Thursday, December 30, 2010

Project 30: Cutting housing costs or We're moving!

When making plans to move back to America, my parents very generously offered to let us live with them for as long as needed to get on our feet.  Without that support, moving back to the U.S. at this time would have been possible, but extremely difficult and much more expensive.  However, both of my adult younger siblings still live at home, so space is pinched.  Also, some unforeseen setbacks on the parents' basement renovations meant that the room where we were supposed to stay was not ready.  So for my first month back, I was without my husband, without a job, sleeping on a pull-out sofa in a high-traffic part of my parents' very packed and full home.  Talk about stress:  Looking back, it's a miracle there was no murder!

Luckily, my parents, siblings, and I have all grown up enough in our relationships that we not only survived this period, we actually had some fun.  Min Gi and I considered staying there longer to save up some more funds before moving out even after I got a job.  It might have been worth the temporary stress to be able to be on steadier financial ground.

Then I got a job offer about 60 miles one-way (80 minutes with no traffic around the heavy-traffic DC beltway away).  The decision to move out made by the fact that I was unwilling to endure this commute.  This gave us a week to find a house and move before my job began.  Not much time to find the most economic options.

In my investigation of the area, the difference between a live-able 1 bedroom apartment and a 2-bedroom townhouse was about $200/month.  So we went with the townhouse, although the rent was an uncomfortable 30% of my gross income (I hadn't gotten a paycheck yet...there was the mistake).  I figured we could swing it for a few months on just my salary and then Min Gi would find a job and we'd be fine.  We moved in, set up house, and were happy and optimistic about life.

When the paychecks began to come, the sticker shock for couples medical insurance premiums, teacher union fees, mandatory pension contributions, and taxes was overwhelming.  Furthermore, teacher salary is complicated by the fact that we are 10-month employees.  In my district, we have the option of spreading that to 12-month pay (which I took for my first year until we could put our own plan in place to save), but the way my district balances pay is that they don't take into account that the only deductions that will come out in the summer is taxes--so my pay is disproportionately smaller during the school year.

Although rent at the townhouse was 30% of my gross, it was a completely unacceptable 60% of my take-home.  Then, there were utilities.  Sure, we could survive on that (with no fun budget at all), but I want to pay off my debt, save for growing our family and emergencies, fully fund our retirement, and save for my husband's future business.  We didn't even have the wiggle room in the budget to save up for a plane ticket for Min Gi to visit his family in 2011!  I started to get stressed.  Again.  Stress like this is bad.

Back in November, when we realized this wouldn't work, and that just moving to a smaller apartment wouldn't solve the problem since it wouldn't make a big enough impact on our overall housing costs, we talked and decided we could handle a roommate.  We sent out feelers to our friends in the area if any young person was looking for a room in the area so that we could move them into the extra bedroom and split some costs.  No dice.  We posted an ad on craigslist and got a few responses, but the cats were a dealbreaker for many people.  I started to lose hope of getting relief for this situation.

Then, a friend of mine from theater, Dav (that's like Dave, but without the "e"), who lives in the same city as we do with a married couple in a small house, sent out an e-mail that his roommates had gotten jobs in Kansas and were moving out, but that he didn't want to leave the house and so was looking for new roommates.  Min Gi and I met with him last night to check out the space (and then we all went out to a nice Mexican restaurant to chat) and decided we're going to take it.  Our current lease requires 60 days notice and a fee (which is less than the discount we got on the rent when we initially moved in for being such awesome potential tenants, so it all works out), so we will move in mid-late February.

Financially, this is huge.  Our rent will go from $1325/month to $875/month and Dav's share of the house includes all utilities, including internet and basic cable (which is more than what we have now... we currently use free wireless where we can find it).  This is a savings of almost $600/month for us.  The house is about the same size as our townhouse, but all one floor.  It's a single family house with a small backyard (yes we can garden!) and since Dav's lived there for two years already, there are no huge quirky surprises you sometimes get with a new house.  It's in a better location for living (walking distance to a grocery store and some retail areas), though about two miles further from my work.  Even better--most of the furniture in the house belonged to the departing couple, so Dav needs furniture anyway!

On a personal front, I know Dav well and know he's an easy guy to live with and he knows me (he even reads this blog--hey, Dav!) so he knows our situation well.  It's actually a big win for both of us as he finishes school to try for a promotion and we continue to adjust to life in America.  Min Gi is excited to have someone else to practice English with and go drinking with sometimes.

People who are not us (like my parents and some of my friends) think we are crazy.  It's funny actually.  They think we cannot possibly "sacrifice privacy" as a young couple or live in a small space together, but we know this is the right choice for us.  If you're going to get ahead in America, you really can't play by usual American rules.  We have already eschewed many of the consumerist trappings of shopping as a hobby that is typical here.  Now, it's time for bigger changes.  Dave Ramsey likes to say "Live like no one else so later you can live like no one else," and I think this is what he meant.  It's about making unusual cost-saving, counter-cultural choices in the short term so that you are not forever shackled to debt like typical American consumers.

So... I don't think I'll make much progress on the get out of debt goal in January or February with the early moving penalty fee and truck rental costs.  But I would consider this huge decision to be a first step towards meeting my ambitious financial goal in the Project 30.

It's exciting for us.  As Min Gi said, "Moving to a new place is like an adventure!"  Onward and forward...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Project 30: Getting the husband on board.

Health:
Min Gi cares deeply about my health.  Sometimes we fight about it because I feel like he's being too controlling (this is a man who does push-ups for fun; sometimes anything he says about health comes off as critical).  Telling me how beneficial exercise is when I've had a cold and cough for the last three days is not helpful.  Telling me not to drink diet coke when it's the only thing keeping me from eating donuts is not helpful.  He's learned to back off telling me what to do nets better results.

Some of his health habits also bug me:  social smoking (he has about 4-12 cigarettes a month, usually while drinking with my brother) and rejecting the medical industry whole hog being the two that cause the most ire.

We have come to a friendly agreement.  In the new year, I will quit diet coke and he will quit smoking.  See?  Supportive!

Financial:
Yesterday, I prepared a written budget for January.  Not pretty.  We have an equal amount coming in as going out, which means no wiggle room for paying off debt early or building an emergency fund.  I've been stressed about this for months, and it's turned into my nagging Min Gi to get a job* (any job... so long as it pays) or unilaterally vetoing anything that resembles fun (and then feeling guilty about doing so, and so allowing him to go to NYC to visit his friend, even though we don't really have the money).  This is a bad way to deal with scarcity. I do not recommend it.

After carefully tracking income and outgo for the last three months, I've come to the conclusion that this is NOT a problem of frugality.  Except for the dining out budget (which has been halved then halved again), there's really not much left for us to cut--we don't spend exorbitant amounts of money.  The two main sources for this lack of funds are 1) we are paying too much in rent--one two-week check does not cover it--and 2) we are a one-income family in a typically two-income area (DC suburbs).  I've been needing the pressure valve released on one of these two areas or I'm going to blow!

A strange thing happened, though, when I put it in black and white (which I HAVE done before, but apparently this time it clicked).  Min Gi suddenly was open to the idea of moving in with a friend of mine who has a room in his house coming open soon (and would take our kitties!) because it would save over $500/month in rent/utilities.  He suddenly saw how necessary it was for him to get a job; enough so to overcome his fears about working in a foreign country and feeling less than 100% confident in his language abilities.

I think two things were different this time.

1)  Min Gi has his own goal that requires getting our financial house in order.  He has a timeline of five years and a need for a large amount of investment capital.  He knows we can't do that with my student debt hanging over our heads and no savings.
2)  He's ready to act on it and received the communication differently this time.  Somehow, something I said clicked.  He's all in now.

It's been said before by greater minds than mine, but it bears repeating:  You can't force someone else to change.  After nearly a year of marriage, I can tell you that I've learned a LOT about having a partner, especially one as awesome as Min Gi.  Discussing finances with an equally stubborn, independent-minded spouse was not one lesson that had taken particularly well.  However, our conversation yesterday makes me believe that year two will be the one where we learn how to work as partners in the finance aspect of our marriage.  I can't wait!

