been sold out the previous day. I was going to meet up with Rebecca (who is back in the ROK) to watch the sun rise on Haeundae beach (it's kind of a tradition in Korea to watch the first sunrise at a beach). I was going to bring my camera and have a fabulous time. It was going to be awesome.

But none of this happened.

What did happen was I awoke from my pre-party nap with my stomach in violent knots. Within 15 minutes, I had stuff coming out both ends and I realized I had food poisoning.

Ok, fine... I'll skip TKD and it'll pass in a couple hours and the rest of the night can still be awesome, I just won't drink... right?

Min Gi called to check on me and I told him about being sick and that I was missing TKD, but I should still be at the party when I said I would. He offered to come over, but I said no, it should be ok.

Two AGONIZING hours later, relief was nowhere in sight and I wasn't able to hold down water. I called Min Gi and Rebecca to tell them the bad news. Min Gi again insisted he should come over, but I said it wasn't a good idea. I was GROSS.

He called again at midnight to ring in the new year together. Around 2 am I was considering caving and telling him to come over and take me to the hospital when I was at last able to keep some water down.

Last night was hell.

This morning I find out that my lunch was not the evil culprit. William had the same symptoms. It was the stupid banana milk we were given as an end of the year snack at work. Evil banana milk.

Sorry if this post was a bit too scatological for your tastes. If it helps, I've decided never to eat again. I'm sure once I feel better, I'll change my mind, but right now the thought of food--- ugh...it's gross.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New Year's Resolutions...

To keep myself accountable... some goals for the year.

1. Finish the Master's degree.
2. Be consumer-debt free (student debt will take a few more years... oh the irony that MOST of the consumer debt is paying for school expenses not covered by loans...).
3. Get 2 dan in TKD. Make TKD a DAILY priority.
4. Complete all of 2A and 2B in Sogang plus finish the Legends reader. Generally continue Korean study.
5. Take some more lindy hop workshops. At least four.
6. Commit to making a healthy diet consistent. Daily HEALTHY breakfast, more vegetables, less cheese, wine (and other such "fun" beverages), and chocolate/ice cream, no more diet coke or coffee.
7. Hike Biseulsan, Jirisan, and Seoraksan (the last two need training).
8. Travel to at least two new countries.
9. Finish two of my currently unfinished writing projects and blog consistently.
10. (Yes I'm going there...) Lose 10 kgs (22lbs).

I will post on these goals as I achieve them. I have some time in January and February to work towards them (as I only have to work 15 days during these two months--yay vacation!).

Go me!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Fantastic Christmas...Wish I had taken photos!

I ate so much food in the last few days, I'm afraid to look at the scale until the diet gets back to normal. However, it has been a wonderful few days.

Christmas Eve

Min Gi got dressed up in a suit (rare for him) and accompanied me to the EPIK teachers in Daegu dinner--a buffet at a nice wedding hall. I ran into a few people I've met over the last few months in Korea. It was good to see everyone all dolled up and happy.

After dinner, I had plans to meet my good friend Yumiko downtown. Yumiko was one of my best friends in my first six months here before she had to return to Japan to finish her master's degree. She was in town visiting her boyfriend, Jin-oo (yes, they stayed together all these last 10 months they were in different countries... impressive), but did want to catch up with her other friends still in Daegu. It was so nice to see her. And Min Gi got to practice his few phrases of Japanese that he had learned when he was exploring options exporting some kind of product to Japan (he gets lots of interesting business ideas).

I was going to meet up with William and some of our other EPIK friends at a club for dancing, but my tummy was hurting (probably from digesting all that food and drinking all that wine and soju!), but I wasn't really tired, so Min Gi and I went to watch a late night movie at CGV. We watched Yes Man, starring Jim Carey (and he spoke a LOT of Korean in the movie... hahaha... no joke!). I had been given the book by Anne right before I left for Korea and didn't bring it with me, but remember thinking it would have been a fun read. I may have to go check it out now.

We got home pretty late, but I wasn't tired, so I called the family and got to talk to everyone.

Christmas Day

Slept in late (it was delightful). Went downtown a few hours before I was supposed to meet up with people to do some people watching. Ended up reading a new book by my favorite free-lance journalist MP Dunleavey (I've been following her since she used to write a relationship column for some now-defunct women's website), who is actually a close personal friend of Caroline Hwang, whose book I recommended just a few weeks ago... funny coincidences.

At nine, I met some friends at a posh hotel for ANOTHER wonderful holiday buffet. I met Iosha's fiance who is visiting her in Korea for Christmas and some of her co-workers and had a really nice time.

Day After Christmas

Woke up VERY early (4:30 a.m.) to meet Min Gi, Ha Young, and Tim for skiing at a nearby resort for the day. This was my Christmas present to Min Gi, as he doesn't know how to ski. (I love skiing--it is the thing I took from my last relationship along with an appreciation of fine wines that I am very satisfied with.)

In the morning, Ha Young taught Min Gi the basics of standing in skis and how to not kill yourself (or other people) going down a hill, while Tim and I hit some of the intermediate slopes on the top half of the mountain. We chatted about his time in JET and other things. I like Tim; he's from Alaska and a good friend of Min Gi's, but I got to know him better after this trip.

At lunch, we had some problems because we had brought ramyeon cups to avoid paying outrageous prices for lunch, but there was no hot water available (probably to discourage this kind of money-saving tactic... sigh). So we all split a Dominos cheese pizza for lunch and had some of the muffins we bought that morning. Min Gi did get some cheap soup and used the water to make two of the cups of ramyeon, so we were pretty satisfied after lunch.

This time, I decided to teach Min Gi how to turn (because he should be controlling his speed with turns, not just with the wedge) and let Ha Young and Tim run off to the advanced slopes. I had a great time. He learns sports stuff quickly, being so naturally athletic and good natured, and I enjoyed just being out in the freezing cold weather with snow all around.

We made it back to the bus on time and had dinner at a 굴국밥 joint near my house. 굴국밥 is a kind of oyster soup with rice and egg. It's quite delicious.

All in all, a fantastic weekend so far. And with Swing tonight, it should be pretty amazing. :-)

Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Picking Fights... Clever Boy.

Min Gi's good with people, but I only just realized yesterday that his talent does indeed extend to the way he deals with me. I also managed to figure out why we fight so rarely.

Being in the rotten mood that I was, I started picking a fight about (of all stupid things in the world) the cost of living in Tokyo. This morphed into a diatribe of why I hate big cities and how badly I need to get out of Daegu after another couple years. We were on the phone.

After about two or three minutes of working myself up into righteous indignation, he gently cut me off with a "This is something that it would be better to talk about face to face."

How can I argue with that? He's completely right. Notice how perfect it is, though? He (essentially) tells me what I'm angry about is SO important that we need to be in the same room to fully communicate it. So I can't even be mad about him not talking about it right then.

He's done this before... I realize.

Nine times out of ten when I get like this, it's on the phone, and it's either a need to vent (with a girlfriend) or picking a fight to "test" the person's love for me (with family or a boyfriend--I'm not proud of this quality of mine). I've never had someone handle it so adeptly.

Because he's way too cute to fight with in person, when he asks (and he always does) to talk about it in person next time we meet up, I usually have gotten over the need to pick a fight... so I vent if I need to (which is way better face to face anyhow because then you can get hugs) or address the real issue (not the surface bitch-guard "issue") and feel better and move on.

If he was doing it just to get out of talking about the "tough stuff" it would be a problem, but it's never like that. He always is open to talking about anything.

Just not stuff that makes me angry and likely to get bitchy on the phone. Only in person.

He's a clever, clever man.

Homesick...

...

There's not much to say about it, as it's really a drag. I didn't realize how homesick I was until I was researching the JET program (Min Gi and I had a crazy idea that after I renew my current contract once more--for 2009-2010, we could go work in Japan for a year or two) and was trying to figure out what the hell I'd do with myself for the not-quite-one-year between the end of my contract at this school (end of August) and the JET start date (start of August), and realized that I could go home and teach for the 10 months easily.

As soon as the idea came into my head, I was hit by how much I miss my family (and some other things about America, like working at the suicide hotline and doing community theater) and how much I HATE not being there when my dad's suffering so much.

My mom sent me an amazing Christmas package (which I already opened, of course!), and it just overwhelmed me. What they're dealing with there while I'm off having "adventures" over here. And I felt so... lost. And really... what the hell am I doing here? Anything useful or interesting? Anything worth being unable to go home for a few months while my dad's immune system is so compromised my very presence, coming as I am from a foreign country, would seriously endanger his life? Is Korea really worth that?

