Monday, December 24, 2012

Expat Life: The University Flight

International arrivals area at Incheon, via

Waiting at the International Arrivals area at Incheon International Airport is a little bit like waiting for the beginning of a theater production:  the air of anticipation, the low murmur of the crowd, the (slightly irritated) re-adjustments as more people take their places in the audience.

Even the arrangement of the space is a bit like being in a theater: a wall of frosted 'no entrance' double doors is the backdrop, with cordoned-off empty area as the 'stage' in front of it.  On each side of the 'stage' are uniformed airport employees - crew and tech - whose job it is to make sure the whole deplaning production goes smoothly.

When you are the one arriving, it can be a bit intimidating, pushing through those doors to see a throng of people staring intently at you as you emerge, wrinkled and exhausted after 20-odd hours in the air, the rush to deplane, and what seems like endless queuing at Immigration, the baggage claim, and customs.

For the onlookers, it's very exciting, watching as one blurred figure after another approaches the frosted glass, and pushes the door open as you wonder if this time it will be your loved one.  You crane your neck, and stand on tiptoe, trying to see the figures behind the passenger who just emerged:  there's a blonde head at the back - maybe that's him? -the door swings shut again.

When we arrived last Friday to collect Son#1 from the flight that would deliver him to us for his winter break from his university in the US, it was more crowded than usual.  A slushy snow was falling, and - for reasons known only to themselves - the Powers That Be had decided to resurface parts of the Parking Garage, which just added to the general sense of pandemonium.

By the time we emerged into the Arrivals hall, an enormous crowd had gathered outside of the doors, thrumming with excitement.  We found ourselves standing well to the back, waiting for the flashing landed next to Son#1's flight number to change to arrived.  

We recognized two other families from the International School who were also there collecting college students, and I thought, What a nice coincidence.  25 million people in Seoul, dozens of flights to and from the USA, and we find ourselves here with not one, but two other families we know!  We chatted about where and what our kids were studying, how long they were staying, what our plans for the long Christmas break were - all while keeping one eye on the board.

After what seemed like ages, the doors opened; the crowd tensed as they revealed a couple of flight attendants, their scarves and hats still amazingly perky after 13 or more hours in the air.  The crowd slumped back down again, but the volume increased.  The door opened again - and this time, it was a passenger:  a young man, wearing a hooded university sweatshirt under his jacket, a backpack slung over one shoulder, earbuds hanging from the iPod in his pocket.  He peered at the crowd, apparently taken aback at its size, making his way toward the exit, where a middle-aged couple and a younger sister were waiting, wreathed in smiles.

The door opened again:  two girls - late teens or early twenties:  hoodies, backpacks, Uggs, long straight hair, heading for two more middle-aged couples.  More siblings.

Now they were coming thick and fast:  the doors barely had time to close behind one passenger before the next one emerged.  And then I realized something:  most of them - not all - were in their late teens or early twenties; very few older people;  very few babies and children;  just a parade of young people - happy, relieved, a little proud, apparently none the worse for their long-haul flights.

I don't know how long it took me to actually get what was going on;  all the young people - just like my son. All the US university sweatshirts.  All the middle-aged couples with a younger teen or two in tow.

The last Friday before Christmas, one of the last flights coming in from the US before the weekend began.

All those kids. All those backpacks.  All those sweatshirts. All those loving, expectant faces.

It was the university flight.  Not officially, of course.  But that's what it was, nonetheless.

I know that loving reunions at airports aren't unique to Seoul and the expat community.  I have plenty of friends with children attending college out of state - a plane flight away.  They haven't seen their kids for months, either.  Their kids are a plane ride away, too.

But maybe not 20 hours in flight and a 6-hour layover away.

Not in another country.

Not 14 hours' time difference.

For expat parents, it's a little more poignant.  A little more emotional.  A little more exciting.

And so, we were all there together, hundreds of us, waiting for that university flight:  the grinning, backslapping Dads, the teary, no-I'm-not-going-to-cry-but-I-could-so-easily Mums, the secretly awed younger siblings pretending not to be too excited.

The same scene that is played out all over the world, but with a twist for expat students and their families.  Not just a return to home and family, but a return to a different country and a different culture.

We greeted each other quickly and then, with all the other families, made a rapid exit to the car, fighting our way through the dark, cold evening, the slush, the chaos, the parking attendants and their orange-glowing light wands.

Leaving the parking lot, we pulled up to the booth to pay our parking fee, handed in the ticket, waited to see the display, handed over the money.  The attendant gave us our change with a small bow and a gentle, singsong, Kam sa hamnida.(Thank you.)

As MrL rolled up the window and pulled out onto the highway, Son#1 remarked, "I've missed that."

I'm sure he has.  And I'm sure that, in car after car leaving Incheon that night, there were hundreds of college kids saying the same thing.

And hundreds of parents - like us - who were deeply grateful to be hearing it.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

American Expats and Gun Violence : How Does The World See Us?

When I started off the school year in August with my new 4th-grade English learners, I asked them if any of them had ever been to an English-speaking country: England, maybe? Australia? Or had any of them, perhaps, been to my home country - America?

A hand went up:

"My mummy says we can't visit America because it's too dangerous."

Me: (stunned)  Too dangerous?
Student:  Yes.  People shoot each other there all the time because everyone has a gun.
A few classmates:  (nodding vigorously) 'My mummy, too!'
Me:(still stunned).......
Student:  Weren't you afraid to live there?
Me:  (trying to recover and babbling):  Well, no.  I mean, I never lived anywhere dangerous.  I mean, there are probably dangerous places in every country.  And I don't have a gun. Lots of people don't have guns.
Student (skeptically):  Really? My mummy says that people shoot each other all the time in America.
Me:  (rallying slightly)  Well, I have lived there for many years and it has never happened to me or anyone I know.  So..who's been to New Zealand?

