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!).

Friday, September 11, 2009

Pride!

It's arrived at my parents' house, officially.

I now have a Master of Arts in Writing from Northeastern University.

I spent three summers attending graduate seminars on writing and pedagogical theory on Martha's Vineyard with an extraordinary collection of professors from universities all over the country and other brilliant teacher-students who have become life-long friends (yeah, I'm talking to those of you guys who read this blog!). I spent many hours working on papers, reading and researching about writing and writing theory--especially that connected with teaching.

In my first three years of teaching at Roosevelt, I grew a lot as a person and a teacher. I've grown even more in Korea. But I know that I wouldn't have grown as much without the opportunity to engage in the reflection and writing that I did through this graduate program. It's been quite a trip, and even served as some of the initial inspiration for the starting of this blog.

From the first course I took with Professor Susan Wall where I discovered my "teaching self":

Writing is such a complex and often contradictory activity. There are rules, but most great writers break those rules; there are genres, but rarely does writing of genius confine itself to a prescribed form without ingenuity. I discovered I could teach conventions and forms, but as much as I encouraged students, they were often afraid to take the risks that they needed to take to become great writers. I realized that part of my task as a writing teacher would have to be to create an environment in which students were encouraged and rewarded for successful risks.

This was a terrifying discovery as a new teacher, because the natural extension was that I would have to start taking risks as a teacher.

--excerpt from "First Draft: A New(ish) Writing Teacher Examines Her Beliefs," final paper for Current Approaches to Teaching Writing

To my final research thesis (a teacher-research study about balancing the demands of a high-pressure test--the AP Language and Composition--with the goals of providing students with writing workshop style instruction), under the direction of Professor Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater, finished up here in South Korea this May:

As I said in the introduction of this paper, I have relocated to South Korea, where I continue to teach students in a test-based, highly competitive educational environment. However, I am fundamentally changed by my experiences as a teacher-researcher. I take risks in teaching more confidently than I did before beginning this project; even in a foreign land where I don’t always understand the language and the culture. I try to do what the best thing for my students is, rather than the best thing for the administrators, parents, political groups, or test-makers, but I also recognize a need for balance. I can’t be everything for these students, even for their writing and language development, or they will be too dependent on me, and I will make myself sick again.

What’s more, I see the need for cultural/anthropological research methods in all aspects of my life. Certainly the practice of carefully assessing all aspects of a situation, being open and honest about multiple interpretations of a single event, and learning from your mistakes have served me well in understanding Korea. Towards the end of the research year, I began a blog that I often use as a way to systematize my cultural/life observations and personal research. It was inspired in large part by the journaling I began with my research project. It has kept me honest with myself.

Finally, in the writing of this paper, I am reminded even further of the gratitude I feel for the amazing people I have had the opportunity to teach and to learn from. My students are teachers, just as much as my professors have been (and having had some really spectacular professors, that’s saying quite a lot). This job is special, but not because we’re miracle workers or martyrs. Teaching affords us a unique and direct view of the human spirit in progress and the human mind at work; one cannot but wonder at humanity’s capabilities. I hope I will always be able to appreciate that.

--excerpt from "Better than Good Enough: One AP Language and Composition teacher uses Writing Workshop techniques to develop her curriculum within the confines of a standardized testing environment," final graduate thesis

And the classes on subjects as varied as Children's Literature and Memoir Writing in between, I will always cherish these moments for reflection on the act of writing and teaching writing. Life often gets in the way of leisure time for intellectual development; I know that unless I choose to return for a Ph.D. or MFA in Creative Writing, it is unlikely I will get this kind of intellectual luxury again in such intense doses.

(But of course I spent all day researching Ph.D. programs in Australia and England... I'm so "special").

Anyhow... I'm both relieved and sad to dry the ink on this chapter in my life. I will miss it, but now I can choose my intellectual pursuits without regard to term papers and course requirements. Today, however, for the first time in awhile, I feel proud of myself and my accomplishment.

And that's a fine feeling.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dear Rice Cooker,

Oh how I love thee!

You are so cute and pink and cook rice perfectly in about 20 minutes, the time it takes me to prepare a veggie stir fry or soup or whatever else I care to make.

I can easily combine brown and white rice so that my rice is slightly healthier than the average Korean white super-glutinous stuff.

You keep the rice stored nicely for a couple days--it doesn't dry out and I can use you to re-heat it when I want the leftovers.

How did I live without you, my darling?

Shh... don't tell Min Gi about our affair. I'm not sure he'd understand.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Korean Toilets 101

I don't much care to discuss bathroom issues, but after two years in this country, I finally have built up the nerve to address one of the most shockingly different things in Korea: public bathrooms. Bathrooms in the home are a whole other cup of tea--featuring shower heads with no shower area and drains in the floor and sometimes, the laundry machine in there with you.