I'd usually say, "yes," without hesitation because I know and I trust that his doctors are doing what is right and that he will be fine and I'll spend August at home... That this is where I need and want to be right now... That my parents fully support my decision and know I'm happy here...

But today... today I just want to be HOME.

Dammit. Stupid tears. Doesn't help that Christmas is in two days.

I thought I was going to be ok this year.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Swing, my baby.

Saturday was the closing ceremony at the YMCA for Korean classes. We had a 장기자랑 or talent show. Our teacher insisted that we sing "Nobody" by the Wondergirls; it's this year's "Tell Me." I also broke out the dobok and did the Koryeo poomsae for everybody--though I lost it a bit at the end when I saw the expression on a Chinese gentleman's face (he was in the beginner class) as my foot came too close for his comfort in a side kick. Oops.

I have enjoyed this semester's class, and attending the classes keeps my studying a little structured. Plus it's a great resource for clarifying any questions I have that come up in my daily life here. So even though I will miss three (one for a swing camp in Seoul, two for Vietnam) out of eight classes this winter, I plan to continue the course.

After class, I met Min Gi at the train station because it was the third anniversary party for the Busan swing club, Swing Life. The club for the party was in a rather red-light-ish district of Busan, so we had a hard time finding a place to stay that didn't advertise hookers, but we ended up at a nice little hotel right around the corner from the ballroom.

Turned out this was at the same place as the party for the other Busan swing club in March. About one year after starting to swing dance, I can say that it's really become an important part of my life. I had a fantastic time with people, even if I was too tired to dance all that much. Min Gi won a t-shirt by doing a flip for everyone (ah Koreans and their love of showing off, even as they protest it).

We spent a lazy Sunday morning and then returned to Daegu, where we continued the lazy theme by going to see Australia. I'm a huge Baz Luhrmann and David Gulpilil fan, so I loved it, but it's probably not for everybody. It was sappy and over-the-top in places. Plus I think I've somehow turned really pacifist recently as war scenes in movies make me very angry these days, and this one featured the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese in WWII. I spent a good 30 minutes of the movie fuming about it.

Then Min Gi and I had a lovely talk about the future... after which he was so proud of himself for being "brave" because he'd apparently wanted to talk to me about things for awhile, but had been waiting until we were drinking soju. Koreans have a belief about how if you drink soju, you can tell the truth. But he told the truth without the aid of alcohol. Good for him.

Good for us.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Oh no you didn't!

Wow... North Korea went there. They accused South Korea of plotting to kill the Dear Leader (Kim Jong Il).

After briefly opening itself to tourism last year and then shutting back down again, North Korea's apparently gone crazy. The propaganda machine keeps putting out (somewhat suspect) photos of Kim to prove his health after a top Japanese analyst was quoted as saying he thinks Kim has been dead for the last five years and other sources claimed he's had a stroke and now this.

Utter insanity.

Of course, nobody here is talking about it. And it's not even a top story in Korean papers (notice my source for the main story is American).

*sigh*

Monday, December 15, 2008

Second Wife/화요일 남편

I met some of Min Gi's computer school friends once before on the eve of a wedding for one of them. It was after a long night of drinking for both their group and my swing club. All of them are older than me (though one by only two months, which makes him the same Chinese zodiac sign as me, but not the same age, apparently), but he's the second oldest in the group, so they all called me 형수님, which means "older brother's person (wife/girlfriend/whatever)."

I nearly died the first time one of them said it. I know in Korean culture it's polite and appropriate, but I don't appreciate being referred to as anyone's person, especially not with the whole complex respect automatically given to age in this country. I told them just to call me Diana. One of them balked at this still, but I think it's just too ingrained into him to be a Korean gentleman. Eventually we settled that he can call me a nickname based off my Korean name, 다인이. A fine compromise.

On Friday, they were getting together again, and Min Gi invited me to go. Since it was my last chance at freedom for the weekend, I readily agreed.

Some of the members of their group who didn't make it out the last time I met them all turned out to be quite fun as well. One of them, who introduced himself as James Dean, took quite a shining to me. By the time we were on the second or third round of soju, I was speaking enough Korean for him to inform me that I would be his second wife (he said that phrase in English, but the rest of the conversation for the evening proceeded in bad Korean--forgive the mistakes below!).

"하지만, 한국에서 두번째아내들 없어요. But in Korea there are no second wives."

"괜찮아요. 당신은 외국사람이예요. That's ok. You're a foreigner!" We all laughed at this.

"아마도 남편 결혼하고 싶지 않아요. Maybe I don't want to marry a husband."

"제발? Please?"

I think about it a moment.

"요리해요? Do you cook?"

He grabs the tongs for the shellfish from the man who had been cooking and proceeds to demonstrate what a fine cook he is.

"청소해요? Do you clean?"

He takes up one of the wet towels we used to wipe our hands before beginning to eat and scrubs down the table.

"응... 아마도 화요일 남편이예요. Maybe you are my Tuesday husband."

Everyone laughed.

It feels so amazing to pull off a joke in a second language... even if your skills in that language are still at a very low level. After that, I was pretty much accepted into the group, and even the guys who hadn't met me before had few reservations about talking to a foreigner in her broken Korean. It was a fine evening.

Certainty: Being a grown up.

I didn't realize that I'd get a "moment" where I finally realized beyond a shred of doubt that I am now a responsible grown up. I just kind of thought it happens bit by bit, the dimming of wonder and magic and fear, until at last you are a hollowed out mundane creature with no soul--just like every other grown up in the world. And this moment I'd feared since my first viewing of Peter Pan came at the most unlikely of times. It happened this weekend, while locked up with the other teachers at my school working on the entrance exam for next year's TFLHS students.

Upon the realization, I experienced the grief and nostalgia I expected, but the actual feeling is so much more complicated. And more beautiful.

***

Ten years ago (holy fuck, was it *REALLY* TEN years ago??? Actually... doing the math again... it was 11 years. Yikes.), my friends and I went on a camping trip to the wilds of Virginia. Rose and I made up an elaborate ghost story on the four-hour drive out there to keep ourselves occupied. Every one of the 17 or so campers on the trip had an integral role in it, including the dog. We had plot twists and surprise endings and planned to turn it into a movie as soon as we could. It was really good (at least we thought so).

We were so into it when we finally pulled into the campsite, that we were frightened half to death when our friend we had picked to be the murderer jumped up to the van we were in, his white face rising suddenly out of the darkness, smashed awkwardly and grotesquely against the window. It took us almost five whole minutes to recover from the shock.

All weekend, we played games at night to frighten ourselves--vampire games and storytelling contests. During the day we played violent war games in the woods and silly daring games on the river that had some mild rapids. We climbed the mountain and pushed ourselves out to the edges of the precipices of the rocks. We revelled in the rush, the fear. We invited it, soaked in it, loved it.

People say teens are fearless. That's not really true. We were scared, we just pretended not to be. If we hadn't been at least a little scared, the games wouldn't have been fun at all... they would have been dull. The truth that no one tells you is that the state of being a child is a state of fear. Of uncertainty. Innocence comes from not knowing what we know when we grow older and get some experience.

***

This weekend, I was locked up in my school with the other English teachers to prepare the entrance exam. The building is big and old and very dark at night. I joked to a co-teacher that we were in a horror movie. That she would be the first to die because she's going to get married next month and she's one of the youngest.

I said it as a joke.

But as soon as I said the words, it hit me that the scene WAS perfect for a horror movie--the full moon outside was huge. We were locked in the school and then later the dorms alone all night. There was a small group of people randomly thrown together from different backgrounds. And we'd even been self-righteously mocking Chinese vampires.

And the memory of the camping trip and our never-finished movie came rushing into my mind as I realized that even in the eerie dark stillness of the cold school building in a faraway land (Korea), I didn't feel even the slightest flinch of fear. I was completely confident that we would finish our task easily, that I would sleep comfortably during the night, and that I would awake in the morning to the test-takers, who would be the ones with REAL fears.

And in that moment, I knew that this mean I was grown up. That my imagination had sufficiently dimmed to the point that I couldn't feel a moment's hesitation that something outside the realm of the possibilities I knew to exist in this world would cause me any harm or grief. My world is now concrete and predictable. I feel safe.

I still experience fear as an adult. But it's real world fears... that I'll fall off the cliff if I'm not careful; that North and South Korea will fail to reach a peaceful accord; that our world will passively accept the sexual abuse of women and children; that humans will irretrievably damage our planet by consuming all its resources. I'm not afraid anymore of things I don't know anything about--dark places, death, monsters, even terrorists. This is the stuff of fantasy.