That little exchange...well, it gave me a new insight into how much of the world really sees me and my fellow Americans, one that I've been mulling over for the last few months, and which yesterday's events in Newtown, Connecticut, have put in a new light.

 I can't speak for all Americans, of course, but when I woke up yesterday morning (Korea time) and discovered that yet another armed gunman had committed yet another mass murder - this time of 6-and 7-year-olds and their teachers - I was in a state of shock.  Shock as a parent; shock as a teacher; and shock as an American.  I read article after article, and watched video after video, listening to voices that could have belonged to my family members, my friends, my neighbors - or even me.  And it was me.  It was my country, my people, my culture.

I know that Americans don't have a great international reputation these days.  I know that there are many countries with reason to dislike us.  I love my country, but I get that we have lots to work on.  I know all this, but I was still shocked to learn that there are people in the world - educated, sophisticated, well-traveled European and Asian expats whose children go to my school - who feel about my country the way I feel about Rwanda or Syria:  it's probably a lovely place, but based on what I know, it's  too dangerous for my family to visit.  

I can tell you, most of us who live in America don't think of it this way.  And yet - this is what the world sees and thinks about us.  About me.

Living in a foreign country - incidentally, one with one of the lowest rates of gun violence in the developed world -I'm wondering today as I go about my business what people are thinking about me - the American.  Me and the 'dangerous' 'violent' country I come from, where schools have to have lockdown procedures and metal detectors. Where people are gunned down at movie theaters, malls,  - and elementary schools.  Will they feel sorry for me?  Wonder how I can stand to live somewhere so dangerous? Whether I worry about my children? Wonder if I'm a violent person myself? Whether I own guns?

I'm actually relieved that the international school where I teach has already broken up for Christmas so I don't have to engage in any of the discussions in the teacher's room that would have been sure to have ensued.  My co-workers, who are all from European countries with strict gun laws, would likely express sympathy and shock, as have people from all over the world.  Of course, something like this could happen anywhere, they would all agree, and their hearts - like mine - would be breaking over the senseless loss of life.  But the unspoken (or maybe, spoken) comment would also be there:   why does it happen so often in America - and why don't you people do something about it? Would there be secret pity that I come from a country where my chances of dying from gun violence are approximately 15 times as great at theirs? Would there be morbid curiosity about what it is like to come from such a dangerous and violent place? Would they wonder why our 'world-class' healthcare system can't seem to provide adequate mental health care services for people who are suffering? Would they look at me differently, wondering how I'd been brought up, what I'd been taught in school, what my beliefs and philosophies must be if I come from a place that is so violent - and which, even now, rings with voices saying that the answer to this problem is more guns? Would they be asking me to explain all of that - as well as Aurora and Milwaukee and Columbine  and now - Sandy Hook?

I hope not.  Because I wouldn't be able to.

I look at my country and its people, and I think about the millions of well-meaning, warmhearted, go-the-extra-mile citizens that you find virtually everywhere in America, and I think, 'how can this be?' We Americans are enthusiastic to a fault; we are optimistic, we are energetic; we see a need, and we fill it.  And if there's not a way, we make it.  We hug strangers in times of grief (yes, we're a huggy country,) we chat on elevators, we open doors for each other, we hold fundraisers and walk-a-thons and food drives. We are soft-hearted; many of us are deeply religious; we are fiercely patriotic. We love animals, small children, and our hometown heroes. We bring cookies to new neighbors, lend cups of sugar, feed each others' cats when we go out of town.  We shovel our neighbor's sidewalk when it snows.  We fight for the underdog.  Yes, we're occasionally like a big, enthusiastic, barking Labrador puppy in the china shop of the Global Village:  we don't always get that the rest of the world sometimes rolls their eyes at us and our Good Intentions.  We are well-meaning, even if we don't always see the whole picture.  We think our brand of freedom is worth fighting and dying for - and we do it.  We believe in education, in awareness, in fixing things when they're broken. When our laundry is dirty, we still put it out there for the world to see, and we try to learn from our mistakes.  We believe that all it takes is one person with a message to start a wave of change- and we do it. We believe that ordinary people - people without power or money - have voices, too, and we have a system of government which - though imperfect - allows people to raise those voices.  We are people of great love and incredible compassion.

And we kill each other with guns.

We have a mental health care system that is broken.

We can't agree on how to fix things.

And people - beautiful little children and their dedicated teachers -are dying.

If there's one thing that I've tried to remember as an expat, it's this:  I may be the only American that this person ever meets. I do my best to be a good ambassador. I try to remember that the world is full of people whose ideas about America and Americans are based entirely on what they read or see on the news - not on relationships with any of us.

Today, I'll try to be kinder, more polite, more patient.  I'll work on being a better ambassador.  I'll do what I can to dispel the picture the world has of America and its people as violent and angry and gun-loving. But I can't do anything to change what people hear in the news, read in the papers, watch on TV.  I can't do much to change their image of my country as a dangerous, violent place where children are not safe in their schools and people are gunned down in shopping malls.

I can't change it until America changes.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Song for (an expat's) Winter Night

Getting ready for Christmas on the 14th floor in an Asian metropolis.  Not bad:  just different.

(Warning:  This is not one of MsCaroline's more lighthearted posts.  In fact, it's probably a bit of a downer.  But you might as well know that expat life is not always a bed of roses.  You've been warned.)

One of the things I've tried to avoid in my blog is whining too much about being homesick.  (Regular readers will note that MsC has no such scruples about whining about anything and everything else, but she really does try to avoid the 'I'm homesick' refrain.)

In fact, while my family and I do occasionally get homesick, most of the time, we're going about our everyday lives and not giving too much thought to the fact that we are thousands of miles away from our families. Really not much different from our situation in the US, where we almost always lived no closer than a day's drive or a 4-hour airplane journey.  Nothing new, technically speaking.