Shock Number One: No Toilet Paper

Many Korean public bathrooms do not keep toilet paper in individual stalls. Carry some with you when travelling in an unfamiliar area (they sell these nice little Kleenex packs at convenience stores that work well for this purpose). Many of the bathrooms in downtown Daegu have toilet paper next to the sinks that you can carry into the stall with you.

Shock Number Two: Throwing Used Tissue in an Open Trash Can Next to the Toilet.

Ew. Extremely common. Highly unsanitary--especially with fecal and menstrual matter. Ew. I think most Koreans flush it at home these days, but the public restrooms are still wipe & toss, no flushing. Many establishments even have signs asking you not to flush the paper. I generally ignore these.

Shock Number Three: No Soap (or a communal bar/handle of soap)

Sadly, this is not a hand-washing culture. People brush their teeth 20 times a day and wash their feet before bed and wear dust masks on their faces in public, but they can't be bothered to wash their hands after using the toilet. This is another ew for me. William taught me early on to carry a small piece of soap in my bag. Another option is that hand sanitizer is now becoming widely available (the ONE good thing about the swine flu outbreak).

Shock Number Four: Squatters

This is the biggest shock for most Westerners, but I had done my research before coming to Korea, so I knew to expect it. Many public stalls in Korea have half or more squat-style toilets (If the first door you open is one and you want a bowl, keep searching the other stalls). They're basically porcelain holes in the ground with a little "splash guard" at the front. You can use them for #1 or #2, but they require flexibility and thigh strength. A couple tips for beginners: 1) Line up the fronts of your toes with the "splash guard" for proper positioning. You'll feel too far forward at first, but trust me, you want your poo going IN the squatter, not behind it. 2) Plan how you will stand up BEFORE you go all the way down--check for toilet paper, relatively clean hand grips to pull yourself up, and the location of all important items. 3) Watch pant legs as you aim.

Honestly, once you get used to them, they're pretty easy to use. I certainly don't PREFER them, but I no longer freak out because that's all that's available. Plus they help build leg muscle.

Shock Number Four: Singing and Other Fancy Toilet Seats.

Some toilet seats have a lot of super-fancy buttons. They heat the seat for you or auto wash or some other such things. It's very odd to see "luxury" in this item, especially when still a good 50% of public toilets outside the city are squatters.

Shock Number Five: Toilet Seats that Don't Fit on the Bowl.

One of my favorite downtown wine bars has a SQUARE seat with a very ROUND toilet. I've seen too small seats, too large seats, and seats where when you pee sitting up (instead of bent forward) your pee leaks out the front of the bowl (seriously... ew). It's pretty special.

Shock Number Six: Korean Men Pee at Urinals With the Door Wide Open.

Perhaps they are drunk? Perhaps they just don't care? I've seen waaaaaay too many men I don't know pee. (This is not even counting the ones I've seen peeing on the street.) I don't like to watch you pee. Could you just close the door, please??? (Sadly, my lovely future husband is no exception to this, though I'm trying to help him fix this problem... at least in public stalls...)

Shock Number Seven: Korean Women Smoke in Bathrooms.

There is still a heavy stigma associated with the wrong kind of girl if she smokes in Korea. So all the ladies addicted to nicotine, but wanting to still appear "pure," will stink up the restroom with their putrid habit. It's annoying. This is especially true in bars.

Of course, the cleanliness of bathrooms varies quite a bit, as it does in the U.S. The most disgusting bathroom I've used in the last six months was in a gift shop in Virginia, so while I've heard Westerners complain about this in Korea, I'm not so sure it's that much different. I will say that, in general, coffee shops have really nice bathrooms and traditional Korean drinking places (like hofs and sul-jips, and beer houses) have the worst I've seen here besides one bus station in the country.

Well... I think that's enough about that. I hope those of you unversed in the ways of the Korean public restroom have learned something. I now return you to your regularly scheduled program.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Swing Dance Updates and MT

Notice the different greens of the trees--beautiful.


This weekend I went on another "MT" with my swing dance club--out to Yeongcheon. It was a blast! I was the only foreigner there, but I wasn't treated as "the token foreigner" because I know all the folks who went well (except the new beginner class who I started to get to know) and they are my friends. It's nice to be a little accepted. Check out the album for pictures.

Yeongcheon Swing and People MT


Just before I left for America, our swing club elected a new president (happily for busy, wedding-planning me). Nan-ta, the new president, is an enthusiastic dancer and great at making everyone feel comfortable. I feel a little proud that in the last year our club has grown so much, with so many new regular members (although I was not able to maintain Ben's penchant for drawing in a large foreign crowd). I know most of the work for the club has been done by Min Gi and Gong Bi, but I did try my best to be a good ambassador for the club by travelling to some other swing events in Korea and improving my skills.

