Monday, August 29, 2011

Sights in Seoul: Morning Walk, Part II: Heading Home

I suppose that it should have come to no one's surprise that my earlier post,, a description of a walk along the Han River containing actual content and photographs (as opposed to my usual whining and navel-gazing) got good reviews from my readers.  While sticking to the facts is not actually a strong point of mine, I do have a weakness for positive reviews, so, having succumbed to popular opinion, I'm back with another little tour of my world in Seoul.  In today's episode, I would like to take you along with me back to our apartment building and show you a little bit of  the area around our high-rise apartment complex in Seoul.  For my big-city readers, this may not be of much interest, but the differences from our previous lifestyle in the suburban American Southwest - as well as the obvious cultural differences - are part of what has made this move so compelling for our family, and it's those that I'm interested in sharing.

Since I already documented my walk down to the Han River, I won't do the whole thing in reverse, but I will remind you that I use the subway tunnel to cross underneath the busy street in front of our apartment complex, exiting via escalator and its helpful 'way out' sign.  It's a little bizarre, rising out of the underground into the sunlight, especially since there's a giant plexiglass dome over the escalator.  It's a little bit like being that 3-eyed alien in Toy Story who gets chosen by The Claw ("Nirvana is coming! The mystic portal awaits!")

Our apartment building is one of a group of 6 high-rise buildings within our complex.  Each building has 35 or so floors, which, with an average of 4 people per family, multiplied by 6 apartments per floor, divided by 1.3 teacup-sized poodles per family, equals roughly a gazillion human beings and their pets, which has no bearing whatsoever on my description except to illustrate that there are a lot of people living here.  The buildings within the complex are connected by a series of subterranean basement parking garages below ground, and a series of paths and sidewalks above ground.  The buildings in the complex that face the area by the subway entrance all have their ground floors dedicated to various businesses:  restaurants, a few banks, realtors, hairdressers, a spa, and even a small grocery store; but mostly, restaurants.  In fact, a restaurant is just about the first thing you see when you emerge from our station exit, and the more enterprising proprietors prop their menus up pretty much right at the subway exit to catch your attention:

If that doesn't make you hungry, you can test your resolve as you walk past one eatery after the other:

There are also - unfortunately- a couple of bakeries, which is probably why - despite the fact that I now walk miles every day - I have not lost an ounce since moving here.

Paris Baguette is the most ubiquitious of bakeries in Seoul.  You see one on practically every street corner, sort of like Dunkin' Donuts in New England or Starbucks in the rest of the world (and yes, they have Starbucks in Seoul as well.  There is no escaping it.) Fresh-baked bread and pastries are displayed seductively in the windows, making it very difficult to stick to all those noble diet resolutions, especially when you've just hiked several miles along the river and would be well within your rights to rationalize a gluttonous binge small treat.

Of course, even if you do manage to make it past Paris Baguette without weakening, temptation still lurks around the corner in the form of Doughnut Plant:

I have no idea if Doughnut Plant is actually based in New York City (readers?), but it is decorated inside with giant black-and-white photos of youthful American-looking folks ( I base this assumption on the fact that some are wearing baseball caps)  looking carefree and hip in grainy photos in warehouse-type city settings, which I can only assume is a legitimate representation of the NYC doughnut subculture.  They make an excellent latte, have comfy bench-type chairs both inside and on the patio, and (curse them) display a giant photo menu of their wares right on the sidewalk, so even the most virtuous pedestrian cannot help but be lured in by its siren song:

This one always catches my eye, mostly because I rarely associate 'green' with 'doughnut':

And, yes, that's 2400 Korean Won for one espresso cake flavored doughnut, which translates to roughly $2.40 for one doughnut.  Having not tried the espresso cake doughnut, I cannot vouch for its quality, but I can say that for that price, it had better be pretty damn good.

If you're not interested in generic coffee-and-doughnuts, you can opt for a typical Korean summer favorite, the Red Bean Triple Berry Sherbet.  While I have not tried this yet (I still cling to close-minded Western notions that red beans should interface primarily with rice and andouille sausage, and not items in the sherbet family,  but I'm working on this) I have heard it's outstanding.  Frankly, I see no need to add any more foods to my list of Things That Taste Great That I Shouldn't Eat, so for the time being, Red Bean Sherbet is still not a temptation.

