Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 Kinda Sucked... 2010 Is Looking Up.

Mostly due to health issues, I only half accomplished my goals for this year. I did get my Master's. I do eat healthier. I would be out of consumer debt if I wasn't getting married, hadn't already paid for the honeymoon tickets, and hadn't had to visit the hospital in October. However, I'm much closer to being debt-free than I was last year, even with those expenses. The other goals have had progress made, some more, some less.

This year, I have a lot on my plate, so I'm keeping it pretty simple.

1. Obtain proper visa so that Min Gi and I can move back to America in August/September.
2. Get a decent job in America.
3. Be consumer debt free and pay off the smallest of the three school loans (with the highest interest rate).
4. Health stuff: a) Get my strength back by training 3-6 days/week b) Get the second degree belt in taekwondo after returning to training full time in March c) Eat out 3 or fewer times per week (including ordering in) because I eat more vegetables and healthier food when I cook.
5. Raise at least $7,500 for the Kenyan NGO where Min Gi and I would like to volunteer in summer 2011.
6. Have an awesome first year of marriage (starting January 9)!


I have some other things I'd like to accomplish in my Korean language studies, dance, and my writing, but I think these are the best goals for me at this time.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas in Busan.

I titled this blog "Going Places," but lately it seems I haven't really gone anywhere--well physically anyhow. I've been feeling a little better each week, so I was finally up for an out-of-town adventure, just in time for Christmas.

Last year, on New Year's, Min Gi and I were planning to go see the sunrise at Haeundae beach in Busan. It's a very popular tradition in Korea to see the sunrise on the beach on the first day of the year. However, I missed out. So he suggested we go for Christmas. I started thinking maybe we could catch the last sight of Santa's sleigh as he left Asia for America (haha).

We woke up early to catch a 2 a.m. train to Haeundae and arrived at 5 a.m., just when all the clubbing folks were heading to the subway after a night of fun. While there weren't many Christmas lights up, there were lots of city night lights up, like this dizzyingly tall sign marking the businesses in one building.

Neon Fun.

The ocean front was cold, but we were very bundled up, so we felt nice at first and were having a great time relaxing on the dark, empty beach, listening to the waves and watching some stars. After about 15 minutes, it felt pretty cold again just sitting there, so we walked up and down from one end of the beach to the other to stay warm. Around 6:40, we settled back in to watch the sun rise.

Colors of the Dawn.

Unfortunately, it was a bit too cloudy on the horizon. We watched the light slowly fill up the sky, but not a proper sunrise. It's been too long since I've watched a sunset or a sunrise... Something I miss.

Goofing around in the early morning.

Finally, we were too cold, so we got up and looked for a restaurant for a yummy Christmas breakfast.

We had mushroom and tofu soup and pajeon. Heaven.


Since we had a few hours before we had to meet my friend Rebecca for a yummy Christmas brunch, we decided to take a nap in a jjimjilbang. Jjimjilbangs are kind of like Korean saunas that have separate male and female bath houses and a joint room where you can sit in the hot rooms or take a nap on the floor. We asked around and found a nice one in Seomyeon (the downtown area of Busan where two subway lines intersect). Only one Korean woman stared at me the whole time I showered, so I call that a victory (usually, as the only foreigner, I'm stared at by at least five naked women while I shower). We caught a very pleasant two hour nap before heading to the pancake brunch.

View from the apartment we visited in Busan.


Some people say that Korean architecture is identical everywhere (and ugly), and so it seems to a certain extent, but I really enjoy visiting other cities because there are subtle differences, such as the way Busan's buildings are worked around the mountains that run through it, or the way Seoul is designed around the Han river and Daegu is all flat in the valley that is surrounded by huge peaks. Although the architecture may not be spectacular, the cunning ways engineers figure out to work with the land to make population density as efficient as possible is impressive. I may prefer to live in a land with more beautiful buildings and more accessible greenspace, but I admire the ingenuity of tetris-like land use in Korea.

Check out the rest of our Christmas beach adventure:

Busan at Dawn on Christmas


We rounded out the evening with a potluck dinner at Ju-ick's house. She made the very special Christmas announcement that she and another Canadian friend of ours, Rick James, are now officially a couple! Yay for Christmas romance.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Fugly.

Our students voted to have uniforms next year. Normally Korean school uniforms (at the high school level) are super-cute three piece suits (skirts for the girls and slacks for the boys). However, our principal seemed to have decided to give students a choice between fugly and fuglier. All the teachers were making jokes about how the young men will look like ajosshis (middle aged Korean men) and the girls were very angry because the uniforms don't include skirts. Check out the "winter" options for yourself.

I'm a little sad for my kids because they so badly wanted something they could wear with pride to let other students know they belonged to one of the top two high schools in the city. Now they'll just look a little preppy. And rather frumpy.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

My body apparently hates me.

After finally recovering from the hell that was my October, I caught some kind of nasty bug on Friday. I thought it was just the 24-hour kind because I was feeling alright the next day and met my friend Jina for lunch as planned, but about an hour into dancing at Asurajang, I started to get a nasty headache and some stomach issues. I took a cab home and put myself to bed.

I woke up the next day after not sleeping well with the nastiest, biggest headache I've ever had in my life. Seriously, blinding white-out type pain from between my eyes around my skull, down the back of my neck and spine.

But Korean pharmacies do not open on Sundays until 12. Min Gi, bless him, tried to find pain meds at 10 am, but was unsuccessful. He went back out at 12:30 with the instructions not to bother returning if he couldn't find me some damned ibuprofen.

He was successful. Thirty minutes and 800mg later, I was back to being just a little achy, and I was finally able to think about something other than the pain in my head. It was lovely. However, my plan of making up for being out of commission on Friday failed to happen. I will go to bed early and hope that 2009 ends quickly and that 2010 lets me have my body back to normal--or some semblance of normal.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Korean Hive-Mind.

Perhaps that's extreme. But Koreans have a kind of group-think mentality that is difficult for individualistic Americans to understand. I've blogged about it directly before: once about being accepted by my swing club and another time when showcasing my students' opinions about Korea's core values.

Well, of course, naturally, Koreans also have a difficult time understanding the concepts of "rugged individualism" and "alone time" as positive things. They think if you are alone, then you must be lonely.

Recently, fellow blogger Liz of I'm no Picasso, encountered this culture clash in a very direct way and tries to make sense of it in her latest post. She has been planning a lovely solo trip to Vietnam (highly recommended, btw) when her co-teacher decided to join her. Although she remains torn over what to do about the situation because she likes her co-teacher, but that streak of independence is what kicked in at first:

When it first happened, I was infuriated. Who does something like that? I've been looking forward to this vacation for an age, with visions of me playing Thomas Fowler in a gorgeous hotel room overlooking a main road, waking a little late in the mornings and drinking strong Vietnamese coffee at a table outside on my imaginary hotel's imaginary veranda overlooking an imaginary busy, scenic Vietnamese street. I would then spend the day wandering around and taking in the various cities, not bothering with anything too touristy or pressurized, basically just trying to soak up the place in whatever way struck my fancy that day. Time alone. To unwind and decompress from the continuing uphill pace of life in the ROK.

Now I've got a middle-aged Korean tagalong. What in the hell am I going to do with her?

And, more importantly.... I.... it's vacation, okay? Who doesn't look forward to the potential, while traveling abroad, of meeting a cute little local and having a bit of what-happens-in-_____-stays-in-_____ fun? Or just meeting new people in general? Which is a lot harder to do when you have a travel companion.


Later she reflects on her difficulties adapting to this culture:

I hope it stops after this, though. I get a little tired sometimes, in Korea, of the group mentality. It's the one thing that's really hard for me to cope with about Korean culture. I like doing things alone, and I like doing things my own way, and I don't always want other people jumping in. Sometimes I don't want a ride to _____, because I had my own plans about how I was going to get to ____, and a whole schedule worked out for the day I was going to _____. Sometimes I don't want someone to join me going to that museum, or that temple, or that store, or that movie. I just want to go and enjoy it on my own, without the stress of it becoming a social situation. I don't need help with everything and I don't always need (or want) company. Just because I mention my plans to do something doesn't mean that you're invited.

Does that sound really bitchy? Well. Whatever. I'm trying my best to adjust. But some things about me are not American or Western -- they're just me. And they're not likely to ever change. That doesn't mean I'm wrong.


