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.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

June was a Healthy Month

Today is July 1, which means I'm entering the sixth month of my marriage and my last full month living in Korea (for at least a few years). Marriage is turning out to be surprisingly fun, even for the biggest introvert on the block: me. I will mostly credit my husband with the fun part, but I did come up with the morning hiking which we now do about 2-5 times a week.

Speaking of the hiking, I wanted to review June because I made my health a major priority this last month. I went to bed early enough to get 8 hours of sleep. I drank a lot of water. I started a food journal where I tracked all but one weekend of my eating, exercise, and weight. I am NOT following a diet, just trying to eat more satisfying, home-cooked, real (not processed) food and more fruit as a snack. I allowed myself to eat as much of it as I felt like (and at first that was a lot... had a lot of double or even triple dinner nights...eek!). Also, I am finally up to about 5 days/week of physical activity again. This month, I've managed to firmly establish the good health habits that were lost when I first was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. The result? I'm 4.5 kgs lighter (that's 10 lbs), but more importantly, I FEEL awesome. I have energy, my skin looks better, my body doesn't hurt after every single workout session, and I'm just... well... happier.

I'll admit the first few weeks were tough. I craved all the naughty food I'd been eating throughout my depression in April and May, like pizza and processed cheese by the boatload and ice-cream and chocolate. I actually think my body was kind of addicted to the salt and sugar. But something funny started happening the second half of the month. Even though I'd still have the passing thought of "I want pizza" or "I want chocolate," it was just a thought. I didn't actually want to eat the food--it was the leftover hardwired brain thought response to stress or exhaustion. Allowing myself to eat as much as I wanted of the good food seems to have been the key for me in breaking through that barrier.

I've gone on health kicks before, but I've never been able to break that craving barrier. I know I have some emotional eating problems at times, but this is the first time in my life that I actually physically don't want pizza or ice cream when my brain tells me that I do (there have been a couple days this month that I did physically want chocolate, so I got it, but found I was much more sated with a smaller amount than before). Even better, after a month of eating good stuff, rather than crap, I generally eat less food now and am more satisfied when I finish. For those of you who are emotional eaters with a slight bingeing problem, you know that emotional comfort you feel with an overstuffed belly? I'm now feeling MORE satisfied (and I do mean both physically and emotionally) with smaller portions of real foods than I did before. I hope this will help me continue to lose weight, but I don't really care that much if it does at this point.

And after months of being frustrated with trying to start up a new exercise program after losing all (and I do mean all) of my physical strength while I was in the hospital and on steroids, I finally figured out what works for me. Instead of trying to do a "program," I just told myself I had to do one really active thing each day, allowing myself up to 2 days of rest each week. So I could run OR hike OR ride the bike OR swim OR dance OR something else that struck my fancy.

The results have been awesome. Mostly, I hike (there is a mountain trail that starts 5 minutes from our doorstep--both convenient and appealing), but I've done a bunch of other stuff, too (like today I went swimming). I invite my husband, but I go even if he doesn't want to (although we've discovered that 6 a.m. hikes are the perfect way to start our day). I can feel my strength building, though. Last weekend, I hiked for 3 hours on a moderately strenuous mountain, something I've been unable to do since early last fall.

I finally feel like myself again. I've been able to read a bunch, I'm writing more, I'm enjoying things I had kind of stopped enjoying... Part of me has been lost since getting this disease a little over a year ago--especially those months I was on the meds, having major symptoms, or in the hospital. If I weren't leaving in less than two months, I'd even consider resuming TKD (my attempts throughout this last year have been seriously impaired by my lack of energy and low base level of fitness). As it is, I plan to continue with my plans (tracking, getting rest, eating well, being active) next month and look forward to new awareness of my body and its health.


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