Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween, Seoul-Style

My favorite Dead Guy and his favorite Dead Guy Ale.

So, our first Halloween weekend in Seoul has come and gone.  Today is the actual festival, and I have sent Son #2 off to school in (understated) costume as befits a world-weary 14-year-old.  He is a black-eyed pea (the legume, not the musical group), which means he has gone to the enormous trouble of painting one eye black and pinning the letter 'P' on the front of his hoodie.  Not too much commitment, but at least no one can accuse him of not participating.

MrL and I did our dressing up on Saturday night, attending a Halloween Party/Cruise on Han River with a group of friends and several hundred other Halloween fans, both expatriate and Korean. Since the evenings are quite chilly now, and the event was (mostly) outdoors/on a boat, we initially decided to go with something minimalist in the costume department - a hat, or perhaps bunny ears, which would allow us to wear our warm coats without ruining the effect.  A chance comment by MrL's brother in Arizona about his preparations for the All Soul's Procession reminded us of the fantastic costumes and makeup that go with the traditional Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) observations in many Mexican communities, and we decided to shamelessly plagarize Brother G's idea go with some Day of the Dead skeleton face paint.  We could wear our regular clothes, we reasoned, and still participate in all the fun without going overboard.

As you've already observed, our plan quickly took on a life of its own, and before we knew it, 'a little face paint' had turned into fairly elaborate preparations involving several trips to various markets, a hot glue gun, and some uncharacteristically crafty millinery on my part:
Note the face paint is already beginning to peel.

By the time we had finished with our preparations, we had gone from 'a little face paint' to a full-blown Day of the Dead couple in the best tradition.

We had a wonderful time, but along the way, we learned several things, which I now pass on to you, my readers:
  • If you are going to wear skeleton face paint in Seoul, it is really better not to take the subway.  In America, where everyone at least knows about Halloween, walking around anytime in late October dressed as a pumpkin or a ghoul or a cartoon character is a socially acceptable construct.  Fellow-citizens usually smile warmly, sharing in the fun, and the costume-wearer will most likely receive more than one cheery, "Happy Halloween!"  Not quite so in Korea, where Halloween has not yet become a popular concept.  Most young people - who learn about Halloween in school - are familiar with the idea, but since it's not part of the general culture, presenting yourself on the subway in full costume does not result in the hearty camaraderie that one would expect in the US.  MrL and I stood awkwardly on the subway car while half of our fellow travelers ignored us and the other half giggled and poked each other and pointed at us. It was with tremendous relief that we met our friends at the subway stop and were no longer the only people in the station dressed outlandishly. ( I will also point out here that, of the two of us, only one of us had had the forethought to fortify himself with a shot of bourbon before leaving and was therefore feeling much less stupid  conspicuous than the other person. I'll leave it to you to figure out who was who.)
  • Skeletons are scary, especially to small children, some of whom will scream in terror upon seeing you in the subway.  In these cases, it is in no way helpful to talk consolingly to the child in English, assuring him that you are not actually scary;  from his point of view, the spectre actually talking to him in an incomprehensible language simply makes things worse.  If you are someone's mother, this will make you feel bad, especially when it happens four more times during the course of the evening.
  • People love to get their photos taken with skeletons.  After our initial awkward subway ride, and as we got closer to the party venue, we ran across more and more people who at least understood what was going on and many who thought a photo with a couple of skeletons was a great addition to their Saturday night FaceBook status.  We were stopped more times than we could count with photo requests (including one on the subway train) including a nice family visiting from New Delhi, who wanted to have their photo taken with our costumed group.  Their 3-year-old son seemed less enthusiastic, but at least he didn't start screaming like some of the others.  
  • If you are going to paint your face like a Skeleton, you should use a grease paint formula, not one that will shrink as it dries.  What this means is that you will start out looking fabulous, but the parts of your face that move, talk, eat, and drink beer (eg, the mouth), will eventually start showing signs of wear, and eventually begin peeling off in a very unattractive manner, while the rest of your friends look as fresh as daisies:

 While this adds a certain aura of authentic decomposition, it is very annoying to find pieces of your 'skin' flaking into your beer, and (in my opinion) detracts from the overall effect.  Note to self:  grease paint next time.

    • The adult beverages spirit of Halloween conviviality may move you to do things that you had not planned on doing.  In my case, this turned out to be enthusiastically munching on roasted silkworm pupae (Beondegi), a popular street food in Seoul. Yes, I knew what they were before I ate them, and yes, they were good.  Besides, most of my mouth had peeled off already, so I had nothing to lose.  