I love Liz's style of writing, btw--so full of voice and character, even while exploring some very complex cultural issues in an honest, personal, raw way. However, I have to disagree a little with her last statement. The ability to even conceive of yourself as separate from your culture or any other group, to make bold claims like these qualities are "just me" is a distinctly Western and American approach. Not that she's wrong at all--just that this kind of thinking is more culturally based than we realize.

Anyhow, I've struggled with all this myself and so I commented to her about my own frustrations:

I had a really hard time at first planning the wedding because I had NO control over the guest list. In Korea, if you mention an event, it means the person is invited. Foreigners often take YEARS to realize this, so they wonder (I've wondered) why they're not invited to the company dinner, yet asked why they didn't attend the next day. Why a casual mention of your weekend plans suddenly means your co-teacher is taking you out to the family farm for Chuseok.


I've finally learned, after much trial and even more error, that if a party is talked about around you, you're invited to it and that co-workers find it completely acceptable to invite themselves into your plans (especially if you'll be alone--who would WANT to be alone? they think) if you mention them at work. There was also a very interesting (not at all sarcastic this time) thread when Liz posed her problem on Dave's ESL Cafe. I highly recommend that you read it!

(Many thanks to Liz for sharing her experience and--hopefully--not minding my re-bloggering of it. Yes, bloggering is totally a word.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

In less than a month...

...I'll be married! WIth that, my family's impending visit, and the closing of the school year (and all the winter camp scheduling madness), my to-do list is completely insane.

The good news? Today, having been off the prednisone for a few days, my doctor declared me officially in remission and wished me a happy wedding (he's been invited and may attend) and my next appointment is not for a whole month--woohoo!

I'm starting to feel back to my normal self energy-wise (although it's still disappointing to have lost so much of my athletic abilities and strength) and my face is a little less circular (although the depression and prednisone food cravings have caused a very minor weight gain, but I'm kicking that down as quick as I can; may not be the goal weight for the wedding, but certainly will be for the honeymoon... yay for beaches in Cambodia and Thailand!).

And now to bed so that I can get everything done!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Like being in jail.

This weekend I'll be once again locked away for three days writing/proofreading/recording the entrance exam for my school. This is to prevent me making mucho dinero by selling it to potential test takers or hagwons (this happened a few years ago, which is why the rest of us must suffer no internet/cell phones for three days).

Last year it was three full days of the white foreigner's plight--to be constantly watched and commented on, but not interacted with; to be both never alone and yet very lonely and isolated. I can take this treatment for about 8 hours before shutting down completely...

This year, there are more people who will be with us than just our school's English teachers, so I anticipate this situation to be even more exaggerated. And while last year's vice principal was accommodating of my vegetarianism and very well organized, I don't know how the current VP will manage the weekend.

I'm hoping it will be ok.

Tell you in three days.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Monday, December 7, 2009

Winter/Hiking/Recovery

Winter in Daegu is cold. Usually bitter cold with wind making it feel colder. However, winter is also sunny and bright, with clear blue skies and lots of sunshine. Often, when I look out the window (if the room I am in is adequately heated), I forget that it is winter and bitter cold and that the sun sets at the ungodly early hour of 5 pm and doesn't rise again until a bit after 7 the next morning, and I want to go hiking.

I love hiking. Min Gi and I went hiking on our first date and have been hiking on many mountains in the area since then. I had a plan to hike two of the biggest mountains in South Korea before I left, but alas, my health problems have made hiking pretty much impossible for the last few months. It has been hurting our relationship a little, although thankfully we've learned through this illness that we're a pretty strong unit.

Last night, I had a dream that we went hiking. We were the only two people on the mountain. When we got to the top, it was a glorious, deep sky blue, not a cloud in sight, and we could see spreading green below us for miles and miles. I woke up sad--mourning for my lost ability to go more than 50 meters uphill without breathing heavily, for that feeling of peace at the top of a mountain (I wonder if there is a word in Korean for that feeling... I know there's one for the color--푸르디푸른)

Recovering from an illness is daunting. I remember being healthy, but being so obsessed with the 10kgs I wanted to lose that I never appreciated it. My body used to be so strong. And strength is beautiful. The last few weeks have been hard not only because I can't exercise as I want, but because when I look in the mirror, for the first time since high school, I truly hate what I see reflected back at me.

Alas, this is my last week on the prednisone. My moon face is "waning." I have been able to exercise and dance the last few weeks. I just have to stop being depressed that I can't instantly do all the stuff I used to do. I have to accept that it will take time to be able to kick that high, run that far, and climb that mountain, again.

Patience, when the day is this short and the air this cold, is hard.

I hate winter.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Pre-wedding discussions.

"How many kids do you want to have?"

He thinks about this a minute. "Well... I don't know if my brother will have kids, so we should have more than two."

"What does that have to do with us?"

"It is family!"

"Um... so you're going to be a stay-at-home dad and raise our hundreds of children we must have to carry on the family name?"

He thinks about this. "But I want to work."

"So do I." Commence silly staring contest, both of us struggle not to laugh. I win.

"Ok. Maybe I will stay home. Will you still cook?"

"Sure."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Korean "Core Values"

I've blogged about my American Culture co-teaching class this year multiple times. It's been a big challenge for me, since I'm not really trained as a social studies teacher, but also the class I've learned the most from teaching this year.

In class, we've been using a textbook, American Ways: An Introduction to American Culture by Maryanne Kearny Datesman, JoAnn Crandall, and Edward N. Kearny, that asserts three basic "core values" that traditionally all Americans share and value and three consequences of those values that also have become essential defining characteristics of American culture. Although not all-encompassing, I believe that they are a fair assessment of traditional American ideology.

The values are individual freedom, equality of opportunity, and the pursuit of material wealth (I would probably call this "prosperity," as the American Dream is not exclusively about materialism, but whatever) and the three American traits that stem from these values are self-reliance, competition, and hard work, respectively. Say what you will and feel free to disagree, but most Americans (myself included) hold most of these values near and dear--especially individual freedom and self-reliance.

Throughout the year we have studied how these values help us understand the features of American culture, such as religion, family, education, and diversity. It's been a nice framework for the students because it was a way to connect each individual unit together (something not commonly done in Korean courses where students tend to memorize for a test and then promptly forget everything they've learned). Sometimes we've had to introduce new values (such as "can-do" optimism and inventiveness), but generally they were either not as essential to the American character or they were not really as universal for Americans.

The last chapter in the text deals with the future of these values (which have, of course, changed slightly from how they were originally conceived) and modern challenges to America (such as health care and illegal immigrants). Reflecting on the idea that one of the main reasons to study another culture is to learn about our own, I asked the students this week to come up with Korea's "Core Values."

I was impressed. These kids have moved from thinking about Korean culture in terms of "kimchi" and "hangeul" at the beginning of the year, to being able to express and reasonably explain in a very thoughtful, critical way the main precepts that create the Korean identity. This week, I've learned a lot about Korean culture from these bright budding young sociologists and anthropologists--some things I already knew, but hadn't really found a clear way to express. For example, this post from a little over a year ago sums up a lot of my thoughts along these lines.

So, from the mouths of babes, here are some of the core values they identified, along with my attempt to re-create their explanation of it:

1. Confucianism/Neo-Confucianism -- The influence of Confucian values, such as respecting elders (they often called this a separate value of "Politeness" or "Courtesy," defining relationships (and the obligations within that relationship) clearly and hierarchically, and the prizing of scholarship as a mark of success were all cited by students as part of Korean values from the Joseon dynasty and could be a problem in the 21st century as the population ages (due to a low birth rate).

2. Sense of Community/Jeong (정, hanja: 情)/Cooperation -- This concept, students explained, comes from Korea's agricultural roots where the community would share their land to grow food and divide food according to the needs of the families in the community. In modern times, students pointed out that this leads to Korean people actively seeking group relationships and maintaining these networks with great care and that, if taken too far, sometimes creates the pervasive regionalism in politics and tendency for companies to only ever hire graduates of one or two universities. (Although many students were quick to point out that South Korea is NOT Communist, I do think that perhaps the existence of this concept in both Koreas' histories probably provided some fertile ground for Marxist ideals back in the 40s and 50s.)

3. Patriotism/Korean National Identity -- This is one of the more modern values they identified, although many students also connected it back to Confucianism. Like #2 where Koreans value group identity, they see the nation of Korea (well, South Korea... and sometimes if the political rhetoric suits the occasion, unified Korea) as one big group. Therefore, the successes and failures of each Korean personally affects Koreans more than it might other nationalities. This value was blamed for the homogeneity and racism that sometimes manifest here, but also cited as inspiring the unparalleled national and economic development of South Korea over the last 60 years.