*I once received an e-mail at this blog suggesting that by mentioning the fact that my husband has no outside-the-house paid work, I am somehow denigrating him.  Um... not my value system.  I don't assign value to people based on their take home pay (if that weren't obvious to you from my chosen profession being high school teacher).  My husband is amazing.  His contributions to our marriage so far are things I simply could not do--bringing calm and patience into tense situations, keeping the house more clean and orderly than I've ever managed on my own, maintaining friendships with others that I would just let fall aside when I got "busy" and stressed making sure we have fun--something I forget to do a lot, just to name a few.  I wonder if said commenter would think I was "denigrating" my spouse by mentioning their jobless state if the genders were reversed.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Goals Blogging: Project 30 Health and Finance

In 2011, I turn 30.

As I stated in my last post, this is a time for growing up and hunkering down on my responsibilities so that I can live the rest of my life unencumbered with past mistakes and be truly remarkable.  I have two main areas of my past bad decisions that haunt me daily and are restricting the freedom I need to live the life I want: health and financial.

In the last 10 years of adulthood I've made general improvements in these areas and I'd like to acknowledge those now.  Health:  1) losing and maintaining a weight loss of 50 lb, 2) becoming vegetarian (now semi-veg as I eat fish) and learning to cook, 3) generally being more active and sports involved, 4) overcoming very serious and life-threatening mental illnesses.  Financial:  1) became self-educated about basic finance, 2) accumulated over $15K in retirement savings, 3) got out of (after unfortunately getting into) consumer debt, 4) managed not to buy a house (yes that's a win for me since I don't want to live in the same place forever) and avoid other major cultural hedonic pressures in the U.S.

However, 2011 is the year I'd like to devote to shedding the last reminders of my bad decisions before moving forward with my life.  These reminders come in the form of debt (3 student loans totaling an impressively overwhelming figure just north of $33,000) and weight (at my weigh-in yesterday, it was 83.5 kgs, or 184 lbs, which is 9.5kgs or 20lbs above healthy for my height and 19.5 kgs or 43 lbs from my target goal of 64 kgs, 141 lbs).

My plan:

Financial:  My Christmas present to myself was to purchase Dave Ramsey's Total Money Makeover and Financial Peace Revisited.  I have decided that I will follow his program point by point since it agrees with most of my ideas about finances.  What I've lacked before is what Dave calls "gazelle-intensity" to overcome your financial quagmire.  So I will start with baby step one: Save $1000 in an emergency fund and stop using credit cards (Min Gi and stashed them in a drawer--we're not so sold on his plan as to cut them up; maybe when the emergency fund is complete).  I will also need to develop a written household budget with Min Gi and stick to it by using cash only.

I've been tracking my expenses since landing in America and talking to my husband about goals and whatnot.  Is Min Gi 100% on board?  No.  He's great because he's naturally so frugal, but he often abdicates financial responsibility for planning and goals.  He'd rather let life "happen" and work things out along the way.  We want a family and a future, so that's just not going to fly anymore.  However, I need to own the fact that whenever he refuses to participate in our finances, I use it as an excuse to blow money on eating out and other things.  I need to be responsible to me, even if he's not yet fully involved.  And I need to be more patient.  He nearly always gets there (wherever there is I want to be), he just takes a longer time.

Health:  I know how to lose weight and I know what I need to do.  The trouble is, of course, not doing it.  I was doing well last year when I was focused on a few small goals a week.  I think that's what I'll do again this year, but do one a week.  And then keep doing it until it's a habit.  We'll start with the biggest two:  This week I have to start tracking my food in a food journal.  Next week:  Walking for one hour on the treadmill for at least 3 times a week (we'll build up from there).

One of my biggest derailers with both health AND finances is eating out.  It's a great comfort to me in times of stress.  And I am STRESSED.  But honestly?  It's unhealthy and expensive.  I'm going to have to self-veto.  Meaning I cannot propose it or initiate it.  And I can only agree to it with a friend or my husband once a week.  That and giving up soda (I am a diet coke FIEND) are my new year's resolutions.  This final week of 2010, I'm cutting myself a little slack because all of my friends are in town who I haven't seen in four years.

I will blog once a week (and as needed) about my progress.  I might fail at first and make some mistakes.  I'm ok with that.  But I want to resolve these things.  In a small way, they have robbed my 20s of being fully fulfilling.  And I'm mad.  I'm tired of them robbing any more life out of me.  The only reason I might alter these goals during the year is if I get pregnant, and even then, it will only change the order I tackle things (focus on building emergency fund before finishing the debt in financial; and focus on whole-health issues rather than weight loss first in the health area).

I am calling this whole thing Project 30.  In the year I turn 30, I want to lose 30 lbs and drop $30K of debt.  Lofty goals to be sure, but that's the whole point.  Now, let's get on it.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Hiatus

Hi everyone.

Thanks for reading.  My blog is going on hiatus for awhile.  There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that I need to focus on my family right now, and certain family things are going on that I just don't feel like blogging about here.  Beyond that, we don't have a lot of extra money for travel (so that aspect of the blog will be dull for a bit) and my adjustment to the U.S. has been rocky at best (and I really don't enjoy blogging with a heavy heart and angry mind), so the personal nature of this blog would (some would argue has already taken) take a bit of a nosedive.

For those of you just discovering my blog and my Korean journey, enjoy reading the backlog of my adventures.

Will Going Places pick up again in the future?  It's possible.  Even likely.

Right now, as my sister would say, I'm gonna do me.

Peace and love,
Diana

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

And just like that...

...Min Gi was struck with inspiration last night.  It came in the form of a business plan.  It's years away, but it's brilliant and he's happier than I've seen him in months.  He has an idea that I fully support and finally seems like he has a purpose in life (you know, other than adore me, of course).  Seems like he's gotten his brother on board already, too.

Now I do have more to look forward to next year.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Belated Thankfulness...

Sadly, it's my first real American holiday season in four years, and I skipped my annual Thanksgiving post because I've been stressed out, busy, and a bit depressed.  I should not post at all when I feel like this, but I feel like maybe I owe you guys an update.

Certainly, I am thankful for many, many things this year.  It was a very eventful one:  I got married this year.  I went on an amazing honeymoon to two new countries and a second one for a week to Jeju.  I managed to move our family to America and find a decent job within a month in a horrible economy and establish an independent household.  I did all this while reducing my total debt load by more then $12,000 (and all of those earlier things I mentioned cost a pretty penny).

But 2010 has also been tough.  Not perhaps as tough as 2009 for me (the year my father, mother, and myself all spent prolonged periods hospitalized for various reasons), but I feel as though 2011 holds less promise and that I have comparatively little in the upcoming months to look forward to.  After several years of one big exciting life thing after another, I've hit the point where the life changes to come feel more like assuming responsibilities.  This is the year I turn 30.  Apparently, it's also the year where I have to grow up and accept that there are some things I simply will not do with my life.  For example, I will not go back to grad school full time and become a professor.  It's something I've always kind of thought about... but I realize now that it's not the life for me.

American life feels like a struggle to pull myself out of the financial cesspool of the middle class.  What should be a very nice salary for someone my age is instead a crippling barrage of saying "no, thanks, we can't afford it" to every opportunity that comes along (and in America, opportunity and choice are overwhelming).  My health insurance premiums alone eat up about 8% of my salary--and that's before either of us get any medical care.  Rent is about the same as the take home for one of my two-week paychecks.  So much of U.S. culture is consumerism, that it's really hard to adjust to it when you have no money.

But...

We have family nearby who support us and love us (and let us steal food and use their sailboat...).
Min Gi's family in Korea is healthy and supportive and we can stay in near-daily communication with them thanks to the free wireless internet options in this area.
Although we can't "get ahead" and pay down my student loan and save up for a baby like I want to, we aren't suffering for our basics--something many Americans these days are.
My health has been in steady recovery mode for the last year.  Despite some issues with catching colds after starting my new job and the depression, I'm back to being almost as healthy as I was before I left for Korea, which is amazing when you consider that I now have a pretty serious disease.
We (desperately) miss our friends and support network in Korea (including the best job I ever had and likely will have for some time), but we are so grateful for the good friends we have in this area.
I am thankful to be working at the hotline again.  I think it may be my higher calling.

and... saving the most important for last...

I am thankful that I married Min Gi.  He really is the best husband I could possibly have chosen; I believe that even if I had been allowed to make someone up from scratch to be my partner, I couldn't have come up with something better.  He continues to surprise me with his thoughtfulness and kindness and patience and humor every single day.  In all my life, I've never been as excited to come home at the end of the day as I have in this year we've shared together.

Happy belated Thanksgiving, all.  I had a good one with my family and extended family and am looking forward to Christmas with more of my extended family.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Well... That was a doozy.

