Monday, November 28, 2011

It's That Time of Year.....

No, I'm not talking about the Season of shopping Goodwill to Men;  I am, of course, referring to Mercury Retrograde, which took us a bit by surprise this time.  I suppose, having managed to survive the last round, we were so relieved to have it all over and done with that we didn't bother to look ahead, which meant that, when things started going agley here, it took us a few days to realize what was going on.

Ironically -or cruelly, your choice - Mercury jumped its course on our Thanksgiving Day this year, which means that it hit at a time when most Americans are preoccupied with food and entertaining as opposed to maintaining constant vigilance - really the only possible hope for defense.  When not one, but two (or maybe we were already up to three) long-distance burocratic snafus had taken place within the course of just a day or so, MrLogical jokingly asked me if Mercury was retrograde.  Much to our surprise (but with a certain bitter sense of vindication) we discovered that Mercury was, indeed, on its way into another one of its charming retrograde periods, although, at the time, we were still only in the 'shadow' of Mercury retrograde, which the internet astrologers assured us was not nearly as serious as Mercury being retrograde itself,  giving us something to look forward to with the same level of grim anguish with which one anticipates, say, a barium enema or death by lethal injection.

As of this writing, Mercury has been technically doing its thing for only 3 full days, but the mayhem began in earnest about a week ago, resulting in a lot of bitter laughter, black humor, and carbohydrate consumption by yours truly.  To those of you who are saying, "Pshaw! This is the 21st century, not the Middle Ages! This is an era ruled by technology and logic!" I say, you are probably right, but having Mercury to blame things on seems somehow preferable to admitting that I'm an idiot I have been a bit disorganized and distracted lately.  On the list of Things To Blame on Mercury Retrograde So Far:

  • The sudden shocking realization that the registration on Son#1's car had expired back in June.  (Note:  Son #1 was supposed to have done this before flying to Korea, so it's technically not my fault, except that I feel I should have nagged him more, but - what with packing up our lives to move halfway across the world - renewing the registration on a car about to go into storage wasn't foremost on either of our minds.)  While this is not the end of the world, it is certainly problematic, since Son #1 and I will be flying back to the US in January, where we'll be picking up the (presently illegal) car from Grandad's house and driving it six hours south to the university to install Son#1 there as an undergraduate. A brief perusal of the registration procedures online indicated that, at this point, the only possible option for getting the vehicle registered was for Son#1 to present himself in person at the DMV in Bexar County, where he would need to pay not only the registration fee, but also a penalty for not doing so on time.  The phone call in which we tried to explain to the authorities that we needed to register the car before driving it across the state (and why) was another one of those conversations that only (apparently) takes place when you are in Korea and the car in question is in Texas.  After quite a lot of wrangling and explaining, we were told to make copies of every identifying document pertaining to ourselves and the car, and to write a letter explaining our 'unique' circumstances, and that maybe - but no guarantees, mind you - it could be done by mail.  What will happen if they do not allow us to do this via mail(not to mention what they will do with all those copies and our check), I am trying not to think about, since our travel plans include arriving in Dallas and making the drive in Son#1s car to San Antonio, which - obviously - will be somewhat difficult with a glaringly expired registration sticker.  In addition, while I, personally, have never had any but the most cordial dealings with Texas law enforcement, I have no desire to get embroiled in complex negotiations with a State Trooper or Ranger or whatever the guys in the sunglasses and the cowboy hats are called (Note:  As a native Northeasterner, I must say I find the cowboy hats to be charmingly Texan, although I would likely feel differently if pulled over for a violation.)

  • The Heinous Sweet Potato Incident of Thanksgiving 2011:  As I mentioned earlier, we had been invited to attend a Thanksgiving potluck on Saturday night.  Since approximately 30 or so guests were expected, I made a double batch of my mother-in-law's incredible sweet potato casserole, which I then interred in a beautiful (and seasonally appropriate) casserole dish of harvest gold, (which came with its own wrought iron stand for the table, just so you know how perfect it was.)  In a fit of unusual responsibility, I cooked and assembled this several days in advance and froze it, with the intention of thawing it the night before our meal and baking it right before leaving.  I would have been successful, too, except it turns out that the casserole dish -which measures a whopping 10"x 14" - was too big to fit in my tiny Korean oven.  If you are stunned and shocked at the fact that my oven is that small, well, so was I.  I knew I couldn't fit, say, a turkey in there, but it never occurred to me that I could own a dish that was bigger than any oven's interior.  After a brief - but thorough - meltdown, I ended up dividing the casserole into two smaller (and much uglier) pyrex baking dishes and cramming them into the oven by means of witchcraft brute force and hysteria.  They did, somehow, fit, but of course, scooping them up out of their original dish meant that the carefully-sprinkled pecan-and-brown-sugar-and-butter topping was no longer a lovely brown crust above the warm orange potatoes, but now integrated as brown lumps throughout, which may not sound like a crisis, but felt like one to me, especially as the clock was ticking down towards 6pm and my lovely casserole presentation had become as ashes before my eyes.  MrLogical and the boys tiptoed around, speaking in the calming voice that one uses with aggressive dogs, and saying unhelpful things like, "It doesn't matter what it looks like, it'll taste great anyway."  They were ultimately correct, and the potatoes looked just fine on the table along with all the other international Thanksgiving food, which included kimbap, Asian dumplings,  and Soljanka.  I, however, am still bitter and have not forgiven my oven.
Sweet Potato Casserole with Intact Topping.  This is not what mine looked like.
  • A failed trip to the Korean DMZ :  One of the things on our to-do list while in Korea (and especially requested by Son#1 before returning to the US to Uni, so now I have motherly guilt) was to visit the Demilitarized Zone, approximately 90 minutes north of us.  We decided to do this on a tour over the long Thanksgiving weekend, since, it seemed like an appropriate time to be grateful for the fact that we did not live in a communist dictatorship.  I will simply say that, apparently, many others had the same plan, and, by the time I got around to making the reservations, there were no seats left. We still have a couple weeks to get this done, so it may yet still happen.  Or not.
Korean soldiers at the DMZ