Other contenders for a "core value" were: Education Fever/Eagerness (one student argued that this might come from a false belief that education means equal opportunity), The Faster the Better (빨리 빨리)/Convenience, Diligence/Hard Work, Conservatism/Traditions/Love for "Original" Things, and Family/Child-centered.

Not the work of a Ph.D. scholar, but not bad for high school kids in a 20 minute discussion group.

In strangely related news, the Korean expat blogosphere (yes, this is a thing that actually exists... like some grotesque hybrid between real blogging and the insanity that is Korean internet culture, which I briefly discussed in this post), has been a-twitter with the proposal by one politician to require a Korean culture class for foreign teachers issued an E-2 visa. If you are curious about the issue and subsequent "netizen" attempts to blow this issue out of all proportion, I recommend Brian's entry about the subject.

Perhaps we should enlist my students to write the curriculum.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Small Victories.

Well, it's the end of November. Just one month left in 2009.

I returned to TKD this evening after more than two months away. My leg hurts a lot, but it's nice to be able to work out again, even if it's still less than what I was able to do before. I hope to recover by resting well tonight and then going back again tomorrow.

I plan to continue the MWF yoga (although I skipped it this morning because of a monster headache).

The wedding plans are coming together. It's pretty exciting. I'm looking forward to seeing my family and showing them this place that's been my home for the last two and half years. I know they'll love it, though perhaps not as much as I do.

Wow, the leg really hurts. Time to heat it.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Cooking for my In-Laws.

Dried shiitake mushrooms (표고버섯) with green pepper, onion, and sesame seeds. The unplanned banchan.

Today, Min Gi and I invited his mom, brother, and sister-in-law over to our place for lunch. As I said earlier, I love cooking for Min Gi, but cooking for your future Korean mother-in-law is a daunting task. Especially since this was just our second time meeting.

Jeanny posted earlier this week about the differences between Koreans' and Americans' approach to food, and I agree with her general assessment that Koreans just have this worship of food that Americans are lacking, possibly due to our love of convenience and speed. So, I am at a disadvantage here, being non-Korean, growing up with (very busy) American parents who always made sure we were fed, but didn't really make that much from scratch (the main exception being my dad's weekend breakfasts, which are heavenly).

I decided I would make a version of tofu-soybean-paste soup (된장국) that I often make that I taught myself my first year living in Korea, rice (of course), a Korean noodle dish using sweet potato noodles called japchae (잡채) which I had never made before nor witnessed being made, and a Korean style green onion fried pancake called pajeon (파전) which I had also never made before, but watched Min Gi make it ages ago. I spent the morning cooking (while Min Gi slept off his hangover--eyes rolling), and still was pretty nervous cooking all Korean food for Koreans, while modifying it to be vegetarian.

Vegetables prepped to become japchae.

I based my own recipe for japchae largely off of this recipe, as it had lots of veggies, and I am pro-vegetable. However, attempting a dish you've never seen made before is tough, so I am much indebted to Jeanny, Amanda, William, and this blogger of "Korean Cuisine" (who also inspired me to use up the last of the broccoli in my fridge and get some shiitake mushrooms to make two dishes of unplanned Korean side dishes--banchan) for their advice and pictures/recipes about making japchae.

Japchae--It turned out pretty yummy, though Min Gi said I should use more gochujang next time because he likes it spicier.

Our guests arrived 30 minutes early (wow! luckily I was nearly finished), so I didn't get a chance to take a picture of the soup or the pajeon (which came out a little underdone, but still yummy and the sauce recipe from this site was pretty tasty) because everyone DEVOURED the food in a short time. They genuinely seemed to enjoy it, and I got many compliments from his brother (Min Soo) and sister-in-law (In-Shil). They had Min Gi help them be able to say "Excellent!" (to clarify In-Shil made hand gestures for "Good, Great, Wonderful, Excellent" with "Excellent" being at the top).

In-Shil and Min Soo: Aren't they cute in the couple-tees I brought them from America?

Min Gi's Mom (who I will call Ohmma in this blog as it is what we call her--the Korean word for "Mom") kept trying to help, but we finally got her to relax and enjoy the meal. She seemed impressed that I'd cooked Korean food at all. After we began eating she launched into a speech to In-Shil and I about how happy and lucky she is to have such nice girls for daughters-in-law. I was moved. As the meal progressed (and I assure you that I also found it quite delicious), I began to feel like I was having the Thanksgiving gathering that I had missed so much on Thursday.

And just like that... Min Gi's family is becoming my family, too.

And we're all a little silly...

Friday, November 27, 2009

Hospital Series: Admission

I've been out about a month now. I no longer have bruises on my hands from the IV sites. I can walk up a flight of stairs again (actually all four at school) without getting winded. However, I want to capture what my 10 days in the hospital were like. I will collect all of these, as an essay, eventually under the title "The Thinking Bed," but as few expat bloggers (thankfully) get the full-on life in a Korean hospital experience, I thought you might like to see some of the early drafts:

"It's your 'thinking bed.'" Min Gi smiles as he rolls the lever to lower the hard metal hospital bed into a position to prepare me for sleep. I can see the worry lines forming under his grey wool cap. They are not natural. They are my fault.

"What do you mean? I'm so tired and so hungry, I can't think." Hungry is the wrong word. I have not eaten food in four days. The white lipid solution hooked permanently into a tender vein on my right hand keeps me from feeling the need for oral nutrition, but the desire for food--the sensual dreams about eggplant and pasta, the urgent need to tear off the head of my roommate's five-year-old granddaughter to steal her pastry, the incredible loneliness of hospital life without even the punctuation of meals to break up the intolerable tedium--it gets to me.

Again, he smiles, and touches my hand. "You'll see. When you feel better, you'll see."

***

I have a condition called ulcerative colitis. It's been manageable since I first got it in May, but October was a stressful month, and the condition has worsened to the point that I'm in what's called a "severe flare," characterized by 10-15 bowel movements a day with the presence of blood and mucous. I also have a fever and constant pain associated with the inflammation in my colon. It is difficult to maintain nutrition and hydration with this condition, and so I am lethargic. The doctor has tried to treat the condition with oral steroids, but it is not working, so I agree to enter the hospital for him to treat me (he wanted to admit me Friday, but I was worried about missing work so I gave the drugs one more weekend to work; they didn't).

I'm terrified. Although Keimyung University's Dongsan Hospital has a wonderful international clinic, I know that I'll probably be the only foreigner admitted to the hospital. That all the things about living in Korea that are difficult--the language barrier, the staring, the outsider-ness--will be worse and I'm so sick that I don't even know if I can communicate in this language I've been studying. And even apart from the expatriate issues, hospitals themselves are cold and institutional. I'll be at the mercy of doctors and nurses, in the way a prisoner might be at the hands of a warden.

I'm also paranoid about my job. I have good relationships there and an official 15 paid sick days in the contract, but I know foreign teachers who have been fired for a lot less than taking a few days of necessary sick leave. Korea has a strange attitude towards health--both prizing it highly and refusing to miss even one day of work to recover. It seems that most people in Korea either take one day off or six months off--nothing in between for illness.

I feel guilt, too. Because I've been sick for two weeks already, I know my job performance has been off its usual game. And when I go into the hospital, William will have to cover everything for me. It's not fair to him--and I'm really angry at myself that there's nothing I can do to help this.

But since I'm already a victim of my own body, I finally judge that my health is too important. One of the vows I will promise to Min Gi in two months with be to "take care of myself and my responsibilities, so that I can take care of you and our family." In the end, it is this promise that I must fulfill. I can't work if I don't get better.

***

Day 1--Monday, October 12

At five a.m., I send a pathetic e-mail to my co-teachers telling them of my situation and asking for a ride to the hospital in the morning. I pack a bag with some fresh underwear, books, a towel and shower shoes, and my laptop (loaded up with TV shows and movies). At nine a.m., I call the international clinic to ask them about my situation. Nurse Kim consults my GI doctor, Professor Kim, who instructs me to be admitted through the ER for testing until a bed becomes available.

Ms. Lim, my amazing co-teacher of American Culture, takes her lunch to drive me to the ER. She is worried. I babble on and on about how scared I am and the disease and how sorry I am that she has to cover my classes alone. She wishes me a speedy recovery and returns to work.