If you're looking for more of a meal, you can take your pick of a wine bistro, a Chinese Restaurant, or this traditional Korean gimbap place, which is a favorite with Son #1:

Gimbap looks a lot like some kinds of sushi.  It's basically sheets of seaweed filled with rice, seafood, vegetables, or meat, wrapped up to form a cylinder and served in slices.  It is probably the closest thing to fast food we have right near us, although there are both Domino's and Papa John's further down the street.

Once you pass the gimbap restaurant, you leave the business sector behind and pass the parking garage entrance.  Like just about everywhere in Korea, it is staffed by a sharply-dressed worker who performs his/her job with extreme pride, courtesy, and attention to detail.  The guy in the intersection is in charge of directing automobile and pedestrian traffic.  He does this with smart, almost military gestures:

...and always greets everyone with a courteous bow:

Once you leave the intersection, you will find yourself on a series of walking paths the meander between the buildings in the complex.  I have to say, when I envisioned living in a high-rise, I pictured a bleak grey building and not much else.  However, our complex is surrounded with trees, plants, walking paths, greenspace, picnic areas, and several playgrounds.  Since I dearly loved my garden and plants back home, this access to nature has gone a long way towards reconciling me to the loss of my own backyard.  Here's the steep-ish hill leading up to our building:

You'll notice the little terraced waterfalls on the right: on hot days, it's all I can do to keep from flinging myself in there, and I have seen little kids attempting it more than once.

All along the various pathways, you'll find benches, shade structures, picnic areas.  Also included is a  map of the grounds which I cannot read, but, since I'm sharp, I get the gist of it:

One of the strangest things for me, as a suburbanite, is to see a beautiful swath of plantings, like this:

...and then remember that we're actually in the middle of an enormous metropolis:

Watching the dragonflies hover over the pond, it's easy to forget...

....where you are.

I don't know if this sort of thing is typical in large apartment complexes in big cities in other parts of the world, but it's certainly not what I'd envisioned when I imagined myself living in a high-rise.  When you're wandering down a path that looks like this:

It's easy to forget that you're really here:

And I think, in some ways, that is probably a very good thing.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cultural Differences: It's an Emergency

Yesterday afternoon, I sat down and opened my e-mail to find the following in my inbox:  "Bus Emergency for Asia Vu, Son #2" sent by the transportation department at his school.

Now, I don't know about other parents, but when I get an email from my son's school with the word ' Emergency' in the title, I instantly become ready to spring into action.  Even as I opened it, I could feel the adrenaline surging through my body as the primal 'Mama Bear' instinct kicked in and provided me with the rush of power I would need to dismember any number of hikers who might be threatening my cubs or their school buses.   Wild thoughts tumbled through my head:  "Was the emergency ON the bus, or just WITH the bus?" and "Was my phone turned off?" and  "Did the emergency happen on the way to school, and, if so, why didn't they call me right away instead of casually sending me an e-mail at 1 in the afternoon?"  Then I calmed down and thought that maybe there had been an emergency that had already been taken care of, but they were taking the precaution of letting us know after the fact .  You know, so we wouldn't all inundate the school with frantic calls when our children arrived home that afternoon and casually mentioned the conflagration and subsequent evacuation on the way to school.  Keep in mind all of this took place in the millisecond it took me to read the title of the email and then open it.

Of course, logic would dictate that, even if something dire had happened to Son #2, he would have been given medical care and someone would have called me or Mr. Logical before settling down to type out a newsy summary of the event, so it was unlikely that anything too dreadful had happened.  However, there is an excellent reason that I call myself 'MsCaroline' instead of "Mrs. Logical."  That is because I felt it would be disingenuous to call myself  'Mrs. Logical' when the truth is, I am more along the lines of "Mrs. Worst-Case-Scenario" or "Mrs. Knee-jerk Reaction."  What this means is that, when I get an email with 'emergency' and my child's name in the title, my first response is to behave like any right-thinking mother and instantly panic.  Nonetheless, I was able to pull myself together enough to open and read the email, which went a long way towards calming me down.  After the usual greetings, it read in part:

 Whenever we have  Field trips, all students on F and S-bus have to take another busses. we informed each division schools. Teachers let Son #2 takes J-bus on this Thursday and Friday afternoon to go (Name of Asia Vu Family Apartment Complex).  It is our first bus emergency, and I am writing to you to reduce you feel confused. We have many bus emergencies, because each schools have to go to Field trips.

I feel so sorry but, we can’t contact with you whenever we have bus emergency. 