If my fears have changed so that I am a grown up than what of my sense of wonder and creativity? What of the positive side of imagination and innocence? Have I lost those, too?

I don't know. I'm looking back on the world of childhood through a hazy veil because of the certainty I have now as an adult. I know certain things didn't happen, such as seeing a unicorn by the stream in the woods as a girl, but I know it because my adult sensibilities tell me that there are no such thing as unicorns. In my memories, it exists just the same as all my other memories from that time. I know now that Santa didn't bring me toys because I helped my mother wrap "Santa's" gifts for my younger sister when I was sixteen, but I remember the magic of waking up in the morning to check if the milk and cookies we left out for him were gone (they always were).

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Taekwondo Girls

These days at taekwondo an older man has joined the 9 p.m. class. I'm not sure, but I think he's close in age to me, maybe a couple years older or younger. His uniform reads R.O.T.C., which in the US is the reserve officers' training corps, kind of like a college association for people who intend to become career military officers. Could mean the same here, but I don't know. He's spoken to me a few times, after figuring out from the other kids and teachers that I can understand some Korean, although I haven't asked him many questions yet. It's nice to have another adult in the class since the two uni students who sometimes join have been super busy with their exams.

I feel a bit bad because one day after practice the girls and I were in the changing room and he came in without knocking. Since then the girls' nickname for him is 변태아저씨 (byeontae ajosshi... meaning something like "perverted man").

Speaking of the girls... as they are the ones I've gotten to know the best... there are four who come regularly. I'll call them Navy, Tomboy, Cutie, and Toughgirl. I know their Korean names, but not that well. It's easier just to give them nicknames.

Navy

The oldest was the one who spoke to me first in that class and took the most initial responsibility to make sure the other girls spoke to me. She has an orange belt (meaning she has only been training a few months before I joined the studio) and is finishing her last year of high school, so she's older than most of the kids in the studio (which I had guessed before I asked her as they all call her 언니 or 누나, meaning "older sister). She plans to go to Keimyung University (just up the road) and major in military studies because she wants to join the Navy. Navy's really kind and funny, though she was stressed out a lot just before the big test. I'm glad she seems to have relaxed a bit now. I hope she continues next year. She's a great girl.

Tomboy

I believe then next oldest (who is the tallest and highest belt rank--taller than me with a black belt marking her 3 dan) is in second grade high school, but she may be as young as third grade middle school. It's hard to tell. This girl is built like a tank and her personality is kind of obnoxious. I actually didn't like her that much at first. She says stuff like, after I decline some fried pork (tang su yuk) and explain that I'm a vegetarian, "then why are you so fat?" And when I showed pictures of my boyfriend on the internet to the other girls, she kept talking about how ugly he is and how I should date a tall western guy. She also asked me about what western guys would think of her (she is so not the typical "Asian woman" that white guys into Asians would like... but I told her she's pretty...). I've come to realize that this is just her way. It's teasing that borders on meanness, but she does it in the same spirit the boys beat the crap out of each other. And her laughter is infectious and her heart is big, so I like her now.

Cutie

The shy second grade middle school girl with shorter hair is unbearably adorable at times, hence her nickname. Cutie has a boyfriend I sometimes see her chatting with when I'm walking to the studio. She is by far the most "girlie" of the girls in the studio, and she's also the lowest ranking student with a very newly obtained orange belt. I've had to remind her a few times to take off a necklace or earrings before we start practice. When we play games, she hovers around the edge of the studio, avoiding confrontation as much as possible. However, before and after class, she is always happy to see and chat with me about all kinds of things.

Toughgirl

Toughgirl is in the same grade as Cutie, but she wears a 1 poom (the red/black belt for young kids equivalent to black belt), so I guess she must have earned it a long time ago and then re-joined the studio more recently. She seems to do poomsae on about the same level as the only boy who has a color belt (his is a purple belt), though she does sort of know all the 8 color forms. She is as tomboyish as Tomboy, but much kinder about it. Toughgirl tries to keep up with the boys when we go running and always does her best at practice. She's funny and smart. Her cousin also does practice with us (he's a middle school boy the others have nicknamed 돼지, or pig--as you may have noticed, Korea is not a place for the slightly tubby can afford to be faint of heart), and she lives in the same small neighborhood as I do, so sometimes we walk home together.

For a month, there were three second grade high school girls who joined (two brand new, one with a black belt), but they haven't been back since December started. They didn't really talk to me much, so I didn't get to know them at all.

I skipped tonight because yesterday I hurt my ankle at practice, but I missed them all, so I thought I'd introduce them to you. I feel very grateful to them for helping me get along better at the studio.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Fun Chick Lit with Korean Theme.

This weekend, I started (and finished) In Full Bloom, by Caroline Hwang. It's about a young Korean-American assistant at a fashion magazine whose mother has decided that it's time for her to get hitched. Surprisingly (for chick lit), romance is barely present in the text as the main character struggles with complex family issues and an identity crisis of immense proportions. As someone familiar with and interested in Korean culture, that aspect of the novel was fun, but Hwang's style makes it palatable to a more general American audience without sacrificing authenticity. As is typical of chick lit, the plot is a bit ridiculous, but engaging.

Definitely worth picking up.

Also started New Moon, the sequel to the ever-popular Twilight. So far, it is consistent with my previous evaluation of the other novel.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Straight Hair and Swing Night.

Women Utility: What's most disturbing about this sign is that it was over the children's section of the bookstore...


I went to Korean class yesterday for the first time in a few weeks and had a great time. After class, I wanted to get my hair dyed again, so I went the The Wiz, a popular place downtown near 2.28 Park. I'd had my hair cut there once before and the English speaking stylist remembered me.

Note to self: Hair CUTS in Korea--cheap as hell; Hair DYE in Korea (especially for long hair)--guaranteed to make you eat kimbab and ramyeon only for the rest of the month. Eek.

Well, the color IS pretty, so I don't mind. And then I got them to blow dry it straight as I never have the patience to do this to myself, but it does look (and feel) pretty nice. (Note--it took two PROFESSIONAL people about two hours to blow it out... this is why I don't do it to myself.)

The only evidence of my straight-haired styling... gone as soon as I shower.


I had another hair-identity-crisis last night as a result...

My Korean nickname is 금라면 because usually my hair looks like gold ramyeon noodles. My hair is a huge part of my identity and my only real beauty indulgence. Whenever I straighten it (or let it get too blond for that matter), I feel weird. Like glamorous and pretty, but not myself. I used to HATE having curly hair--it's such a pain to take care of and if you get it even a little off, instead of looking pretty, it looks like a frizz ball exploded on my head. Now... I think it's unique and interesting. I finally learned how to stop fighting it (never brush when dry, for example, and usually let it air-dry) and now it often looks fun and cool.

In Korea, the permanent "magic straightening" is affordable (compared to the U.S. where initial treatments at reputable salons begin at around $500). I've considered it, because dammit you girls with straight hair don't know the half of how easy your life is... And then last night, as everyone was complimenting me and saying how I should do my hair like this every day (I know full well if I did it, they'd be asking three weeks later why I never wear it curly anymore... *sigh* There's just no pleasing folks...), I started to consider taking the plunge once more. I've had two friends here do it (one who has curlier hair than mine and one who has much closer to wavy) and both were really happy with the results. But as I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I realized that I don't yet feel comfortable this way... Everyone else has straight hair. Like losing weight, it's just one more thing that will make me look the same. And I don't know if I want that or not... I'm so confused.

I know, I know. It's stupid to be this hung up on HAIR for christsakes...

But well... what's your vote? Straight or curly? (And no, spending three hours every morning with the blow dryer and flat iron is NOT an option. If I go straight it WILL be chemical).

Finally, I leave you with some pictures from the party last night at the other swing club in Daegu, DNA, to celebrate their new club (which is lovely, btw).

Club owner Anna and my DNA buddy (holding the cake) blow out the candle.


A man nicknamed 나쁜사과 (Bad Apple).


Busan Boy (aka, the Impregnator, because his dancing is so sexy, you end up pregnant) holds Leah, my favorite Aussie, to his tummy.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Random thoughts.

Three days later my house still smells like burritos... specifically, it smells like chili peppers. Maybe this batch was a little too spicy. But Min Gi enjoyed it.

Today it snowed. I, in my foolishness, did not grab my camera in the morning. By the afternoon, it had melted. I have no pictures, only memories.

Just like everyone else in the world, I'm reading Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. It's highly readable. I've finished most of it in a single afternoon. I would have liked it better as a middle schooler, but I at least now I know what all the "fuss" is about. I'll go see the movie sometime this weekend.