At 10:30, Nurse Kim escorts me to the ER. The ER is mostly empty at this time. There are a few ajumma and ajosshi in hiking clothes helping one another with minor injuries sustained on the mountains that morning. Nurse Kim finds a resident whose English is passable--her name is Yoon Young, though I don't call her this--and explains my situation. Yoon Young quickly and efficiently moves me through a barrage of tests--bloodwork, x-ray, EKG--and hooks me up to an IV to maintain my hydration and tells me not to eat or drink anything else. The nurses in the ER are efficient, but whenever they touch me with a needle, it hurts. A lot. My left hand is so bruised from the blood culture test that it swells up purple. At this point, I'm feeling so low and tired that I don't even care that I can't eat or drink.

Around noon, a translator from the international clinic comes by to explain that, in order to be admitted, I need to have a Korean person sign a responsibility of payment form.

"But I'm going to pay for myself."

"It is hospital policy. Can your fiance or his mom come sign?" His mom???

I call Min Gi and hand her the phone. He has to leave work to come be responsible for me, the stupid foreigner. I'm kind of angry about this (is my word not good enough? I'm a resident here!), but decide to just let it go.

Min Gi takes care of all the paperwork and stops by to see me around 1:30 p.m. I'm on a curtained-off, uncomfortable bed with a painful IV drip in my hand, wishing I could sleep for more than five minutes at a time. I don't really remember what he says or does, but I remember being grateful to him. So grateful. He promises to come by again later.

The nurses start the enemas in the afternoon. Humiliation doesn't begin to cover my afternoon spent getting the nurses to help escort me back and forth to the tiny guest toilet in the ER waiting room and then grimacing in pain for hours on the bed.

A few times I ask about when I'll be admitted. The translator returns to ask about what kind of room I want. A standard room holds 6-8 patients. For many, many reasons (not the least of which is that I need freer access to a toilet nearby considering why I'm being admitted, nor do I wish to be the object of amusement as a foreigner in a room of 50-70 year old Korean women and all their thousands of visitors), I don't want the standard room. The translator discusses the prices of private rooms (between 140,000 and 400,000 won/night--no thanks!) and 2- and 3- bed rooms. I decide it's worth it to pay 70,000 won/night to have only one roommate.

Min Gi disagrees when I call him to discuss it, but I reassure him that even though he signed the papers that afternoon, I have the money from my airfare reimbursement and "severance" bonus from my contract renewal, and that it is worth it to me. It's our wedding budget. Oh well, I guess we just won't get to do anything fun this winter. It's going to be ok. (In the back of my mind: Unless you lose your job because of this.)

In the evening, the ER gets busy. I hear wheezing not 10 inches beyond the curtain next to my head. A woman cries while she vomits on the floor two beds over. I hear her husband call for a nurse to clean it up. People in various states of injury are wheeled in and out.

At around 4:30, I begin to panic that my doctor will leave for the day before he sees me. I'm getting weak from not eating or taking my meds and having so much exiting my body every 20-30 minutes. I call over a nurse who checks my IV. It's not filled up as much as she'd like so she pumps at one of the levers and pain shoots down my veins, paralyzing my arm. I cry out. She gives me a sympathetic, but all-business look and brings over Yoon Young.

She checks my chart. "You will get a sigmoidoscope."

"When?" I manage. My voice sounds weak.

"Soon." She walks away quickly.

About 30 minutes later, an orderly arrives and starts to move my bed through the now-emptied hallways of the hospital. The orderly doesn't say a word to me. Just hands me my IV bags to hold for the trip. I've been in this part so many times for my regular checkups with the GI doctor, but now it looks haunted and menacing as I stare at the ceiling from my gurney. The people who attached the ceiling tiles didn't evenly space the tacks that are holding them in. There are chaotic and random triangles of every different size and angle at each new joint.

I cannot, I will not, I do not want to tell you about the sigmoidoscopy. I have never felt such pain in my life. I was crying and moaning the whole time. Humiliation is the worst part of this disease. Pain is usually second place to that. But honestly, during those 10 minutes, I didn't even care that I was being anally raped by a video camera--I just wanted the pain to stop. I would have done anything, been anything, paid anything for it to end. I felt bad for how awful I must have made that technician feel.

I lay staring at the chaos triangle patterns on the ceiling, defeated.

The orderly took me back to the ER. I saw a man being rushed through the door as the nurses and doctors were performing CPR on him. I knew he was going to die. I didn't care. Min Gi came. I didn't care.

A sobbing boy of about 11 was lying in the next bed over with his parents. He had broken his leg. The doctor began to remove the old dressing and reset it for a new cast. The boy began screaming with pain. His screams echoed inside my ulcerated colon. Every time he wailed, waves of pain radiated through my digestive tract. I couldn't take it anymore. My apathy broke, and I hated this boy. This 11-year-old boy in agonizing pain and his terrified parents. I wanted them to go away. I hated them. I told Min Gi to get me admitted to a bed, NOW.

Pain makes me a mean, petty, hateful person. I don't like it.

Somehow, by 7:30, Min Gi had achieved what I had failed to for the last 9 hours and got someone from the GI department to see me--a young Dr. Park, a tubby, enthusiastic resident whose English was passable, though not as good as Yoon Young's, and who giggled every time he got frustrated trying to explain something to me in English, though patiently persevered until the communication was successful.

Within 20 minutes of my consultation with Dr. Park, I was out of the ER, whisked away to the sixth floor, and changed into the unflattering but comfortable hospital uniform, where a tall, friendly nurse was taking my vitals and explaining the brochure about the rules of the hospital ward to Min Gi.

In the quiet of the semi-private room I now shared with a 60-something pre-op ajumma, my body began to release the child's screams, the probing camera, the proximity to death and illness that was the emergency room. I began to relax.

Suddenly I was hungry. And tired.

Next installment: Room 6012.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

It's hard to be thankful this year...

...when you got diagnosed with an incurable disease.

(I am thankful that my health is recovering).

...when your fiance leaves you alone in a foreign country on a holiday because he's having dinner with co-workers, and you're lonely and sad.

(I am thankful for Min Gi--truly, he's amazing).

...when your family has faced more than their fair share of health crises this year.

(I am thankful my dad is now cancer-free and mom is recovering from both of her September surgeries).

...when you get hit on the head with a plastic gavel by one of your favorite, but highly misguided students who lost his mock-trial case for lack of preparation.

(I am thankful for my job which makes me laugh).

...when the world economy crashes and ruins your plans to get out of debt once and for all.

(I am thankful the Korean economy is recovering and the exchange rate is finally more reasonable).

Yes, guys... it's been a rough year. I remain hopeful that with a marriage in January, awesome honeymoon in February, and a big repatriation adventure for August and beyond, 2010 will leave me with a lot more to be thankful for. Don't get me wrong, I AM grateful for the good things in my life, but darnit... it can be tough sometimes.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What's for dinner?

As I said in my previous post, I'm really enjoying cooking healthy meals for my biggest fan, Min Gi. However, cooking in Korea can be a lot of scouring for ingredients and finding deliciously acceptable substitutions. My creations are usually veggie-heavy and a mix of different cooking techniques and various spices I've accumulated in my kitchen (most are from Costco or the Global Market next to Keimyung University--they have so many Indian ingredients and Southeast Asian stuff--it is AWESOME).

This week, I made my second attempt a Spanish-style lentil stew, loosely based on this recipe. The first had come out a little bitter (perhaps not enough tomatoes and too much vinegar). However, this batch was AWESOME--I wish I'd taken pics, but it was so delicious, we just ate it all.

So what's for dinner tonight?

Vegetable Curry.


I fried up an onion and some mushrooms with garlic and tons of Indian spices (curry powder, coriander, turmeric, cumin, and cinnamon), then boiled it in a small amount of water with some cubed potatoes, carrots, and zucchini. I added broccoli and tomatoes a little later, transferred it back to the fry pan and cooked until the broth was thicker.

The result? Delicious.


Now if only Min Gi will show up to help me eat it! Darn him and working later and farther away than me!!!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Goodbye Single Life...

Min Gi moved the last of his things into my place (our place... I'll work on this, I swear) last night.

Don't get me wrong, he's had most of his stuff here since September and spends about half his nights here, even though the majority of his clothes were at his old place that is much closer to his office job... so it's not like I don't know what it's like to spend a lot of time with him.

It's just that... since we're getting married in a few (less than seven) weeks this means I'll never have my own place again (barring something horrible happening). I'm having some ambivalence about this gaining of a life partner, loss of independence thing.

I'm really excited to be starting our life together, and I love living with a man who does the dishes and cleans the floor as part of his "daily exercise" (I cook and do the laundry--lucky me, the chores I actually enjoy doing!). However, I've lived alone since November 2006 (good lord I loved that first solo apartment) and sharing a place with someone... well, it changes your lifestyle. Dramatically.

