Friday, April 30, 2010

Remembering a Death.

Ten years later, it is still impossible to think about the death of a man--a boy--that changed my understanding of the world and all the people in it.

I wrote this piece for my senior seminar class in response to the question: Why did you become an English major? Although I read it aloud in class (which was a painful, tearful, thoroughly humiliating experience), I've been holding onto it since then and thinking about publishing it one day. Well... this being the tenth anniversary of Justin's death, I thought it might be appropriate to share it with you. Please forgive the walk down memory lane.


Apology: My experience as an English major at St. Mary’s College of Maryland cannot be separated from the life and death of my close friend Justin Bates, the eldest son of English professor Robin Bates. I am sorry if this makes the story I must tell somewhat inappropriate or uncomfortable for this classroom setting. I could lie, but that would be a disservice to me, Justin, the English major, and this assignment.

The Midwife to my Intellectual Birth

Sometimes I still see Justin on the paths around campus. He is tall and so blond that his hair might be white. His head is always upturned to the sky, as though he could pluck from the heavens the answers to yet another of his unanswerable dilemmas. I go to talk with him—tell him about my life and how it’s going and how I discovered Renaissance poetry and my joys and pains in the time since he has left me.

But when I get near enough, it is never Justin. It never will be Justin again.


We are gathered around a tiny table in lower Montgomery Hall, hunched over maroon volumes of Norton Anthology of British Literature 2. Justin is late again, so Becca and I have started looking at the poems assigned for tomorrow. Last week, we read Blake’s Songs of Innocence; today we are looking at the “Tyger”. We are not really talking about the poem. We are chatting of things that do not matter, like how we’ll go visit our boyfriends at fall break and how hungry we are.

Justin arrives and, after teasing him about giving him a thorough whomping with the heavy books on the table, we settle in to play with language. As we discuss it and read it over and over, the images begin to dance. The words are alive and we speak them over and over and something magical happens when we get to the part “Did he who make the lamb make thee?” and suddenly Justin exclaims loudly because the universe has opened up wide and a vision explodes in our heads. He has been struggling, studying, contemplating faith and Christianity and here it all is, beautifully summarized by Blake’s poetry.

His religion cannot be the innocent “Lamb,” because then he, as a flawed man could not ever participate in it. Neither is he satisfied with the cruel callousness of the religion in the fearsome “Tyger”. But together—a God gentle enough for a child and forgiving enough for a man but powerful enough to inspire awe and test humanity—that (at least in that one moment) is Justin’s God.

And mine too, though I do not believe in God. I think of it differently. Nevertheless, in the moment that I am one with the poem and with the language and nature and religion, I know I will end up being an English major in college.


I go down to visit the river, past the graveyard where many I have never known lay buried. The summer sky is threatening rain. I would welcome such a breaking storm. There are the words I sought: “He is made one with nature. There is heard/ His voice in all her music, from the moan/ Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird;/ He is a presence to be felt and known/ In darkness and in light, from herb and stone.” Perhaps once Shelley wrote them for Keats, but I imagine they are written about my friend whose memorial they adorn. His presence in me is felt and known.

The storm breaks. Heavy rains pour over me and I am new-baptized. I converse with Shelley about Justin and write his name on the water that dragged him under one year ago. I scream at the storm. I demand my dead friend back again that I might tell him all the things I never finished saying to him… and all the new things I have discovered.

I wonder if Justin is where he thought he would be. I believe he is. In a heaven that I do not believe in. I suppose it is odd for me to believe he is sitting up there in a heaven with a God and a Christ I do not believe in. So I begin to speak with God.

I remind him first that I do not believe in him. Therefore, I feel it necessary to explain why I am speaking with an entity I do not believe in, and I tell him of Aristotle’s demonstration of the universal human ability to recognize geometric figures. Mathematics is like God. How many of us have seen a perfect sphere? Yet we all know what that is and can see it just as easily as if it were sitting right in front of us. Oh, there are “spheres” in the world that we can use to assist our imaginations in constructing the object in our minds, but they are not perfect with all the mathematical properties we equate with spheres.

Geometry exists only in our minds… and yet, somehow it reaches beyond all of the individual selves and transcends many minds… all minds. It is within entirely, and yet it is more than any individual human. So I explain to God why I speak with him and how I know him to exist, without believing in him.

Religion, well Christian religion, is the opposite of nature. So how then do the words that Justin is made one with nature provide comfort when I would rather he be one with his religion? Perhaps in death nature and religion meet more uniformly.

The rain has stopped. I go back inside and go to sleep.


Reading Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella in Spring and contemplating the act of writing, specifically my own, I happen upon a poem. “You take wrong ways, those far-fet helps be such/ As do bewray a want of inward touch,” Sidney writes.

These words… this poem… it is written to me. I know academically and intellectually that Sidney, 500 years ago, could not possibly have been sitting at his writing desk imagining such a mind as my own for which he must write this poem, but yet I imagine… no, I more than imagine, I KNOW… that this poem is written for me. My life, my work… I am the one “running in rattling rows”.

I cry out for Sidney and beat my own chest and ravenously try to gulp all of the language down at once. Other poems offer some comfort for the personal flaws he attacked in Sonnet 15, but not enough. I think he understands me, though. Both he and I… we cannot choose but write our minds, and we cannot choose but put out what we write.