    Mmmmm.....silkworm pupae.
    However, peeling paint and silkworm pupae notwithstanding, our first Halloween in Seoul was all we could have wished.  Cool, clear weather, a beautiful cruise on the Han, and the company of good friends.  Who could ask for anything more?

    Tuesday, October 25, 2011

    When in Rome....

    ...well, I'm not exactly sure how to finish that.  Before we moved here, I thought the new Asia Vu motto would be, 'When in Korea, do as the Koreans do."  However, I've found that, while we're certainly not doing things like we would have done back in Suburbia, USA, we are not necessarily doing things like the Koreans do, either.  In fact, our whole experience here has been surprising in at least one way that I really hadn't anticipated.

    Of course, we've all learned the standard 'Anyonghaseyo/Anyonghikaseyo' greeting/farewell, and how to say  'Kamsahamnida' (thank you.) We know that a bow is always correct in every situation, and that pushing is not hostile and simply to be expected.  We don't think twice about taking off our shoes and sitting on the floor in a restaurant while cooking our own meat on a tabletop grill, and we all can eat with chopsticks as a matter of course.  We don't touch things when we're out shopping, and we keep our voices low on the subway(or risk being 'shushed' by a glowering Korean co-traveler.)  So far, so good.

    What has been the biggest surprise (for me at least) is that, while certain aspects of Korean culture have inevitably been absorbed into our everyday lives, there are just as many aspects of other cultures being absorbed at the same time, for better or for worse. Take, for example, Son #2's school.  The language of instruction is English, and the school itself is divided (at least in the lower school) into a British and 'Interational' division.  In the high school, however, while students can choose to follow the British (iGCSE) track or the 'International' (International Baccalaureate) track, they are all still mixed up in mostly the same classes.  Son #2s teachers are mostly from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or the UK, and his classmates are a similiar mix, with some Americans (it seems) thrown in for variety.  The language of instruction, while technically English, is certainly different in more than one way from what was used at home.  First of all, everything is metric, and, while Americans are taught the metric system, we don't use it unless we're scientists (don't ask me why.)  Did Son#2 know how many kilos he weighed? How many centimeters tall he was? What the temperature was in Celcius? Nope.  (Thank God for the conversion app on his iPhone.) And there were other subtler things:  paper sizes, for example.  The whole world (except the US, of course) uses ISO standard sizes for paper, which sent Son#2 home in the first week fretting about finding A3 sized paper (that's sort of standard 8x11, US peeps.) (And, while some of this is fairly insignificant, there are other aspects that may have more far-reaching effects than you'd realize.  Be sure to read  this post from The Potty Diaries about trying to teach your 7-year-old proper English table manners when he's surrounded on all sides by Americans at his International School.)

    On top of these little differences, we then started discovering that there was a bit of an English language issue.  The Algebra teacher calls the letter 'zed,' not 'zee!'(finally, proof that it's not just one of his Canadian Nana's quirky eccentricities) Then, he came home grumbling about having 'Maths homework.'  That's right, maths, not math.  A subtle difference, but one my linguist's ear caught immediately.  (non-US readers may or may not know that the American short version of 'mathematics' is 'math,' not 'maths'.) And then there's the word 'revising.'  In American English, when someone tells you to 'revise,' they are asking you to take something you already did and re-work it, as in, "Darling, I'd like you to revise your estimate on the amount of money you spent on cycling gear this year (to something more realistic.)" In British  English, revising can also mean studying for an exam.  (Note:  if you are a 14-year-old boy whose teacher tells you to 'revise' and you happily assume that, since you haven't done anything that needs revision, you don't need to do anything at all, this can be a silly - but potentially disastrous - misunderstanding.)  And, of course, there's the age-old 'football' vs 'soccer' thing, but that, at least, isn't a problem, since the only football at the school is soccer (no rugby, no American-style) so there's nothing to confuse.

    So, what I'm finding is, that, although Son #2 is certainly picking up some Korean phrases, manners, and customs, that's definitely not the only cultural influence he's experiencing. I had a similar experience in Taipei as a child:  my best friend was British, and we swapped words as casually as we swapped our dolls.  It was only when I moved back to the US and casually referred to an umbrella as a 'brolly' that I realized that not everyone had been exposed to quite the same brand of English as I had.

    Live and learn.