For me, it's mostly good things. I go to bed when I say I'm going to bed because I'm actually accountable to keep my word. Ditto for keeping schedules and exercise habits. I don't eat as much junk food because I love cooking for Min Gi (he likes everything I make, even though it doesn't have meat... and again, does the dishes!), and because of that accountability thing (it's harder to sneak off and buy a chocolate bar from the store if someone is asking where you're going as you put on your shoes). And the fact that there's a much greater chance of someone being home to cuddle (etc.) when you need it besides the kitties!

However, some things I miss. Korean news is on every morning now when I come home from AM yoga, which kind of disrupts the peace. Sometimes, I buy things to eat (or plan to eat things I cooked last night for lunch) and when I come home, they're gone. I have to pick up after myself more (it's kind of rude to just let stuff accumulate in corners when other folks live there). He sees me on "ugly days," which I've been having a lot of lately because of the medications (I could just make the effort to not have "ugly days" I suppose, but I don't know if that would be good for my sanity), which I don't like. Min Gi still leaves the toilet seat up about 50% of the time, and (I have no idea how) manages to coat the entire bathroom floor in water every time he uses it. I'm an introvert and my love is an extrovert--good lord he needs to talk--a lot (although, if I must be honest, I love hearing what he has to say at least 95% of the time, which is pretty awesome).

So today, I'm just taking a moment to say goodbye to those single girl, solo-apartment behaviors I've come to love (well, at least be comfortable with) over the last three years (almost to the day--eerie). Will I miss my peace and solitude? Sure. Sometimes.

But what I'm getting in return--cannot be compared. I really am the luckiest girl ever--to have found a man who thinks he's the luckiest boy ever.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Creepy, Sad Coincidences.

Once, in university, I decided to watch the Catch-22 movie (finally, after worshipping the book for years). As I watched it, Joseph Heller died.

This morning, one of our first grade groups had prepared a presentation about Korean models who had made it internationally, including Daul Kim, who happened to commit suicide this morning. (Note that the Metropolitician has a great post up about the bullying that may or may not have contributed to her suicide; I personally have a HUGE problem with the way Korea blames net-bullying exclusively for the suicides of celebrities as it demonstrates their ignorance about how suicide works and the fact that it is often preventable)

Stuff like this creeps me out, even though I know it's completely coincidental.

Debates... and homoerotic amusement.

This week my American Culture students have completed their final projects for second semester--a debate in English on one of four current controversial topics in America: same-sex marriage, affirmative action, standardized education, and health care reform. They've been researching their topics in groups of three or four for a couple months and preparing for the debates. Part of what I HOPED they would learn was the spirit of American discourse--the ability to argue ideas freely and fiercely, but then go back to being friends again later.

Trouble is, Korean students are both too competitive AND too cooperative for assignments like this. They hate working in groups because they think it'll make their individual grade go down (the worst students refuse to participate in the project and just study individually for the test and end up with the same grade as their group members having put in no work--you have to design group projects to work against this tendency), but at the same time, once you get them to work together, they don't want to compete in teams. My co-teacher and I have worked all year to get these kids to value cooperative learning and group projects. So now they do. Great! However, it caused one kind of unexpected problem.

About half of our students worked WITH their opposing team to script the whole debate, including points-of-information (POIs are moments where you interject a question or a point into the other team's assertions to get their response) and counter-arguments. It wasn't bad, it was just... not a debate.

Overall, though, they did a great job. And they were (rightfully) very proud of themselves for this accomplishment. It's not easy to have a debate in your native language, let alone in in a foreign language. Especially in a culture where open conflict is kind of considered rude. I'm very proud of them.

***

In my conversation classes, William and I have been grading our final projects--a powerpoint presentation for the first graders and a mock trial for the second graders. So far, the powerpoint presentations have been ok--great powerpoints, not so great on the presentation skills. The mock trials, however, have been hilarious. The kids are putting students at school on trial for possible school infractions (cheating and bullying) and have made evidence and played witnesses and lawyers as they try to convince their peers of a classmate's guilt or innocence.

The funniest moment was when a young man in the Chinese major class who was playing the roommate of the defendant (accused of cheating) was being cross examined:

Lawyer: Please describe your relationship with the defendant.
Witness: We are roommates.
Lawyer: Are you close?
Witness: Sure. We sleep together. (The whole class starts to chuckle) And we... take a shower together! (Everyone bursts into laughter)

Thing is, I don't think the kid understood what that sounds like. In the dorms, they have locker-room style showers, and he probably meant that they sleep in the same room, but you know... when your language skills are imperfect... it just sounds funny.

Some days, I love my job.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Good News for International Couples

In Korea, anyway. Korea is voting on a new bill that would allow its citizens to possess dual citizenship with other countries after age 22. Current law makes dual-citizen children choose at that age and revokes the citizenship of Koreans who acquire a foreign citizenship and requires foreign nationals who obtain Korean citizenship to renounce their former country within 6 months or two years.

Check out the article from The Korea Times.

So if the bill passes, Min Gi would be allowed to become a U.S. citizen (eventually, if we make it through this whole green card process) without giving up being a Korean citizen AND if we move back to Korea, I could get Korean citizenship without giving up my U.S. status. And our future kids wouldn't have to choose between the two countries. I say this would be a "win" all around.

...and, apparently, mood swings.

I blogged last time about how I'm struggling with the vanity effects of prednisone and moonface (fat gained in the cheeks and neck). I think the psychological effects of this crappy med might be kicking in, as well.

No joke. I walk in to work today, and my boss who sits next to me looks at me, laughs, touches her cheeks (to indicate the enormous size of my own) and says, "These days you look so cute. Like a baby!" Then she laughs some more.

I nearly punched her in the face. See how she likes some "cute" black eyes.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Health Update.

My health is on the mend... and I have been having a lot of ups and downs coping with it.

Downs:

-- Prednisone (the steroid I'm on to tame the flaring beast) side effects are kicking in BIG TIME: (1) I have a really round face now and am rapidly developing a double chin. I've never had a double chin. Even when I was practically obese in high school. I'm disgusted with how fat my face looks (it's gotten worse since the pics I posted from Saturday). My weight is staying relatively steady after it went way up in the hospital and then way down the week after, but my face and even my stomach are gathering more fat than they've ever had before. Ew. I don't look like ME in the mirror, and I'm absolutely terrified I'll still look weird and round and tummy-fat for the wedding in two months. I'm not a terribly vain girl, but I would like to look like myself for my wedding. (2) I cannot stop eating. I'm trying to keep it healthy, but seriously it's this bizarre COMPULSION. Not like when I used to emotionally overeat before, just the need to eat every piece of food in sight, especially salty foods. It's nutty. Exercising seems to help me resist, but that leads us to the next downer:

-- I'm much weaker than I used to be: I've started doing yoga again on MWF mornings, but damn if I can't hold the strength poses that used to be so easy. And Friday when we did five sun series salutations in a row, I was SWEATING a LOT. I can't really jog and walking up stairs winds me a lot faster than it used to. I want my strength back. Even when I was fat, I was STRONG. I miss it so much. I miss being active.

-- Every time I step down the prednisone (weaning myself off it), my UC symptoms ramp up a little bit the next day. It balances back out quickly, but since Wednesdays have been my adjustment days, Thursdays have sucked.

Ups:

-- I'm not flaring anymore: This is key. I'm having normal bowel movements, generally fewer than 4/day (except adjustment days, but even then nothing like before I went into the hospital).

-- I have more energy: I've been experimenting with cooking (not just making something easy) after work, doing chores around the house, and walking around comfortably. This is totally different than 2 weeks ago when I'd come home so exhausted I could barely fix dinner.

-- My strength IS coming back, if slowly. For example, for my walk today on the track near my gym, I did 13 laps in the same time it took me to walk 5 the day after I got out of the hospital, and I even did a few bursts of 30 seconds of jogging. Yoga was easier this week than it was last week. I can walk up the four flights of stairs to my classroom in a reasonable amount of time. I may be frustrated, but I'm making progress. My goal is to be strong enough to resume taekwondo in December.

-- My doctor thinks I'll be off prednisone before the wedding, which means the vanity side effects should be seriously reduced.

-- I'm on a lot fewer meds than I was two weeks ago. Once I'm off the prednisone, it'll just be back to the minor remission maintenance drugs I was on since May, plus one more (probiotics). They have almost no side effects for me (after the first month adjusting) and work really well to keep me from flaring.