In addition, I have to say, since MrLogical and I made the decision to move to Seoul with wide-open eyes and an intimate understanding of the pros and cons of expat life,I'm in no position to be sniveling about being homesick.  When fleeting twinges of homesickness hit me, I usually just channel my inner New Englander, stiffen my upper lip, and get on with whatever I'm doing.  No point in feeling sorry for yourself when you're the one who decided to move halfway across the world, right? Right.

The holidays, however - as you can all imagine - are a little different, and I occasionally find myself getting sentimental.  I tend to wallow in music, books, and films that conjure up so many memories of Christmas Past and People Loved that it's almost impossible to make it through December without experiencing at least one crack in my 'expat realist' veneer.

Today was that sort of day.

It's my day off, and I've spent it in the most Christmas-y way:  wrapping presents, baking cookies, and listening to seasonal music on Spotify.  I had just finished up my 4th batch of reindeer cookies (yes, I'm one of those people) when I stopped what I was doing and listened - really listened - to the lyrics of 'Song for a Winter's Night' that Sara Mclachlan was crooning in the background of the sunny apartment:

If I could only have you near
To breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
Upon this winter night with you.*

Granted, it wasn't a 'winter night' (although by the time you read this, it may be): but the sentiment was the same: having you near would be enough for me.

That's all.  Just your presence.  We wouldn't even have to talk.  We could just be in the same room, or - for that matter - in the same house, or even the same town.  I would know that you were nearby, and that I could reach out. And, if I wanted to, I could hold your hand.

And that's what we expats can't have.  It's what we miss.  The casual daily contact, the dropping-in, the 'I'm just down the road,' the 'running-into-you-in-the-grocery-store.'  Holding hands.

We can call, we can Skype, we can email, we can IM.  In fact, technology sometimes fools us into thinking that we aren't really that far away, that the distance isn't that great.  We see our loved ones' faces on Skype, we hear their voices, we see videos, we chat and instant message.  We're just a plane ride away anyway, we tell ourselves, it's not that different from living on the West Coast when your family lives in Philly. It's really almost the same as being there. 

But we can't reach out and hold your hand.  And that, my friends, is what we miss. At least, it's what I miss.

Living abroad is not a decision that people make lightly, and, once we do, we have to live with the consequences of our decision.  Each of us has to make our own peace with our grief, our homesickness, our regrets for what we've missed, and - it has to be said - our guilt, which (I believe) all of us feel at some time or another. Living overseas is a choice most expats make with much thought and care, and one that most of us do not usually regret - much.  We relish the opportunities, the experiences, and the new horizons that living abroad brings with it, and most of the time we are deeply satisfied with our choices.

But there are times when you realize just what it means not to be able to hold the 'hands you love,' and those times are hard.

And that is all I have to say about that.

If the link below ends up being disabled (as they so often are), you can find many recordings online by Googling "Sarah McLachlan Song for a Winter's Night" 

*The lyrics and melody were written and recorded by Gordon Lightfoot in 1975 and were probably meant to be a wintry love ballad, but since I must have been either overseas or too young to pay attention to it, the song hit me in a very different way.  

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Advent Season in Seoul: A Smattering

Christmas decor for sale at Namdaemun Market in Seoul.  If glitter and tinsel had a baby.

MsCaroline is behind in all things right now, including blogging.  She has tons of interesting and ironic material to share with her readers, but, even as she speaks, the snow is falling and she is beginning to panic about how long it will take her to get to work in the snow/slush/ice/sleet-covered city.  

For those of you who assume that an Asian country will naturally be devoid of Christmas-ness (-osity?) let me just put your minds at ease:  the Christmas spirit is all over the place in Seoul.  Some of it arrives here with the expats themselves, but most of it is just Seoul itself - a city that loves lights, glitter, decorations, and all the trappings of the season, even if only 30% of Seoulites actually observe the holiday.

Of course, since MsCaroline works at an international school with ties to Europe, she has been up to her ears in small excited children, and quite a few excited adults as well.
At private homes, at school, and on the city streets, it's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas:

Clever Advent 'Calendar' in a friend's apartment, hand-knitted by a doting Grandma in the Old Country and containing a small gift for each day of Advent.

Musical Santas in downtown Seoul.

First snow of the season, with more on the way.

And, of course, who can forget that the 6th of December is St. Nicholas Day? He made a special visit to the children at MsCaroline's school and graciously agreed to pose for a photo op (MsCaroline will be sure to provide him with extra cookies in the teacher's workroom the next time she sees him.).

Friday, November 30, 2012

Book Review: Pete the Cat and His four Groovy Buttons

Learn more about Pete the Cat here
(Note:  This is not a compensated review.  MsCaroline just happens to think this is an excellent book and believes the world should know about it.)  

Most of you are probably aware that I no longer have small children in my house, so you will probably be scratching your heads at this post.  However, the beauty of a personal blog is just that:  it's personal, and that means I can write about whatever I want to - in this case, a terrific children's book.  As some of you know, I teach ESL a few days a week at an international school here in Seoul.  My students range from barely 3 all the way up to 10 or 11, which means I need to have many tricks in my bag, one of which is storytelling.  Needless to say, I'm always on the prowl for well-written, engaging books that children with even limited English abilities can understand and enjoy.

I happened upon this book a couple of weeks ago and decided that it might be fun to read to my preschool and kindergarten ESL classes.  It fit the requirements for a good ESL book - great illustrations, limited - but interesting- text, and frequent repetition.  It also had the bonus of incorporating numbers and a little bit of simple arithmetic, counting backwards from 4 down to zero.  

All in all, I thought it had a chance of being reasonably well-received.

I was absolutely bowled over by how much the kids loved this book! I read it multiple times to each of my groups, and even the sophisticated 3rd- and 4th graders (!) were begging to hear it again. Now, granted, they may have been laughing at me using my 'cool' voice for singing Pete's Groovy Button Song, but if they were using English -I wasn't complaining. By the end of every reading, they were singing along with me and repeating the main phrases.  Even the older kids shouted out the answers every time I asked, "How many buttons were left?"  I also loved the peaceful good-Karma message behind the story - that things are just things, and they're not worth getting too upset about when they're gone.