Writing is passion and compulsion. It is beautiful and deadly. It holds power, and yet is nothing more than markings on a page.


At last, I understood why Justin thought it dangerous to continue our study group after that first semester. But I suppose he discovered things more dangerous than words. Me, I still love words and the sort of cathartic, intensely personal connection with poetry that he and I both could experience is how he lives on in me.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Min Gi is on TV

Last week at Asurajang, our friend Jinju showed up with camera in tow. Apparently, her husband is being profiled for a kind of documentary show because he is an "early adapter" which is Konglish for a techie geek--someone who buys the latest technology and writes manuals and reviews online to let other people know about the advantages and flaws of a product. The documentary contrasts Jinju and her husband with an old couple in the Korean countryside who live without much technology of any kind. Anyhow, several members of my swing club, including Min Gi, were interviewed for the program.

You can watch the program here (it does open up a video program on your computer so if your security settings are really high, you might not be able to see it). At around 24:43 the section about the swing dance club begins, and at 26:08 you can see my husband joking around that Jinju's phone number changes so often that he has two numbers stored in his phone for her, but whenever she calls him, a new number pops up and he doesn't know who is calling (this was related to the profile where Jinju was complaining a bit about her husband often changing her phone). You can also see my friends Leah (the only white person in the interview) and Jina as well as some of Joey (Leah's husband) dancing with Jinju. In the background of some shots are other folks I know and love dearly.

Well, enjoy!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Korea's Suicide Rate: It still makes me sad...

The Washington Post covered Choi Jin-young's suicide.

I have an idea about mental health outreach in South Korea that I plan to work on gathering resources and support for when I return to the U.S.--hopefully when I return to Korea (in like five or so years), I will be able to enact it.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Gyeongju Spring Flowers

Scenic bridge in Gyeongju on the perilous drive up to Seokguram.

Although you'd never know it from the weather this week, spring has arrived in Korea. Spring means lots of flowers, especially the numerous 벚꽃--cherry blossoms (many originally planted during Japanese imperialism as a way to demoralize and imperialize Korea, which have thankfully lost much of their negative associations for young Koreans). Last weekend, Min Gi and I drove out to Gyeongju to visit our friend Hayoung, partake of the spring flowers, and finally see Seokguram one of the most famous historic pieces of Buddhist art in all of Korea that I have managed to fail to see on each of my many trips to Gyeongju.

Min Gi in front of the grotto that houses the stone buddha of Seokguram.

Seokguram, along with Bulguksa, make up one of Gyeongju's two UNESCO World Heritage sites. Although it is only a few kilometers from the temple I've visited many times, I've never actually made it out there. Carved in the late 700s, the stone statue in the cave is quite stunning and well-preserved, although it is behind glass and photos are not permitted. The winding path up the mountain was terrifying in Min Gi's old Korando, but the walk to and from the grotto was peaceful and natural.

We even observed this guy, a woodpecker (딱다구리).

We had a traditional Korean lunch with our friend Hayoung, who was one of the announcers at our wedding. We then had some coffee in a small park near his apartment.

And I revert to my five year old self.

Finally, Min Gi and I battled the intense traffic of every other Korean person in Gyeongsangbuk-do who wanted to see the cherry blossoms near Beomun Lake resort and took two hours to drive less than five kilometers.

But the peaceful afternoon views were worth the crowds.

Gyeongju Spring Flowers

Friday, April 16, 2010

Learning from my colleagues

"Ms. Park... why are there sprinklers watering the dusty athletic field that has no grass whatsoever?"

"Oh... The field gets too dusty, so they try to keep it damp. It's healthier for the students' lungs."

Weird. Especially since it rained yesterday. But hey... the answer makes more sense than not knowing.


Mr. Lee is a math teacher who takes my English conversation class for non-English teachers. He is the most capable of speaking in English (though some of the other teachers are just as good at reading/writing). He recently welcomed his second child--a son. We'd been studying families and the homework assignment was to write an essay describing his family. In the essay he said his son was 16 days old and in a 조리원. I had no idea what that was, so I asked him.

"It's a kind of place for children after they are born. A house kind of." His face looked a little pained as he searched for the words to explain. I misunderstood this as worry for his son and thought it might be an incubator.

"Like a small glass house that sometimes babies go if they are too early?"

"No. no. It's for babies and mothers. A resting place."

"Oh, not in a hospital?"

"No, not a hospital. It's warm. In Korea we think warm is good for the baby and the mother. And women help with the baby so my wife can rest."

"I don't think we have those in America. Like a place just for women and newborn babies so they don't have to cook for themselves and such? Nurses and other helpers take care of mom and baby?"

"Yes. For maybe three weeks."

"Wow! That would be so nice. Is it expensive?"

"Some. We are using an expensive place!" He says this with pride.

"How much is it?"

"Our place is 2,700,000 won."

"For the whole three weeks?"


"That's not too bad, considering how much help it must be to your wife!"


Back in the teacher's room, I tell Ms. Suh what I learned about 조리원 to confirm that I understood what Mr. Lee was saying. We then started talking about the differences between America and Korea in birth culture.