So the goods outweigh the bads, but still, some things to worry about. I can't wait until I can hike and kick and dance and look in the mirror and be content. We'll get there...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pictures from Saturday.

I finally had an excuse to wear the green silk dress I had made in Vietnam.

With my pal Gina, who visited me in the hospital and was in an AWESOME Charleston performance.


With my (getting tipsy) future husband.


Courtesy Dung-ee

Sunday, November 8, 2009

I could have danced all night...

... well, not really.

I went OUT last night. It was the seventh anniversary party for Swing and People and my foot was feeling up to walking without the cane, so I got dolled up and headed downtown for THE swing event in Daegu. I will update with pictures when my friend posts them to the club website.

And it was awesome. Just connecting with people again. Made me feel human. I even was able to dance to a few slow/medium pace songs and didn't die. It felt great.

Today my muscles are punishing me a bit for the workout I gave them, but that's ok 'cause I'm stuck grading and planning five million things for work. My foot still seems ok. I can walk, albeit slowly and with a small amount of pain. I will continue the soaking/heating/massage routine over the next week as I (hopefully) regain full function of my limbs. I do, on the plus side, now seem to have pretty good control over my bowels.

Maybe, just maybe, I'll be back to my old, active self by the time my wedding rolls around in two months.

Here's hoping!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Ongoing Medical Drama

Grey's Anatomy ain't got nothing on me. Seriously, my first week back at work, and I went every day, taught all my classes, and even taught the extra three high school gifted classes that I missed while I was in the hospital. Peachy.

However, my body is broken. Some of the effects of the medications I'm on from my hospitalization include extreme muscle fatigue. So towards the beginning of this week, walking was difficult. Apparently so difficult that by Wednesday afternoon, I'd developed a case of tendinitis in my foot so bad, that I couldn't walk.

So Thursday (after confirming at the hospital it wasn't broken and getting some advice from the orthopedic guy) and Friday, I hobbled around school and my neighborhood with the assistance of the prop cane from the student theater festival competition.

That's right... I have a disease that makes it hard to control my bowel movements and now I'm sporting a cane.

Dammit... I'm like 90 years old.

More rest this weekend. Such an exciting life I lead. Perhaps I will one day climb out from under this backlog of work (grading) that missing two weeks of school and then being unable to walk and therefore too exhausted to think will cause, but I have my doubts about that.

Hope your lives are more pleasant.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Quick Note.

Just checking in that I'm alive. I've been working on a post about my hospitalization in Korea (so many interesting things), but as I'm still exhausted and going through crazy medication regimentations while returning to my job (with the natural backlog of work that's accumulated), it's taking a bit of time.

I look forward to blogging again one day. Thanks fellow bloggers for your well-wishes. I miss you all.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Still Sick.

Where have I been?

At home, resting. I am very, very ill. I have not gone out for about three weeks, been to the hospital three times, and missed three days of work. I have been struggling with going to work and adjusting to new medications my doctor is trying, but they're not working. Friday, he wanted to admit me to the hospital, but I freaked out and refused, so he said I could try bedrest this weekend.

My body has fluctuated, and I can tell the rest is helping, but I am still not well. When I woke up again at 3 a.m. today (notice it's 5 now) to spew out more of what resembles the parasitic alien creatures coming out the bottom of Stephen King's Dreamcatcher victims, I realized that I'm not going to just get better on my own. That my doc (who is quite awesome) knows what he's doing, and I have to trust him, even if I'm afraid I'll be like the freakshow in a room with five old Koreans and all their visitors gawking at me and trying to use me for free English lessons.

I sent a very pathetic e-mail to my co-workers and pray they don't hate me. If I'm not typing here, it's because I'm sparing you the gory details of the swamp creature death that expunges itself from my innards 10-15 times a day.

For now, I'm off to pack a small bag for the hospital stay.

Peace.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

I'm boring, but I'm not bored

(Try explaining the above sentence to EFL students.)

My life has become dull and boring these days as I rest up and try to heal. On the plus side, I'm bonding with my kitties and fully caught up on Desperate Housewives. Then, on the downside, I have very little to write about and less energy to do it.

However, I am really excited about some upcoming projects I'm working on for my classes with William. Our last effort turned into the school's first English Theater Festival, which made the school look really good, so we've pretty much been allowed to do whatever we want with our classes since then. Within some limits (mostly placed by my least favorite person at the school, who is unfortunately also the most powerful).

I hope when I get a job in the U.S. next year I enjoy my co-workers as much as I do at this school. I've been pretty lucky in all three teaching jobs I've worked in that I had good people I could count on--both friends and bosses. Not everyone is so lucky.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Anger and Missing Out

Posted to my UC forum:

I write to you from my living room. This is not where I am supposed to be right now. I am supposed to be spending the first Chuseok with my fiance's family. Chuseok is a family holiday in Korea akin to Christmas for Christians or Passover for Jews.

Last night I started having bloody diarrhea every hour. It didn't let up much overnight, and now I'm missing the chance at forming real bonds with my new family because of this STUPID disease. I HATE it. And I won't get to do this next year because we are moving back to the States next summer.

This diease is NOT FAIR! I would curse, but this forum has moderation (and I want it to still be a respectful place).

Can anyone else relate to feeling like they are missing out on their life because of this disease? Some days it's all I can do to go to work and come home. And I have a MILD case--I can only imagine what those of you with more moderate to severe versions are experiencing.

At any rate, my fiance is being very supportive and understanding, but I know he's disappointed (I would be, too). I worry now that something like this will happen on our wedding day or some other time that's just as awful. I don't want to spend the rest of my life worried about what I'm going to miss out on next.

Bad Chuseok.

Today is Chuseok. But I am having a BAD day. You can read about it here, but it's gross.

In other Korea news, Amanda sent me some resources about studying for TOPIK (Test of Proficiency in Korean) and a link to this book, Every Day Live in Korea by D. L. Gifford, available online. It's an account of Korea by a missionary who lived and worked here in the late 1800s. I've started reading it and it's quite fascinating, especially as he got to see Korea before the most recent Japanese occupation (1910-1945) , which in some ways defines many of Korea's modern characteristics.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How I know I'm marrying the right person.

Min Gi doesn't like to plan. He doesn't like to think about tomorrow or the next day, let alone six months or a few years from now. When we were first dating, I would ask him if he wanted to do something on the weekend, and he would say, "Let's just see what happens." I finally broke down and told him that if we don't make plans together, I will make plans with other people or to do other things. He responded, "Well, I don't want to disappoint you if something happens. If I make a promise, I keep it."

I pointed out that if he gets sick or something else comes up that is more important, he can tell me about it and we'll just change our plans, but that if we don't make them, we probably won't see each other often (which is what had been happening for the first couple months). He started making plans with me.

The day I knew that I wanted to marry him (April, 2009):

Min Gi: "Honey, you know how you said you wanted to go to the Boryeong Mud Festival, right? And you said it was two weekends?"

"That's right. In July."

"I think we should go the first weekend because the second weekend is the week before we leave for America. We might want to pack."

I was speechless.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong... It's a good idea... but it's just... that's in July! You're making plans?!?"

"I want to be a plan-guy."

How I know he's the right person for me:

Wedding rings are not a tradition in Korea, but we decided we want them. We've selected a style we like, and I did some comparison shopping.

Me: "Hey look at the deal I found on these rings like the ones we wanted. Just $50!"

"Wow! Are you sure they're real?"

"Yeah, the design we're getting is not that expensive. Jewelry just has huge markups."

"Are you sure you don't mind? Don't women usually want expensive wedding rings?"

"I'm not like that. You know that." [Editor's note: This is one of the ways he knows I'm the right person for him. Haha!]

"Yeah, but I also wanted them to have a special meaning."

"Hon, they have a special meaning because they symbolize our love for each other, our promise."

"Or... we planned to spend more money on them anyhow. Why don't we donate the difference to a charity?"

I'm speechless, again. I then show him the website for Amnesty International and we agree to donate $200 (the money most other websites were charging for a similar design) for each ring when we purchase them.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Korea vs. America: Finances

I've been spending a little time on Dave's ESL Cafe Korean Jobs Discussion Boards, a place full of vitriol and bile from some very pissed off English teachers living (mostly) in Seoul, but also a resource many people contemplating the big move from America (or another English-speaking country) to Korea use to get questions answered by those of us who've been around the block a bit. While I really hate the caliber of discourse on most of the forums (recently comments insisting that Korea is an undeveloped country because it is racist and that white women who are overweight are lazy and make excuses have been getting my goat, so to speak), I do feel indebted to do my service by the "newbies" to Korea as many people helped me by posting their insights about Korea back in 2007 when I was researching the place obsessively.