The story is simple:  Pete the Cat puts on his favorite shirt one morning with the 4 groovy buttons, and sings a song about them ("My buttons, my buttons, my 4 groovy buttons...") but while he's out and about  each button POPs off and rolls away.  After each POP, we're asked how many buttons are left, and we're reminded (in rhyme) that Pete doesn't cry - "goodness, no!-" because "buttons come and buttons go" -and 3 buttons are just as groovy!  Even when Pete loses that last button, he still finds a song to sing and heads out on his surfboard. 

After such an overwhelming success, I headed home and straight for the internet, where I was delighted to find not just one, but several other Pete the Cat books (including a Christmas one!), and - this was the best - some YouTube videos of the author, Eric Litwin, doing a spoken word/musical/storytelling performance of the book.  Needless to say, he did it with a lot more panache than I did, but I'm not 100% convinced that my version of Pete's song wasn't just as good...

I know that, as a teacher, I always appreciate recommendations, so I thought - in this season of giving - I'd pass on the love, since I know that I number among my readers at least a few parents and grandparents of  younger children who might really enjoy these books as well as at least one children's librarian (Hi, A!) and one or two other ESL teachers.  If you already know about Pete the Cat, I apologize for being repetitive, but I can only say..... why didn't you ever tell me

As it turns out, Pete has his own website which is also lots of fun.

The Pete the Cat books are published by Harper Collins and you can find links to sites for ordering here.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Expat Life: Bank Transfers and Why MsCaroline Deserves an Award

(Note:  The seed for this post was planted a week or so ago when I read this hilarious post by Outbound Mom about the challenges she faced trying to do her banking as an expat in Brazil.  My challenges are nothing like hers, but it does go to show you that even the most mundane daily activities overseas can be fraught with pitfalls.)

Now that I've lived in Seoul for a year and a half, it's probably time to confess that I am just now getting around to using the Korean banking system.  In my defense, I really didn't need to when we first moved here:  MrL's company's contract with the US military allows us the inestimable privilege of using the US-based banking facilities on the nearby US Army base, and we were able to use our US debit cards in most ATMs in Seoul (many of which provide English language transactions) to get cash when needed.  In addition, most establishments in Seoul accept credit cards.

We didn't really have a need for a Korean bank account.

We were also a bit wary of the Korean banking system, since at least one experienced expat had expressed a certain lack of confidence in the level of security of online transactions in Korea (note:  this was to turn out to be one of the most ludicrously incorrect statements that I have heard since moving here and is an excellent example of why you should never accept hearsay as an appropriate source of information.) Based on that - and a certain amount of natural timidity - I was happy to stick with what was working for us at the time.

For the first few months, things moved along smoothly.  Then, once Son#2 started school, we began to run into to the concept of the 'bank transfer.'

In fact, this is actually a pretty convenient system.  Everything that isn't paid in cash or via credit card is done with a bank transfer, simply transferring the money from your account to the payee's, not unlike the system that is used for paying bills online in the US.  The advantage of the transfer, however, is that it can be used just as easily to pay people as institutions, and it can be done online or at an ATM.

Back in the US, when one of the children needed money for something, I sent either cash or a check to school with them.  In Korea, everything (from the Yearbook to field trips to test fees) is paid for via a transfer, which meant that we would need to open a Korean bank account.

I duly opened an account and more or less ignored it, conditioned as I was to using our US account to pay for everything.  Every few months, something would come up (usually something that had to be paid for Son#2's school) and I would trot myself dutifully down to my bank, wait my turn in the Expat Banking line, thrust my passport, my bankbook, my card, and the bank transfer information at the banker and ask her to make the transfer.  The truth is, I'd never mastered doing it on the ATM, which - while claiming to provide guidance in something like 26 world languages - did so in an English that was not always intelligible to me and terrified me by eating my card the first - and only - time I'd tried to use it. (Disclaimer:  according to the people I know who regularly use ATMs to do this, bank transfers are quite easyif you are not MsCaroline once you learn how to do it.)

Cowardly, I know.

While it was not particularly convenient to hike to Hanam-dong to the bank every time I wanted to perform a transfer, since I rarely had to do it, the method - while clunky - worked for me.

I had, at one point, actually gathered all of the information and documents that I had needed to set up online transactions  some time ago, but had never actually gone to the trouble of setting up an online account, since I knew instinctively it would be complicated.  However, I woke up this morning to find Son#2 thrusting a document in my face and insisting frantically that I needed to transfer money to pay for his IGCSEs this May, which he had (naturally) waited until the last minute to ask me for.  Given that it was a) my day off and b) it was approximately -2C out, I decided that the time had come for me to try Korean online banking.

It was then that I discovered just how ridiculous the idea of Korean online banking being less secure than the US system was.

In the first place, I couldn't just log in without having previously made a special trip to the bank where I had to apply for online access and be given a special number and a special 'security card' which looked to me like a tiny credit-card sized bingo sheet, covered with rows of numbers (now you know why I said that I knew instinctively it would be complicated.)

In the second place, once I dug all this information out and logged myself on  to their English-speaking site, I discovered that what I took for 'security' in the US was a shameful and pale shadow of the online security system here in Korea, where they apparently take this much more seriously than we do.

The security steps I took included:

  • logging in with a unique userID and password (set up for me at my bank visit:  so far, no different than the US system.)
  • typing in a special digital code from the back of my passbook (of course I had to stop everything and go find it)
  • typing in the PIN number that I used with my ATM card
  • going through a process of being issued an online 'digital certificate' which had its own password that then had to be entered to act as my digital signature
  • entering a series of numbers from my 'security card;' 'enter the 2nd number on line two and the 3rd number from line 6'
  • and again, entering the 3rd, 6th and 7th numbers from the ID number printed on my 'security card.' 
  • and of course, entering all the information for the bank that the money was being transferred to (actually, a walk in the park compared to everything else I'd already done.)