  • Losing my Kindle.  As an avid reader and bibliophile/bibliomaniac, I never thought I would want an e-reader, since I get enormous pleasure from having the books themselves.  However, as we packed for our move to Korea, it quickly became clear that the hundreds (thousands?) of books that I hoarded enjoyed having in my home in the US would not have anywhere to go in our small apartment in Korea.  Learning that one small Kindle can hold innumerable books - and that many of my favorite classics could be downloaded free of charge - changed everything for me, and when my very astute mother-in-law presented me with one before we left for Korea, I fell instantly in love.   Things were going along swimmingly until we took a bus trip to Osan just about a week ago, where I apparently left my darling in one of the seat pockets. Several frantic phone calls to the bus depots in both Osan and Seoul were fruitless.  I have been in deep mourning ever since, both for the Kindle and for the apparent decay of my mental faculties.
  • Misplacing of Son#1's immunization records:  Part of Son#1's application for University housing includes proof that he has been adequately immunized against bacterial meningitis, which I was fairly sure had been done several years ago.  Naturally, the University requires proof of this.  Naturally, I could not find Son#1s immunization records, although I clearly remembered getting a copy of them before we left.  Naturally, due to the Health Care Privacy Laws, our pediatrician in the US could not:  a) tell us over the phone if Son#1 had even had the shot or b) fax or mail a copy of said records without Son#1 presenting proper ID in person, or someone else presenting an original (eg, not copied, scanned or faxed) power of attorney, and a papal dispensation.  Naturally, Son#1 could not apply for - or be assigned - housing until proof of vaccination was submitted.  Naturally, he'd put off the application for a while and time was growing alarmingly short as housing was filling up. Eventually, after looking no fewer than three times through all my files, I found the immunization record - with proof of the meningitis immunization - precisely where I'd looked three times before - in the folder marked "Son #1 Health Documents."  

  • Cruel and unusual flight scheduling. We will be spending our winter vacation in Thailand, and returning from Phuket on an overnight flight, which seemed like a reasonable choice when we made it initially.  However, a closer look at the flight schedule reveals that we will be returning from our holiday in Thailand at 10am Wednesday, which means that Son#1 and I will have less than two days to unpack from Thailand and re-pack for the 18-or-so-hour journey on Friday back to the US to install him at University.  While this split-hair scheduling will probably not have any deleterious effects on Son#1, I strongly suspect that it will have a number of negative effects on my middle-aged constitution.
If it sounds like I'm complaining, you're damn right I'm complaining  I sincerely apologize.  As is always the case with Mercury Retrograde, none of the incidents I've been whining about are life-threatening, disastrous, or dangerous.  They are, as is usually the case with Mercury, simply annoying and inconvenient.  

Besides my mood has been significantly lighter since Son#2 informed me the other night that, when he reaches 18, he is planning to change his name to " Shadowfax Steele."

Has a nice ring, doesn't it?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Flokati Remorse

flokati [fləˈkɑːtɪ] n;  (Fine Arts & Visual Arts / Furniture) a Greek hand-woven shaggy woollen rug
[from Modern Greek phlokatē a peasant's blanket]

When I learned we were moving to Seoul, I did what most modern women do when they learn they will be packing up their families and moving to another country:  I went to the internet.  I was actually pleasantly surprised to find quite a bit of information and advice that had been gathered and passed on by others who had done the same thing and were happy to be able to share their hard-earned wisdom.  As most of my readers know, this information - despite being quite thorough - did not prevent me from making some spectacular packing blunders, but at least I had a general idea of what I did and did not need to pack.