I caught the nastiest cold I've had in awhile (ok... in 3 weeks) last Thursday.  This readjusting to a new country for those of us with impaired immune function is annoying.  Since I started working in a school again, I've caught 3 major bugs.  I'm burning through my sick days at an alarming rate.  What kills me is not the physical symptoms, but the mental ones.  Sleep-deprived Diana cannot cope with 14 year old sass in the way normal Diana can.  As you may notice from my word count calendar for NaNoWriMo, life in all its forms just about stopped for me mid-last-week.

While I'm still hacking up a lung every 30 minutes or so and choking down the Vitamin C like I do chocolate on my period, my basic brain functions returned Tuesday evening, and I was able to complete my work week.  But that's about all I've been able to manage.  Seriously... You should see the pile of laundry awaiting me for tomorrow.

The good news?  (1) I'm returning to hotline volunteering at the same place I worked three years ago (some new folks, some old friends).  (2) I was approved to run my high school's drama club (with plans to get my certification endorsement in theater if I pass the test in January and then teach theater as an elective next year).  (3)  Min Gi obtained his MD driver's license, so we have purchased a second used vehicle through my uncle who will drive it down to us when they visit for the Thanksgiving holiday.

# 3 is a mixed bag.  I don't really want to own one car, let alone two, but America is a country not well designed for pedestrian lifestyle, especially outside a major metropolitan city.  So cheers to the continued destruction of the environment...

On with the show!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Settled?

We unpacked the final box we'd shipped from Korea last week and attended an American Halloween party.  Min Gi got his social security card and his driver's license.  Tuesday, I have a doctor's appointment.

It feels like something's shifting.  Like maybe I can start to relax just a little and move on with life goals--the ones I put on hold to accomplish this nightmare relocation.  This move has been so all-consuming that I'd almost forgot I even had them.  NaNoWriMo is helping a bit.  As is the Couch-to-5K running program I restarted this week.

I marvel at how different life was six months ago--when we didn't yet have our visa or even tickets for the U.S. and I had no idea how I was going to find a job and get everything done I needed to do to wind us up on the other side of the world with our cats and without being completely broke.

Well... we did it.

I'm still not completely happy here in America.  I don't know if that's the adjustment, reverse culture shock, or the shortening days (winter is never easy for me), but I do know that I'm starting to feel settled.  That this house and this job are starting to feel like "mine" instead of just the place I live and the place I teach.  It helps to have found places for everything; it helps that I've been able to plan out the quarter, rather than going day by day/week by week with my lessons.

As I enter the first American "holiday season" I've had in almost four years, I feel unwound.  Like I've been a tight coil for a year and half of short-term, high-pressure goals--all achieved, all stressful, many fun (to name a few:  completing grad school, planning a wedding and honeymoon, getting Min Gi's visa, moving to America and repatriating, dealing with a new chronic illness)--and now I have no bounce.  But maybe I can use this flexibility and rest to my advantage.  Use it to sift through my new identity as wife.  As American-in-America.  As high school English teacher (maybe, in the near future, drama teacher).  Use it to work on my health, my career, and my writing.

Let's hope.  I need some inspiration!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Just a Taste...

I'm at 3419 words.  Apparently, the word counter doesn't like it when you write ahead, so even though I'm on track for the month, it says I didn't meet today's goal.  Odd.

In case you're curious about what I'm writing for NaNoWriMo, it's a young adult novel, currently titled Calling It In.  Here's the description I posted:
Katie's senior year of high school was supposed to be the best... but then her older sister announces that she's moving to Korea, her boyfriend for the last two years dumps her as he enters college, and talking to people with problems at the youth crisis hotline where she volunteers starts to feel a little too personal.
A short, unedited excerpt from what I wrote today for NaNoWriMo:

Every night for the year after It had happened, Katie had the same nightmare. She was in a strange Asian-looking temple that was like a maze with walls that stretched on forever. Her mother's voice echoed from just around the next corner, "I'm here, Katie. Come find me! Help! I need your help!" But when Katie rounded the corner, there would just be more of the maze and the bright colored scenes of the Buddha and tigers and wise old fat men and dragons with fish in their mouths.
"I'm coming, Mom! Just hold on for a moment. I can't find you." She'd run and run and run until she was out of breath, but still there was more maze.
Right when she was about to give up, her mother's voice would say, "There, there Katie. You could never find me here. I don't belong here."
And then Katie's mocha skin and straight black hair would start to glow and burn.
"It hurts, Mommy," she would cry out.
But her mother was gone. And the pictures seemed to be smiling at her burning skin. Mocking her with some secret zen knowledge that was forever denied to her.
Even when she was awake that year, she stopped looking in mirrors. If she didn't look in the mirrors, she could pretend that she looked like Deena and her mother. She could belong. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

First Quarter Finished, NaNoWriMo started

I submitted class grades for the first time since 2007, and I must say, I like how this new computerized system keeps me on my toes so that I have to actually finish all of my grades for a numbered percent.  I used to flub it a bit--as in sometimes the last essay/test of the quarter didn't actually make a difference to the kid's letter grade as long as they handed it in; I would save those to grade after submitting grades, thereby perpetually extending my own deadline and my stress.  Now that I'm done, I feel relief.  Even if more of my ninth graders failed this quarter than I would have liked to see.

I also started my NaNoWriMo.  1957 words for the first day (of a minimum 50,000 required).  It took a little less than two hours today.  I'm happy to be writing so freely--no constant self-editing judgement, just get it done.  Check out (if it works) the widget on the side to track my progress.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

November...

Well, I've gone and signed myself up for National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo, as it's known on the interwebs).  You can follow my progress at the link above.  I guess it goes without saying that I may not be updating much next month... not that I updated much last month.

Anyhow, I'll let you know how it goes.  And now... on to the writing!  Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

I'm getting all "guh"

I miss having free time.  Teaching high school English in the U.S. is a very, very demanding job.

Something I've noticed... the culture here in PG county/suburban DC, that I was pretty "in touch" with three years ago, is now something almost completely foreign to me.  Part of it is getting older, but part of it is missing all those subtle cultural shifts that happen imperceptibly and rapidly without anyone who is a participant noticing.  Three years ago, almost no one but political bloggers referred to the Supreme Court as SCOTUS.  I still can't pick Katy Perry (yes, I had to look up how to spell her name) or Justin Bieber out of a lineup of similarly prepified tweens (frankly, who the heck cares?).  And now my students say things like "Mrs. S, you be getting me all guh," and I feel like I did when I was first learning about Korea and didn't know what "service" was (Good lord, I miss "service-uh").

It's got me thinking about cultural observations as an outsider in Korea and reflecting on how much I did or didn't understand.  Like if I hadn't grown up in the DC area, I might think some of these things were unique to this area, when really, they're new to the culture, not just regional.  Many things about Korean youth culture changed so rapidly that my students taught me things about Korean culture that older people, or even the venerable Korean of Ask a Korean wouldn't know.

How does culture change?  How permanent are the changes (or are they short term trends, like the Macarena)?  When we're living in it, we can't really know.  It's only over time that the depth of the change is revealed.

I think some things are easier to see from the outside (like the consequences of American consumerism) and others impossible to fully grasp except from within (like age-based hierarchy in Korean society, which I understand academically and linguistically but just don't get at all).  Living in a foreign land and marrying a non-American has made me a bit of an outsider of the culture once again.  And the first thing I've been truly excited about since coming back is trying to make sense of it all.  I've got my puzzle back.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Not Being There.

I shouldn't publish this because my family reads my blog, but it's time for my annual writing-share with my students.  This is what I'll be sharing tomorrow:


But they never call me. Near the end of my first year teaching in Korea, I had just signed a contract for my dream teaching job—a high school for students gifted in foreign languages—that would keep me in Korea another two years, when the e-mail notification for my internet phone line popped up with a message from my parents. During my year teaching English to elementary and middle school kids at an after-school academy called a hagwon, we'd fallen into a comfortable pattern where I'd call them on my Sunday mornings (their Saturday evenings with the time difference) to chat about life from 7,000 miles away. Yet, here was a message on Tuesday morning—one hour before my daily taekwondo lesson.

I had just fixed breakfast—instant apple cinnamon Quaker oatmeal that I'd scrounged up at Costco, a luxury in a country that feasts on rice and bean-paste soup with a spicy pickled cabbage dish called kimchi for nearly every meal. Why did they call on a Tuesday?