45 minutes, 3 failed attempts, 2 Korean warning notification boxes, and 2 cups of coffee later, I had successfully set up my online account, applied for - and been granted - my "digital certificate," correctly typed in what felt like a million numbers and codes, and transferred the money.  All, I might add, without once using language unbecoming a lady or throwing things.

Is it any wonder that I feel like I deserve some sort of an award? 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Expat Life: A Different Sort of Thanksgiving

Those of you who are in - or from - the United States will probably be aware that today (November 22nd) is Thanksgiving.  (If you are not from the US and would like a brief primer, you can refer to this post I wrote last year, outlining the basics and lamenting the fact that the Asia Vu family would not be spending the holiday with their loved ones.)

As it turns out, we won't be spending this Thanksgiving Day with our loved ones, either - not even each other, since MrL and I both have to work.  Son#1 is, of course, still at University in the US, and Son#2-whose school does close for Thanksgiving - will be spending the day at Lotte World with an assortment of his friends from a variety of countries and cultures who either a) don't celebrate Thanksgiving or b)whose families are working like we are.  (Let me add that, for a 15-year-old boy, a visit to an amusement park with your friends is always preferable to hanging out eating with old people, so he's not upset in the least.)

Never fear, though:  we'll still be celebrating - just a bit later, on Friday evening with the other expats and their families from MrL's office.

But this year, I will be working on Thanksgiving Day.  The school where I teach - while international - is not American and, therefore, quite reasonably, does not celebrate American holidays. MrL's company is on a Korean holiday schedule. So, Thursday the 22nd will see MsC and MrL heading to work just like on any other day.

I originally was not going to mention this on the blog, because I didn't want to sound self-pitying.  You know:  "Oh, poor me, my husband and I have to work on Thanksgiving and one of my children is 6,000 miles away and the other one will be spending the day without his family and not eating turkey, alas and alack." First World Problems, right?

I will admit to initially having felt a tiny bit blue about the whole thing, but then I decided that, if I couldn't share Thanksgiving with my family, I would go ahead and share it with the students that I teach every day. Accordingly, over the last few weeks, I trolled the internet for some good material, looked out a couple books with simple descriptions, and even found a couple of great little videos on YouTube that explain the American Thanksgiving in relatively simple language, including one which makes up for what it lacks in depth with a really catchy tune, entitled, "Let's Have a Dinner - Thanksgiving!"

After the general explanation, I decided I needed a song, so I managed to dredge up from my own childhood  a tune about a despondent turkey contemplating his own mortality (compliments of my mother, a former primary school teacher) and whose refrain consists of 'Gobble gobble gobble gobble gobble gobble gobble, I would like to run away! Gobble gobble gobble gobble gobble gobble gobble, I don't like Thanksgiving Day!'  

I planned on following this with a charming tale about a turkey who (successfully) evades a rifle-toting farmer (Run, Turkey, Run!-destined to be a classic, I'm sure.)

And of course, I planned to cap it all off with a true American childhood Thanksgiving classic:  the hand turkey.

As I dug through all the material, it really was like a walk down memory lane for me:  the songs, the stories, even the crafts - from my childhood, and my own children's.

When I taught my first lesson on 'American Thanksgiving' on Monday, I think I had more fun than the kids did.  I'll teach that same lesson 4 or 5 more times before I leave work on Friday, and I'll enjoy it every single time, I'm sure.

It has been such fun to share the Mayflower and pilgrims and pumpkin pie and family dinners for the first time with these kids! I have looked forward to every class and sharing every activity with them - yes, even the hand turkey.

In a way, I've been re-living all of my Thanksgivings by sharing them with my students.

Today, even though I'll be standing in front of a classroom instead of sitting down at a table with my family, it will still be Thanksgiving.  I'll be sharing those stories, those traditions, and the custom of - for one day at least - reflecting on all we have to be grateful for.

And I will be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Yoboseyo? Yoboseyo?

(Note:  "Yoboseyo" is 'hello' on the telephone in Korean.  It's how you answer the phone and how you greet someone when you phone them.)

One of the things you never think about when moving to a foreign country is Phone Spam.  (Or, perhaps more accurately, one of the things that I never thought about when moving to a foreign country was Phone Spam.  Maybe the rest of you were already aware.)

By "Phone Spam," I am, of course, referring to telephone calls from:  A) human telemarketers  B) robot telemarketers  and C) humans who have dialed (or been given) the wrong number.  When I lived in the US, the amount of Phone Spam I got on my cell/mobile phone was really quite minimal, and if the house phone caller ID registered a name or number that sounded suspicious, I just didn't pick it up.

Here in Korea, though, we don't have a landline in the apartment, which is very common.  Everyone in the family has a mobile and, like everyone else in Korea, we have them with us at all times.  Of course, the drawback to this is the fact that all those robocalls and telemarketers are also with us at all times, as are the wrong numbers.

In the case of telemarketers, it's actually quite an advantage to not speak any Korean. As soon as the telemarketer realizes I don't speak Korean (the cheery, "Hello, MsCaroline speaking" gives it away, I guess,) he or she hangs up, presumably to telemarket in greener pastures.

In the case of the robots, it's not really a problem either:  I just hang up.

But I just can't hang up on people -especially people who have likely made an honest mistake.  Which means I am entirely to blame for the frustration that ensues.

Logically, you would think these calls would end very quickly, as soon as the caller realizes I'm not the Korean person or business that they were trying to reach:

MsCaroline:  Hello?
Stranger:  Yoboseyo?
MsCaroline:  I'm sorry, I don't speak Korean.  You have the wrong number.
Stranger:  (hmmm...this person does not speak Korean.  It can't be Pizza Hut/Aunt Jane. I must have called the wrong number) *click*

This, however, hasn't been the case at all, and I can't figure out why.