    Of course, the cultural goulash is by no means limited to English language and customs.  I have found myself mixing it up with women from all countries and walks of life, sometimes in a rather unexpected manner.  Take, for example, my women's choral group.  This group is billed as an 'international' women's choir, and, like everything in the expat community, changes its membership from year to year(or even month to month.)  As it so happens, the year that I have joined is the year that the membership is composed of women from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Japan, and Korea.  The director (a native Korean) directs in English, and the language of communication for the group is also English.   However, during our breaks, you hear only German and Korean as everyone chats with her own group of friends.  This is not a problem for me, since I speak German, but at the last rehearsal, I had a sudden start when I realized that, when all of us were communicating in English, I was the only one who spoke it as a first language.  

    I guess what I'm saying is that, even though we came to Korea expecting to learn about Korean culture, we have found ourselves with people from many other cultures who are also learning about Korean culture, and, at the same time, sharing bits of their own culture with the expat community. I got an invitation just a few days ago to attend a Carnival party  "On the Rhine and on the Han" hosted by the 1st Seoul Carnival Club.  Invitation in German and Korean.

    And then there's Halloween, which in America, is synonymous with costumes, candy, and trick-or-treating.  This Saturday night, we're going to a Halloween event that includes - in addition to the typical spooky costume stuff - a bonfire, traditional Korean wishing kites, and African music performed by students from Yonsei University.

    It looks like the phrase, then, is:   When in Korea, do a little bit of everything from everywhere.  Seems to be working for us.

    Thursday, October 20, 2011

    How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning

    Over the past year or so, MrLogical and I have noticed that Son#2 has gradually begun to operate on the circadian rhythms of a lemur, become increasingly more alert as the sun sinks into the horizon, and reaching the height of his wakefulness just as MrLogical and I are stumbling towards our beds.  This, of course, means that he is not sleeping quite as much as he should be, and has been finding it challenging to rise when his alarm clock goes off each morning.  Son#2's particular strategy is to set his alarm for an unrealistically early hour and then hit the 'snooze' button repeatedly, until everyone else in the apartment is wide awake and seething with resentment, while Son#2 seems to barely register the fact that he's hit the snooze button.

    This is not, actually, very unusual for a teenager - at least, not for ours.  Son#1 went through a similar phase at about age 14, and MrLogical and I addressed the problem by purchasing an alarm clock reassuringly called 'The Sonic Bomb.'  The Sonic Bomb's claim to fame was the fact that it was the loudest alarm clock procurable for money, and that its alarm volume could be set all the way up to 100 decibels which - according to the online description - rivaled the volume of a jackhammer.  The Bomb also included a small vibrating pad which - connected to the alarm clock with a long cord - could be placed under the sleeper's pillow, complementing the alarm's piercing tones with a powerful bed-shaking vibration that, it was promised, would jolt even the deepest sleeper into consciousness.  Indeed, the first morning he used it, it sounded exactly like a garbage truck was backing up into Son#1s bedroom, so powerful were the rumblings and the shrill beeps of the alarm. We had no further problems with Son#1 getting up on time, as long as he remembered to set the alarm, and have every confidence that he will be able to get himself up and to his lectures at the University when the time comes.  

    Based on our satisfactory experience with the Sonic Bomb, you would think that we would simply buy another one for Son#2 when he started manifesting this inclination for the sleeping schedule of the Undead.  Unfortunately, while the Sonic Bomb worked well in our large, detatched American house in the suburbs, there was no way it was going to work in our small apartment in Seoul.  I had no doubt that any use of the Sonic Bomb - even on a reduced-decibel setting of 'blender' instead of 'jackhammer' would result in swift (and justified) recrimination from our neighbors both above and below us.  However, Son#2 solved our problem for us by finding his own alarm clock.  

    Son #2 is a huge fan of the BBC television series, 'Dr.Who' which is described by Wikipedia thusly:   "Doctor Who is a British science fiction television programme produced by the BBC. The programme depicts the adventures of a time-travelling humanoid alien known as the Doctor who explores the universe in a sentient time machine called the TARDIS that flies through time and space, whose exterior appears as a blue police box. Along with a succession of companions, he faces a variety of foes while working to save civilisations, help people, and right wrongs."  

    If you haven't seen Dr. Who, there's really no point in my describing it further, except to say that the recurring bad guys in the show (who are sort of like the Klingons in Star Trek) are a race of alien-types called 'Daleks'.  'Daleks'  - as far as I understand them - are fairly small, soft-shelled aliens which house themselves inside a larger mechanical contraption (think R2D2 but shaped like a triangle) that allows them to travel around and try to exterminate all their adversaries without getting hurt themselves.  In this way, they are similar to an alien hermit crab.  Anyway, the Daleks all have loud, grating mechanical voices which - while they are capable of normal communication - mostly say, "Exterminate!" usually when they are just about to try and kill some other non-Dalek life form.  