Among the items on the 'pack' list was 'area rugs.'  The literature was quite clear on two points:  1) most apartments in Seoul - which are usually heated by ondol, an underfloor hot water heating system - do not have carpeting, and 2) the area rugs available are not often to the taste of most Westerners.  It goes without saying, of course, that we did not pack any area rugs to bring with us, and, as a result, have been forced to purchase some rather unusual floor coverings that I am 100% certain I would never have bought back in the good ol' US of A, including two very odd microfiber things in the boys' rooms that set everyone's teeth on edge.  I blame this mostly on Mr. Logical, who  - while almost perfect as far as husbands go - has one or two teensy flaws, one of them being that he is almost always right, but still occasionally falls short of the mark. Thus it was that, during the packing process, this conversation took  place:

Me:  Honey, the internet sites I've been reading say that we should bring area rugs with us.  What about  bringing those old orientals up in the attic we've moved with us through the last two states?

Him: (dismissively) Those rugs are so old, they're practically disintegrating.  We probably wouldn't want to use them anyway.  We can just buy new ones in Seoul if we want them.

Me: (doubtfully) Well, according to what I've read, we will want them since none of the apartments are carpeted.  And it's supposedly really difficult to find good ones over there.

Him: (airily) Oh, it's a city of 12 million people.  We'll be able to find something we like.  Or we can order something in the mail.

My astute readers will have, at this point, figured out exactly what happened, which is that we got to Korea, ascertained that rugs were necessary, and proceeded to discover that finding area rugs that a) we were willing to pay for and b) were not shot through with metallic threads or resembling a giant field of mink  was somewhat more difficult than MrLogical we had anticipated.  In short, city of 12 million notwithstanding, we were not able to find something, and then began the excruciating challenging process of trying to find an online retailer who: a) sold suitably priced and styled rugs and b) would ship them to the Republic of Korea (not as easy as you'd think.) On top of this, we found it very difficult to look at a small, fuzzy photograph on the Internet and extrapolate just how that would look on the floor in our apartment's living room.  Eventually, though, we found  a suitable neutral-looking specimen that appeared to be a muted beige shag and ordered it. When it finally arrived eons several weeks later, we tore the wrappings off only to discover that what we had actually ordered was a flokati rug.   Now, I have nothing against flokati rugs per se. I have some fond memories of flokati rugs, which were quite popular in the 70s and 80s when I was growing up.   I simply did not plan on ordering one.  However, since we'd been waiting for months to have something to walk and sit on besides the chilly hardwood floor, we decided to go ahead and see how it looked.  We got it spread out and arranged, and decided that, while it wasn't quite what we'd envisioned, we sure as hell weren't going to pay to pack it back up and mail it back  it did add some warmth and texture to the room and it would do.
Seemingly benign flokati rug.

Now, for those of you who do not know about flokati rugs, I will just say that they are an excellent idea in theory.  They are made of wool, which means they are soft and warm and comfy for walking and sitting on. The fact that they look rather like an Old English Sheepdog after a rough afternoon of play simply adds to their charm, or so the interior design industry tells us.  However, warmth and comfort notwithstanding, the flokati also has several drawbacks.  Now, let me just say up front:  we were warned.  When friends A and B came to visit not long after we'd gotten the flokati, they were very complimentary, but B asked me kindly later on if we'd ever had a flokati before, to which I replied in the affirmative.  In fact, both MrLogical and I had flokati rugs at some point during our growing up years (keep in mind the 70s and 80s were the era of the macrame' plant hanger;  the perfect complement for a flokati rug) and remembered them fondly. However, what I failed to realize was that I had never had a flokati before as an adult, which, as it turns out, is something different altogether.  As a teenager, I clearly didn't care about - or, more likely, didn't notice - any of the annoying attributes of the flokati rug.  As an adult, however, I can tell you that it's making me insane.

Tenacious flokati fibers begin their quest for freedom.

It turns out that - from an adult standpoint - the flokati rug is just about the most annoying floor covering a person can own.  In the first place, since it is made of wool, it tends to shed, by which I mean, huge tumbleweeds of fuzzy wool spontaneously detach themselves from the rug and migrate through the apartment, floating gently through the air like thistledown and landing wherever they will be most conspicuous to visitors, who can only assume they're balls of dust and the resident housekeeper is sitting down on the job. It's also worth noting that, no matter how much a person vacuums, the second that anyone steps onto the rug, it releases fibers into the air, which means that - unless no one ever steps on the rug, which pretty much defeats the point of having it - you are fighting a losing battle.  On top of that, the flokati fibers like to attach themselves to fabrics.  This means that guests to our home who spend any time near the Giant Shedding Flokati will leave with their clothes liberally strewn with wooly white hairs, looking as though they'd spent their visit wrestling a sheep and picking balls of fluff off themselves as they leave.  But wait! There's more! Because of the long fibers, the flokati cannot be vacuumed with a typical vacuum cleaner - the kind with a revolving beater bar - because it would become tangled immediately.  No, all you can do is ineffectually scrape the bare floor attachment across the surface of the rug, which means that very little is actually vacuumed up.  Furthermore, the fibers have a remarkable tendency to mat themselves together, which means that if a teenage boy person spills a bowl of popcorn some food on said carpet, the food can be trapped underneath the woolly web and never be seen until a guest arrives and steps on it.  Do not ask me how I know this.