Nan-ta inspires us with confidence about his leadership abilities.


After serving as president for one year of a club in a foreign country (run in that country's language), I can say that the feeling of acceptance I felt at Swing and People has only increased since I last blogged about it. How lucky I am. Most people who move to Korea for a few years to teach find that they are unable to form more than superficial relationships with a few Koreans, and even then usually only English-speaking ones. Korea is not the easiest society to "break into" from a foreign perspective, and while Koreans are all too excited to bring you to Korean festivals and show you "culture," they're a bit hesitant to bring you into their lives in a meaningful way. Through dancing, I've found not only a new passion that will probably be with me throughout my life, but also friendships with fun, interesting people.

Jina, a friend for life.


And so, Min Gi (who feels the same way I do about the awesome folks of Swing and People) and I have decided that we will have our wedding next year at the swing dance club, in the presence of our friends and lots of great music and dancing fun. It really is the perfect choice for us, though not traditional for America or Korea. We've been going through the annoying, meticulous, detail-planning aspect, generally with a light-hearted attitude. It helps me a lot that he wants to take care of so many little things. Call me unfeminine, but I just don't care about stuff like decorations, invitations, and etiquette--not to even mention color themes, paper weight, and linens (none of which we're bothering with). I've written my opinions on weddings before in this blog. While this is a compromise from the beach surprise wedding I wanted, it's something I think I'll still have fun doing, and hopefully, so will our guests. (P.S. If you want an invite, e-mail me your address and I'll hope to see you there, on January 9)

I also uploaded a video of me dancing with Malddugi, a swing dancer from Busan who visited last night to tell us that he is also getting hitched--in November! I'm excited.



There's not much lindy (unfortunately) 'cause the song is fast, but you can get a sense of how I'm doing after about a year and half of learning to boogey. Also, I uploaded another video dancing with Juno, but Min Gi is not so good a cameraman, so while you can find it through my youtube account, I'm not going to advertise it here.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

New Apartment!!!

Ok, so I mentioned last week that I have moved into the future love-nest of Min Gi and I (he's moving in more slowly--for example, his car, computer, and some of his decorations live here, but not his clothes yet; he wants to ease his mom off of having to do his laundry). It's a two-bedroom apartment near my school. Ok, actually it's just across the road from my school, like about one minute from my front door to my office. This has distinct advantages in terms of convenience, but if you recall that TFLHS is a boarding school, this does lead to some awkward moments coming back from my early yoga class and whatnot.

Anyhow, I love this apartment. I love the layout and the landlord and the size and everything! Inspired by Danielle, I have decided to give you a video tour. I have learned I'm not cut out for video blogging, but whatever. Enjoy:

Something that helped my UC

After the last two months of travel and coping with this icky thing, I've discovered one thing that DEFINITELY helps with the energy issues--a daily multivitamin.

I don't know why this helps so much, when I eat a pretty balanced diet (lots of fruits and veggies), but my fatigue is pretty much gone when I remember to do it every day. If I don't, within three days it's back to an on-again, off-again routine with feeling weak and exhausted. Perhaps there have been some mild absorption issues that the extra "boost" from the pill is resolving. At any rate, I seem to be able to function at my usual high-energy level on 7ish hours of sleep again. Yay!

Armed with this new insight, I've resumed the taekwondo--happily and with few problems--four days per week (Tuesday nights my evening class prevents me from attending a class at a good time, so I decided that's my "rest day"). I'm going mostly at 6:30 now instead of 9:20. Even though it's harder to connect with the elementary kids than it was with the middle and high schoolers I trained with before, it seems to be ok. And one of the instructors has decided to give me private instruction on the nights when the kids are doing little kid things, like playing soccer or eating chicken instead of practicing. I've been sore from using long-neglected muscles, but I'm really happy.

I also have resumed MWF yoga in the mornings. The class has really filled up! When I was doing it in June, there were about 15-18 people, now there's pretty close to 25, which is almost too many for the aerobics studio. I'm still the only foreigner, so I still feel like a giant when looking in the mirror at all the petite, yoga-loving ajummas!

I'm still readjusting my diet, finding out what works and what doesn't. Something I ate in America gave me food poisoning and I seem to have been out of UC remission since then (very unfortunate), but I'm so glad I've found something to fight the fatigue. Seriously, the fatigue has been the worst part of this so far--even worse than the painful bowel movements and frequent urges. I hadn't even realized how much happier I am in my life when I'm active (I consider myself a relatively inactive person by nature), but seriously I have been missing all that kicking, stretching, hiking, and dancing I'd been doing up until about four months ago when, you'll pardon the aptness of this expression in regards to my particular disease, the shit hit the fan.

My return to TKD!

I posted on my other blog about my return to TKD. Since what's been preventing me is related to my disease issues, I thought it would be more appropriate over there. You can read about it here.

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