    This, then, was the alarm clock that Son#2 chose for himself, insisting that all he needed to be able to leap up and face the day was the grating, mechanical tones of an alien, croaking 'Exterminate!' at him every morning.  

    So it was that we ordered the Dalek alarm clock from our favorite Think Geek catalogue with the understanding that, if Son #2 did not consistently rise when it went off, it would be confiscated.  

    So far, so good.  We've had the clock for a week now, and, even though the apartment is so small that MrLogical and I can hear it croaking 'Exterminate!' all the way in our bathroom, we don't mind. Son#2 is getting up in enough time to perform his ablutions, groom himself appropriately, and make his way to the bus stop in a civilized manner instead of tearing out the door looking like a bridge troll and uttering the cries of the condemned.  

    It seems that the catalogue was not exaggerating when it promised us that  "Nothing gets you out of bed like the threat of extermination."

    (For those of you who have not yet experienced the joys of Dr. Who, here's a link to give you an idea as to what's waking Son#2 up every morning now:  Dalek, "Exterminate!")

    Wednesday, October 12, 2011

    The Ladies of Park Tower

    Every afternoon, the comfy chairs and tables in the lobby of our apartment building are taken over by a group of between 3 and 8 elderly Korean women.  These women are, for the most part, tiny, wizened, grey-haired  ladies who must be in their 70s and 80s, old enough to have lived through the horror and privation of the Korean war and now undoubtedly enjoying a comfortable retirement, cared for and revered by doting children and grandchildren.  Around 2 or 3pm each day, probably after a delicious lunch prepared by a dutiful daughter-in-law, they begin to totter out of the elevators, some using walkers or canes, one in a wheelchair pushed by a friend.  These women - who, in Korean culture, are treated with the greatest respect - spend each afternoon ostensibly playing mahjong, but, I imagine (if my friends and I are anything to go by) mostly just talking, enjoying each other's company, and keenly observing the comings and goings of their fellow apartment dwellers through the glass walls of the lobby.

    A few days after school started this year, Son #2 commented to me that, each afternoon as he came home from the school bus, the ladies stared at him through the glass lobby walls as he walked into the building towards the elevators, and that it made him feel uncomfortable.  We had a little talk about cultural differences (Korea is a fairly homogenous society, and, as such, foreigners are still very much an anomaly;  it is not unusual at all for a Westerner to be stared at openly and with frank curiosity) and why the ladies might be staring at him.  I also pointed out that the ladies would probably welcome a polite bow or a smile as a friendly gesture.  In typical 14-year-old fashion, he greeted this suggestion with rolled eyes and an inquiry about what there was to eat, and the topic was dropped.

    About a week ago, there was a school holiday, and Son #2 and I happened to be returning home together in the afternoon.  As we approached the building near the lobby, I could see the mahjong ladies looking at us, and, as we got closer, I noticed them begin to smile, wave, and nod in the friendliest way.  As I bowed back and began mentally composing a motherly treatise on the importance of friendly manners, intercultural communication, and general kindness, I realized that the ladies were still in a flutter of smiles and waves, and they were clearly not directed at me.  Puzzled, I glanced over, and  realized that it was Son #2 who was the object of their attention.  He was bowing, smiling, and waving, and it was obvious to me that this was a regular occurrence, because the ladies were clearly delighted, nudging each other, nodding, waving, and smiling back at Son #2 as we made our way through the lobby to the elevators.   Son #2 took all this in stride, entering the elevator and pressing our floor button with a final wave to his doting geriatric fan club as the doors closed behind us.  When I finally regained speech, I - naturally - asked him about this little exchange.  He explained to me that he had been greeting the ladies for over a month, ever since our conversation, and that it had become a daily routine.

    I thought this was wonderful and told him so.  He confessed that he'd felt a bit silly bowing and waving at first, but that he looked forward to it now.  "You know, Mom," he said thoughtfully, "not to be conceited or anything, but I think they're really happy to see me."

    You know what? I think they probably are, too.

    Wednesday, October 5, 2011

    I Wish Someone Would Tell Me...

    *Not the actual rabbit seen by the author, but similar to it.