Someone made a comment about how Korea and America had the same cost-of-living, and I responded rather strongly, but then realized it would probably make a decent blog post.

As a teacher in the U.S. (especially now that I have my master's degree and live in the DC metro area), my salary would be more than $50,000/year (substantially more if I taught extra test-prep classes, which I sometimes did). This is about twice what I earn in Korea (Currently base salary is 2.4 million/month, plus a lot of money from the after school classes I teach and extra duties, like writing essay prompts for district contests or interviewing for high-up positions in the BOE, which at the current exchange rate works out to USD $26,000 with the end-of-year bonus), and while housing being covered in Korea makes up quite a bit of the difference (I pay less than $40/month in rent for my posh new apartment), there are still major ways that Korea's COL beats out America and makes it easier to live a good lifestyle here.

Things that are cheaper:
--Transportation: Public transit is cheap and excellent. Even if you decide to get a car or scooter, gas is more, but insurance and maintenance are WAY less.
--Health insurance: Medical costs here (unless you get cancer, which is not covered by the National Plan) are cheap, cheap, cheap. I have a chronic condition that requires 6 pills a day of one medication, 2 of another, and monthly doc visits with a specialist. My monthly medical costs? About $30--this includes my birth control pills.
--Utilities: Gas is cheap, except sometimes in winter if you blast the floor heating, and electricity is cheap, unless you blast the AC in summer. Cell phone is about the same, but high speed internet is WAY cheaper, as is cable.
--Hobbies and activities: I pay ~$80/month for DAILY tkd, in the US I'd be lucky to find a studio that did three days a week for that price. I pay $5 at my swing dance bar, in the US I usually have to pay $10-$15 for the same thing. Skiing is cheap for skiing (about $70 for rental/lift pass for a day). The only thing I've heard might be a LOT more is golfing, but I don't have that particular vice. Gyms are about the same price.
--Dining out: A decent meal out costs between $7 and $20/person, drinks included, NO TIP. Home delivery is cheap, cheap, too.
--Taxes: Comparing the 3-5% I pay here with the 30% back home? Please...


However, living abroad has taught me that there are a lot of things I thought were "necessities" that are not actually necessary, like bathtubs and clothes driers. When I come back to the U.S., I might not be inclined to pay out the behind for cable services and snazzy internet, when I will have access to those things from the library or my parents' house. I will definitely be living cheaper than I did (and I lived pretty frugally before).

I hope that helps some of you folks thinking about expenses in Korea.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Fun, Sad, Crazy, OK.

Fun

After Korean class on Saturday (yes, I'm doing that again--the cute teacher is the advanced level teacher, score!) and teaching at the girls' shelter, I hopped on a train and went to visit my friend Big White Barbie out in Busan. We had not seen each other in quite some time due to alternating medical issues and incompatible schedules.

I had a fabulous time with her and a friend from her job who has been in Korea for three months. We ate Thai food (not really available in Daegu), put our feet in the sea at Haeundae, and went to a not-horrible bar in a gross area of the city. The plan was to wake up in the morning and be tourists at some cool historical sites around the city.

Sad

However, when we woke up, it was raining. I checked my e-mail to find three voicemails from Dad. This is not typical.

I used BWB's phone to call my dad only to find out that my mom was on her way to emergency surgery at the hospital. NOT GOOD. VERY, VERY SCARY.

When you live far away from your family and there is a crisis of this kind, you feel a kind of terrifying helplessness that makes you question everything. It drains the life right out of you; at least if you were back home, you could feel like you were doing everything that there was to be done, but from thousands of miles away... you're just... lost.

Crazy

And so, while my mom went through two hours of complicated, life-threatening surgery, BWB and I went to McDonald's to eat comfort food. This was a brilliant idea, of course, until crazy dude showed up. He sat at the next table, drinking water (no food), staring at us the whole time we were talking. We did an admirable job ignoring him, but we got up to go refill our drinks downstairs at the counter (and ok, yes, for me to order more emotional void-filling, fatty french fries), he followed us. Really creepy following. And then stood in line behind us.

We were freaking out, so I tried to ask the cashier to ask him to leave (he wasn't a customer). Note to self: Learn the words for "creepy" "follow" "stalking" and how to request that the person please ask said creepy following man to leave in Korean before my next public outing. As soon as I started talking to cashier, the dude actually hid behind a column. The cashier finally understood what we were saying, took one look at the guy (who looked like a creepy stalker), and kind of freaked out. In America if a non-customer was harassing two customers, management would have kicked him the heck out of there. However, of course, being younger than said man, the cashier couldn't say anything to him--thanks Korean culture for that one.

We went back upstairs to finish our meal. Dude follows us a few minutes later. He hovers nearby. Then he goes to the bathroom, and we just bolted for the exit. Seriously, left our tray with uneaten food and drink on the table and just hightailed out of there before the guy could come back out of the bathroom.

Dammit. We were in a restaurant FULL of people, and no one would help us by asking this jerk to leave us alone. WTF? Thing is, we have both been here long enough to know that if we had confronted him directly and yelled at him (as we really wanted to do and would have if we hadn't gotten our out), we would just have been the crazy foreigners assaulting/berating the older man. As it was, one or two girls gave us dirty looks as we ran out for leaving our tray at the table.

OK

We "hid" (or maybe ate some Chocolate Devotion waffle cone) in a Cold Stone Creamery until it was time to call my dad back to check on Mom's surgery. She came out fine. BWB and I watched downloaded TV shows until I finally dragged myself back to the Busan train station (purchasing ANOTHER umbrella in the 7-Eleven) and guilt tripped Min Gi into picking me up from the station in Daegu. I'm home now. Safe. Talked briefly to Mom who is in pain, but awake. I am exhausted beyond physical explanations, and yet unable to sleep. But it's going to be ok. It's going to be ok.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Wow for won!

One of the risks you take when you go abroad is dealing with foreign currency exchanges. About a year ago, the economy tanked and the floor fell out from under us over here in Korea. Within a month, without any actual changes on the part of my employer, my effective salary in US dollars fell to about 2/3 its value compared to when I signed the contract.

Today the won dipped below the 1200won=$1 rate for the first time in 2009. Yay! This is good for me. Earlier this year, when the rate climbed to more than 1500won=$1, I was despondent. Although I wanted to stay in Korea to get married this year, I had to seriously consider going home after my last contract and taking up a job in the U.S. where my salary would be three times what it is here.

When I first got to Korea, the won was 900won=$1--a much better deal for me at that time. Even though my base salary is now 400,000 won more per month than when I first arrived, the exchange rate change makes it worth more than $200 LESS than that original salary PER MONTH--gross.

Fortunately, the won stabilized around 1250won=$1 and appears to be going down even more. I hope this pattern continues, or at least holds, for the remainder of my time in Korea. I'd like to see my student loans pretty much disappear before I go back to crazy consumer-happy America.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Helpful" Advice/ Meeting 고모.

Sangju (상주), a rural town in western Gyeongsangbuk-do.


Last week at work:

"I'm going to Min Gi's hometown, Sangju, this weekend."

"Oh wow! That is so exciting. And important. Who will you meet there?" The teacher who sits next to me, Ms. Suh (who is also my boss), is unnaturally excited for my marriage and asks me questions about it every two days. She has even commented how strange it is for her to be so happy for me, but yet, we continue.

"I'm meeting 고모 [father's sister]."

Ms. Suh gets a very serious look. "Oh my, that is a very important meeting. Is she older or younger than your fiance's father?"

"Older, I think." (I have no idea. I found out later that she is younger than his father would be, were he alive today.)

"Hm... and all of his male relatives [Editor's note: they only count father's side as relatives in Korea] from that generation are dead? Oh, then this is the most important meeting. 고모 is not like 이모 [mother's sister]. 고모 is very important. I hope you are not nervous!" She then proceeds to ask me a hundred questions I don't know the answers to, like if 고모 has any children and if we'll be meeting in her house.

No, I'm not nervous at all, now, Ms. Suh. Thanks.

***

I call Min Gi shortly after this (interrogation) conversation and drill him. He is patient and for all the questions he doesn't know the answer to, he says, "I will call her after I hang up with you and find out." What a darling.

But all the things the teachers at school tell me about Korean weddings and Korean men are starting to get to me.