So, we now have a soft, cozy floor covering in the living room that sheds, attaches itself to clothes, and I have despaired of ever getting it really clean with the vacuum cleaner.  Of course, knowing MrLogical, he's come up with the solution:  we just need to give it a really good shaking out.  All we have to do, he stated blithely to me, is roll it up, trundle it down 14 flights in the elevator, drag it out to the immaculately manicured grounds outside our building, and shake the contents of its 11x14 square feet out.

Problem solved.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving Edition

Thanks to Son#1 for Photoshopping this for me.  No, we did not stand in downtown Seoul wearing Pilgrim Hats.
As most of my American readers will be aware, Thanksgiving is bearing down on us rapidly, and we Yanks in Korea are not immune, although the nice thing is that we're not of course we all really miss engaging in hand-to-hand combat in the grocery store aisles over the last can of jellied cranberry sauce or bag of stuffing mix like our friends and family back home.   This is because very few people in Korea are heavily invested in a uniquely American festival of thanksgiving and general remembrance of the survival of (at least some of) the passengers of the Mayflower, which Americans celebrate by watching parades on television, eating far too much food, and falling asleep while watching college football.  In some homes, activities also include tactical planning for the next morning on 'Black Friday,'(also a holiday in America) when many merchants offer excellent sale prices and frighteningly early opening hours to lure in Christmas shoppers. While this is not one of my family's traditions, I do have a number of friends who consider it all part of the joy of the Season to start off their Christmas shopping standing in a line outside of Best Buy at 3am in order to be one of the lucky ones to get at the incredible deal on This Year's Hot Gift Item ("Only 100 per store! No rain checks!)  I know people who map out their shopping strategy with the same attention to detail and timing that Eisenhower used in planning the landing at Normandy.  Of course, now and then the crowd gets a bit too enthusiastic about all those discounted plasma-screen TVs and there's an unfortunate trampling, but that's all part of the fun, I suppose. Those of you who know me personally will of course realize that this combination of a) rising before dawn b) shopping and c) crowds; makes Black Friday my idea of a personal Hell, which is why I always stay home that day and put up my Christmas decorations while taking frequent breaks for cold turkey sandwiches.

 Thanksgiving is also traditionally the time for reunions with rarely-seen family members, which can be either pleasant or awkward, depending on the ages, political leanings and general life philosophies of the parties in question as well as the amount of wine being drunk.  It is also the time that more eccentric and/or dysfunctional family members tend to strut their stuff;  it's almost part of the national experience to dread  anticipate spending the holiday with Uncle Herb, who is guaranteed to either drink too much, initiate a heated political debate, or insist on telling cousin Sue (who is there with her partner, Eileen) why she's not having any luck in catching a husband.

Just another frighteningly insightful observation from some e-cards
While American Thanksgiving is more or less a harvest festival, it does, of course, have its own particular spin that makes it a bit different from such festivals in other countries.  In the US, Thanksgiving includes not only typical harvest-y symbols, such as cornucopias, sheaves of wheat, corn, and the like, but also the ubiquitous turkey, pilgrims, and native Americans.

  It is worth noting here for my non-American readers that the word 'pilgrim' for Americans almost always conjures up the vision of a 17th-century Puritan, since the context in which most American children learn about pilgrims is that of the English Separatists, who - having been more or less driven out of England and Holland for their strict religious beliefs, sober mien, and lack of shiny buttons - made a pilgrimage to the New World in 1620 in order to worship freely, landing in what is today Plymouth, Massachusetts.  After an initially horrific winter, the pilgrims - helped and taught by the native Americans - managed to establish a thriving colony and produce a  bounteous harvest, the celebration of which was shared with the native Americans and (years later) referred to as 'The First Thanksgiving.'  What this means for us today is that all American children will, at some time in their lives, come home from school in November wearing a construction-paper pilgrim's hat or native American headdress, as well as a turkey whose feathers are created by tracing their hands. This early training results later on in American children struggling to absorb the more general concept of a 'pilgrim' as 'traveler' or 'one who makes a religious pilgrimage,' so deeply ingrained is the concept of a pilgrim as someone who looks like this:

English Pilgrim to the New World

This, naturally, results in a certain amount of confusion when these same children learn in later years that many modern Muslims make pilgrimages to Mecca, or that the characters in The Canterbury Tales were making a pilgrimage.  Believe me when I tell you that - as a former middle and high school teacher - I speak from experience, and that American children tend to be naturally resistant to reorganizing their concept of the word 'pilgrim.'

Muslim pilgrims in Mecca.
Of course, being in Korea at Thanksgiving time has been interesting, since the rest of the world at large is not overly concerned with it. My FaceBook feed is full of status updates involving turkeys and baking and housecleaning and travel (Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year in the US, hands down); here in Korea - unless you are on the US Army base -the only indication that Thanksgiving is approaching is the availability of turkeys at Costco and a number of hotels and restaurants that cater to Americans providing Thanksgiving dinners and buffets.  While we at the Asia Vu house are making preparations for a weekend of celebrating, and some of our friends have already flown back to the US to join the ongoing national frenzy, the rest of Seoul is going about its business without a care in the world.  I was  making lunch plans with a German friend a few days ago and told her that the 24th was out as we had an American holiday, Thanksgiving.  "Ah," she responded, "I have heard of this, I think."