After several readings, I finally absorbed the gist of the email, which was:

1.  Son #2 is alive and well
2.  He has to ride a different bus home on Thursday and Friday
3.  This will happen occasionally when the buses are in use for field trips
4.  They will not be able to tell me every time this happens, but don't be surprised if Son #2 comes home on the J bus sometimes.
5.  This is probably the most polite and sincere correspondence I will ever get from a school's transportation department as long as I live.

And, once I'd started regular respiration again, I was very impressed that they'd even told me this was happening.   Both boys' bus numbers changed fairly often in the US due to a variety of unexplained reasons and no one ever bothered to even mention it to me.  A bus arrived, took them to school, and brought them home, and if the number changed, mine was not to question, but instead, remain humbly thankful that my children were being transported to school.  So it was rather refreshing - if a tiny bit alarming - to be notified - in advance, even! - of a change.   However, what really interested me was the use of the word, 'emergency' to describe what I would think of as an 'unusual event' or 'exception' or even just 'change.'   If you were trying to write this in another language, you could see how 'emergency' could  sort of fit in there, especially if you were using one of these definitions:

  • an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action. 
  • A serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action.
  • a sudden, urgent, usually unexpected occurrence requiring immediate action.

Now, while I grant you that a change in bus numbers (or letters) is unusual or unexpected, it is not exactly 'unforseen' or 'dangerous' or even 'urgent' (although, as a parent, you can only be appreciative when other people take your child and his transportation so seriously), which led me to think about what this email would have been titled back home.  Granted - as I already mentioned - this situation would probably not have been considered worthy of a parent contact back home, but if it were, I imagine it would be something like, "bus change" or 'bus change alert'. I'm pretty sure the word 'emergency' would not have been used.  Which leads me to the next question:  is this event really viewed as an emergency by the transportation people, or is it just a question of translation? I'm leaning towards translation, only because I have noticed this type of subtle-difference thing before.  For example, I noticed that more than one Korean person I spoke with had referred to our apartment complex as being 'famous' when I think they meant 'popular.'  Which (as a language-y person) made me think about the subtle differences between the two things and how difficult it would be to convey that subtle difference in another language.   Essentially, 'famous' and 'popular' mean roughly the same thing, with a slight difference:

famous:  a lot of people know about (the thing)
popular:  a lot of people know about (the thing) and like it.

A perfect example would be Justin Bieber, who is very famous but (according to what I heard from my students last year) not in the least bit popular.   Well, except with tween girls.  And someone must be buying his concert tickets and albums, right? But the important thing is that you now understand the difficulty in distinguishing between 'famous' and 'popular' which have nothing whatsoever to do with Son #2's Bus Emergency.

I, for one, am deeply relieved that there was no actual emergency, and will be looking for the 'J' bus this afternoon at 4.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sights in Seoul: Morning Walk Along the Han River

The mark of a successful man is one that has spent an entire day on the bank of a river without feeling guilty about it. — (Chinese philosopher)

On Sunday morning, I awoke to a rare, perfect summer day here in Seoul.  The sun was shining, a cool breeze was blowing, and the ordinarily-overwhelming humidity was somewhere down at the 'managable' level.  Mr. Logical, who labors under the delusion that no weekend is complete without participation in an extreme athletic endeavor, had gotten up at 4am to drive to a national park some 2 -3 hours away for a 145-km ride with a number of equally deluded committed cyclists and was suffering joyfully somewhere in the mountains.  Sons #1 and #2 are traditionalists and were, therefore, still sound asleep since it was not a school day.  This left me (since I had woken up at 4 when Mr. Logical's alarm went off and never really quite gotten back to sleep) wide awake on a gorgeous summer morning with an open agenda.

When I started blogging back in April, my intention was to keep in touch with our families and friends, and give them a little insight into our expatriate adventure in South Korea. While I think I've done well at keeping in touch, and I've definitely shared more than a few of my wacky expat misadventures, I haven't done as well at sharing my day-to-day surroundings, mostly due to the fact that I am a) forgetful; or b) usually talking.  I realize that at least some of my readers (Hi, Mom!) might like to see what our everyday life looks like here in Seoul, so with that in mind, I headed out for a walk with my camera to enjoy the all-too-rare sunny morning.

Our apartment building is a short walk from the Han River, which curves across the southern part of Seoul.   In order to get to the river path, I have to cross the busy major street in front of my apartment building. This is best accomplished by walking under the street via the subway station tunnel instead of taking my chances with the taxi drivers, who are inconsistent about stopping for things like red lights and pedestrians.  The really large subway stations may have 15 or more exits, spreading out for blocks and blocks underground, with transfer points for two or three lines, and stores, restaurants, and 7-11s scattered throughout. The station by my house is not very large, having only 5 or 6 exits and serving only the 4 line.