    -Why a person can age for forty-some-odd years without feeling significantly different from year to year and then, one day, all at once, notice about 10 new, unpleasant, age-related changes.   I recognize that there has probably been a certain amount of denial going on, but it has been happy, healthy denial that hurts no one.  Getting hit with such a huge load of harsh reality all at once just seems cruel.  I would just like to say that this has been bad for my already-fragile psyche and causes me to speak harshly to my loved ones and jump at loud noises. it is that, in an apartment roughly a third of the size of our home in the US, the children still lose their socks. Where could they be going?  And while I'm at it, I'd like to know why, after what seems like a thousand years of reminding them, they still fail to turn their socks right side out before putting them in the laundry. Those of you with teenage boys will understand why the prospect of handling the dirty socks in order to turn them right side out before laundering is about as attractive to me as dipping my hands into battery acid.

    ...why there was a rabbit sitting in the middle of the main pathway that runs through the greenspace grounds around our apartment building.  (And, no, I had not been drinking.)  Now, mind you, this was not your garden-variety greyish-brownish, scrappy wild, streetwise rabbit.  This was a coddled-looking white, angora rabbit with tasteful black appointments, clearly an indoor pet, and yet, it was sitting in the middle of the outdoors, without a responsible human in sight.  What I can't understand is, how in the world does a pet rabbit get outside of a high-rise apartment in the first place? Let's just say, for the sake of argument, you have a house rabbit that runs free in your apartment and it makes a dash for freedom when you open the apartment door.  I can see that happening.  What I don't see happening is:  a) an elevator door  that's open and ready to go down at the very same moment when the rabbit makes his break for freedom, and; b)  the other elevator passengers simply taking it in stride as an enormous angora rabbit bounds into the car and letting him ride down without taking some sort of action.  And on top of it, wouldn't you notice that your rabbit had made a break for it and give chase instead of letting it head down the elevator? Anyway, regardless of how he got down there, while we do have some nice greenspace around the apartment, this is a fairly limited area, surrounded by traffic, and quite unsuited to the support of any type of wildlife (except for pigeons).  In this case, the odds of survival seem extremely low, especially for an animal that seems to have been bred more for its silkiness than for its sharp wits and survival skills.  These observations were fully supported when he hopped slowly toward the shrubs and then turned and darted purposefully into the parking garage and disappeared into the gloom.

    ...who are the people hired by Korean (and Japanese, and  Chinese) toy and novelty manufacturers to come up with the English comments, phrases, and words that appear on virtually every item that one finds for sale in Korean toy shops?  I would be more than happy to provide basic, uninspired English text for a reasonable fee with virtually no danger whatsoever of having my employers produce toys covered in either;  a) nonsense or b) something totally inappropriate.  It might not be particularly catchy, but they could rest assured that it wouldn't be stupid, or worse.  By worse, I mean, of course, obscene, and I submit as evidence the following:

    For my non-American readers, let me just state that 'poony' is a very rude word indeed, and certainly not one you would want emblazoned on your little girl's toys.  Of course, in all fairness, it's possible that the person doing the English translation was not familiar with this linguistic subtlety of American English slang, and it's my guess that Koreans wouldn't know either, so no harm done - in theory. it is that apparently, everyone in the free world is planning on spending their winter holidays in Phuket, but none of them know me and therefore cannot provide me with reliable hotel recommendations? Of course, the point is now moot, since it is so close to Christmas (only 11 weeks) that, naturally, everything that seems desirable on TripAdvisor has been - naturally - booked, leaving me as alternatives either a) 'boutique' resorts (where 'boutique' means 'you can't afford this'; or b) 'budget' accomodation (where 'budget' means 'shared bathroom at the end of the hall.')

    ....why it is that Korean pedestrians feel the need to put their hands up at you (in sort of a 'stop' gesture) when they dart in a death-defying manner in front of your car? I do not see the point of this at all.  If you, as a pedestrian, are going to dart in front of a car (and this is standard procedure in Seoul, where people treat cars more like large, annoying moose than like the enormous rolling hulks of deadly metal that they really are), it makes no sense to me to bother to hold up your hand.  I mean, if the person in the car is going to hit you, presumably this will happen whether or not your hand is held up in the 'stop' position.  And if your hand is not held up, does that mean that the driver has free rein to plow right into you? I mean, it's not like the driver sees the pedestrian and says, 'Well, since she's not holding her hand up, I shall hit her."  For whatever reason, this system seems to persist in Seoul.   I see Koreans using this technique all the time, and they never get hit.  Who knows.  Maybe it's some type of  force field.

    Perhaps I can learn to use it to help me find those socks.