Life with cats is amazing. I spent the afternoon cuddled in blankets, next to a space heater, reading about vampires, with a purring machine for a pillow and a ball of fur as a foot warmer. It was heaven.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Hospital Visit.

Yesterday afternoon, I got off work early because the students have final exams (lucky me!), so Min Gi and I went to visit our friend Ha Young who has been in the hospital for about a month.

Now, I know you Americans back home are thinking he must be close to death's door, but the semi-socialized medical system in Korea actually makes this kind of lengthy hospital stay reasonably affordable, even for graduate students like my friend. His illness is not contagious, but he was rather seriously jaundiced the first time I visited him a few months ago. He was yellow--not like we stupidly refer to Asians as "yellow." I mean his skin and the whites of his eyes approximated the color of a lemon. It was a little shocking. I've been worried about him as he lost about 12 kgs (over 25 lbs) in the hospital and has been bored out of his mind.

He was moved to a hospital closer to my side of town, so I plan to visit him again soon.

Some things about Korean hospital culture are strange to me. People walk around the neighborhood in their hospital attire, dragging IVs behind them, often smoking or just taking in the freezing air. Things seem a lot less regulated than in US hospitals (which have an air of paranoid cover-your-ass lawsuit fear about them at times). He is sharing a room with about five other people, none of whom are seriously, seriously ill.

One thing really bothered me. Doctors don't seem to share basic medical information about illnesses with their patients as clearly as back home. I was familiar with Ha Young's condition and provided him with some information from websites and stuff that his docs hadn't alerted him to; stuff I thought would be basic, like how to prevent transmission to others. It seems that Korean doctors expect their patients to unquestioningly accept their word as they would a god's. This seems risky to me, but I do come from the land of second opinions.

Anyhow, while at the hospital, the older man in the bed across from Ha Young's took some opportunity to talk my ear off about Dokdo and ascertain my beliefs about this issue. I simply said I don't know. But then he went on about how America should do something about it, and I tuned out. He was speaking really fast in Korean about politics and it was almost impossible for me to follow it.

Sigh. I wish my speaking was half as good as my listening or reading comprehension... then I could have explained better to him about what I feel.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

"Translating"

At my taekwondo studio, I've been sort of loosely accepted by the middle and high school students I train with. I am caught somewhere between older sister, exotic oddity, friend, and (occasional) translator. For example, last night, one of the boys was struggling with a passage in his English practice book and asked me to tell him what it meant. I surprised myself at being able to provide (rather easily) a rough approximation of the Korean. Granted the English level was at about that of a second grader in the U.S., but still... I was happy I could help him.

The girls are really sweet. They talk to me a lot. Sometimes I don't understand everything right away, but we're both getting good at re-phrasing it so that we understand each other eventually. I've learned quite a bit of Korean this way. However, they tend to ask me to translate the English in Korean pop songs (or English pop songs played often in Korea).

It's funny because they often don't know what they mean at all.

For example, pop sensation 이효리 (Lee Hyo Ri) has a new song out called "U Go Girl!" (The uninitiated should watch the video here.) So naturally, the girls want to know what "you go girl" means because to them, with their lack of exposure to American hip-hop, it sounds like she's saying "go away, girl!"

I translated it as "여자 와이팅!" (Girl Fighting!)

(As a side note, Ms. Lee has some of the WORST English pronunciation I've ever heard. It sounds exactly like foreigners mocking Korean pronunciation of English. It is both comical and sad to hear: "Hei gull! Gull! hei yoo goh gull!" Please, please someone help her.)

A few days later they asked about Abba song "Mamma Mia," which is very popular here now as there is a movie based on the Broadway musical of the same name out in theaters. They thought it was about someone's 어머니 (mother). Anyone who is familiar with the lyrics knows this song is about a cheating guy (which I also explained to the girls).

I translated the song's title as "이타리아말: 아이고!" (Italian: Oh my god!)

Even then we had problems because they thought I said, in English, "I go," as it sounds like "아이고."

I may not be studying as hard as I once was, but I'm definitely still learning. Now if I can just get back to studying...

Monday, December 1, 2008

Re-visiting old thoughts...

I stumbled upon my own words from over a year and a half ago today. I find it amazing how much this revelation still echoes for me today.

I was thinking about relationships and how in previous ones I never would have felt comfortable going on a week and half long vacation without my significant other because... well... I have no freaking clue why. I wish I had studied abroad in college, but I was always afraid to leave my boyfriend for that long. It's sad and pathetic. Even the major travel I did on my own in the U.S. (for my grad school program to Martha's Vineyard) was a program I signed up for when I was between boyfriends (though I was dating Mike for two of the three summers I went... funny coincidence that the last summer was the best one... haha!).

I think women, in particular, make a lot of their decisions based on the input of those around them, especially those they are romantically involved with. We are taught to compromise. We compromise before we are even asked to sometimes. We hope that the guy will look into our souls and see the great dreams we are giving up to be with them and realize how amazing we are for doing so and make it worth having done so.

Unfortunately, it never is.

This is the first relationship I've been in where I have felt both comfortable making my own decisions about things and supported in the decisions I've made. Sure, Min Gi would like to come with me (and I'd really love for him to be able to go), but it's ok that he can't. I still want to go. And I will.

My grandpa Joe whispered to my mom on her wedding day, "Don't give up too much, too soon." She said she never really understood it until much later, but she was lucky that she had managed to follow it anyway. My parents did Peace Corps together; they got their Ph.D.s at the same time; they waited to have kids until 12 years after their wedding. I had hoped to find that kind of partner early on... One that I could grow up with. But it didn't happen that way. In some ways, I'm glad it didn't. Now I know I can do all these things for myself. And will.

It's funny how it sometimes takes not getting what you originally wanted to find out what you actually need.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Yesterday I dropped a ton of won.

I woke up on Saturday not 100 percent recovered from my illness, so I skipped Korean class. For the second week in a row. I ought to be shot, really...

Well, I started feeling better a little later, so I decided that I needed to go shopping downtown. First stop was my travel agent where I plunked down my first chunk of major dough for a ticket to Vietnam for February and the fee for arranging my visa. Feeling much lighter, I met Sarah for a lovely lunch followed by pillaging the hiking equipment section of downtown. I purchased new boots at a 20% discount (with GoreTex!) and a good bag for travelling in Vietnam (and other future travels) at a 10% discount plus free hiking socks.

Beautiful New Boots!


Today Min Gi and I tested my new boots (and free socks) on some mountain trails that start right behind my school (Waryong Mountain). We ended up wandering around a lot longer than planned, and I discovered that I have not fully recovered from the cold. Back at the apartment he continued teaching me the intricacies of the Korean card game, Go-Stop. Sometimes referred to as "the Korean poker," Go-Stop is played with 화투 (Hwatu) cards of Japanese origin (called Hanafuda in Japan). Apparently it is now available on yahoo games.

The one hand I won... So exciting!


Anyhow, after warming up, I feel better, although I am not allowed to spend any more money in all of December. This shouldn't be too difficult as I will be locked up in my school preparing a test for applicants to the foreign language high school one weekend with no access to phone or internet.

I look forward to improving my health further and returning to work tomorrow. For finals week. Woohoo!

Friday, November 28, 2008

American Holidaze.

I missed Thanksgiving this year because I've been in a foggy, sick haze most of the week. I took two days off work (and on two of them I went to, I got to hear people tell me all day how crappy I look--thanks... just what I need on top of FEELING like crap, people), have been to the doctor twice, pumped myself full of all kinds of interesting medicines, and still am feeling blah. It's weird 'cause I seem to feel a little better after eating and taking the meds, but then a few hours later will experience a new round of coughing/headaches/breathing difficulties/faintness/etc. that makes me get all pessimistic again about recovering. And my brain has been fuzzy pretty consistently, which just tends to piss me off.

Well, now that I've vented a bit about that, I would like to celebrate Thanksgiving on my own by reflecting on what I'm grateful for this year. In many ways, it's been a really tough year--I've lived in another country the whole time and my family (especially my dad) have been dealing with a host of health problems. However, I have so many things to be thankful for:

1. My amazing family. My sister is now in college and growing into the most beautiful young woman I know. I'm so happy she got to visit me in Korea (thanks, Mom and Dad!) and that she is healthy and great. My mother, who got a new job this year and has taken to reading my blog regularly and commenting on it, has become even more open minded and accepting of my oddities as a (less than perfect) daughter. My father, my heart and soul, has a strength and an optimism in the face of great adversity (I am so sorry we don't talk as much as we used to). My brother, Brian, who has had a rough year, needs all the love he can get.