MrLogical's company will be open for business as usual on Thanksgiving, although  the company will also be providing a Thanksgiving meal for all of its local employees on Friday evening after work, which we'll be attending.  We'll also be attending a potluck Thanksgiving at the home of friends, so we won't be lacking for Thanksgiving celebration, even if it won't be just like home.  We won't have football games or parades;  Uncle Herb won't be anywhere in sight; the pumpkin pie may not taste just like Grandma's, and there will likely be at least one kind of kimchi at the Thanksgiving buffet.   But we'll be giving thanks anyway.  Giving thanks for the opportunity to live in another country and meet new people who have become as close as family in a short time, as is the way in the expat community;  to travel, to learn, and to grow.  And when we get back home and do have a 'real' Thanksgiving again, I know we'll appreciate it all the more, because we'll know how precious it really is.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

It's The Thought That Counts

'Way back when MrLogical first headed to Seoul and was still contributing to this blog instead of leaving all the work up to me, he wrote a charming little post about shopping in which he mentioned a common practice in Korea of giving free gifts along with a purchase.  The purchase in question at the time was (of course) beer, and the 'free gift' was - oddly - a can of tuna.  I'm not sure how or if the two are related, but I suppose it's the same idea as buying a jar of peanut butter and getting a free loaf of bread back in the US.

Sort of.

You may also recall that, when we held our housewarming, we received some gifts that - back in the US - would have been considered very odd indeed, including toilet paper and laundry detergent.  I have to say, though, as far as gifts go, it makes tremendous sense to give someone something that you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, will get used.  Looking back across the many housewarming gifts I have given during my life, I have to admit that a good many of them have probably been regifted or shuffled off to a garage sale or a thrift shop. Had I presented a jumbo pack of toilet paper instead, I feel sure the story would have been quite different, although I suspect we would have been removed from a number of Christmas party guest lists as a result.

Anyway, the point is, gift-giving is a bit different over here.  On the one hand, the Koreans really go out of their way to wrap everything as beautifully as possible, and one of the most popular items with expats are the gorgeously colored and embroidered cloths - bojagi - that are used for wrapping gifts.  And even something mundane, like a doughnut, is wrapped in tissue or cellophane and fastened with a lovely golden sticker before being carefully placed in a tiny decorative bag with the shop's logo on it.  It really does seem like anything that is given or sold to you is presented as nicely as possible.  On the other hand, the items you get - especially free samples and the like - are not always the types of things that we, as Westerners, expect to receive. (My favorite example of this was the guy at the electronics market who sold me and MrL two transformers and then presented us each with a juice box, but - as always - I digress.)  Believe me, I'm not complaining at all.  In fact, I really like this practical gift-giving.  However, just because I like it doesn't mean that it still doesn't occasionally take me by surprise.

I submit as evidence the free gifts that MrLogical and I have received in just the past 3 weeks.

The first gift was presented to me.  I sing with an International Women's Choir, and we had provided part of the entertainment at a conference for a business organization that promotes foreign companies in Korea, held at an extremely posh downtown hotel, in which all the banquet rooms were named after exotic flowers, as in "You will be dining in the Blue Jacaranda Room this evening."  After we sang, we were provided with a very haute cuisine dinner (by haute cuisine, I mean all the food was presented way nicer than Applebee's in splendid isolation in the middle of a plate roughly the size of a hula-hoop, accented by an artfully drizzled glaze.  There were also rakishly-angled garnishes involved, which is always a dead giveaway that you are dealing with haute cuisine.) Anyway, since our choir is all-volunteer, part-time, and - despite some gorgeously trained voices - not necessarily in very high demand on the Seoul entertainment circuit, a gourmet meal seemed like more than adequate compensation to me.  However, the event manager was apparently so pleased with our performance that, halfway through the meal, he came lumbering into the banquet room, carrying a number of paper gift bags that he proceeded to distribute to all of the surprised (and grateful) choir members.  Now, in American culture, when you get a gift bag at a business conference, it usually contains things like water bottles, mouse pads, pens, keychains, and other logo-emblazoned merchandise - nothing particularly substantial.  However, as I have mentioned, the Koreans are nothing if not practical.  Therefore, I should not have been surprised at all to discover that the gift bag contained this:

Now that's a practical gift, right? Of course, most of us live in apartments and, therefore, have nowhere to use a grill, even if we had one, but, really - it is the thought that counts.

A few weeks later, MrLogical was signed up to compete in a cycling race.  As it turned out, the event was canceled due to rain, but since he had already signed up, he still got the 'participation gift.'  Again, in the US, the gift bag for cyclists would have probably contained a couple of energy bars, a water bottle, and maybe some packets of electrolyte replacement gel.  Here's what he brought home with him:

That's right:  4kg of rice.  That beats energy bars in my book any day.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Cultural Differences: Public Address

One of the interesting things I have noted about living in our apartment building in Seoul is the effort that the management makes to communicate with its non-Korean residents.