"I think American women and Korean women are different species," declares Ms. Suh with a playful smile on her face.

"No, no. Not different species! Just different cultures." I insist.

"My friend told me that in America when women give birth, they can walk the next day. That's not true in Korea."

I'd heard about the belief in Korea that after giving birth women should rest in a rather extreme fashion, so I objected quickly. "Korean women CAN walk, too. They just don't."

Ms. Suh insisted for a few minutes more, while I maintained that biologically, Korean women are capable of walking but culturally they are instructed not to do so, until Ms. Park (who has two children) returned to help us out.

"Ms Park, help us out. Can Korean women walk after giving birth?"

"Yes! Ms. Park will know because she has experience! Tell us!" Ms. Suh was very excited at this point.

Ms. Park gave us both the funniest deadpan look. "Well, people like to say that women can't walk after giving birth. But two hours after the birth of my daughter, I was up and walking around the hospital looking for her."

We all laughed.

After Ms. Suh went off to class, I learned more about the cultural practices surrounding birth in Korea from Ms. Park. Like women in the 조리원 are not supposed to stand to shower for the first few days (ew!) and have to be wheeled around like an invalid for a week or more.

Overall a very educational day for me...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Veggie Wrap with Tofu "Ranch" Dip

This post is about the perfect lunch. It is for Jen and Danielle and anyone else who loves good food.

A story: About two years ago, I was asked to bring veggies and dip to a bachelorette party. Awesome. Except that finding veggie dip in Korea is next to impossible. And finding normal ingredients to make dip, like cream cheese or refried beans (vegetarian, of course) is impossible. Not to mention shopping for the appropriate spices... So I started experimenting with substitutes like tofu instead of cream cheese and some other things. I figured out a recipe that is really easy to make, vegan, and pretty much universally popular. I've been breaking it out for parties since then.

This week, having finished the burritos I cooked and having half a pack of tortilla wrappers still in the fridge, I thought that making a veggie wrap using this "dip" as a sauce might be awesome. It was. So first... how to make Tofu "Ranch" Dip:

1 package tofu (I like organic)
1/2 medium onion, chopped
5-8 cloves of garlic (depending on how much of a garlic fan you are)
black pepper
2 tbsp (approximate... I don't actually measure) olive oil (extra virgin if you can)
2 stalks of green onion
Optional: Other herbs/spices, such as parsley, oregano, and basil, as you like; I tend to use what's in the cupboard if I have it. These are not necessary, but can add a nice flavor.

Blend tofu, onion, garlic, olive oil, and spices until smooth.
Chop (I use kitchen scissors) the green onion into little pieces and put in the dip. Blend with a spoon.

Voila! Simple, vegan, and everybody loves it (I assure you... even people who normally think tofu is gross).

To make it a wrap:

Warm one tortilla.
Chop up some veggies you like and stir fry them (I used onions, mushrooms, and red pepper here).
Add 1-2 tbsp of the Tofu "Ranch" Dip to the tortilla.
Place some lettuce and a chopped up tomato on top.
Add the stir fried veggies. And maybe some Parmesan cheese like I did today... mmm.


The dip took about 15 minutes to make and the wrap another 15 minutes beyond that. You'll have plenty of dip leftover for more wraps later in the week. Or get some carrots, cucumbers, and celery and go to town with raw veggies. It's awesome!

Feel free to mix up the veggies as you like. I'm thinking that eggplant and zucchini would be good stir-fried. Or you could do an all raw veggie wrap with cucumbers and carrots (and raw onions). You could replace the lettuce with spinach or add chicken (if you eat meat, of course). So many delicious options. I'm sure I will try them all...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Getting out of my funk.

Yeah. Yesterday was the end of a five-day-long bout of major second-guessing. Sorry I dragged you all into it.

I had a really good talk with Min Gi last night about all of these weird back and forth feelings. He's completely supportive of either decision and also really flexible and understanding (like if we hate it in America, or can't find a job, we'll just enjoy some time there and live with my folks for a bit and make plans to come back to Korea earlier than anticipated). Just hearing him say that made me realize that we're going to be ok. The things I'm worried about (finding a job, health care issues, readjusting, cost of living), while certainly not trivial, are all things I know we can deal with if they turn out badly. Furthermore delaying moving to DC for one more year will not lessen any of those anxieties (even if the teaching job market does improve, I'll still worry about finding a good job), but it might make me feel like I'm just stagnating here in Korea (a feeling I had more than once this year, so it is almost certainly the right time to leave).

Funny thing is, I had these same exact feelings when I was preparing to leave to go to Korea. I loved my life in America, my job, my hobbies, and my friends, but there was something I wanted more than that. It's the same now. I love my life in Korea, but I need to return to America for personal and professional reasons. Min Gi is at the right point in his professional and personal life to live abroad. Delaying will just end up making it harder.

Having reaffirmed my decision, my students then promptly tried to make me regret by being awesome (Aren't you insanely jealous I get to teach these kids?). It's gonna be a rough couple of months saying goodbye to Korea... but I'm ready to do it now.

Especially after it snowed--SNOWED!!!--tonight in April. Yeah, I can do without that for a bit.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Top Ten Reasons to Return to U.S.A.