Mrs. Lim: "Are you going to prepare money and gifts for his family? Most women have to pay a lot of money to their in-laws before getting married, like $3,000. And if you get your in-laws the wrong present, they will 'tease' you about it at every holiday forever. Korean mother-in-laws never let you forget your mistake."

Mrs. Kim: "Oh Korean men are very sweet when they are dating, but after marriage they change. They don't want to do any nice things for you and expect you to do all the cooking and cleaning perfectly for them. Really, you won't know until after you're married."

Mrs. Park: "Your families won't meet until one week before the wedding? Oh, that is very bad luck."

Mrs. Choi: "Korean men all drink too much. My husband is out most nights drinking. He doesn't spend much time with his sons."

AAAAARRRRRGGGGHHHH!!! *head explodes*

So when my dear, sweet, atypical Korean guy walks in the door Sunday morning, ready to take me to meet his 고모, and makes the mistake of commenting on the cat vomit I hadn't yet cleaned (too busy getting ready), I snap and unload all of this manufactured angst onto his unsuspecting head.

Somewhere in the middle of my insane meltdown/freak-out, he sits down on the couch and says, "Hey, come here." After I refuse, he insists.

He puts his arms around me and looks into my eyes, "Why are you listening to those women? They don't know me. They don't know my family. If I tell you that you don't need to give my mom money, then that's it, she doesn't expect it. When I tell you I'm not going to change after we get married, you have to believe me. I believe you. I trust you. You have to listen to me.

"Ok?"

I start to laugh, even though I'm still crying. "How did you get to be so smart?"

"Let's go meet my aunt!"

***

Turns out 고모 is not a frightening matriarch, but rather a kind, worldly woman who, unable to have her own children with her husband, lavishes her motherly love, attention, and wisdom on her nieces and nephews. Over delicious raw fish, we chatted about life, my family, our plans, and she offered us lots of advice about marriage, like not going to bed angry and being forgiving of each other if we make a mistake. She was not intimidated by the fact that I was a foreigner nor was she overly curious about it, merely thoughtful and accepting. I couldn't have imagined a better outcome for our first encounter.

고모 shares the last of the 자두 on her farm.


I think, through her, I can see some of the positive qualities Min Gi has described his father as having, qualities that he also possesses to make others feel at ease and to understand the world and its people in comprehensive and respectful ways. I love her already.

Min Gi and I pose in front of the scenic Nakdong River.


After (a very filling) lunch, she offered to play tour guide for us around Sangju. We went to a temple known for it's ancient wood carvings on the inside of the main temple, Namjeongsa, then to 고모's small farm for fresh Korean plums (자두), and finally to the small walking park near the Nakdong river. One of Min Gi's older cousins drove and the four of us had a lovely time out in the Korean countryside.

The iron Buddha is surrounded by the painted ancient wood carvings at the temple's inner altar.


The weather was perfect and the company was grand. Check out all of the photos in the album:

Sangju--Meeting Min Gi's Relatives

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Pop Stars as Ambassadors/ "Netizen" Powers

Koreans are very, very concerned about their image in the international community. One of the top five questions I get asked here is "What do you think of Korea?" (Along with "Hello! Where are you from?" "Are you married?" "Do you like kimchi/know about Dokdo?" and "How much [for your services]?") If I ever mention a bad experience I had in Korea (such as one of the numerous times I've been asked that last question), my Korean friends immediately, profusely, and sincerely apologize on behalf of their entire country. This concern about national image extends so profoundly that Daegu Metropolitan Office of Education's motto translates to something along the lines of "Aiming for the Upper Levels of the OECD," and they seem to care about those OECD rankings a heck of a lot more than other countries do.

This concern spills over into the domestic entertainment industry. You see, in the U.S., celebrities live separate, strange, and often incomprehensible lives from ordinary folks. No one aspires to be like Michael Jackson or Lady Gaga, even if we love their music. What weird freaks, we think, even as we buy their albums.

However, in Korea, it seems, celebrities are expected to embody the perfect values and ideals of Korea's people. When a celebrity steps out of line, such as when rumors about Jaebum from 2 p.m. posting negative comments about Korea/Koreans on his myspace page more than two years ago, he is harshly criticized and condemned in a public forum of "netizens" (cutely, "internet citizens"). One of my students wrote an essay about Korean figure skater Kim Yuna (pronounced Yuhn-a, not Yoo-na) and used the lack of such intenet condemnation as a strong example of her popularity and role-model status. I tried to explain how this logic doesn't read as a very strong argument in English, but then I learned a whole lot from my co-teacher about Korean celebrity culture.

The Korean belief that "talents" or "idols" (celebrities, largely selected for their good appearance rather than their artistic prowess, who work in multiple arenas of the entertainment industry, such as in a pop group, on television shows, modeling, and as a commercial actor) serve as kind of de facto ambassadors for Korean culture suddenly explains a LOT about their misunderstandings of American culture. For if our celebrities and television shows represent who we are, then the belief that Western women are easy, that American teens party all the time, that the men are somehow more romantic than Korean men, that everyone is rich and wants to live in New York or LA, seems much more logical.

The Korean celebrity/netizen culture is so pervasive and important, that when I ask students and teachers alike about current events in Korea, nine times out of ten, they tell me about Tablo's upcoming nuptials or G-Dragon's trouble over some possible plagiarism, rather than the latest developments in North Korea or the swine flu scare gripping the nation and causing it to cancel all my favorite festivals. Quite frankly, although I enjoy the occasional Korean pop song, I find the whole situation too minutely complex and tedious to bother following. Come on, people (I mean netizens). Get a life.

If Korea really wants to improve its image internationally, they should work on the things that matter to the international community--brokering peace with North Korea, developing new technologies rather than stealing others' work, and fostering relationships with ALL countries, not just the ones it deems "worthy" (i.e. "wealthy"). Stop worrying about whether the Wonder Girls (currently touring the U.S.) look uglier with "American-style" makeup or if Daniel Henney is Korean enough to bring fame to the ROK--no one cares.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Happy Place.

Recently, a member of one of the web forums I browse posed a poll question: Are you happy? I checked "yes" without a moment's hesitation.

Then I began to read responses from other users who quibbled over whether they were "happy" or merely "content" and it dawned on me: I'm HAPPY!

When I was a depressed, somewhat emo-ish-before-"emo"-existed-teen, I used to fill journal after journal with my ridiculous ramblings. Mostly overly sentimental poetry, complaints about stuff, and fluctuating crushes on member of the opposite sex. However, every few pages or so, the words, "I just want to be happy," would appear, underlined or made all caps. I was aching, yearning, starving for the joy that now comes so easily.

Do I have bad days or moments? Sure.

But I'm so full of genuine bliss these days that I can't believe it. Seriously, I wake up singing and dancing. If my sixteen year old self could see me now, she'd be wild with envy.

When I see my students struggling with the same awful, stressful pain that I felt, I want to tell them, assure them in some way, that life will get better. You can be happy. You just have to learn how.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Good Reading.

Books I've gone through recently:

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
Our Town by Thornton Wilder
Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima
Following the Tambourine Man by Janet Mason Ellerby
Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding
Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
One Fifth Avenue by Candace Bushnell
The Memory Keeper's Daugher by Kim Edwards
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

and a selection of books about ulcerative colitis.

Lots of fun. Also discovered Bookmooch, a service where you can mail and request used books from around the world. I like it so far, though none of my requests for books have gone through yet. However, I've gotten rid of quite a few books to loving owners.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Housewarming

Min Gi and I hosted our housewarming party for some good friends on Sunday. We had about 20 people in all, but they came at staggered times and I, exhausted from a day of cooking vegetarian deliciousness (such as hummus and burritos), forgot to bust out my camera until almost the end of the shindig. I missed taking pics of the food when it was first ready, of many of our good friends who came out, and of the apartment's rooftop hangout in the beautiful afternoon sun.

Oh well.

Here are some of the loveliest people in Daegu:

James and Rick James and 복분자

Joey, amused by wife Leah's antics, strikes a pose.

Leah and Ju-ic, the best Aussie ('cause she's from Tasmania, where all the best Aussies live--ha!) and her favorite 언니.

The wildest, funnest, loudest Korean lady I've met (also smart--she owns her own business) and her American boyfriend.

Ji Min, with hubby James behind her at the HUGE buffet table (seriously, I'll be eating leftovers from this thing until the end of next week at least), and Kirsty, another lovely Aussie lady whose Korean hubby was in Paris (the lucky duck!).

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