When I get wrong numbers here, the callers just don't accept it.  You'd think that they'd hear 'Hello' and hang up almost immediately.  But no.

They are tenacious.  They suspect I have latent Korean-speaking abilities (or maybe a nearby friend who has them) that will emerge if they only speak more loudly, if they hang on a bit longer, use smaller words. When I state (in English) that I don't speak Korean, they reply - at length -in Korean.  And they don't hang up.  They sit there -breathing - on the other end of the phone, waiting for me to respond.  And when I do respond - in English - they don't just hang up.  No! They keep trying! They have unlimited faith in me  - or perhaps in my potential.  But the point is, It never works.

But they always try.  And I always end up feeling very, very guilty.

As an example, I provide the following exchange which took place no less than 15 minutes ago:

MsCaroline:  Hello? This is MsCaroline.
Stranger:  Yoboseyo? Yoboseyo?
MsCaroline:  Hello? I'm sorry, I don't speak any Korean. 
Stranger:  Yoboseyo?
MsCaroline:  (patiently) I'm sorry, I don't speak Korean. You must have the wrong number.
Stranger:  (with determination) Yoboseyo? (More statements in Korean that MsCaroline does not understand.)
MsCaroline:  You have the wrong number.  I  don't speak Korean.
Stranger:  (skeptically)  .....Yoboseyo? (More Korean that is not understood).
MsCaroline:  (inexplicably feeling the need to speak loudly) You. Have. The. Wrong. Number.
Stranger: .............. (Lengthy discourse in Korean, louder)
MsCaroline:  (desperately) English.  No Korean. Wrong number.
Stranger: (first, speaking over shoulder to others in the room in Korean, then turning back to the phone)....(loud, simple sentences in Korean that MsCaroline does not understand.)
MsCaroline:  (hopelessly) I speak English.  Wrong number!
Stranger...*hangs up*

(MsCaroline drops phone from nerveless fingers and runs abstracted hands through hair, which makes her appear recently electrocuted.  Phone rings.)

MsCaroline:  (guardedly) Hello?
Stranger:  Yoboseyo?


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

'Tis The Season Already.....Even In Korea

Christmas is on its way at our local e-Mart (kind of the Korean version of Super Target.)

MsCaroline is no Grinch, and believes that Christmas music should be a legitimate option year-round, but she really didn't expect to find Christmas consumerism rearing its ugly head quite so soon.  Especially in Korea.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Expat Life: It's Just My Size!

Although MsCaroline is no longer parenting very small boys who need constant supervision, those days are not so far behind her that she can't appreciate the charm of this thoughtfully-placed fixture that she ran across in the Ladies' Room in the Dongdaemun subway station last week.

(As an aside, MsCaroline has found that Korean culture - and Koreans in general - really love little children, and the infrastructure really does seem wonderfully well set up to support parents and their children, so this sort of charming detail geared towards small people is not unusual. If you are moving to Seoul with small children, you will be pleasantly surprised.)

This clever child-sized urinal would have been a welcome sight to MsCaroline back in the days when she was  trying to wrestle with two of them in a toilet stall approximately the size of a phone booth, doing her best to keep one from wandering off or - even worse - touching things, while trying to encourage the other one to pay attention for God's sake, not on the wall, that's your shoe! and stop laughing at your brother.

Of course, MsCaroline suspects that - given her luck - at least one of her children would have been convinced that the friendly porcelain pig (cow?) was going to eat him(or parts of him,) precipitating some sort of meltdown, and refused to get anywhere near its gaping maw. Which would have resulted in the three of them jostling in the stall anyway.

But she still thinks it's a nice idea.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Expat Life: You Oughta Know By Now: Eating Out in Seoul

Source:  Or Not 2B Comics

As most of you know, MsCaroline is not exactly an authority on expat life in Seoul, although she does endeavor to share her own hard-won knowledge with anyone who is interested.

MsCaroline will, however, say, that, after 18 months here, she knows the basics.  She knows greetings and farewells, she knows when to bow (when in doubt - bow), she knows when it's OK to push (sidewalks and subways) and when you have to take a number and wait quietly (banks, clinics, offices, the mobile phone service center.)  She knows about driving in Korea ( traffic laws=there for other people to follow) and she knows about restaurants (buzz for the waiter, metal chopsticks, pour water for others first.)

Since MsCaroline knows all this - and more - you would think that her days of being surprised would be over by now, but you would, sadly, be wrong.

So, when she went to a Mexican restaurant in Seoul a few weeks ago, she was genuinely surprised when she ordered a margarita and it turned out to be made of soju.

There is clearly no excuse for this.  It has been 18 months since MsCaroline got here, and she knows that cuisine in her host country is different from what you get at home.

She has, over the course of her stay here, been offered cow intestines, roasted silkworm larvae, raw cuttlefish, stingray, pickled radish, and dried seaweed.  She has tried all of them and found that some of them are delicious, and she has learned the importance of approaching every new food with an open mind.

However, the main lesson she has learned about food here in Korea is this:  even if it has the same name as it does in the US, it does not go without saying that it will taste the same - or even have the same ingredients.  This does not mean it will taste bad, though.  It simply means that you should not expect to get exactly what you would get back in the US.  

MsCaroline knows this.  In fact, MsCaroline knew this before she arrived, although she has had to be reminded of this repeatedly over the course of the last year due to being slow and often very thick.

So there was no excuse for any surprise whatsoever when she ordered 'seafood curry' last week at a Thai restaurant here in Seoul and found this perched jauntily on the top of her order:

Of course, MsCaroline had forgotten that, when you say 'seafood' in Korea, it's entirely reasonable to expect octopus or squid or shrimp to show up in your entree.  Intact.

And, even though they were in a Thai restaurant, they were still in Korea.