2. My wonderful friends from all over the world.

3. My loving boyfriend, who fits into category #2, but deserves special mention all on his own.

4. My two beautiful cats. Princess: perfect and not too bright; Saja: destructive and curious. Life would not be half so fun without you.

5. All of the amazing people I've met in Korea by doing swing dance and taekwondo.

6. My job is interesting, full of good people (especially the students), rewarding, and not-too-stressful.

7. My health, which other than this week, has been pretty great this last year!

8. Korea, my adopted country, which has given me more than I can ever hope to give it back, despite its flaws and currently crappy exchange rate.

9. America, my homeland, that for once made the right decision about a president, and presses on ever hopeful in times of much hardship and difficulty.

10. The earth, which continues to grow larger and seem smaller every day. I hope we humans learn how to treat you right.


There are more little things, of course, but those are the top 10.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Sick Food Adventures; Best Boyfriend Award.

For the last four days, I've had a nasty little cold that keeps seeming like it's going away and then coming back with a vengeance. Yesterday I went to a doctor who gave me the standard Korean packet of mixed pills, offered me a shot in the butt (which I politely declined), and sent me on my merry way. This morning I woke up sicker than ever. I don't know if the meds are making me worse or if the sinus infection just now developed or what, but I had to call in sick.

Not wanting to drag my half-dead fanny out of my apartment but needing some kind of nourishment left me in a quandary. Although my Korean has probably been good enough to order food for myself for some time, I've resisted trying for fear of looking like an idiot. Today hunger and haziness trumped the potential embarrassment, so I ordered some 수제비, a kind of wheat "noodle" and egg soup that is good for me when I'm sick. It came in about 15 minutes and it was delicious. Go Diana Korean skillz.

A little later, two of my co-workers came by my apartment to bring me 호박죽, a kind of pumpkin rice porridge from a fancy traditional Korean restaurant. It was amazing. How wonderfully sweet of them. As I was already full from lunch, I will even have some leftover for tomorrow. I would have eaten it for dinner, but Min Gi came over to take care of me. And to make me food.

That's right. Now he cooks.

Here he is, cooking in my tiny kitchen, with all the ingredients he brought over.


Pasta and Salad. Yummy. But WAY too much food. Leftovers?


He's so proud of himself.


And, of course, I appreciate it, too. You have to understand that Korean culture is pretty set against men cooking as a general rule. They live with their moms who cook for them until they get married and then their wives do. Min Gi has taught himself quite a bit in the last two weeks (when he decided he wanted to learn how to cook). I am very impressed. I hereby grant him the Best Boyfriend Award.

It was so much fun, we've decided to cook for each other every week. Next week it's my turn. Hello burritos!

I'm still not well in body, but all this happy food and love has made me much better in spirit.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Heavy.

This weekend a reliable friend told me a secondhand story about a local bartender, prominent in the foreign scene in Daegu, currently serving time in prison for raping a customer who was too intoxicated to object. I will not publish this information, as I cannot personally attest to its veracity, but if you are interested in the name and bar of the perpetrator, please contact me privately--especially if you live in Daegu. (However, do note that as he is in jail at this time, he is not working at the bar; furthermore the bar owners had no knowledge of this crime, even though it was committed on their property, until the police arrested the man.) I am happy to give information out that could protect more girls in the future.

Speaking of rape, my attention was drawn to this lovely bit of stone-age court shenanigans, reported by The Korea Times. You really must read the full article, but in case you missed the ending of this debacle:

But [the court] gave the [rapists] suspended terms, saying, ``The accused have fostered the girl in her parents' place. Considering her disability, she will also need their care and help in living in the future.''

What??!???!?!

The Korean court is releasing rapists to care for the 16-year-old disabled girl they were just convicted of raping??!?! Are you serious?

I mean, I know Korea has a long way to go to catch up with the U.S. in its understandings of disabilities, child abuse, and women's rights regarding rape, but this is just disgusting. It's like saying, "Oh gee guys. We know it's rough to raise her, so it wasn't that bad that you raped her."

I'm not really prone to profanity (or multiple punctuation marks), but today, Korea, you've made me want to scream:

WHAT THE FUCK????!!!!????

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Romance, international style.

Last night, Min Gi and I celebrated our six-month-iversary (as I side note, I hate it when people say "one month anniversary" or "eight month anniversary," and not just because those particular units of time have little significance to a relationship once you get out of high school, but also because "anniversary" means YEARS).

Those of you who know me well know I'm not that gushy about romantic stuff. However, I have learned from my many failed relationships that lack of romance is one of many relationship-killers (or just a sign it's over).

I have also learned (from my own mistakes, but also from observing others, including my parents) that men don't always know what kinds of gestures I would find romantic, and I have to teach them how to make me feel special. Not in a demanding "you must buy me 100 roses a year" kind of way, but if a certain day is important to you, let the guy know about it in advance so he can prepare for it. I have so many friends who make a huge deal about people forgetting their birthdays, but they won't tell people when their birthdays are--that's just not fair. Also, be sure to appreciate all the little efforts your guy does make, even if it's not exactly what you wanted. Men really love to please women, but they won't bother if they feel like nothing they do is good enough.

Interestingly enough, being in an international relationship has taught me even more about communicating effectively and patiently with a partner. We have language and cultural barriers to overcome in addition to the usual barriers between men and women (or between people, for that matter). Amanda wrote a great post about this about a year ago, before I was even dating Min Gi.

Koreans don't really celebrate dating markers on the months. They celebrate hundreds of days (i.e. 100 days, 200 days, 500 days, etc.). I don't get this system. It has no significance for me because frankly, who wants to sit there with a calendar and count these things out? I don't. (I've since been informed that in all Korean cell phones, you can easily program this information into your phone and it will mark the dates on the calendar for you.) And, as I've explained, I'm not huge on the monthly "anniversaries." However, I'm really happy with Min Gi and am impressed we've been dating for half a year and wanted to do something special with him on that day.

So I told him about it. A month ago. I said, "Did you know that it was five months ago today that we started dating?"

"Really?"

"Yes. But I don't think five months is that important, even though some American couples do. However, I do think six months is important."

"Ok. But I don't like to do the same thing as everybody else. It's not my style."

"I know... but we're in Korea. Celebrating six months is kind of different in Korea. I don't need our hundred days or peppero day or Christmas as a romantic holiday. I do need this."

"Ok. What day?"

"November 19. Eleven nineteen."

"I won't forget."

"진짜?"

"찐짜."

I checked that he was remembering a few times this last month (kind of as a joke, but to be fair to him). And he even asked what I wanted to do for that day.

But even with this reassurance, international relationships can have their obstacles. The day before the big day, he sent me a text with a sad-faced man that said "D-day: -1." I was initially confused by this, as D-Day in English usually means a much-anticipated event, but always in a negative way. It comes from the military name and alludes to the infamous Normandy Landings from WWII, now remembered by how they were depicted in the Spielberg movie, Saving Private Ryan.

I called him. He and my co-teacher both informed me that "D-Day" is used in Korea to refer to an anticipated event, negative or positive. As in your wedding is next week, "D-Day -7." Or something like that. (There are many English borrow words in this language that don't QUITE mean what we think they do and it can lead to much confusion.)

Anyhow, miscommunication aside, last night we met up downtown and headed to my favorite Italian place in all of Daegu, Little Italya, and then watched the new James Bond flick. Both were great.

And Min Gi gave me some little gifts: a small pot of fake pink roses (because they will last longer than real flowers), two hair clips (because they were cute), and a small typewriter figurine (to remind me of my dream to be a writer). None of these things were expensive, but the last one especially touched my heart.

When we got back to my place, I showed him my re-arranged kitchen with more cooking space for experimenting with food for his bar. We made plans for the winter (skiing, hiking, dancing, etc.) and reminisced about the good times we've had so far.

It was wonderful.

Who says men can't be romantic?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Distressing...

Oh my god!

More Korean men are now obese than American men.

American obesity rates are hovering just above 30%, but today I read an article that puts 36% of Korean men in the obese category. (Do check out that second article link for an illustration of the Korean idea of "obesity"... notice the man in the picture is NOT Korean).

So where are they hiding all the fattys? Look again, my dears.

Most US news sources will explain that Body Mass Index (BMI), a number calculated from your height and weight used to determine risk of weight-related diseases, has four major categories. Under 18 (or 20 depending on the source) is considered underweight; 18-25 is considered healthy or normal weight; 25-29 is considered overweight; and over 30 is classified as obese (over 40, severe and morbid obesity).

Although the uses of BMI vary from country to country, these guidelines are in line with the World Health Organization (WHO) standards for BMI measurements.