I've been struggling ever since buying my (much too expensive) plane ticket back to D.C. last week (and booking the kitties to ride with me, of course) with the reality that I'm leaving Korea--my home for the last three years.

I know I'm making the right choice for myself and my family in returning, but I am going to miss so many things about my life here and am returning to so much uncertainty (no job, no apartment, no health care--ack!) in a poor economic climate (when I know that if I stayed one more year here I'd be grad school debt free) that I keep second guessing my decision. What's really annoying is that my brain decided to wait until AFTER I've done something pretty permanent, like buying a one-way plane ticket and a visa for my husband, to start questioning my decision. Perhaps my brain knew better than to question before, since I'm facing some pretty compelling reasons to stay here one more year--not the least of which is that I love LOVE my job and it's likely the job market for teachers in the DC area (which is a hot mess right now) will be much more favorable at this time next year.

I need to list the reasons why I want to return so that I can make it more appealing.

1. Professional development. Having completed my MA last year, I'm now at a career stand-still in my current job, even though I love it. My long term career goals require me to return to the states for at least three years and possibly pursue certification in a second or third area and I can't really do that here.
2. Family. Can't get into this on the blog, but I've been away too long. It's been a rough year for the family and while my return will initially burden them, I think after a few months and getting established, I can help them out a lot.
3. Min Gi getting to know my culture. I've lived in his for three years, and it really allows me to appreciate him in ways I don't know that I would if I hadn't lived here. I'm hoping living in America does the same for him with me.
4. Value to society. In Korea, I'm kind of a non-member of society. My contributions here, while difficult for me and important for the people I see daily, are rather insignificant and shallow compared with when I lived in the U.S.
5. Certain hobbies. I haven't been able to do theater, sew, sail, garden, bake, swim regularly, or go camping in Korea. I miss these activities immensely. (Of course, conversely... continuing TKD, skiing, and swing dance will all be much more expensive in the U.S.)
6. Going Vegan. Considering doing this. In America, it will be much easier.
7. Seeing Green. Korea is a concrete jungle. Now, yes, I know the suburban sprawl has many disadvantages, not the least of which is rendering a car an almost necessity, but there are so many pretty parks in residential areas. I love being outdoors in the U.S. It's harder to get that feeling in Korea, though I certainly have found some ways to achieve it.
8. Diversity of Food. There is just so much more choice in America. Although I plan to try to eat more locally than I did when I last lived in the U.S., I still love wandering through supermarkets in general wonder and glee. Any ingredients you need to make Korean foods are readily available in America. This is NOT true in reverse. (For that matter, diversity in other things is also a good thing about America).
9. Privacy/Space. People have a wide personal space bubble and respect it. You can have an evening drink in your own backyard--a personal piece of paradise. No one will dare touch your boobs, your hair, or your car (or if they do, you're allowed to shoot them... well... maybe not, but certainly within your rights to give them a nasty dressing-down).
10. Bathtubs. It's just not the same to take your novel to the local jjimjilbang.

Care to add yours? Please... inspire me to want to go back to the U.S. Please... I'm on the verge of cancelling my ticket and signing on for another year...

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Ten Most Influential Books

I heard about the NYTimes challenge on Ask a Korean's blog, but of course William and Danielle beat me to it. It took me a long time to figure out and filter what books had the biggest influence on my thinking (because the books that have influenced my writing the most are an entirely different set). I will list these roughly chronologically in the order that I encountered them in my life and why they had such a lasting impact.

1. Free to Be You and Me and the 1988 sequel, Free to Be a Family, was originally a folk song album and television show from the 1970s designed by Marlo Thomas and others to combat gender stereotypes in children's' stories. I listened to the album on Mom's old record player and read and re-read the stories so many times I still have them all practically memorized. Like I explained on my other blog, I was raised feminist.

2. Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein began a lifelong love affair with poetry and the English language. I still have about 20 poems from this book memorized (among my favorites are "The Garden," the title poem, and "Snowman") and carried a battered, well-loved copy of this book (the same one I've had since childhood) with me to Korea. Whenever I have a bad day, I can take out this gem, read a poem from it, and magically be transported to a place beyond happiness and peace. Not only are the messages in the poems full of irreverence and magic, but the poems themselves are musical and funny. Because of Silverstein, I wrote poetry for most of my life, and though I have shifted mostly to prose at this point in my life, I remain forever devoted to the study and worship of verse. Especially silly stuff.

3. Letters to Judy: What Kids Wish They Could Tell You by brilliant young adult novelist, Judy Blume, was purchased by my mother in an attempt to better prepare herself for my adolescence. I quickly usurped it and spent hours pouring over the letters written to her by kids, not too unlike myself, who read her books and felt in her a kindred spirit--an adult who might actually be able to understand what they were going through. Her empathy with teens of all backgrounds and her desire to help communicate with the parents of those teens was admirable. This book taught me a lot about being a teen, but even more about being a good person. Although it has been many years since I have re-read the now yellowing pages, I believe that much of my empathy for and love of teens as a high school teacher grew out of this book.