So MsCaroline had no excuse for not knowing, and she had even less excuse for being surprised.

But MsCaroline -while she is slow - has learned some things, and I am pleased to say that she was able to rise to the occasion.

She did not say, "Eeeewwww! there's an octopus in my curry!"

She did not say, "Oh, how weird, there's an octopus in my curry!"

She simply did what you do in Korea when there's an octopus in your curry.

Reader, she ate it.

And that, my friends, is what we call progress.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

This is Halloween. Sorta.

MsCaroline and MrLogical:  Halloween 2011.  

Halloween is once again, upon us, and MsCaroline admits to being something of a slacker this year.  Those who have been following this blog since its inception will notice immediately that the above photo is from last year's Halloween festivities:   MsCaroline admits that, yes, this is last year's Halloween photo.  However, MsCaroline is nothing if not a fan of recycling, and, if the truth be told, she doubts that she and MrL will ever come up with such good costumes again.  Ever.

So enjoy last year's photo.  MsCaroline may just make it an annual thing from now on.  Every year, she'll drag out the Halloween 2011 photo and relive her first Halloween in Seoul, -from the awkward subway ride right down to the eating of roasted silkworm larvae -and shake her head fondly over all her past shenanigans, while her readers go somewhere else.

Since this blog is - in theory at least - about expat life in Seoul, MsCaroline hastens to point out that Koreans do not really celebrate Halloween, although one sees signs of it here and there in the city, especially in the parts of the city where foreigners - especially Americans - are concentrated. One sees decorations, displays, and advertisements with a Halloween theme here and there, especially at US-based establishments like Baskin-Robbins and Dunkin' Donuts (yes, they have them in Seoul, really).  A number of bars and restaurants popular with foreigners decorate for Halloween, and Itaewon - the 'foreigner' neighborhood of Seoul - turns into one big Halloween party on the weekend closest to the actual date.  All the bars and dance clubs turn into one big Halloweeny extravaganza, it would seem, although MsCaroline - being a bit past the dance club part, at least - cannot give you any further details.

Outside a restaurant in Itaewon last weekend.  Skeleton balloons are always correct with either red or white wine. 
This year, Halloween somehow sneaked up on us without notice.  MsC and MrL were at a makgeoli bar restaurant with friends eating a convivial meal (there is no other kind of meal to eat when you have been drinking makgeoli (Korean rice wine) - trust me) when they noticed a larger-than-usual number of zombies and sexy kittens strolling by and realized, belatedly, that, it was indeed, Halloween.

As an aside -MsCaroline is not being judgmental or anything, but she feels that wearing your normal street clothes - in this instance, a minidress and very high heels - and slapping on a headband with some kitten ears on it at the last minute, is a very poor excuse for a costume and shows an astonishing lack of creativity.  But - as she said, she is not being judgmental.

The point is, MsCaroline has nothing much to say about Halloween this year, although she did discuss the finer points of an American Halloween with her students, who expressed skepticism when she explained that many Americans decorate their houses and yards for Halloween.  This forced MsCaroline to collect photos from her generous friends in the US to create a Power Point presentation to share with her students to prove to them she was telling the truth.  She is happy to report that they enjoyed it.  They also enjoyed the fact that she distributed (under the auspices of cultural authenticity) candy that looked like eyeballs and severed fingers, because they are disgusting, and when you are in elementary school, disgusting is a hot commodity.

In the meantime, MsCaroline is trying desperately to enjoy the waning days of Fall as she looks down the barrel of another Seoul winter and into the coming months of bitter cold, snow, wind, rain, and soggy public transport.

No, much too scary a note to close on.

Since MsCaroline is shamelessly recycling anyway, she will go ahead and leave you another recycled image from last year:

Happy Halloween.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Expat Life: Family Photos - Making The Cut

MsCaroline's maternal grandmother and her eldest uncle, ca. 1918.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to a friend's home for dinner.  It was a lovely evening - good food and wine, good conversation, and a breathtaking view of Seoul's sparkling evening cityscape. Like most expat homes in Seoul, S's villa was furnished by her landlord and appointed with a few things she'd brought with her from home, along with souvenirs she'd purchased in her travels around Seoul and the rest of Asia.  What interested me most of all was not the souvenirs - although I do admit coveting her 1800s-era map of Seoul - but the family photos.  Not many, mind you:  a few images of her family and friends; one of her daughter as a baby; and a photo of herself and her husband, young and in love and entirely pleased with each other and the life they were building together.

I've always enjoyed looking at photos anyway, but after I got home that night, I started thinking about the photos you see in expat homes, and how they differ from those you see when people are back in their own countries.  When you're overseas, the photos you have in your home seem to take on more meaning, somehow.
Family reunion and birthday celebration for MrL's mother on the occasion of her 70th birthday.

Not to say that photos don't mean a lot in the houses you visit back home.  But photos in an expat household take on more weight and more meaning, because most of us don't have many things from home with us to begin with.  That's understandable, of course:  most companies (ours included) put a limit on how much you can ship over, and one has to get ruthless in one's packing.

Naturally, a lot of us pick up objects de art once we arrive, which explains why the decor in all of our apartments here in Seoul looks vaguely familiar:  kimchi pots, wooden masks, Korean medicine chests. These items rub elbows with the generic landlord-provided furniture that you find in many expat apartments (not many of us bring furniture along, and those of us who do don't bring much), creating a predictable decor for most of us that I think of as 'Asian-Ikea-Hotel.'

For that reason, family photos seem to say a lot more over here simply because you see fewer of them.  Back home in the US, it's not unusual to see portrait-sized family photos hanging over fireplaces, galleries hanging on parlor walls and running up stairways.  And there are always (especially in the South) sterling-silver frames amassed on end tables, sideboards, nightstands, and bookshelves.  You can read family histories on people's walls and on their coffeetables.

It's a bit different if you're living in a foreign country, though.