From the Korea Times article:

"Those whose body mass index (BMI) ― a statistical measurement comparing a person's weight and height ― is over 25 are categorized as obese, and those with a BMI over 30, as hyper-obese."


Hahaha.

No wonder I'm so fat here. I'm not just "overweight," ladies and gentlemen, I'm "obese."

In a funk... and getting out of it.

I've been in a strange funk this last week. I blew off taekwondo and the gym more than usual, have been dragging my feet again about getting stuff done around the house and for grad school, and I've even been mulling over stuff about my relationship that I have no control over and no cause to worry about at this point (stuff like if we stay together, can his mom accept a foreigner? where will we live? etc, etc, and so forth).

Min Gi was a darling about it. He tolerated my moodiness on Sunday admirably. We went to Duryu park in the afternoon, which was nice. There were lots of families and couples walking around and playing and we just talked about lots of things. Then, he had wanted to experiment with some recipes for his future bar (we have this idea about serving western-style sandwiches as they are easy to make if you can get a good bread supplier, but hard to find in and about Korea), which normally would have been a really wonderfully fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but I was in a funk about my kitchen being a mess and too small, so I whined about it. Instead we ordered pizza and watched a movie (my choice) and relaxed. I felt better.

Then, at work, I got the brilliant idea of how to cure my funk: rearrange my furniture. This works wonders. So I came home and hopped right in. And while I was at it, I might as well clean everything, right?

So I went to go clean my kitchen...

And my dishes were done.

I have a wonderful boyfriend and (after three hours of work this evening) a well-arranged, clean apartment. I'm a lucky girl.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Huge Flaws...

Back in America, people go on and on and on about the "Asian education system" and how it's so great. They picture perfectly behaved seven year olds solving calculus problems in their heads while the teacher stands in front of the class, smiling beatifically.

The reality is a bit different. Culturally, Korean students are more respectful of their teachers because the position is considered so highly in Korean culture and parents do value education above all other areas (as you can see from the fact that they spent 6.8% of the GDP on education in 1999). So, while a Korean kid would never talk back to a teacher to their face, like all teenagers, my students respect and disrespect teachers behind their backs according to who has "earned" respect in their opinions. And many foreign teachers (especially in hagwons) complain that this general respect for teachers does not extend to foreigners that Koreans view as outside their culture, so the kids act exactly as American students where you have to prove to them you're a teacher before they'll listen to you.

Also the test is paramount.

I complained a lot in the past about NCLB's effect on the American education system and how useless standardized testing is for educating students. But I've gotta say that when you look at standardized testing in America, we've got NOTHING on Asia.

Today I have the day off because it's KSAT day. William explains the significance of this more completely in his blog entry on the subject, which you should read. Like I say in my comments on his blog, what a waste. What a whole freaking waste. No wonder modern Korea has so little innovation and literature of note in the greater world--kids spend their most valuable years learning how to be drones.

I'll tell you what. They might score better on a test, but if I got stuck on a desert island and had to survive all on my own, I'd sure as hell hope my partner was American-educated over a Korean-educated one. We'd stand a much better chance.

Teacher Dork!

I'm a big teacher dork.

Yesterday was my last writing class for the gifted students last night and am buzzing high on how much progress they made with their writing in just two short months. I inherited this class from someone who clearly didn't give a darn about them (but of course didn't let that get in the way of his inflated ego regarding his own teaching abilities) and about half of them were ready to quit the class. Even though I worked them about to death, they actually appreciated having learned so much in such a short time. They wrote the most amazing letters to me for their final portfolios. I am deeply touched and honored to have taught them, even if for a short time.

Also, I am *so* excited about getting to teach To Kill a Mockingbird to the second grade students (American grade equivalent: 11). This is the reading class I co-teach with a Korean teacher. We had originally planned to do Of Mice and Men, but the bookstore ordered some kind of stupid ESL version for kids at the second grade ELEMENTARY school level. (Seriously, who does that? Who "dumbs down" a book as accessible as Of Mice and Men? It's only 110 pages. You could freaking read it aloud in a class if you wanted to! I used to teach it in TWO WEEKS back in the states to kids with half the brainpower of the dumbest kids at the foreign language high school. Shoosh. /rant.) We scrambled to find a replacement text and finally settled on Harper Lee's only novel. My co-teacher and I were both really excited, even though we knew it would be a huge challenge.

And then my "boss" (the head of the English department) had this conversation with me:

"Um, Diana?"

"Yes?"

"I heard that you are teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think that maybe it is too difficult for the students."

"Really? I don't think so. It's taught in middle schools in the U.S."

"Yes, but, well, I read it a few years ago and I remember it was so hard. Because there are lots of references to U.S. History and I did not understand."

"Well, I think they don't have to understand every part to enjoy the story."

"And it is very long."

"Well, we tried to get a shorter book, but the bookstore didn't carry the real version of the novel. I don't want to use a modified text."

"Couldn't you maybe use a novel for teenagers?"

"Like a young adult book? But they are reading a young adult novel in first grade. I think it's important for them to be exposed to some of the same classics they would read in an English-speaking country's secondary school."

"Well, maybe they will not be able to finish it."

"That's ok. We just want to help them get started. They can read it over winter vacation [editor's note: about a month and half long]."

"But they will be third graders. They need to study for their KSAT."

"Ok. So, some of them will read it, and some of them won't. That's ok."

She paused, finally understanding that I wasn't backing down. "Well, you will have to help them understand."

"Of course! That's my job!" I laugh and smile.

The conversation ended.

However... if you understand Korean culture you will realize just how bad of an employee I was by repeatedly defending my choice of book when my boss "suggested" that I choose another book. In Korea, people do not directly contradict one another. When a person who is in a position above you (or hell, even a person older than you who is officially equal to you) makes a "suggestion," that is an order. You are supposed to comply.

The thing is, my boss (as you can tell) speaks excellent English. She earned her TESOL certification in the U.S. She has dealt with foreign teachers and other foreigners for years. Yet she still has this awful habit of saying "maybe" or "I think" with everything she says in English even when she is IN CHARGE of the event and knows the answers to my questions for sure. It annoys the crap out of me.

So if she wants me to do something different, she's going to have to be direct (at least in English). Because my pedagogical choices are solid. Frankly, I'm kind of sick of having them questioned by people who have either never seen me teach in a classroom or who have no training/experience in education.

I don't know if this is me being brave, stubborn, or unrealistic about asking someone to go against their inborn cultural training... but if it serves the interests of my students, I'll risk mild alienation from the next staff party or two.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Belonging...

If you learn nothing else from my blog about Korea, learn this: The group is more important than the individual. Always. It really helps you understand a lot of the seemingly perverse logic in this country. The (unfortunate) correlate to this is that if you do not belong to the group, you do not exist. I think this last bit is one of the reasons many foreigners here have a difficult time in this country and often leave it with a strong distaste for all things Korean that has little to do with their culinary opinion of red pepper.

Trouble is, I come from the most pro-individual country in the world. From folk heroes beloved for their rugged independence to the protection of individual rights above all else in our Constitution, America is all about making your own way, doing your own thing, thinking your own thoughts. So... an American in group-minded Korea is bound to encounter some difficulties.

My desire to understand the language and culture of this strange and paradoxical place is impeded by not really belonging. I am an outsider. You can understand American culture without belonging to it; in fact your not belonging to it is PART of the culture. You can't fully understand Korea without being part of the group. So I've been trying to find a way to belong. At my job, with my Korean family, in taekwondo, with my swing club, in my life...

However, my 금라면 hair and curvy white body already make me stand out here. I also have a tendency to disagree openly and argue with people if I disagree. Not meanly, just in the interest of friendly debate--you know the food of democracy and all that. William once accused me of being confrontational, which is both true and a relief. It's so much better than being accused of being passive-aggressive (which I was perhaps accused of in high school). This presents an obstacle for the attempts to "belong" here in Korea.

Because you see, the thing is, I refuse to give up who I am in order to be admitted to the group. I've already explained how "You are Korean!" is a compliment (it's Korea's way of attempting to fit you in so that it's ok to accept you into their life), but that's not good enough for independent me. I want to be me and still accepted into their lives.

Some would say this is too tall an order.

But this weekend, after almost a year of attending swing club, I finally felt as if I belonged. As if I was accepted into the community and appreciated for who I am.