4. A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare. I know what you're thinking... does Shakespeare really influence anyone's thinking all that much? I mean, I know we love him and appreciate him and all that... but really? Shakespeare? Ok... I know this sounds really pretentious, but Shakespeare (and other Renaissance poets, actually) speaks to me. On a deeply personal level. Although Silverstein awakened my interest in poetry at a young age, when I first read Midsummer in seventh grade, I felt like I belonged in this world. I did not struggle with the language or themes at all--reading this play (and the other Shakespeare plays I read after) was like breathing for me--as effortless and as essential. Here is a story about female friendship betrayals, loyalty to a fairy world, striving for artistic excellence and failing, unrequited love, overbearing parents... It spoke to me on so many levels--the humor, the sadness, the wit, the magic. I have since read many other Shakespeare plays, and each one has affected me in similar ways, but of course this first encounter was the most powerful. I was lucky enough in 2006 to get to perform as Helena with The Port Tobacco Players and it was a transcendent experience. There. Now you know. I'm a Bard-worshipping fool.

5. In ninth grade, I was assigned Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, which is a wholly unremarkable book in the field of literary classics. I didn't particularly like any of the characters--they were whiny and entirely too passive for my tastes. I empathized most with the shrill, sickly, and controlling wife Zeena who is "holding" Ethan and Mattie back from pursuing their love and dreams. Furthermore, the book almost glorifies suicide as a valid solution to a seemingly impossible situation--gross! However, the experience of reading it changed my life and the way that I have read every book since then.

I think every smart kid studying literature in high school asks themselves: We look at all these themes and deep meaning and other such things in the books we read, but did the authors really mean to put them there? Aren't they just trying to tell a good story? Is literary analysis really just a bunch of erudite bullshit? Well, Wharton's novel was the first book where I saw the intentionality of the writer in making the setting reflect the internal mood of the characters--where I saw the motifs of light and seeing being woven with care to create a greater message about the control we might have over our own fate and Ethan's blindness to it. Perhaps the slight inferiority of the prose was the reason it was easier to see Wharton's heavy hand, but either way, I have read books since then with an eye for the author's purpose and never since thought literary analysis was anything but engaging in one of the most satisfying intellectual pleasures which is available to man. Or woman, if you prefer.

6. I first read Black Boy (American Hunger) by Richard Wright in tenth grade and was so absorbed by his prose and presentation of race and identity that I immediately checked out Native Son from the library. Reading Native Son on my own seems to have given me a radically different perspective on the book than most of my friends who read it with a high school teacher's guidance. I believe that we are not supposed to like Bigger (I hate him). His murder of his girlfriend (while on the run for the "crime" for which he is not responsible) was beyond cruel and cannot be blamed entirely on the racial atmosphere of Chicago. Bigger's continued unrepentance in the face of death further supports my belief that he is supposed to serve as a warning to young, black men not to let the racial injustices of the world corrupt and pollute their essence, not to excuse the violence of black men because the society is so stacked against them (as I have been told is the common interpretation of the book). His words have had a lasting influence on my understanding of race and of people different from myself (taking care not to oversimplify their lives based on my own faulty understanding) as well as on the need for personal responsibility in the face of difficulties both personal and political.

On another note, I think Wright is one of the finest writers and greatest minds ever to have lived, and find it disgusting that the majority of 20th century critics have relegated his accomplishments to being within the sphere of black civil rights writers. The issues he raises in his books resonate across human experience. What is perhaps most upsetting to me is that Wright died early (at the age of 52) in 1960, without ever getting to see the changes on American society wrought by the civil rights movement. Teaching Black Boy to tenth graders has only strengthened my love for this writer and his work.

7. In my first semester of college, I took a sophomore level literature survey with one of the most brilliant professors I had the joy of encountering, Donna Richardson. We began with a survey of Romantic poetry and in order to deal with the complexity of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience by William Blake, three other members of the class and myself formed a twice-weekly study group that became almost legendary (students not in the class would ask to participate). Blake, along with Wordsworth and Shelley, helped me understand Christianity's influence on English literature in new ways. I never converted, but I became a lot more empathetic and curious about religion--even joining a non-denominational Bible study group and becoming obsessed with Milton's Paradise Lost and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar.

Although this experience would have changed my reading forever had tragedy not struck the group, the drowning death of one of the study group's founding members, Justin Bates (who did, not coincidentally, convert to born-again Christianity at the end of the semester of our study group), at the end of that first year of university reinforced the power and the potential danger of studying literature. By the time I watched Dead Poet's Society, I didn't even need to see the end. I had already lived it.

8. Ok, I love my parents dearly, and they are talented at many things, but they are not so good with money. After my first year in college, I realized that I needed to learn about personal finance if I was ever going to become an independent young woman. So I started reading the website, The Motley Fool, and then picked up You Have More Than You Think from the library. Although it is not my favorite personal finance book that I have read since then, I credit the book and the website with giving me my basic introduction to the language and principles of personal finance and putting me on a path to financial responsibility and independence.

9. I'm going to get a lot of crap for listing this in my ten most influential books, but I have to put it here for many, many reasons. I read it because my boyfriend in college was reading it for a philosophy class. Before I explain how a tome such as The Rules, which is so often criticized for its shallowness and anti-feminist rhetoric, ended up on this list, let me clarify what I think about the "method" for snaring "Mr. Right" espoused by the book: It's crap. The kind of man you get for stifling your opinions and emotions and faking how interesting you are is likely stupid (to be taken in by your antics) and chauvanistic (for believing that women shouldn't be too emotional or opinionated). I do not recommend anyone follow the ridiculous suggestions offered up by the book. That said...