I clicked play and the worry in my mom's voice rang out over the tinny laptop speakers. “Honey, it's your mother. We don't want to worry you, but you should call us back right away. Dad's tests came back from the doctor.”

I tried to remember what we'd talked about this weekend. Mom had mentioned a doctor appointment, but it had seemed routine. Nothing out of the ordinary. Dad always goes to doctors for his diabetes and hypertension. Why that tone? The one she'd used to tell me my grandmother died.

In my head, I counted back the hours. Tuesday morning at 9:30 in Korea meant that it was 8:30 Monday evening in D.C. I hooked up my computer's microphone and dialed.

My sister answered. “Hello?” Even she sounded less energetic and more distant than usual.

“What's up? You sound weird.”

“I don't even get a 'hello' now?” She tried to pass it off like a joke. She was still a little angry with me at having moved halfway across the planet for her senior year of high school.

“Mom called. She sounded weird, too. What's going on over there?”

Sarah paused, unable to respond. “Maybe you should talk to Mom. Let me get her.” Listening to her fumble for words was a shock. She always has a snappy comeback. Always.

My oatmeal had congealed into a lukewarm lump. I didn't care. I wasn't hungry.

“Hello, dear.” Mom's voice still had that tone.

“What is it? You guys are really starting to worry me. Is Dad okay?”

“He's fine.” She had to swallow. “I told you this weekend that he was going to his doctor. Well, we didn't want to worry you, but it was not his normal doctor.”

“What do you mean? Tell me, Mom. Spit it out.”

“He went to an oncologist for testing. He has something called multiple myeloma. But don't worry. There's a lot of hope. There are so many treatments these days and the outcome is usually—”

“Wait, Mom. Did you just say Dad has cancer?”

“Yes, but the treatments these days—” She went on to tell me a lot of things about multiple myeloma that I did not hear. My father had cancer. And I was 7,000 miles away in a country that ate kimchi for breakfast. I had never felt so alone and so helpless in my life. I spoke to my father that morning, too, but I can't remember what he said either. I was thinking about the fact that I had just signed on to be away from my family for another two years and wouldn't even get a chance to visit them between the jobs. After I got off the phone with my parents, I canceled my taekwondo lesson, crawled back into bed, and forgot about the dried, cold oatmeal and the multiple myeloma and slept.



Two years later, having finished my employment contract with the foreign language high school and returned home to Maryland, I can finally talk about it. I still have trouble with the c-word, but I can say my father is in remission. I can joke with him a little about the fact that he can't use public swimming pools anymore because the risk of infection is too great. I ask him about the plans he's made for when it recurs in five years or so.

But I wasn't there when he lost 40 lbs and all his hair. His doctors wouldn't let me visit him while he was undergoing the bone marrow therapy because I was coming from a foreign country. I was half a world away when my family faced the biggest crisis they ever have because they all told me it was okay, and that I should take the job I wanted because it was such a great opportunity, and that there wasn't really anything I could do to help while he was in the hospital anyways because my brother didn't have a job right now and the economy was bad, so he could do what was needed. I wasn't there and my body rebelled, tore my guts to pieces, and put me in a Korean hospital a year ago. The doctors call it “ulcerative colitis,” but I know the truth. It's a physical manifestation of the guilt of not being there.

Every single day, I miss kimchi and taekwondo and the adventures I had in my husband's homeland. Was it the easy way out? My brother thinks it was. He resents me for not being there. For falling in love and getting married while our father almost died. My sister's anger at me for leaving in the first place grew more bitter. We remain distant compared to the inseparability we once had.

My dad is the only one that understands and approves.

“Cancer changed me,” he said last weekend while we were sailing on the boat he bought earlier this year. “All for the better. I would never have bought this boat, for example. A dream I've had for years—it just never would have happened. I was far too caught up in worrying about the future to realize that the present is what matters.” I look away, so he can't see the tears forming in my eyes. “I'm so glad you were off in Korea, having adventures, writing about them, sending us pictures.”

He doesn't say he was happy I didn't see him frail and weak like his other children did. He doesn't say that my getting married in Korea in January gave him something to get better for. He doesn't need to.

I know not being there was my way of being there for my father. But not being there was the hardest thing I've ever done.

I'm here, now, though. And now, sometimes for no reason at all, my father calls me to chat. And I don't have to wonder why he's calling on a Tuesday morning.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Illness and Reverse Culture Shock

For the last week I've been dealing with a creeping cold/flu which reached a new frenzy early this morning.  I'm still feeling like crap, but hopefully taking the day to rest will allow my body to heal.

I haven't been updating because of my illness and increased depression--which I believe may be related to reverse culture shock.  I'm glad I have a new job, but now that I'm in the routine of a "daily grind," my adjustment (or rather maladjustment) to my homeland has actually begun.  Coping with that, with all the issues related to Min Gi's immigration, and with a new job that's a lot more stressful than my last one is taking a toll on my health and my ability to write.  I have very little energy these days.

Plus, my last living grandparent, my mother's mom, died this weekend.

It's been a bad week.  I can only hope that it will get better.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Min Gi Arrived! New Job and Townhouse...

On Thursday, my lovely and wonderful husband arrived in America to begin the U.S. chapter of our life together.  He is now an official permanent resident of the United States, on his way to citizenship in a few years (if all goes according to plan, which it rarely does).

I have to say that for the last month, I've been in a major funk.  Most of this is attributable to my job struggle and stress (which I absolutely must blog about, but felt very uncomfortable doing as it unfolded for a variety of reasons--not the least of which was what might happen if potential employers discovered my blog) and not having my own place for the first time in my adult life without a definite plan for obtaining (and affording) one soon.  With Min Gi here again, I realize that a big part of it was also missing him.  He calms me down from my often irrational and uptight self and brings me back to reality. So, it's good to have him back.  He has also promised to start blogging (mostly in Korean, some in English perhaps), so I will be linking that blog soon.

As I mentioned, I have been offered and accepted a full time English teaching position at a small high school in the same county where I worked before going to Korea.  The position is for ninth grade regular level and an inclusion (half special education students) class, but my schedule is not completely definite at this point because the long term sub who I will be taking over from has been teaching a history elective that will be moved back to the social studies department, leaving me one class short.  It's A-day, B-day style block scheduling, but the ninth and tenth grade classes that are not honors level meet every day to prepare for the Maryland High School Assessment (HSA) which occurs at the end of English 10.  This is good for both the students, who get extra practice, and for me, who will have a smaller overall student load.

I took this job for many, many reasons beyond the fact that it was the first full time, contracted teaching position offered to me (though it was that, too).  In fact, before accepting, I had been very excited by a long term sub position in another county with an offer to move me into contracted as soon as a spot opened up--a county with a much better reputation for both education and for teacher support than the one I'm working for (again).  However, this school impressed me.  First off, I ran into the woman who trained me in the Resident Teacher Program I took to become certified six years ago while waiting for my interview.  We caught up, and since she works there as an Instructional Coordinator, she was, as always, very straight with me about the good and bad things about the school.  In the interview itself, one of the Assistant Principals (about five minutes in) said, "I'm not supposed to say this at this point, but I'm going to:  I like you.  I want you to work here."  It's flattering, but more importantly, being desired as a teacher at a school goes a long way towards winning administrators over to your side, which is absolutely necessary as a teacher new to a school.  Finally, they all but promised me Advanced Placement classes next year (which I LOVE teaching) and that they would support me in establishing a school theater program (this school has none).  I was sold.

The school is a bit out in the country, but I like that.  Yesterday (with the great assistance of my brother and good friend Michelle), Min Gi and I have moved to Waldorf, which is in Southern Maryland, a five minute commute from my new job and about 30 minutes from DC.  We took a two bedroom townhouse for us and the cats, ensuring plenty of space for any family members or friends from Korea who would like to visit.  Fortunately for me, Waldorf is also an area where I have a number of friends, thanks to my previous work with a community theater in neighboring La Plata, the Port Tobacco Players.  (As a welcome home present for Min Gi, I got us tickets to their production of Arsenic and Old Lace, which was fantastic, although it closed this weekend.)

So now, other than the insomnia from drinking too much caffeine to help with moving yesterday and the fact that the cats and a few boxes are still at my parents' house (hopefully this will be resolved today), we have accomplished my major goal for the year, which was to move us all here and find a good job.  I start teaching Monday, and while I'll do some prep work this week and attend back to school night this evening, I don't intend to stress any more about jobs until after I've begun working!