For those of you who have been wondering how I've been managing to navigate through a city without speaking the language, it's worth mentioning that all major subway signs are marked in English, including exits, which are always described as the 'way out.'

Even the ticket vending and 'recharging' machines are marked in English:

The touch-screen displays on the vending machines give you the option of using English, too.

Our subway station includes a little waiting area in front of the turnstiles with 'picnic' tables and benches, fake greenery, and a flat-screen TV hanging on the wall, where people sit and socialize, wait for each other, and, of course, watch TV:

Remarkably, all of this remains pristine:  no one sullies the flowers, leaves trash on the tables, graffitis, or tries to steal or damage the TV (located on the wall next to the yellow lockers.) I'd like to think that would also be the case back home, but it's doubtful.

Anyway, trekking through the subway tunnel, up the stairs, you come out on the other side of the street, where the subway opens up to a shady walkway that is adjacent to a playground and a convenient bike rack for subway riders.  Some of them are locked up, but not many.   Remarkable.

Coming out of the subway station, you often find street vendors; some in trucks, some just sitting on the ground with their wares spread out in front of them.  On this particular day, I was so early that I got there before most of the vendors, but this fruit vendor was just setting up as I walked past:

  This area is also a popular spot for political volunteers to hand out brochures and leaflets.  Apparently, there is some sort of  hot-topic proposition being discussed right now, because I have been seeing these signs everywhere:

While the use of English is appreciated, it's not particularly helpful, since I don't know enough Korean to understand the issue at hand. You find this frequently in Seoul - just enough English to give you a vague idea of what's going on, but the rest of it is in Hangul.  In this case, I'm assuming whoever hung the banner wants me to vote 'yes' regarding whatever-it-is, since that side's bigger.  I could be wrong, of course, but I'll probably never know.

From the subway, it's just a few short blocks downhill towards the river, past dozens of restaurants, stores, high-rises, and this cute little elementary school, complete with a nautically-themed playground:

Once you get to the river, it's just a short trip down one of your choice of the many flights of precarious-looking crumbling cement-block stairways which allow you to get right down to the paths by the water. There are both pedestrian-only and cycling paths along much of the river, which are heavily used.  In fact, if you get there late in the day, you will find yourself in a pack of humanity, dodging bicycles, rollerblades, intent arm-pumping walkers, and the occasional tai chi practitioner.  This area along the Han is technically a park and, if you walk far enough to the East, in addition to walking and cycling trails you'll also find playgrounds, picnic areas, workout areas and equipment (that nobody steals....just can't get over this,) and climbing walls - fully equipped with roped routes. The section where I walk is still under construction and is still limited to paths and picnic areas, with surprisingly rural-looking swaths of tall grass, wildflowers, and venerable-looking trees casting their shade all along the trails:

The main cycling path is marked with arrows to tell you which way to ride and includes a separately-marked walkers' lane.  There is also an older, concrete path that runs right next to the riverbank.  The mud all over this path, along with occasional piles of sandbags along the riverbank, are reminders of the recent flooding that took place in Seoul and which did millions of dollars worth of damage.

Pedestrian and cycling lanes are marked.
Sandbags left over from recent flooding.

Mud on the pedestrian path from recent flooding

One of the things you'll probably have noticed is that many pedestrians and cyclists wear face masks of some kind.  I have heard varying explanations for this, from a desire to filter out some of Seoul's big-city air pollution, to a desire to protect one's skin from the sun.  Since you see the masks on both men and women, I'm leaning more towards the air-quality explanation, although it's true that Korean women are very serious about protecting their skin.  In any case, it certainly alarmed me the first few times I saw it, since, in the US, wearing a bandanna over the bottom half of your face is normally an indication of hostile intent (unless the wearer is 5 years old and also wearing a cowboy hat);  however, I soon became used to it and now no longer nervously look around for help every time a menacing-looking fitness buff passes by.

In recent years, the area south of the river has become a very trendy part of the city in which to live, and construction on that side is taking place at a tremendous rate.
High-rises and construction cranes south of the river
Construction and bridges and high-rises notwithstanding, you can still get a lovely view of the ever-present mountains that encircle us:

And even the distant high-rises look pretty across the peaceful river in the early morning.

Next up:  Part II:  Walking Home:  A glimpse into the neighborhood right around our high-rise apartment complex.  