Reading the introduction and the premise behind The Rules taught me a lot about how to set boundaries in relationships and how to value myself and my own opinions (including my opinion to reject the method in the book--ironically). Behind the ridiculousness of its packaging, the authors really want to help women who never bother to assess the behavior of men as telling you something about how they value (or don't as the case may be) you from their treatment of you. People who want to be in your life and will treat you with kindness and love behave in certain, predictable ways. While the book ironically recommends that women not behave in these ways towards men because men will become uninterested in them immediately (giving little credit to the brainpower of either gender), the lessons on lessening co-dependency and building trust slowly and appropriately in my life were well taken. This book also sparked an interest in other relationship books that led to my discovering ones that are much more useful and compelling in both the theory and the recommended practices. So yes, The Rules, you're on my list. And it is really a greater honor than you deserve.

10. Frank McCourt retired from teaching high school English and promptly wrote three memoirs destined to become classics within a very short time. Teacher Man was the last of the series that began with the highly acclaimed Angela's Ashes, and of course I read all three. I read a lot of teacher memoirs and biographies in my early years of teaching, but most of them were about amazing sacrifice and near-martyrdom of teachers. In America, we are in love with the teacher image that involves giving up everything of yourself to the noble altar of education. What I loved about McCourt's book is that it is refreshingly honest and doubting. Here is a man who was without a doubt a great teacher, but he talks about the great intentions we have on Friday nights to finally get caught up with all the grading, immediately waylaid by Friday Happy Hours with our co-workers. About struggling with students who challenge not just your authority, but your entire vision of what is true in the world. About dreaming of publishing your own writing, but being too caught up in the worlds of your students' writing to find the time. About feeling like you are swimming in mediocrity in a world that at once dismisses your profession and glorifies it in false ways. Actually, after writing this, I feel like I want to run out and read it again!

And so... those are the ten. Some books that barely missed the list include everything by Dostoevsky, War and Peace, The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Things We Carried by Tim O'Brien, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, everything by Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein, the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and the plays of Tennessee Williams (especially The Glass Menagerie).

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Visiting Ben; Ko Kret Pottery Village

Our friend and my first swing dance teacher, Ben, lives in Bangkok. The first night we arrived, Ben met us at the hotel and showed us around a bit by taking us to an amazing Thai seafood restaurant. We sat right on the river and ate delicious curry as we caught up on Ben's life since we'd last seen him at the wedding.

Dinner with Ben. We made his girlfriend wait too long and she went home before we met her--oops!

Ben recommended a day trip to the small traditional pottery island, Ko Kret, which was just a little north of Bangkok proper and accessible from the main river. Although we had wanted to find an independent boat to take us there so we could explore at our leisure, we were only able to find a group tour boat. It was ok because we got to see a number of small temples and some interesting scenes along the river, but we only had one hour to explore the island of Ko Kret itself and both Min Gi and I felt like that wasn't really enough time.

One of the royal longboats housed in the Royal Boats Museum

A pottery artist works on Ko Kret.

Typical family home along the river running through Bangkok. This one is pink! Yay, pink!

Ko Kret Tour and One Night in Bangkok

And so I have arrived at the end of our honeymoon travels. It was an amazing two weeks, through two beautiful countries. We ate a ton of awesome food and saw lots of cool stuff and even came back with matching tattoos. I think we're going to do this honeymoon thing every year!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee (Wednesday Review #5)

The first novel by one of the best known Korean American novelists begins in such a compelling way--with a list of the main character's flaws as written out by his wife who is leaving him. However, Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee follows a twisted and sometimes confusing path through the mid-life of a second generation Korean immigrant and spy, Henry Park, whose current assignment to follow a charismatic Korean-American politician, John Kwang, leads him on his own search for identity.

Lee is a hell of a writer. He plays with words and ideas in a way that sucks you in and reminds me of some of my favorite American wordsmiths--Richard Wright, Tim O'Brien, Cormac McCarthy--while at the same time addressing some of the issues of alienation that make other American immigrant writers, such as Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Richard Rodriguez so powerful. The scenes that stuck with me were the ones between Park and his father and the difficulties he has with his wife and family.

However, I found the structure of the novel off-putting. I don't know that the whole spy gambit was necessary except as a plot device to contrast Kwang's immigrant experience with Henry's father's. I felt that the story was almost so ambitious as to be unfocused. Was it a story about a parent's loss? About a broken marriage? About an American unable to connect with his Korean roots? About political intrigues of minority politicians? I don't know. I felt like Lee may have bitten off more than this story could chew. I'm glad I read it, but I wouldn't jump out of my socks recommending it to others.

That said, I would like to read more of Lee's work before judging him. As I said, I think he can write, even if this story does not grab me. Fortunately, he has three other books I can sink my teeth into when I get back to America. Yay for public libraries!

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Sights of Bangkok

In front of the Royal Palace.

We finished our honeymoon in Bangkok. We stayed on a nice hotel just off Khao San Road called Rambuttri Village Inn--our only hotel of the entire trip with air conditioning and a pool, but both were worth it by this point in our journey.