And that's what's been going on.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Current Status:

Employed.  Full time.  Teaching English.

More information to follow.  After Min Gi arrives tomorrow.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Q & A: Non-white women; Internet hook-up; long flight tips; Marine base in Vietnam; Korean Tuesdays

It's been a long time since I've answered my formspring questions. Sorry to those of you who'd been waiting on an answer.

Do you see colored girls in Korea? Like blacks, Hispanics or mixed girls? I mean I often here stories of Caucasians dating up there but...I'm curious.

I'm not exactly sure what perspective you are coming from (are you a man who wants to hook up with "colored girls" or what?), but I will answer. There are many non-white, non-Korean girls living in Korea. The largest groups I've encountered are Chinese and Filipina students and African-American and Hispanic soldiers. In the English teaching community, they are about proportional to what you would find among college grads from the seven countries eligible for E-2 visas, except that there is about a 70/30 male/female ratio and a much higher percentage of people with any Korean blood within that teacher community compared to a normal population. I come from a very, very diverse part of America, so I tend to think the foreign English teacher community is not very diverse (mostly white, middle class). However, people from less diverse areas think that the expat teaching community is very diverse. So I guess it depends on your perspective. If you actively seek out non-white women, you will find them, but I seriously doubt you will be impressed by the number of them you find (except in certain areas of very large cities). I will say that in Korea, more of my non-Korean friends were white than anywhere else I've lived/worked in my life except during college.

My husband is thinking of going to South Korea to be a teacher, I was wondering how long it took you to get internet hooked up in your apartment?

Your husband wants to go to South Korea, and the only question you have is about length of time for internet hookup? You have some restraint, m'dear. Depending on which service you choose and how well supported you are at your school by the teachers who take care of these things, it could take between 3 days and 2 weeks from the time people start asking around. However, in my first apartment, internet was already set up. In my second apartment, Min Gi shopped around for good deals for about a week and then found one and a week later, I had internet. In the last apartment, we transferred the contract from the second apartment, and I think I was without internet for only a day or two. South Korea prides itself on being the most wired country in the world. It's not for nothing.

How did you deal with the long flight over there? I want to travel but I hate to fly. Any tips for getting through it?

I like to deprive myself of sleep and fatty foods for the 36 hours prior to takeoff. I sleep better on the plane that way, and sleep so well the first night that I usually only experience mild jet lag after. On the plane itself, I read, listen to music, doze off, get up and walk around/stretch, play with the in-flight entertainment center, and always ask for at least 2 cups of water when they come around and offer. Sometimes I find the free red wine helps me zonk out even more quickly, but be careful about hydration. Planes are nastily drying environments.

Are there any remains of the Marine base at Marble Mountain???

I was not specifically looking for the Marine base at the Marble Mountains in Vietnam. However, I recall there was a marker for the lookout point the Americans used and the platform was there and my motorcycle taxi driver mentioned the base (he was a South Vietnamese soldier during that time). The effects of war there struck me more in the extreme shell damage to the temple sites and ancient carvings.

I remember reading how you and your husband speak English at home and every Tuesday it is Korean language day. So now that you are coming back to America, will you do a language swich-a-roo to keep in practice? I would think speaking Korean back in the US [would be helpful].

As you recall correctly, we usually speak English at home and for awhile we were doing Korean on Tuesdays. Right before I left Korea, Min Gi was in hardcore English study mode because he hopes to be able to work and function comfortably in his new country, so my Korean studies were sadly neglected. Currently, we are in separate countries, so I am not speaking much Korean at all these days, with him or anyone else. We will probably speak English at first in America because we are going to stay with my parents, and it is a little rude to speak another language around people who don't understand it when everyone is perfectly capable of communicating in the host's language. I would like to re-start the Korean Tuesdays when we are set up in our own house and then perhaps increase it to 2-3 days a week, as my Korean studies pick up more and I grow my skills.

That's all the formspring for now, but feel free to ask me a question anytime. I'm less crazy stressed now that the move to the U.S. is about 50% complete, so I should get to answering them faster.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sentimental Possessions

I've mentioned that I'm becoming more and more attracted to low-impact living and minimalist lifestyles, especially after the consumer shock I'm experiencing returning to the U.S. from another country (albeit a fairly consumerist one). While I'm not quite ready to shuck everything except what I truly need and live out of a backpack, I am going through the already pared-down possessions I stored in my parents' basement when I left for Korea three years ago and purging many things I no longer need or want. I'm selling a few, but mostly I'm giving things away on Freecycle, to friends, to the library (media) or to Planet Aid (clothes).

Unfortunately for me, most of what remains in my possessions are papers/items that have sentimental value for me, but little meaning/value for another person, such as letters I exchanged with friends in elementary, middle, and high school or the seven half-filled blank journals I kept through the same period. I've been pretty ruthless--recycling the letters after reestablishing contact via Facebook with my elementary and middle school friends, taking two of the notebooks that I'd filled less than 1/4 of that were falling apart at the seams and ripping out the pages that contained my bad poetry and musings about boys then recycling the rest. I have plans to scan the pictures onto my hard drive so that I can get rid of the physical clutter.

What are impossible for me to deal with right now, though, are letters and cards from students. Unlike the letters from a young person sent to my young person self, I feel a special responsibility to those "thank you" and kind message cards entrusted to me by the students I've had the joy to work with--maybe even to encourage or inspire just a little. Perhaps it is because I may be in a transition of moving away from teaching as my main form of paid employment (though I'm sure I will continue teaching in some way throughout my life) that I am so strongly attached to these items.

So to preserve my sanity, I am fiercely limiting myself to whatever will fit in a shoebox. Any other purely sentimental item that is not re-usable (like the journals I will finish filling in--I began last night! haha), beautiful (like some of my decorations I've gathered in my travels and want to display in my home), currently useful (like the purse my friend Leah gave me before I left Korea), or I know will have a use in the near future (like the 5-6 children's books I loved because we want to start a family soon) must fit in the box. I am filing all old writing I wish to keep (the stuff that's not electronic) in one plastic portfolio-type folder. Everything else that I want to keep for emotional reasons must go, in one way or another.

Allowing myself to keep a few of these items is helping this process feel good. It makes it easier to decide what really makes me feel the strongest by keeping the physical copy and what I'm ok with digitizing and/or letting go. Perhaps in the future, I will be able to let even more go, but for now, I'm content with this solution.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Unemployed Teacher

In the DC area, tomorrow marks the first day of school for many districts, including Prince George's County, my old haunt. As you know, I've been looking for work in the US since way back in February. It's been a frustrating, humiliating, desperation-making, humorous, and slow experience. The end result of it all is that I have now joined the ranks of the US unemployed. Not that I'd even be counted in the statistics, since the job I left was in Korea (and I left it voluntarily), so I don't qualify for benefits. Plus, I do have part-time work as an editor. But my career? The one for which I hold the highest certification the State of Maryland can bestow? The one that would give me health insurance and enough money to support me, my immigrant husband, and his mother back in Korea and allow us to consider starting a family? Yeah... I guess that's "on hold" for now.

Way back in college, I made the decision to become a teacher for several reasons.  First was that I love literature and writing and want to share this joy with as many people as possible.  Up there as a major secondary reason, though, was a virtual guarantee of a livable salary and work available just about anywhere in the world I wanted to go.  I didn't ever want to end up where I am now, unemployed, living in my parents' house, so rather than pursue some other more "unstable" lines of work, like freelance writing, acting, or publishing, I became a teacher.  After all, year after year in America they were practically begging bums on the street to fill their classrooms.  Fellow teachers and I regularly joked about how they almost preferred "warm bodies" to competent people because of the ridiculous hoops you have to jump through for certifications and the like. I figured teaching would always be "safe" from an employment perspective.

Here I am, six solid years of experience and a Master's degree later, unable to get a job.  I am an unemployed teacher.

My plan from back in Korea was that if I couldn't find a job, I would just substitute teach for a bit and get my name known around at a few schools so that when an opening did come up, I could slide in, no problem. Well, even that plan is blown. Montgomery and PG have no subbing openings. And I don't really have a car (I borrow family members' cars), so I can't commute many other places--not for subbing (I'd figure it out if I was offered a permanent position).

My backup plan--to change careers into public relations, editing, or writing--is moving slowly because as few contacts as I have in education here, I have even fewer in those areas (although, as I said, I do have a part-time, freelance editing gig that's helping keep me sane).  I have one very exciting, very promising lead, but it's moving at a snail's pace.