To get to this section of the Hangang Park on the Han River, take line 4 to Ichon station, exit #4.  Walk out the exit and go straight for 3 or 4 blocks and under the bridge.  You will see the river straight ahead.  

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The One Where Mercury is Retrograde

"What happens when Mercury retrogrades? You miss appointments, your computer equipment crashes, checks get lost, you find the car you just purchased during Mercury retrograde is a lemon. (Or, you hate your haircut, the lamp you bought shorts out, your sister hates her birthday gift.) There will be countless delays, cancellations and postponements..."  - Astrology Zone by Susan Miller

If you are a person of reason and logic who scoffs at superstitious beliefs such as astrology or finger-crossing, then you have missed out on an excellent opportunity to blame unpleasant and annoying circumstances in your life on the 'apparent backward motion' of the planet Mercury.  As I understand it, (and I don't ) the planet Mercury 'goes retrograde' some three times per year, which has something to do with the equatorial equinox, Avogadro's number,  the Cleveland Browns, and  - oh, who am I kidding.  I have no idea what causes Mercury to go retrograde, much less what 'retrograde' really means in this case. All I know is that- according to those who study these things- when Mercury is retrograde, it is wise to keep your head down, avoid complicated travel plans, and postpone signing important documents.  Whether you believe this or not, what I can say with complete confidence is that, when things start going wholesale catawumpus in the Asia Vu household, it is never a surprise to anyone to discover that Mercury is retrograde.  

I have been aware of this 'Mercury retrograde' phenomenon for almost 20 years, and , knowing what I know, you would think that I would find out in advance when it was going to occur, and move my family into an underground bunker for the duration.  However,  1) this has almost never been a viable option for us, what with the jobs and the children and all; and 2) Mercury is very adaptable, and moving into a bunker would not in any way prevent its effects.  You would just find yourself with a power outage or a malfunctioning blast door, or  you would discover that the freeze-dried rations in your apocalypse pantry were stale.  Try it yourself if you don't believe me.  

The good news about Mercury retrograde is that it does not cause terrible stuff to happen, like deaths or explosions or pestilence.  That is another planet's department entirely.  No, Mercury is in charge of annoying things;  things that make you bang your head slowly on the computer keyboard, things that cause you to wish desperately for the sun to be past the yardarm, things that make you write whiny and impassioned blog posts about minutiae.  Such is Mercury's power.

Now that I know Mercury's been in retrograde since August 2nd and will continue to be until August 26th,  it's all becoming clear to me.  It's been one thing after another lately, and it only took me about 2 weeks to realize why.  I submit as evidence:
  • An email from my cousin in Canada, temporary guardian of the Yellow Dog, informing us that the dog has torn his ACL ( a fairly important ligament that holds his leg together) and will require surgery to repair it.  To add insult to injury, he did this in the most unspectacular way, by just walking sedately around the dog park and not by leaping out of a moving car or catching a Frisbee in midair, so we were cheated out of even having a good story to tell.  The cost of this surgery is conveniently - or ironically, you be the judge - approximately the same amount that it would have cost for a family of four to travel in October from Seoul to Cambodia for 5 nights/6 days/breakfast and lunch included/English-speaking tour guide provided. Sigh.
  • A confusing morning spent at Son #2's new school - one of the best in Asia and, as far as I can see, an outstanding educational institution in every way, with the exception of registration logistics -  during which he was introduced to other new students, taken on a guided tour of the school, given the chance to meet his teachers, and was given his schedule.  While he was doing this, I was standing in endless queues along with all the other bewildered new parents, usually discovering at the end that I was either a) in the wrong queue or; b) not really needing whatever I was queuing for.
  • A slight problem activating Son #2's lunch account - after being told that I needed to activate it and presenting myself in the proper queue - at which time it was explained to me that the lunch account was based on high-tech fingerprint scan technology (actually, really convenient, since kids are always losing cards and forgetting their account numbers but almost always have their fingers) and that I would need Son #2s finger in order to activate the account.  Since Son #2 was being guided around the campus on a tour (strangely, given by another new 9th grader, go figure) and had his finger with him at the time, my queuing had been in vain, which is the type of thing that causes my blood pressure to spike dangerously.
  • The sinking realization that our car, which was inundated with floodwater during the recent flooding in Seoul, is probably never going to smell quite normal again.  Ever.
  • My unfortunate choice of timing when deciding to experiment with foot peeling, resulting in panic and flakiness on the eve of our first party in Seoul.
  • A frustrating 'Who's on First?' exchange with the school's transportation people, based on the fact that there is not enough room for Son #2 on the 'S' or 'T' buses that provide service to the school for children from our apartment complex, although they expect spots to open up in the next week or two - maybe.  In the meantime, Son #2 will ride to work with his father and catch the 'P' bus which leaves from an apartment building nearby.  However, due to complex factors (no doubt involving Mercury), it will be possible for him to ride home on the 'S' bus, providing he obtains a special pass from the main office, which I gamely tracked down and eventually secured, at great cost to my already-frayed emotional equilibrium.  The conversation went as follows:
Me:  I would like to get a bus pass for my son to ride home in the afternoons on the 'S' bus.
Her:  What bus is he assigned to?
Me:  The 'P' bus.
Her:  So you want him to ride the 'S' bus?
Me:  Yes, in the afternoons.
Her:  Not in the morning? 
Me:  Well, we would like him to ride the 'S' bus in the mornings, but we were told there was no space on that bus, so he is riding the P bus in in the mornings.  But they said there was room on the 'S' bus in the afternoon.
Her:  You will need a pass for the S bus in the afternoon.
Me:  Yes.  That is why I am here.  To get a pass.
Her:  So, he is on the S bus in the morning?
Me:   No, we are on the waiting list for the S bus in the mornings.  He is on the 'P' bus in the morning right now.
Her:  What about the "P' bus in the afternoon?
Me:  We want the 'S' bus in the afternoon.  He is assigned to the 'P' bus in the mornings.
Her:  He will need a pass to ride the 'S' bus in the afternoon.
Me:  Yes, that is why I am here.  To get the pass.  
Her:  Which bus do you need a pass for?
Me:  The 'S' bus.
Her:  In the morning, or the afternoon?