It's been a slow process. This club already had two other foreigners who'd been truly accepted--Ben, who is an excellent dancer so it was easy for him to hop right in, and Leah, who speaks Korean comfortably and with a competence and ease that never ceases to amaze me (she also learned to dance in Korea, but much faster and more gracefully than I, and is now married to another club member). I'm not trying to imply that their process of being accepted was any less difficult than my own, just that I faced other challenges. Also, there are other foreign members of the club, and I'm not trying to imply their presence is unimportant or that they are unaccepted--it IS important, and (as we know) acceptance is partly a personal feeling. But I do think that the Korean members of the club are slow to let foreigners in their hearts--partly because of the language barriers, partly because they know most of us will be gone within a year or two, and partly because most of us are beginners or close to it.

I spent months attending where I could barely do jitterbug (the easiest form of swing), and nobody would ask me to dance (both because I was a beginner and because I was a foreigner), but I persisted. Every night, I would make sure I asked each lead present to dance at least once. Some even refused, claiming they couldn't speak English (though I asked them to dance in Korean and understood their refusal, usually in English), but I would just come back later that night and ask them again.

I took classes and went out to the after parties to try to talk to people and get to know them. Slowly, I learned their names and how long they'd been dancing and other details about their lives (hard to do in two different languages). I went on trips to other swing clubs and for MTs and such. I was on a performance team for Ben's goodbye party. My lindy hop improved, and I didn't have to apologize constantly for my bad dancing. Eventually, even a few people would approach me to ask for a dance!

Ben, who had even been the president of the club in his last year here, left in July. His loss was a true loss to the club. Other foreigners have left and while the foreign members miss them, only a few of the Korean members have commented on their absence--this is what I mean by "belonging," that when you go, you're missed. After he left, we needed a new president and no one was stepping forward. I was "volunteered" and after much reluctance, I finally agreed to take on the job in October. We held elections and now I'm president.

You would think that to be the leader of a club you'd have to "belong" but I really think that my election was the beginning of, not the result of, my acceptance. I was elected because it's fun to have a foreigner as the mascot of your club and because no one else would do it, but since being elected, I've been feeling the subtle shift in my focus at the club. Taking on Korean logic (klogic, if you will) about the group. Like worrying about my appearance and dancing abilities because if I'm not pretty enough or good enough, I might let the club down.

Finally, this weekend we had the sixth anniversary party. I didn't really do much to organize it... that was the last vice president's "baby," but I did mobilize the troops (i.e. delegate responsibility) for getting decorations together and making sure the night ran smoothly and that we had enough staff that no one had to work the whole night and everybody could enjoy at least some of the party. I still feel like I didn't do much to earn the congratulations of everyone, but congratulate me they did.

But while I'm not going to detail the events of the party, after party, or workshop the next day (perhaps in another post if I don't get lazy about it), somewhere in all that dancing, and Korean-speaking, and organizational flurry, I realized that I do belong in this group. That my language and dance abilities have improved enough in a year to make me worthy of this honor, and that if I leave, I will be missed by more than just the other foreigners.

And that's a nice feeling.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Reason #512 to Learn Korean:

You understand why the 시티병원 is funny.

(For you non-Korean speakers, "시티" is the Hangeulized word "City" and "병원" means "Hospital;" so the place's name is "City Hospital." However, Koreans don't have the sibilant s/c sound followed by the "i" vowel sound, so the pronunciation of "시" is like "she." Ergo... Shitty Hospital.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Wow! I'm proud of you, America!

I'll admit being away from the hustle and bustle of DC has kept me out of the loop regarding the 2008 presidential campaign. This is possibly the least informed I've ever been--and it's the most exciting election of my lifetime. I feel a bit of guilt about this, but at the same time... not so much. America is a distant place from out here in East Asia.

To be honest, politics has left a bad taste in my mouth since the evening of the 2000 campaign where my friend sat up in my college dorm room all night picking a louse (yes, just one) and its nits out of my hair (she had accidentally spread an outbreak in our overnight read-a-thon that weekend), while we were glued to CNN. Every 10 minutes they would say "Bush has won!" and then "We can't determine it!" and then "Gore may claim a victory!" and then "Nope, we're still idiots down here in Florida who have no idea how to design or count a ballot!"

It was a very bipolar evening. It was my first election ever voting. I voted for Nader. (I'm from Maryland. The Dems ALWAYS win Maryland by a landslide. However my grandmother from Florida did almost disown me when she found this out.) My roommate and I plotted the death of Bush before he could even assume office, thus forcing an emergency election rather than having the VP (I shudder to mention his name) take over. Obviously, we failed to execute our plan...

Which brings me to this year...

I was excited by the primary. I wanted Clinton to win. She is an AMAZING politician (yes, that includes both the negative and positive connotations of that word). She's smart. She's awesome. And yeah, I like the idea of a woman in office (note to Republicans: a COMPETENT woman please).

Thing is, I was also thrilled with Obama. He oozes charisma. He's idealistic. His resume reads like a dream for being groomed for the office of president. And yeah, I like the idea of a black man in office.

On the issues, they were pretty close to identical, just different emphases.

I was, at that time, highly concerned about the national electability of either candidate. I thought as far as the race/gender issues were concerned, America was probably more ready for a black man than it was for a white woman, but (and I'm really glad it didn't come to this) Republican campaigns are not usually known for their uprightness and honesty. Case in point: since the 2004 election people STILL believe a Texas oil millionaire's son was one of the "regular guys" and a middle class fellow who put himself through law school was an elitist snob born with a silver spook in his mouth. (The middle of the country also seems to believe that the last election was mainly about gay marriage--failing to notice we were ENGAGED IN WAR at the time of the election. Hello, people!) Hence a person whose name happened to rhyme with the most despised known terrorist might be even more subject to the evil low-brow ploys of the campaign machine.

Furthermore, as far as McCain goes, he was by far the most palatable candidate that the Republican party has put forth in the last 50 years or so. I may have disagreed with many of his policies and plans, but I think he would have made a fine president. (His running mate is a whole other story...)

So when it was McCain vs. Obama I was hopeful about Obama's chances, but not dreadfully optimistic.

But as October came around and his polls were still steadily in his favor, I started to think that my hesitant Obama nay-saying (in my head, as I know out loud it could have been detrimental to the campaign... I learned my lesson when I called the Kerry/Bush fiasco of 2004 back in March of that year, and it played out PRECISELY as I said it would), might actually be incorrect. Could we win? Could we have the first president of my adult life that I could be PROUD of?

And today, my American brethren have proved that they can be trusted a little more than I thought they could.

Just not the people from Texas (ahem, William).

Biggest (happy) surprises:
* Virginia, Florida, and Ohio going pretty solidly for Obama.
* Homeless folks turning out in record numbers to vote.
* North Carolina being too close to call with Obama leading by just over 12,000 as of right now.
* McCain conceding, no fight, before California was called.
* The stock market is optimistic because of the vote.


I cheered in the staff room when it was announced right after lunch. The Korean staff seemed bemused by my elation. I was surprised I was as happy as I was. I guess I really wasn't so apathetic about this election after all. Even if I was too lazy to turn my absentee ballot in on time, so I failed to vote.

Yay for live-action history.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Things I watch now that I live in Korea...

...

1. America's Next Top Model
2. CSI
3. CSI Miami
4. E! Hollywood News
5. Whatever movie is on TV
6. The Biggest Loser
7. Hell's Kitchen
8. Project Runway
9. The Bachelor
10. MTV

... I hate myself.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Being a Fuddy-Duddy.

I'm a fuddy-duddy--and I LOVE it.

I don't say this lightly. I spent years of college worrying that I wasn't "cool" because my alcohol consumption and penchant for ending up in stupid situations was well below your average co-ed. When I first moved to Korea, you may recall that I spent some time trying to right this imbalance. I discovered that while bars, clubs, and intoxication can have their moments of fun, I get little true satisfaction from these activities.

I've noticed that I'd rather meet a friend for an afternoon coffee than at a downtown party; I'd rather go swing dancing than clubbing; I'd rather read a book than get drunk. I'm just not a "party girl," and I don't really want to be. I've finally found a happy medium here... I can go out with some friends one or two nights a week and have fun, but spend most of my time doing daytime activities and relaxing. Actually, even though I had more friends in the U.S., the stress from my job prevented much partying. That means my social calendar here is way busier than it was back home and sometimes even gives me a little stress. I like this.

(Unfortunately, though, it seems like this is not a great way to meet new people. I think almost all the good friends I have in Korea I've met at bars, including Min Gi, though usually through some mutual acquaintance, not just random encounters. Notable exceptions are people I've met through the YMCA class, people I've met through work, and people I've met through swing dance. As I suspected when I was single, the social odds are stacked against the introvert.)

You may be asking yourself, "What's so great about being a fuddy-duddy?"

Well here's the thing. Fuddy-duddy life doesn't mean you are inactive. On the contrary. I go hiking and dancing, out to dinner or lunch with my boyfriend and other friends, enjoy hanging out or shopping downtown... I just don't do the regular "party" things that other 20somethings seem to enjoy so much.