I'm lucky.  I have a family that can support my basic needs while I try to figure out a way to become independent again.  It's not ideal, but I have a place to sleep and food to eat and transportation most days.  Mom has offered to help out with health insurance if it looks like the unemployment will last for awhile, and it looks like I will have to take her up on that offer, though I really, really don't want to (um... point of moving back to US being to HELP my parents, not be a burden on them).  And I am truly grateful to them for their help and support.  I'm trying to pay them back in ways I can--cooking dinner for everyone (maybe even saving them money by doing so), helping out with the remodeling projects around the house, organizing and minimizing the stuff I put in storage before I left for Korea--but my number one priority is becoming independent of their care again.  It's ridiculous that a married career woman should be this dependent on her parents.

It's hard on me.  I'm a planner, but with no idea of what the future looks like, it's nigh impossible to actually make plans.  I have two dependents, Min Gi and his mom back in Korea.  We have a plan figured out for the financial support of his mom, but he and I are moving back to dependency--which also means we're putting our plans to start a family on hold (bad idea to get pregnant with no health insurance, no job, and no house).  This is depressing.

I'm staying positive.  I'm trying to enjoy my unemployment time by reading more, experimenting in the kitchen, and staying active.  I've taken on a number of self-improvement projects, which I will be blogging about as I go through them.  I'm considering just making the leap into self-employment, but unfortunately my health situation (unless we figure something out there) makes that an untenable plan for the long-term (stupid America's stupid lack of appropriate, affordable health care).  I just have to learn patience.  Patience is not a strength of mine.  But this whole experience is schooling me in it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Wednesday Review--We Married Koreans: Personal Stories of American Women with Korean Husbands

We Married KoreansI know I haven't done a book review in a long time; rest assured that it is not because I have gone the last few months without reading. Quite the contrary. In the last few months, I've been in a mad reading frenzy in an attempt to rid myself of all the books I had accumulated in Korea that I did not wish to bring back with me to the U.S. Fortunately, I discovered Bookmooch and an English used book cafe called Buy the Book (Downtown Daegu, above the Mr. Pizza on the main street with Communes and Billibow and the like), so all of my books went to loving homes.

One of the books I did want to keep with me, however, was We Married Koreans, a collection of 12 true stories of interracial, intercultural marriages between American women and Korean men in the 1960s. The collection is edited by Gloria Goodwin Hurh, whose own story appears in Chapter 5.

If you have any interest in American or Korean cultures during the last 50 years or in intercultural marriages in general, you should read this book. Do not be put off by the fact that it is self-published and therefore contains some errors in grammar and usage that (hopefully) would have been caught by a professional editor or that the women are not professional writers. It tells a fascinating history, both personal and cultural, of Korea as it struggled towards democracy (one woman's husband was imprisoned for anti-government demonstrations in Korea) and America as it struggled towards racial equality (many of the women speak frankly about some of the racial epithets hurled at their children). The couples mostly met, married, and lived in America, but most lived for at least a short time in Korea and one missionary couple spent most of their marriage in the Korean expat community in Brazil. I feel like I just sat down and read 12 very good personal blogs about Korea.

Each woman speaks positively of marriage and praises intercultural marriage, despite the challenges they have faced. None of them have divorced and most stories are accompanied by a picture of the couple from within the last five years, graying and wrinkled, but still together. I was particularly moved by the stories of Faye Moon, Dixie Whong, and Sharon Shin, but I got something new and interesting from each story. Many of the women were Christian missionaries or united to their husband by a strong faith, which did not speak to me as much as it might have to someone from their era, but I still enjoyed reading the book very much.

I can only hope that Min Gi and I will be as happy together in our future as these couples seem to be.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Jeju Island Adventures: Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Rock)


Getting started hiking up the peak, visible behind me.

Our first full day on Jeju Island, we planned to hike Korea's largest mountain, the volcanic mount Halla in the center of Jeju that pretty much makes up the island. However, our plans were thwarted by gathering storms around the peak (though the rest of Jeju was clear and beautiful, Halla was surrounded by storms--apparently the summit is only visible about one day in 10, so this is not terribly uncommon). Instead, we hopped in our trusty rental Kia, Fred, and drove out to the eastern side of the mountain to another famous lava crater peak, Seongsan Ilchulbong, known as "Sunrise Peak" because of it's eastern location. Although we were now several hours after sunrise (at about 8 a.m.), we were still happy to explore and climb this beautiful area.


The views of the sea and surrounding fields as we climbed were spectacular.

Ilchulbong was formed by fairly recent (meaning only 100,000 years old) volcanic eruptions. It rises dramatically out of the sea and connects to the main part of Jeju by a narrow strip of land on which sits the fishing village of Seongsan.


Min Gi at the top of the crater's edge.

At the top of the peak, there is a huge bowl-shaped crater, grown over with many various plants unique to these crater ecosystems of Jeju. The ecosystem in Jeju's Hallasan crater is carefully protected. Also, it is very, VERY windy at the peak.


The crater at the top of Ilchulbong, flooded with the morning light.

After climbing down from the small mountain, we rested in a cove with a haenyo, or the famous Jeju women divers (more to come about them), restaurant and launching site. There were no haenyo to be found, but we enjoyed the peaceful scenery and clear water.


Side of Ilchulbong, from Haenyo Jip area.


With a great start to our first full day on the island, we'd already decided that when we return to Korea, we should seriously consider making this place our home. See the rest of the photos from Ilchulbong:

Ilchulbong -- Jeju Island

Monday, August 16, 2010

First Five Days in America

Wowee...  America is just overwhelming.  On my last day in Korea, Min Gi and I went to the Dongdaegu bus station at 3 a.m. to catch the bus with two cats, two huge bags, and my carry on oversize "purse."  On the five hour ride to Incheon, the kitties mewled the whole time, I'm sure to the chagrin of nearby passengers.  At the airport, we had to take them through Incheon's "quarantine" check station and then check Princess into the baggage compartment, while Saja got to accompany me in the cabin under the seat in front of me.  I said goodbye to my husband just outside the security gate.  The kitties and I made it on the 13.5 hour plane ride in a daze.  My love for Korean Air is vast and bottomless.

Mom and Brian picked me up from the airport.  They proceeded to talk about babies for the next hour.  Mom claims that she only wants to talk about Brian's friend Elizabeth's baby, and that she won't pressure me at all for five years.  She keeps reminding me how she's not pressuring me...  Like every few minutes the first couple days, now more like once every few hours.

The rest of this first day is a little blurry.  I ate pizza and burritos and unpacked in the temporary room with the fold out couch (the basement is unfinished) and played with the shell-shocked cats in the basement and slept at odd hours.

Friday, my first full day in America, took me to an Ethiopian food cafe in Gaithersburg where I met Anne's family for a delightful lunch.  Then Anne and I hung out in the afternoon, doing some shopping and walking around a park, lamenting the absence of young children on the perfectly beautiful summer day.  Why don't kids play outside anymore?  What happened to that?

Then, her friend called to cancel, giving me the chance to attend my first EVER professional football game in America--the pre-season game between the Washington Redskins and the Buffalo Bills!  It was overwhelming (especially understanding everything that the other fans were saying all around me) and exciting (especially watching dancing girls--I mean "cheerleaders"--with actual booties to shake).  The Redskins were winning so overwhelmingly that, by the end of the third quarter, we decided to escape to beat a bit of the traffic.  I forgot how into football Americans are.  It was fun to walk through the "tailgaters"--people who showed up hours before the game to park in the lot and have cookouts out of the back of their vehicles, and to see the painted-up, jersey-wearing hardcore fans.  The whole thing reminded me of World Cup in Korea, but more intense because we were actually in the stadium.

Sadly, because I didn't know we were going to do anything super cool and because my brain was (and still kind of is) total mush, I forgot my camera.

Saturday, I was lazy and tired and our internet blew out.  I hung around the house.  Helped Elizabeth's husband, Mike, to mud (fill in the cracks with putty) the dry wall in the room in the basement where Min Gi and I will live temporarily (when it's finished).  Cooked dinner (corn on the cob, mac 'n cheese, bread, fruit salad).  Just tired and lazy and super jet lagged.