Now, it is true that most of the notices pinned up to the notice boards in the parking basements or taped to the elevator are in Korean, not English, but most of the public signs have English translations, and even the electronic messages over the elevator ("Welcome to Park Tower, Home of Noble Life.  Please Confirm Your Purpose With the Desk Attendant Before Using The Elevators") are in both English and Korean.  And, no, I do not know what 'noble life' means, but clearly we have it, since we live here.

Anyway, unlike the other apartment buildings in which I have lived, this apartment building has a public announcement system which it uses to notify the residents of incidents that they may wish to be aware of.  The first time this happened, we were a bit surprised, since we didn't realize that there even was a public address system.  A soothing electronic arpeggio reverberated through the apartment, and then was followed by the dulcet (recorded) tones of a woman's voice making a lengthy announcement in Korean.  We were imagining them describing some sort of national emergency and giving all the Korean-speaking residents detailed instructions for evacuation while we English speakers sat around in blissful ignorance in the face of certain doom.  However, about a minute after the first announcement ended, the tones sounded again, and this time, were followed by (what we assumed was) the same announcement in English.  The voice was, again, female, but this one was obviously a close relative of the monotone-voiced bears that were all over the internets a few months ago.  "Greetings, Park Tower Residents," she chanted robotically, "This is an announcement from the Park Tower Life Management Office" and then she proceeded to inform us that there would be a test of the gas mains the next day between 10 and 3, and we would not be able to use our gas during that time, they were sincerely regretful of the disturbance, thank you for your patience.  Melodious tone.

Since then, we've gotten used to these announcements.  They usually take place around  10am or about 7pm, are delivered in a sort Stephen-Hawking-but-female voice, and have pretty obviously been run through Google translator, meaning they are not consistently made in (what we would consider to be) standard English.   Most of the time, they are informing us of some sort of building maintenance, such as:

  • The window-washers will be washing exterior building windows today and tomorrow.  Please close your windows, so you will not be surprised.  (While I would not have chosen the word 'surprised' - and I think they meant 'drapes' or 'blinds', not windows - that one was most welcome, I can promise you.  Living this high up, you rarely - if ever - think about closing your blinds, no matter what you're doing.  Had I trotted out of the bathroom in what my mum refers to as my 'nothings,' to find a window-washer hanging outside my bedroom window, it's likely that neither of us would have survived the shock of it.) 
  • Level B4 in the parking garage is being put on a new surface.  Please be so kind as to park elsewhere. Invites some bizarre mental pictures, but good enough.  I don't drive anyway, so that's MrLogical's lookout.
  • The maintenance crews will be spraying for prevent insects.  Please be aware and to let them in.  Fine, although I have yet to see an insect.  I don't think they care for the altitude.
...and my personal favorite so far:

  • The Lotte Department Store will be in the building lobby today from AM10 to PM3, sharpening knives and disinfecting toys for no money.  I thought this was great, although the combination of those two particular services together intrigued me. Maybe they were marketing a sharpening-disinfection device? And, if you did have children small enough to need their toys disinfected, presumably you'd be at home with them, which would mean somehow getting down to the lobby carrying the child along with the toys and the knives, which - at least in the case of my own children when they were small - would seem to be a recipe for disaster.  I regret I was otherwise engaged that day, or I certainly would have taken myself along to the lobby to watch the show see how everyone was managing.
Anyway, we've been here for nearly five months now, and have started to feel a certain fondness for the disembodied Voice In The Ceiling, but a couple of weeks ago, we had a subtle change that has left me puzzled.  Up until now, all announcements began in the same efficient way:  "Greetings, Park Tower Residents.  This is a message from ..."  In a country where there are something like 5 levels of honorific address that are used to show respect to the listener based on position, age, rank, etc., and in which you can deeply offend someone by not using the correct level of honorific-ness(-icity?), I felt that this was an appropriate greeting considering the businesslike relationship we had with the  life management office.  Granted, they could have called us 'highly esteemed' residents,' or 'sincerely valued' residents, but, really, I was fine with the brusque but appropriate 'Greetings.'

And then someone had to jump in and mix it up.  A few weeks ago, I was fascinated to hear the familiar robotic voice intone:  "Hello. Folks.  This is a notification from...."  That's right, we had gone from 'Residents' to 'Folks.'  MrLogical and the boys, of course, did not notice (or care), but - like any normal woman - I puzzled over the subtleties contained in the word.  Who had made the change, and why, and where were they from? Why the change in our relationship? In North America, 'Folks' is a word used  by down-home politicians, earnest salespersons, Southern preachers, and (quite often) teachers.  It is used to address a group of persons with whom the speaker has (or wishes to imply he has) a fairly close and comfortable relationship.  I can't speak for everyone, of course, but I've always thought of 'folks' as having a homey kind of vibe, and - in my experience - a fairly Southern one, too.  MrLogical always tells me I read too much into things, but I can't help it.  Now that I'm not working, I have nothing to do but waste my time agonizing over minutiae  ponder deep questions.  In the dark of the night, kept awake by  lulled by the musical rhythm of MrLogical's snores, I have been puzzling over this.  Did our relationship somehow change? Does the management office feel that their relationship with the residents in Korean is more of a 'folks' thing, rather than a 'residents' thing? Maybe they felt that 'residents' wasn't an accurate translation of whatever they were saying in Korean?  What do they call residents in Korean, and is it more honorific  than just 'residents'? Did they hire someone new who had studied English in, say, Georgia, and who felt that using 'folks' would provide a friendlier level of discourse? Or am I reading way too much into this because they really just happened to get a new online translation-to-voice program and 'folks' was just the word that showed up?