and so it went on, ad nauseum, until I was ready to just leave and let him take his chances on the P bus.  However, with the use of a detailed schematic and several logarithms eventually I was able to make myself clear,  and I got the pass. Afterwards, I felt very much like I had after delivering my babies:  generally satisfied, thoroughly exhausted, and with the vague sense that surely there must be an easier way to do this.

So there you have it.  Mercury, doing its thing, causing confusion, miscommunications, and glitches galore.  Until the 26th, we'll be keeping our heads down, and I suggest you do the same.

Oh, and you should probably take this opportunity to back up your hard drive.  You'll thank me for it later.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Housewarming 집들이(jib-deul-ee)

The ornaments of your house will be the guests who frequent it.  ~Author Unknown

If this quote is to be believed, then our new little home in Seoul has been duly ornamented.  Mr. Logical and I were touched and pleased that so many were able to stop by our housewarming party on a rainy Seoul Saturday evening to lift a glass and wish us well, and our hearts as well as our home were truly warmed.  It was an evening of good food, good drink, and good cheer; a completely ordinary evening rendered extraordinary by the laughter, kindness and warmth brought to our home by these new friends of ours.  While I was far too busy talking and drinking to take any pictures (this will come as no surprise to those who know me personally,) I do have some impressions to share from a wonderful evening:

  • The Korean tradition of removing shoes in the home is a visual pat on the back for the host or hostess. Nothing makes you feel loved like an entryway full of shoes (thanks to Son #2, who said he thought this shot summed up the party perfectly.)
  • The setting does not matter.  The size of the apartment, the furniture you have (or don't have), the sumptuousness of the food (or lack thereof), and the fact that the drinks are being served in plastic cups do not in any way affect the success of your endeavor if the friendships are warm, the music is good, and the margaritas contain enough tequila.
  • Friendships grow quickly here.  In the expat community, people you have known for just weeks can feel as close as family.  There's something about being thousands of miles away from home in a new country that builds relationships faster than just about anything else.
  • Even when your 'kitchen' comprises only a few cabinets and a worktop, it's still the place where everyone ends up.  I have no idea how this happened, since it defies all the laws of physics, but it did, and I was right there in the mix.
  • People are incredibly thoughtful.  We never thought of gifts when extending our invitations, but people arrived with all kinds of beautiful and thoughtful touches for our home (including some very welcome bottles of wine - the bottom drawer of the kimchi fridge is now replenished.)
  • Speaking of gifts, it is traditional in Korea to give practical, useful gifts at a housewarming, some of which you would not expect to receive back home, but which are nonetheless deeply appreciated, and which provided the best photo op of the evening:  

Yes, it's starting to feel like home.