Sunday, I was still exhausted, but I was supposed to go to the fair with Anne and Sam.  This did not happen. But I did kidnap Sam from Baltimore in the afternoon and then cooked pizza for everyone at home (including Mike and Elizabeth) and then had a complete breakdown after dropping Sam off at home because when I got back to the house (8:30 pm), I was dead tired, operating on patchy and limited sleep, dealing with the fact that our guests were sitting just outside my "bedroom" so I couldn't go to bed (and all the other beds were currently occupied), and I hadn't talked to Min Gi in two days because of the internet problems.  I just sort of fell apart and started crying and felt really bad and embarrassed about the whole thing.  Jet lag is very evil.

This morning, I've had nearly a full 8 hours (first time in days), took a long walk/jog (I have got to remember how much better I feel after exercise), met a new man in our neighborhood who complimented me on my appearance post-workout (haha), and have internet on my very own computer (so I FINALLY know that Lauren won SYTYCD Season 7).  Finally, things are looking up.

Now... if only I can get hired!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ok, Korea... what do you want from me?

With about 24 hours to go before I hop on the plane to DC (which explains the lack of updates, btw), Korea's trying to send me a message about my leaving, but I can't figure out what it is, yet. Here are the news events from the last few days that are just... bizarre:

1. My school was hit with a major round of food poisoning, cancelling all my classes on Monday. The cafeteria is now out of commission until further notice.

2. The day after we leave Jeju (yes, tons of pictures and blogging from that to come) to return to Daegu, it's hit by typhoon Dianmu. A major one (and the rains from it have made it up to the mainland now, too) that closed down all the airports. Hopefully it will have passed through Korea by tomorrow and not be affecting Incheon... Sheesh.

3. A bus exploded in Seoul Monday, injuring 17 people. It's so crazy because nothing like that had happened to these buses before and now everyone's worried about the safety of these buses that run on natural gas.

4. North Korea. I really don't know if I need to say more since the situation is so charged up right now that it's actually making the headlines in the U.S. again.

So... is 우리나라 telling me to go or to stay or to do a silly dance? Dunno. I'm just trying to go about my business of getting everything done and packed and saying goodbye to as many people as possible without weeping hysterically (Ohmma almost broke me down last night when she started crying and agreed to visit the U.S. for the first time) before we hop the 3 am bus to Incheon with two cats.

Thankfully, my wonderful husband is willing to do the round trip with me to Incheon (five hours in a bus each way) to ease the process of checking in the cats and to say goodbye melodramatically as we separate for the next month.

But for now, I have to go meet Se Jin for coffee. On about 4 hours of sleep with the rain pelting down... Korea... I'll miss you, though you seem to be pouting like a spoiled child at my departure.

Monday, August 2, 2010

My New American Dream

The Crafton family from Severna, MD now rock my world:

Crafton family enjoys rare closeness after seven years together at sea

After living the past seven years in this cabin the size of a hotel bathroom, the Crafton family seems in no hurry to clear out now. On a muggy, sun-drenched morning, all five of them -- knees just touching, lives completely entwined-- sit cheerfully in the sailboat that has been their home since they pulled away from this Severna Park dock in 2003.

Click to continue

Think I could convince Min Gi? Would you read that blog? Something to shoot for...

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Place your bets here...

Well... I'm starting to think that my reverse culture shock (yes, this actually happens when people re-integrate into their home culture) is going to be pretty bad. Why?

I keep thinking stuff like:

"Korea and America aren't that different. When I was home on vacation last summer it was all basically the same."

"I can get by without a car. Did without a car for three years here. No problem!"

"America's boring. Nothing new or surprising."

"Korean kids and American kids are pretty much the same. I'll be fine in an inner city Title One school (or conversely, a high pressure academic IB or AP filled school). No sweat."

"I can keep up my hiking very easily in America!" (especially funny in combination with my second thought)

"I'm sure I can save a lot of money. It can't cost THAT much to live in the U.S. There've got to be non roach-infested apartments in the greater DC area for less than $1200/month, right?"

At least these are the thoughts I can CATCH myself making that I know are blatantly false. I probably have hundreds of other thoughts setting me up for major reverse culture shock that I'm not even aware of how wrong they are.

Fact is, I've lived here three years and adapted to life pretty damn well. I'm dandy with the ketchup and mustard in bag-like "bottles." With the sharp, metal chopsticks for salad (heck--it's EASIER now than using a fork). With only understanding about 50% of what's going on around me (and then only if I choose to listen to it... it's easier to tune out here). With kids staring and pointing and shouting "hi" without there being something freakishly wrong with my appearance. With the smell of kimchi and food trash in the summer. With being taller and bigger than the majority of women and about 60% of men. With concrete block apartments where you can smell your neighbor's cooking. With people drying their clothes and linens and red peppers on the rooftops. With exercise parks at the tops of mountains. With assigned theater movie seating. With parking people in and leaving a cell phone contact number on your car. With calling cell phones "hand phones." With the limited selection of Western groceries. With super-futuristic interior design and lots of high-tech gadgetry. With "maybe" meaning "probably," and "I think you should..." from your boss as an order. With the different logic of the traffic. With people bumping into you and the lack of personal space. With casual nudity in shower rooms. With OTC drugs not sold at convenience stores and snacks/hygiene products not sold at pharmacies.

At some point all of these things were annoyances or surprises. I don't even think about them these days (I mean, I did just now... for this post... but well, you know what I mean). There are other things I'm sure I'm so used to at this point I've probably forgotten that they're different.

I know (KNOW) that I'm going to have to work really hard not to always say "Well in Korea they BLAH BLAH BLAH," more than 3-4 times a day. It's ok for Min Gi to say it--he's from Korea--but my co-workers, friends, family members, and students are going to get mighty sick of it pretty darn fast.

So, blog readers, I guess what I'm saying is that returning to America's going to be a pretty big adventure, too, now that I'm three years out. I don't know who this Justin Bieber character is and care more (right now) about the sinking of the Cheonan and nuclear threats from the North than the protesting of BP or the "tea party" nonsense. It's going to be a little rough...

Now's the time to place your bets on how long it will take me to have my first major culture shock meltdown in America... Get while the getting is good! (My bet would be that it's a good month or two before my husband has any signs of culture shock... haha.)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Goodbye Lunch with the Kwons...


With one of my nieces (third sister's daughter) and the "baby" teddy bear I brought her as a goodbye.

I have not been able to see my Korean family much this year. Between my 언니 sister (aka best Korean gal-pal), Se Jin, being extremely busy with her responsibilities at work, buying her first apartment, and a sort-of friend of the male variety in Seoul and my illness, wedding, and impending move, making time to hang out with her, let alone her wonderful and accepting family that made my first impressions of Korea and Koreans so positive, was nearly impossible. I think we've hung out only five or six times since September, and I have not seen any of her extended family at all.



Amazing spread of food with my Korean father. I can only look at the prowess of my Korean mom's cooking skills in awe. Perhaps one day, my ajumma skills will begin to approach this level, but I seriously doubt it.

However, I was very lucky to attend a goodbye and good luck lunch celebration at her new (fabulous apartment), prepared by her (my) Korean mother (entirely vegetarian--wow!) in my honor. Se Hoon (the brother) prayed for my safe return and for my father's health. Mother and Father hoped I would return to Daegu soon and always come to visit them.



Korean Mama, me (their fifth daughter, 권다인), and Korean Papa Kwon.

This family has taught me the depths of hospitality and kindness--not just for Koreans, but for any humans. I cannot imagine my Korean life without them. After the parents left for their country home in Yeongcheon and the brother's and sister's families cleared out for the rest of their Sunday afternoon activities, Se Jin and I gossiped in the rain, and I cried a little at not seeing them again for so long. But then Se Jin reminded me that we are family--and her house is always open to Min Gi and I when we come to visit Korea, just as my house in America would always be open to her or any members of her family who wished to visit.

Saying I'll miss them is the biggest understatement I can imagine. Being away from them will almost be like being away from my own family has been over the last three years. My heart already aches with the thought. And I have nothing but inadequate words for my gratitude. All I can hope is that I will remember always to be as accepting and open with strangers and travelers as they have been to me.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Crossing Off To-Do Lists

I tried to write about saying goodbye to my students at Taegu Foreign Language High School. But I was unable to do so at this time. It's been very emotional. Even just mentioning my goodbye meals with my co-workers at TFLHS is getting me a little choked up. Some of these men and women (especially the women) are the smartest, hardest-working teachers I know. Even when I disagree with them (or they with me), I thoroughly respect their point of view and their professionalism. Although it's not like saying goodbye to Roosevelt, which was my first teaching job and first professional career post college, it's still tough.