That last one, you may have guessed, was MrLogical's suggestion.


Goodnight.  Folks.  

Monday, November 7, 2011

November, Moustaches, and The School Bus

This is not MrLogical's moustache.  

In case you weren't aware, we are now almost a week into NaBloPoMo which, for the uninitiated, is an acronym for 'National Blog Posting Challenge Month, in which bloggers across the world accept the challenge of writing a daily post for every day in the month of November.  While I have enjoyed NaBloPoMo as a blog reader, I have to admit that I have no intention of participating.  Since it seems that many of my favorite bloggers are jumping on the bandwagon, I have my hands full just trying to keep up with reading all of their prolific and entertaining posts;  clearly there is no time for me to do something as ambitious as writing a post every day.  Besides, I'm barely keeping my head above water with just a few posts a week.  I shudder to think of what kind of drivel you'd be reading if I tried to come up with something germane to write about every day. I mean, I'm already writing entire posts about my appliances. It's terrifying to think what I could be driven to if I had to come up with something every single day.

Not that we here at Asia Vu don't have a sense of civic duty or engagement with the world at large.  Here under my own apartment roof, MrLogical has enthusiastically jumped on to the 'Movember' bandwagon, in which he, along with men all over the world, is growing a moustache during the month of November in support of men's health initiatives (go to the link above to make a donation, if you're so inclined.  It's an excellent cause.)  At the moment, his moustache is still in its infancy, which means it's not immediately clear that he's growing a moustache and isn't just a wino. Eventually, I suppose, it will be instantly recognizable as a bona fide moustache.  In the meantime, however, one can only hope that his Korean clients are somehow aware of Movember and understand that MrLogical isn't just Letting Himself Go.

Anyway, the point of all this was simply to say that, during my recent November blog-reading glut, I read a really delightful post over at one of my favorite expat blogs, Circles in the Sand, written by a British mum of 2 small boys in Dubai.  The post (and you should really read it) talks about her older son's infatuation with the 'bus nanny,' a sweet lady who sounds like a very nurturing, kindly version of what we in America would probably call a 'bus monitor' - if we had them.  Naturally, this got me thinking about school buses in the US and Son #2's own school bus situation here in Seoul, and it was by this circuitous path that I was reminded of an amusing little happening right here at the Asia Vu house about a month or so after school started.

Son #2 takes a school bus every day to school, which is pretty much par for the course for students at the international schools here in Seoul.  He rode a school bus back in the States, too, but in the States, no monitor was provided.  For whatever reason, the majority of US school districts feel that it is entirely reasonable to put between 25-50 unrestrained children on a 12-ton vehicle with no supervision whatsoever except the lone bus driver, who is responsible for not only the operation of said  vehicle, but also maintaining order among his or her juvenile passengers. (Having almost wrecked the car lost my mind many times while trying to maintain order between only two restrained children while operating nothing larger than a minivan, I have no idea how these people manage to do their jobs without having nervous breakdowns, but perhaps there's a certain sedative personality type involved.)  I have heard that some districts provide monitors, but we have never lived in a district where one was provided, and one can only imagine the Lord of the Flies-type conditions that must have prevailed on board as my boys were transported over the course of their early school years.

In any case, the point is, they both survived, and Son#2 arrived in Korea as a seasoned veteran of years of school bus riding experience.  This turned out to be entirely unnecessary, as the school here provides a bus monitor (not a cuddly 'bus nanny' like Circles' boys), which seems very sensible, since the school here goes from junior kindergarten all the way to the last year of high school, and it would be understandable that the parents of the smaller children would like a certain amount of assurance that their little ones aren't being knocked about by the brooding hulks in Year 10.  (Speaking as the parent of two teenage boys who fall asleep in any vehicle at the exact instant the key turns in the ignition, I could assure the parents of smaller children that the teenagers are not to be feared, but I'm sure that I, too, would have wanted some reassurance when my boys were small.)  The monitor is responsible for keeping track of the children getting on and off the bus, assigning seats (to the great indignation of the teens, who all feel that it's a great affront to their maturity) and generally keeping order, which has (so far) proven to be unnecessary.  Son #2 came home the first day of school and informed us of this assault on his independence, grumbling about his assigned seat (in the front of the bus, oh the indignity!) and his seatmate.  It turns out that the seatmate was a small boy who, completely drained after facing the demands of kindergarten,  regularly fell asleep on Son #2's shoulder each afternoon as soon as the bus started, and dozed peacefully for most of the 45-minute ride home.  Son #2, being a good-natured fellow, didn't have the heart to move his little seatmate or wake him up, but clearly felt that the potential damage to his level of coolness would possibly have long-reaching effects.  This was exacerbated by the fact that most of the other teens had scored seats in the prime real estate zone in the back of the bus.