The stone guardians had such funny expressions.

On our first full day in the city, we simply walked around the city and visited the three main historical/cultural attractions: The Royal Palace which houses the "Emerald" Buddha (actually jade), Wat Pho a temple that houses the famous gold Reclining Buddha, and across the river Wat Arun or the Temple of the Dawn.

The huge Reclining Buddha statue of Wat Pho.

The day we visited, there were supposed to be some huge political protests and all the taxi drivers told us not to go downtown, but other than a strong police presence near The Royal Palace, there was absolutely nothing going on. I was actually a bit disappointed because it could have made for some cool pictures.

Min Gi attempts to blend in with the giant guardians of the Royal Palace.

The steps of Wat Arun, Temple of the Dawn, are quite steep. They reminded us a bit of the steep climes at Angkor.

After viewing the Royal Palace in Cambodia and the temples in the capitol city, the obvious difference in the economic situations of the two countries is very noticeable. Too bad they have to be practically at war with each other over sites of their mutual heritage.

Bangkok Sights

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Short Story Published on Internet Magazine

Good news for me! The online literary magazine, Girls with Insurance, published a short story of mine today called "Suicide Hotline." It is entirely fiction, though obviously based somewhat on my experiences as a volunteer crisis counselor. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Spring Weather... finally (Sunday Health #4)

Happy Easter (in of course an entirely secular chocolate-hoarding bunny rabbit kind of way--or a Christian way if you dig that)!

Well after recovering from my cold last week, I'm starting to get back into my good habits. I'm down another kilo, putting me at 79 (that's about 174 lbs), which I'm very happy with. Especially because I had a really bad day on Thursday health wise (skipping taekwondo to stay home an order a pan pizza and drink Coke Zero... not smart).

However, I think that it will just get easier to maintain my good health habits now that the weather in Korea is starting to resemble spring. It's been so cold throughout all of March (with a snowstorm to kick off the month) and raining a lot in the last two weeks, but the last few days have been bright and sunny. Still a bit chilly, but the flowers are starting to bloom on the trees and we've been able to open up the windows during the day, which the kitties love.

What's amazing about this whole focus on the important things only that I've been doing lately, I've been really productive with my writing, reading, and teaching. You may have noticed my blogging productivity increasing (including beginning a new blog), but I've also been polishing old stories and sending them out to various publications as well as taking on some new writing projects that I will announce on this blog when they near completion. Anyhow, it feels really good. I just decided that rather than talk and dream about being a writer, I've got to just do it. And so, I am! It's awesome.

I'm going to continue to focus on all my health habits established so far and add one new one (because Min Gi got me a pedometer for my birthday two weeks ago). Let me re-state the goals/habits I'm establishing so far:

1) Giving up soda and replacing it with a cup or two of green tea in the morning
2) Eating food outside the home rarely
3) Resuming nightly taekwondo
4) Tracking my weight weekly
5) Keep a food journal
6) eat mindfully
7) Getting enough sleep every night
8) Spend as much time as possible pursuing my five passions and cutting out everything else
9) Clean, organize, and trim my possessions down to less STUFF getting in the way
10) (New one) Get at least 8,000 steps in every day (my average this week was about 7,000, so this seems reasonable)

Slowly, these things are becoming habits. When they become regular parts of my week, I will add more. It's definitely improving my energy levels. And I've had no problems with the UC. Rock on, Diana!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Reads from the Blogging World This Week #2

I loved I'm no Picasso's posts on her likes and dislikes of dating in Korea. It's clever, honest, and astute observations about an aspect of Korean culture particularly dear to my heart.

In Investigated by Immigration over newspaper involvement... , Brian in Jeollanam-do depicted a legal pickle he ended up in with Korean immigration because one reporter took offense to his writing. It is a fine reminder to bloggers who are in Korea (or anywhere, really) of the dangers that could come from speaking your mind. I think people should still speak out, but just be ready to deal with the consequences of doing so.

Amanda blogs on Amanda Takes Off... some poignant reflections on continuing to study taekwondo after getting your black belt. In her post, Continuing Taekwondo, she talks about how children and those who don't have the black belts yet seem to care the most about rank, but that getting a black belt is just the beginning for a martial artist.

Korean gender studies blogger The Grand Narrative examines sexual assault in the Korean military (mandatory 2+ year service for all Korean men) in Sex as Power in the South Korean Military. In a country where rape is consistently under reported because of the shame victims will bring their families, it is no surprise that few men admit to being victims of sexual violence, though many report witnessing it against others.

In non-Korea related blogging, my absolute favorite personal finance blogger, Trent of The Simple Dollar, writes about self-improvement and the amount of control we have over our own lives being much greater than we perceive in Personal Finance and the Path of Least Resistance. He is specifically not addressing people in countries without freedom or people who are truly impoverished, but the majority of middle class individuals from OECD countries do have choices. I would further state that they have a responsibility to the rest of the world to make good ones.

Finally, I am a teacher-dork, so I want to share with you the fact that for my gifted literature class this year, we are reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road and keeping a blog about it. You can't post if you're not in the class, but if you'd like to see how my teaching experiment in technology is progressing, feel free to check it out: Gifted Class The Road Blog.