At the goodbye luncheon with the English Department; My present is a Korean cookbook in English.


I've been here two years. In that time I've learned a lot about negotiation, bureaucracy, cultural nuances, testing, and assumptions. (Yes, I learned some of that at Oedae, but honestly, the hagwons are run like businesses more than schools, and I was lucky enough to work for an American director which insulated me from a lot of the workplace cultural differences). These things were always a part of teaching in the U.S., but experiencing them in another country has made them more transparent to me. A lot of foreign teachers come to Korea without having taught before, so perhaps their perspective is a little different, but I have to say that even if I never return to an international position, the things I've learned here will change how I approach teaching forever.

Rather than deal with emotional enormity of leaving my students and my position, I've chosen to focus today on the necessary tasks I must complete before I board the plane out of here in 23 (really? REALLY?) days and return "home" (or rather, repatriate). I would say that it's amazing how entrenched I've become in Korea and my life here, but those of you who know me know that it's hardly surprising that I dug right in and made myself at home. For the last year, I've been slowly moving towards minimalism and so I'm not really surprised by the amount of things I've collected here (as I've been increasing my awareness of and trying to let go my connection with stuff), but organizing, packing, and preparing it does rekindle memories of Korean classes and taekwondo belts gone by.

And so, my nose is to the grindstone (as it were), and my heart is in nostalgia-ville (visiting its cousins, the tear ducts, from sentimental-town). It's a process. Ever circular, but ever forward. Especially circular as the woman whose job I took when I first arrived in Korea three years ago, Jane, landed in Korea yesterday to return to her old position. I believe I may return some of the things she gave me to their original owner (who'd have thunk it?).

I started this journey alone, with my cat and vague hopes for the future. I'm returning with a husband, another cat, a black belt in taekwondo, thousands of pictures, many more memories, and a lot of love and respect for a country that will now always be another "home." Life can change a lot in three years, or not at all. In the end, it's not what happens to you--it's who you are.

Enjoy some pictures of the students I can't write about or I'll start crying:


English Theater Festival at 외고 2010

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Contributing Writer to Joongang Daily

Well, this has been a very emotional week for me, and I want to write about it all. However, I've also come down with the flu. So I will give you a few highlights:

--We held the second English Play Festival at our school (I mentioned last year's festival in brief). I wrote an article for the Joongang Daily that ran on Friday about our schools English Play Festival. You can read "Students learn English through acting in Daegu," which is my attempt to keep some things foreign teachers do in Korea in a positive light. William wrote a much more detailed and emotional view of our brainchild over at his blog. I will put up my own thoughts and feelings about this later when I can do so without being reduced to an emotional puddle of goo.

--Saja likes to chase her tail. She does this daily for about 10 minutes. It's very entertaining, so I will share my 30 second clip of it with you:




I will fill you in on more happenings (of which there are many) in short order. For now, back to bed with more medicine.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Some Pictures from our Rafting Trip

On Independence day, Min Gi, Min Su, In Shil, and I went rafting on the Nakdong river and then toured around the countryside a bit. In Shil (the daughter of a professional photographer, as it turns out) sent us these photos she took of our trip! Also, some from the rafting company. See the full album below (some of the pictures are very silly...)


We're all suited up and ready to begin our rafting journey. (Notice that we get the most colorful raft... I was very happy about this).


Sneaking a kiss at a village that has been around for 500 years.

Bonghwa Rafting Trip

Man, it's going to be hard to say goodbye to my family here... I'm already dreading next week (It's my last full week with all of the students I teach...)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Goryeong Picnic with Min Gi's Family


Ohmma, me, Min Gi, In Shil, Min Su at a mountaintop shelter.


A few weeks ago (June 13, I believe), Min Gi's brother drove all of us out to the small town just west of Daegu called Goryeong, known for being an important district called Daegaya during the three-kingdom period of Korean history.


We visited a pretty park with a man made waterfall and suspension bridge.


In Shil made a delightful picnic lunch (almost all vegetarian, in special honor of me... how sweet). We played racquetball and watched the children run around in the sprinklers. Later, we hiked up to the top of the waterfall, which was quite a feat for Ohmma, but she was sporting about the whole thing.


Jumping on the bridge, terrifying my husband, as his brother snaps a picture.


After that, we were quite tired, but we drove to a Daegaya theme park. We watched a martial arts dance show and learned about some different cultural elements of Daegaya. I would rather have visited the actual tombs up the road, but it was a pleasant afternoon.

See the rest of the photos:


Goryeong Picnic

Monday, July 5, 2010

Weekend and Q & A: Food Allergies; Spiders

I had a delightful weekend, although it was rainy off and on both days. On Saturday, I woke up early and had a nice little hike with my husband. Then a friend (Paige) and I went out to Ulsan to visit Hayoung (the Korean MC at our wedding) who has taken ill once more. We got lost for a bit and ate a lot of dairy-based junk food which made me roll around in pain for about two hours, vowing to go vegan as soon as the pain was relieved.

On Sunday, Min Gi and I awoke even earlier to meet Min Su and In Shil (the in-laws) for a trip out to the Bong-hwa area of the Nakdong river for three hours of rafting (I would hardly call it whitewater, though). Our guide was a Physical Education major at a university in Daegu (I didn't catch which one) who lamented the fact that he was single and then proceeded to entertain us like a gag-show comedian for three hours. We also dove off of very big rocks into the river, which was a little terrifying, but fun. We ate tiny freshwater fish (so much for veganism) and visited a 500 year old village famous for a kind of cookie that tasted like sugar-coated gingerbread. Min Su sent pictures to Min Gi that I will post in short order.

Now for more formspring fun.

If you have allergies and still refuse the food, are you offending them?

By "them" I'm going to assume you mean Koreans and that this is a follow-up to my previous comments about trying not to refuse food because it is considered rude. Refusing food in Korea is like refusing to shake someone's hand in a Western country. I recommend you try to explain why you are refusing the food--most will be understanding, but yes, you're probably going to offend some people. That's just the way the world works. You'll be seen as a weirdo and very unfriendly. At best, they'll dismiss it as a foreign oddity. At worst, you will permanently damage your professional relationship.

I'm lucky that Korea has a pretty high number of Buddhists and therefore at least a passing acceptance of vegetarianism, if not a clear understanding of what that always entails (and I admit my eating seafood is not helpful to future foreign vegetarians... sorry guys!) Still, I offend people by not eating meat, but it's just a few. For example, after one semester at my school, they hired a new nutritionist. I had been eating in the school cafeteria (a MUST DO for foreign teachers in Korea if you want to make nice with your co-workers), but the new nutritionist LOVES meat. Seriously, the woman puts meat in everything, even the rice. I was only eating once a week, but paying for all the meals, so I finally just said I couldn't do it anymore. It was ok because I'd already established myself at the school, but I can see hostility/resentment/confusion/curiosity about my absence from the cafeteria in newer teachers to the school. It does not send a positive message.

Most Koreans are overwhelmingly accommodating of my food limitations (and sensitive to the preferences/limitations of other foreigners--especially spicy food because they firmly believe foreigners cannot eat spicy food) because Koreans love food (really!) and want you to love their food, too. Hopefully your bosses and other people who have a serious influence on your life in Korea are going to be understanding. I really recommend not refusing anything for the first couple months, even if you don't eat it. Fake it. Eat the rice, but pick at everything else. Take it home and toss it out there. Accept a new food, but don't take a bite until later when you can confirm what's in it (Korean teachers do this all the time, so I assume it's ok).

If you have life threatening allergies, you can try to explain this to the teacher/co-worker who speaks the best English, but food allergies are not all that common here (even Koreans with an allergy to alcohol--which is a common allergy in Asians--will consume it and just deal with the bright red, blotchy face they get as a result). It's possible they won't really understand. I'm not saying eat a food that will send you to the hospital, but I am saying that you might have to work double time to repair cultural bridges.

Are there a lot of spiders in South Korea?

What an odd question. But I guess now that it's summer, I'm seeing more of all kinds of life here, including spiders.

I encounter spiders in Korea at about the same rate I encountered them in the U.S. (I lived near Washington, DC). There are very few in my house (because I have cats). There are more in the countryside and mountains than there are in the cities. Some have very pretty colors. Most are tiny and harmless. Spiders are called Keo-mi (거미) in Korean. Beyond that, I know nothing.

Keep the questions coming, guys.

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