Case-in-point: My weekend.

I love Halloween. But I think I love it for its positive associations with partying (American style, meaning at a private home) with friends and dressing up. This weekend I just did NOT want to go out to the BIG event on Friday. I felt like I should, as a good friend of mine was heavily involved with the preparations for this event, but it's just not my scene at all. And I'm a little sad because I missed Halloween, but this weekend was one of the best I've had in awhile.

Saturday
I went to Korean class, which was interesting and fun. I ate Chinese food and introduced William to my favorite Italian restaurant downtown, Little Italya. I met friends for "coffee" (one needed lunch so it was at a restaurant) and lost my winter coat (oops!). I went to swing dance, where I had fun and convinced a swinging couple from Pohang to come to our big party next weekend.

Sunday
Min Gi got free tickets to a show that was part of the Korea in Motion festival at Kyungbuk University, so after a lovely afternoon catching up with Gwen (at Little Italya, of course!), we met Iosha and some other swing club members (including Genie, the charming man who had obtained the tickets for all of us) to watch the show. It turned out to be a pretty awesome dance show that was extremely Korean in ways I cannot begin to explain. But then at the end, Iosha, being one of the representative foreigners, was pulled up on stage, so afterwards we got our photo taken with some of the dancers:

You gotta love Korean B-boys, no?


Then I went home and cleaned my house.

I felt completely happy and content. Nothing about this weekend was super-special, it was just nice.

After next weekend's huge party (the swing dance club's six year anniversary party), I think I'll take this lesson to heart and rest a bit.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Exhausted.

It's been a LOOOOOONG week at work (and in life). Not anything terribly interesting, just busy and now tired.

Last weekend, Min Gi and I went hiking at 금오산 (Geumo Mountain) in the nearby city of Gumi.

The climb was really rocky and tough (about four hours if you're a super fast Korean hiker). We didn't make it all the way to the top (my knees kinda crapped out about halfway), but there were lots of cool things to see along the way.

An Ancient Fortress


The view from inside a cave. To climb up this cave, we had to use a chain attached to a very slippery rock and hoist ourselves up a steep clime. Min Gi got scared, poor baby.


A waterfall... well... sort of. Korea's been a little short on rain this season.


I'm so unbearably cute. And the view of the fall colors ain't bad, either.


And the best 버섯전 in the world. No lie.


It was nice just to spend the day with Min Gi. He's so much fun.

Check out the whole album. Lots of pretty colors:
Geumosan (Gumi)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Woes at Work.

Why do I always have to make everything more complicated than it needs to be? I really think (I've been told this before) that caring too deeply, too passionately, about too many things is a serious flaw of mine. Certainly it becomes troublesome when people hit a sore spot.

Case in point:
Today I (well, we) received the following e-mail from the English cultures teacher (now here's a rant for another day--why is someone who spent 6 months in the U.S. teaching culture when we have TWO Americans teaching at the school... *sigh*):

Dear William and Diana,

I am [name redacted], teaching American and English culture.
There is a section 'Expand your knowledge', in which we need to ask Americans the following questions and record their answers.
Could you please answer them?

1. Should there be prayer in public schools?
2. Should public school systems provide vouchers that could be used to pay tuition in private schools?
3. Should there be sex education in the schools? If so, what should be taught?
4. Are drugs and violence problems in the schools in your neighborhood? What is being done to protect children in public schools?
5. How important is a college education? What difference does it make in a person's life?


I'm sick of this. I'm sick of being the "representative" American. I have no problem if my students were to approach me and ask my opinions on these or other controversial issues, but to type them up for another teacher to teach them to MY students violates all kinds of student/teacher boundaries.

This school needs to decide if I'm a mascot or a teacher. Because I can't do both effectively.

I pulled the teacher aside and explained to her my concerns about answering these questions. I even suggested that if she wants to "teach" written examples of American opinions that she research some published ones on the internet (I even offered to help her find these).

It didn't help that William had no problem at all with this. *sigh*

So I took the rest of the day, composing my answers (in between, you know, TEACHING classes). Made a hellovalotta work for me I didn't need to do, and stressed myself out. This was the result (which, naturally, I am still dissatisfied with):

Note to students: Before reviewing my responses to these questions, please understand that I have taught in both American schools and Korean schools. Currently, I teach in Korea and you are Korean students and so my answers are probably more relevant to my opinions about what needs to happen in Korean schools, though my opinions are heavily informed by my experience as a student and teacher in America. If I was answering these questions in America, I might answer them differently, as they relate to culture. Please consult me with any further questions you might have.

1. Should there be prayer in public schools?
Public schools are government institutions. I believe that the government should be separate from churches; therefore schools should neither promote any particular religion nor interfere with anyone's right to practice a religion. Prayer that does not interfere with other students' studies or routines should be permitted. Prayer should never be mandatory (compulsory, obligatory) and school officials should not promote or foster any one religion by praying with students or asking students to pray.

2. Should public school systems provide vouchers that could be used to pay tuition in private schools?
I do not support a voucher system. Most of the time the money provided in vouchers by the state is only enough to afford tuition at private schools with a religious affiliation. Public schools should remain separate from church; I believe this includes public money. I also think schools should not interfere with a parents' right to enroll their child in alternate education forms, should they deem it suitable. However, supporting these choices with public funds is ludicrous.

3. Should there be sex education in the schools? If so, what should be taught?
I believe public schools have a responsibility to promote public health, and that includes teaching about practices (abstinence, condom use, monogamy) that would prevent communicable diseases, such as STDs, and to help students understand responsible choices regarding procreation (birth control, family planning). Therefore I believe that sex education should be taught in schools. However, since sex is often a moral issue in culture as much as it is a health issue, schools should be careful about appropriate curriculum and methods regarding sex education.

4. Are drugs and violence problems in the schools in your neighborhood? What is being done to protect children in public schools?
I don't like answering this question in Korea. It's true that America has more problems with drugs and violence in general than Korea does, but if you are not personally involved in gangs and take some basic precautions, it doesn't really affect your life very much, even if you live in one of these "bad neighborhoods." The issue is so complex and so foreign, even to other people in America who haven't been exposed to neighborhoods labeled "problems," that it is difficult to explain it effectively. Often it leaves the listener with stereotypes about race and class that are not true, and that I refuse to promote. I could tell you about the poverty, the time I witnessed a boy get thrown through a plate glass window by a boy from another gang, about the time(s) I called a mother because I was concerned about her daughter's grades and the mother was high, about my neighbors who fought with their children so loudly I considered calling child services more than once... but it would only make you think America is a dangerous place. For those children, maybe it can be, but for most people it isn't.

Schools in America often have counselors, police officers, peer support groups, gang violence and drug awareness education, and other programs in place to offer as much help and support as we can to students who come from families already involved in the activities I have described. It's usually only moderately effective. However, school tends to be the only place a lot of kids feel "safe" in America... and I think that says something good about how public schools are dealing with the problem.

5. How important is a college education? What difference does it make in a person's life?
Personally, I valued my college education because it was a time for me to think deeply about many subjects and try out different intellectual ideas in a comfortable environment, but few people view the "value" of college from an academic perspective. I think our societies (both Korean and American) have over-emphasized the importance of college education to the point that everybody really must go to college to get a good job. It has become a necessity for jobs simply because so many people have college degrees that it is one more way to weed out applicants for a job.

However, most jobs don't require the skills you learn at a university. I wish that both Korea and America could understand that college is for academia and stop believing it is necessary to have a good life. The snobbery associated with not only whether or not you obtain a degree, but even from which school you get it, has grown to the point of ridiculous elitism, especially in highly competitive Korea. Many college graduates I know have no worthwhile skills in businesses and have to learn how to do their jobs once they get hired. Meanwhile, many people who did not finish college are gifted in other areas and make a wonderful life for themselves as artists, entrepreneurs, technicians, writers, and other skill-based professions.

I gave up and sent it, still frustrated.

But I do feel a little better after talking to Leah, and receiving this response from the teacher:

Dear Diana,
Your long and elaborate answer really really amazes me. You thought a lot and made such an elaborate letter.

I appreciate you so much and promise to use it only for educational purposes. What makes me inspired is your professionalism and enthusiasm. Thank you again. I will read it in detail and ask you questions if any. Whatever you might say, I come to think you pursue perfection!


Perhaps, even with my problems, complaints, and frustrations with being an outsider and having been hired in name only to be a "teacher," this school is worth demonstrating some patience. At least I am valued as a human being, despite my foreign-ness.

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