When we suggested that he simply change seats, he explained that it was not that easy, since everyone had a seat assigned by the bus monitor, a dour Korean fellow called 'Su Pi' (rhymes with 'Rupee') who did not seem to like change of any kind.  Weeks went by as Son #2 resigned himself to being a human pillow in exile at the front of the bus.

At the first of October, he came home one afternoon with great news: Su Pi had been replaced by a cheerier fellow who entertained Son#2's petition for a venue change and graciously granted it.  Son #2 came home in high spirits, stating that Su Pi had let him change seats and that he now rode in casual glory with all of the other teenagers in the back of the bus.

Wait, we said, wasn't the last bus monitor named Su Pi as well? What an extraordinary coincidence!
Son #2 shrugged with elaborate nonchalance.  "Oh, Su Pi's not his name," he explained.  "All the bus monitors are called 'Su Pi'."
"Maybe 'Su Pi' means 'Bus Monitor' in Korean," I suggested.
"No,"  he explained with a touch of impatience,  "'Su Pi' is short for 'Supervisor.'  Didn't you know that?"

Uh, no.  No, I didn't know that.  You?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The One I Hoped I Wouldn't Have to Write

When I started blogging last April after learning we were moving to Seoul, I was busy racking my brains for childhood memories of growing up overseas so that I could pull them out, dust them off, and compare them with what I was getting ready to do as an adult.  I planned to write about new friends, unusual food, the astonishingly diverse expatriate community, the sounds and smells of Asia, and even the sure-to-be-nightmarish traffic.  But one topic I pushed resolutely out of my mind; the thought of something happening to someone back home while I was over here.

Two years, I reasoned.  We'll only be here for two years - no time at all - and then we'll head back where things will be normal again.  

Of course, I am not really that naive.  I know that things can change in a blink of an eye, that joy can turn to sorrow in an instant, and that someone being well and happy in the morning is no guarantee that they will still be with you in the afternoon.  But still left with the hope that all would be well until we came home for good.

As a child in Taipei, I still remember with great clarity, my mother coming into my bedroom, sitting down on my bed and gently telling me that my aunt - her sister, a young woman with two school-aged children - had been killed in a car accident back in Canada.  What (I now realize) was even crueler was that my mother - eight months pregnant at the time - could not make the lengthy flight back for the funeral to say her final goodbyes and to share her grief with her family.  She could only sit, bereft, on the other side of the world, and, in due time, give her new baby the name that had been her sister's.

In this era of texting and Skype and email and cell phones,  being an expat is not as difficult as it was when I was a child.  Back then, we kept in touch through letters, snapshots, and occasional cassette tapes; phone calls - due to their prohibitive cost - were reserved for Christmas, Thanksgiving, and dire emergencies.  Nowadays, MrLogical and I talk to our families at least once a week, if not more.  We Skype so that loved ones can see how the boys are growing, what our apartment looks like, how much we love a gift.  We lull ourselves into thinking we aren't really so far away from each other.

Until something happens to remind us just what kind of distance there really is between us.

I woke up yesterday to an email from my mother, asking me to call.  Alarms went off immediately:  my mother does not email much, and she does not send cryptic emails without referencing a topic.  She rarely - if ever - is up at midnight.  I could feel my heart thudding in my ears as my shaking hands tried to dial seemingly unending area codes and numbers.

She answered almost immediately, and told me.  My sweet uncle, one of her brothers, had died.  He had been in his eighties, it had been very sudden, he had been at home, he had been with my cousin - his son.  The type of passing that many of us would wish for.  But a passing, nonetheless, and one that leaves a void in our family.  He leaves behind children, grandchildren, daughters-in-law, brothers, sisters, in-laws, nieces, nephews, great-nieces, great-nephews, and a host of friends.

Tomorrow, his family and friends will gather together to celebrate his long and fruitful life.  They will tell stories about him that will bring a quick smile and a laugh; they will hug each other, wipe eyes, shake heads, and mourn the loss of a gentle and kind presence in all of their lives.  Hymns will be sung, scripture will be read, and memories will be shared.  Food will be eaten, coffee will be drunk, anecdotes will be told, and 'remember-whens' will abound, as they gather together in their sorrow and comfort each other in their grief.

And no, I will not be there.  Time, money, distance, and the lingering aftereffects of the surprise Halloween snowstorm in the Northeast have all combined to keep me here, on the other side of the world, when I would love more than anything to see those familiar faces, share hugs and tears and stories, and be there to say goodbye to a very dear uncle.

Yes, we are grateful for the chance to live and travel in Asia.  Yes, we are enjoying a new culture and new horizons for ourselves and our children and the chance to see how others live and work and play.  Most of the time, we are very happy to be here.

But there are times when it really, really hurts not to be there.

 And this is one of them.