Korea's Marriage Migrants

Doing research for an upcoming project, I stumbled across a fascinating piece of research presented at the International Conference on Border Control and Empowerment of Immigrant Brides held in September 2007 in Taipei. Marriage Migrant Women in Korea and Attempts to Organize Them was presented by Lee, Inkyoung. She uses case studies and statistical data to highlight the problems faced by women, mostly from rural China and Vietnam, who come to Korea to marry with the promise of the wealth of a more powerful country. Unfortunately, the reality of such arranged marriages rarely live up to the promise of "The Korean Dream."

Some excerpts:

“There were many people who went to work in Korea from my hometown. They became richer and built nice houses when they came back. I envied them a lot. I was keen to work in Korea. But it was quite difficult to get a working visa. One of my acquaintances introduced me to a Korean man. I just thought that I would marry him and as soon as I arrive in Korea, I would run away from him and work somewhere. But the guy was quite gentle to me. We just fell in love with each other after several meetings and I gave up running away from him. But you have to know it, most foreign brides come to Korea because of poverty. If they are well-educated or if their family has a lot of property, they never come to Korea for marriage especially to men old enough to be their father. Our family does not have much money and could not give us education so I came here. Even Korean men who are married to foreigners don’t have money like us. If they are tall, well educated, or have good jobs and good salary, they never marry us. We were poor there but we are poor here in Korea.”? Related by a Chinese who has lived for 3 years in Korea.

It’s a story from my Chinese coworker. I believe she explained well the situation at home, their motivation for marriage migration and the method they use. I already gave up academic value in this paper. I think it’s beyond my ability. I am using many cases to understand the situation of marriage migrant women in Korea.


Usually Korean men who want to marry Vietnamese have to pay around 10,000USD to 15,000USD to the brokers. The brokers take the men for marriage trips for 5 nights and 6 days on the average. I would like to describe in detail what they do during the trip so that we can understand how quickly marriage is conducted by the brokers. The first day, they reach Vietnam. They attend a marriage meeting and select their girls. If the girls agree to marry them they meet the girls' parents and date with the girls and prepare documents in seconds. They apply for spouse visa to the Korean embassy and take a medical check-up and go shopping for their brides on the third day. They have the wedding and sleep together on the fourth day and go on honeymoon trip on the fifth day. Korean husbands take a medical check up and come back to Korea on the sixth day. I think it's quite a short time for someone to meet and decide his/her spouse within 6 days. Brokers' interest is getting higher by the success rate of marriage. So the brokers never provide real information to either party but only the image of Asian women to Korean men and developed Korean society to foreign women. This kind of marriage has potential problems due to lack of information and time. We receive many complaints from migrant women towards the brokers such as domestic violence, confinement, and other severe human rights abuses.

The statistics she pulls are also enough to knock some sense of perspective into the English teacher K-blogging circle who complain about Korea's reaction to their relationships with Korean women. Of the 39,690 marriages between a Korean national and a foreign person registered in 2006, almost 70% were between a Korean man and a woman from China, Vietnam, Philippines, Mongolia, Cambodia, and Uzbekistan, countries known to have marriage brokering services for Korean men.

People who complain about E-2 visa regulations in Korea may not be wrong, but they really should realize that there are bigger immigration fish to fry in this homogeneous and sometimes xenophobic country. Do some good and educate yourself about these things.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Wash Your Own Darn Cup!

This morning I walked into the staff room to fix my usual cup of green tea. The principal was at the sink, halfheartedly running water over his coffee mug. As I entered, he gave me a pathetic little half-smile. This was not a look of greeting, but I had no idea why he was looking at me like that, so I smiled back weakly and proceeded to get my tea.

Five seconds later the female gym teacher comes barging in with a horrified expression on her face, yanks the coffee mug out of his hands, and washes it for him. He leaves the room without so much as a thank you when it dawns on me: He expected that I was going to wash his mug for him.

In Korea, female subordinates (by age or position) always do things like get the coffee and wash the dishes for the office. I try to ignore it because it gets the feminist all riled up in me, and usually I can because they don't expect foreigners to comply with Korean hierarchy all the time. But now that I'm married to a Korean man, the principal must think I'm a Korean woman.

I say to you Mr. Principal, if you are really so helpless as a 50 year old man that you can't wash a coffee cup, you don't deserve to be drinking coffee, much less running a school. Do you even wipe your own bottom?

Oh, Korea...


"Hi Mom. I'm just calling to let you know I'm ok. You probably heard the news by now."

"What news?"

"About North Korea?"

"What happened?"

"Oh. Wow. Turn on the TV. They invaded Seoul earlier today."

"Oh no. Why is this not the top story on the radio???"

"I don't know, but I just wanted to let you know I'm ok. The U.S. embassy sent out a report advising us not to panic and to please not plan immediate evacuation if we were south of Daejeon, but I don't know."

"You should come home RIGHT NOW. Is Min Gi's family in Seoul alright?"

"They're fine. Mom... what day is it?"

"Thursday. Why?"

"No... the date."

"The first... Oh! You're awful. Call your father and tell him, too."

He bought it hook, line, and sinker as well. Happy April Fool's Day, all.


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