No, not because we don't take photos (in fact, we probably take more than the average person, since everything is so unusual.)

And not because we don't love our families or want to display photos of our beautiful, brilliant, and marvelous children/nieces/grandchildren/friends.  Actually, we do.  But  expats have space and weight and packing limits that most people don't have to contend with.  So the images that do end up getting displayed - that 'make the cut,' so to speak - tend to be the really important ones.
Sons#1 and #2 with radiant bride, Auntie H.  
As an expat, even if you're lucky to have a generous moving allowance and weight limits (and that seems to be the exception rather than the rule), there's no guarantee that your photos will have anywhere to be.  You don't know how big or small your new home will be.  You don't know if your landlord will allow you to put hooks or nails in the wall. You may not have a nightstand or a sideboard for display purposes,and - even if you do - it may not be big enough to hold much.

So, you make your selections carefully.  You distill your life experiences, your family, and your friends into a few thoughtfully-chosen moments that you'll take along with you wherever you go.

You choose what's most important.  Who and what you most want to be reminded of.  The relationships and the experiences that define you and that remind you of what you care most about in the world.  The ones -when people do stop by - you can't wait to tell them about.
MrLogical and Korean cycling mates taking a breather.

The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is undeniably true.  But for expats,  the photos you see say even more than most.  These are not always professional photos;  they may be small and blurry and taken with camera phones. They may be taken in kitchens or in airports or in small back gardens, although - depending on the expat - you may glimpse more than one of the Seven Wonders of the World in the background.  From a professional standpoint, they may be lacking in color, composition, angle, and depth.

What they do all have in common is this:  they're too important, too precious, and too meaningful to be left behind.

They're the ones that make the cut.

Rare time with Mum back home last summer.  

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Meanwhile, Back in Canada: A Yellow Dog Update

The Yellow Dog, back home, lying on my book.  It's likely he drooled on it.

Long-time readers will remember that, before leaving for Seoul, the Asia Vu family made the difficult decision to leave their large, lovable, and marginally intelligent Yellow Dog behind in Canada in a foster arrangement with MsCaroline's kind, generous, thoughtful, and long-suffering Cousin S and her husband, G.

Just to be clear, when I say 'long-suffering,' I am not exaggerating in the least.  In this case, 'long-suffering' means  'having to make arrangements for the dog to have ACL surgery within a few months of his arrival and nursing him around the clock during his recuperation and then providing him with recuperative therapy as well as putting up with all of his skin allergies and personal idiosyncrasies."   So, you can see, it hasn't been a walk in the park for S&G, and likely for their own baby, the Brown Dog.

 While we know that the Yellow Dog is clearly in far better hands with his loving Canadian cousins (Cousin S cooks him breakfast every day) we all miss him terribly.  Fortunately, through the miracles of technology, we've been able to keep abreast of his doings.  Cousin S provides e-mail updates, frequent photos, and videos on a regular basis.  (And if you were wondering, yes, we have tried Skyping with him, but it was unsuccessful.  He just got very excited and looked around quizzically and barked a lot and had to be given a treat.)

So, when the first snow fell in Alberta recently, there was no question that Cousin S would record the Yellow Dog's first foray into it.  There is also no question that she would be sure to provide him with a jaunty red coat. ( I can't remember if she bought him boots or not, but I wouldn't put it past her.) 

We still miss the Yellow Dog, but if he can't be with us, we can't think of a better place for him to be than where he is right now.

And, to Cousins S&G:  Thanks.  Again, and again, and again.

The Yellow Dog and his cousin, the Brown Dog.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Grumpy Expat: How My Brain Works Sometimes

One of my favorite comics by the incomparable Oatmeal, whose observations are invariably spot-on.  This one's from a comic called, "If My Brain Were an Imaginary Friend,."  It's relevant to this post.  Really.

Today's topic, dear readers, is "The Expat Brain and How It Works. Sometimes."  We'll be investigating the daily realities of living in a foreign culture and how our brains perceive them.  Or, at least, how MsCaroline's brain has been perceiving them.

MsCaroline has moved enough - and is old enough - to know that no one, anywhere, has a perfect life.  If Keeping Up With The Kardashians has done nothing else for society, it has shown us that even the beautiful, the famous, and the ├╝ber-wealthy have their crosses to bear.  The strings of pearls will get tangled during our photo shoot for Playboy. The new custom-ordered Bentley will not be ready for pickup when it was supposed to be.  Sex tapes will be released.  These people - they're just like you and me, putting on brave smiles even in the face of the most devastating crises.

With that in mind, MsCaroline did not expect to find her life in Seoul to be just one glamorous expat adventure after another.  She knew there would be down days, just like everyone has no matter where they live.  What she was not prepared for was the recent irrational reactions of her brain*** when these incidents took place, in which it (her brain I mean) repeatedly asserted something along the lines of "This is all crap, and if you were living back home, nothing like this would ever have happened."  

Anyone who has read any of MsCaroline's early posts when she was still in the US can see that that is a load of BS patently ridiculous, but try telling that to MsCaroline's subconcious brain structures, which delight in annoying her lately with unwanted - and completely improbable - commentary about how everything unpleasant that occurs is somehow directly related to her life as a guest in a foreign country.

Experts on expat living refer to this sort of reaction as the end of the 'honeymoon period.' According to them, when one first arrives in a new country, one's brain is bathed in endorphins and dazzled by the strange, exotic delights of living in a new culture.  Everything is seen through the lens of a besotted newcomer.  Life is glamorous, interesting, different, and new.

But after a few months, the glow begins to fade, and the expat finds that life in the fascinating new culture has the same ups and downs as it did in the last place - and sometimes, even more, leading on to subsequent stages of frustration and even rage.  This happened to MsCaroline (more or less) last Autumn, and -she assumed - that she had moved on to the acclimation stage, accepting her life in a new country and even beginning to put down some roots.  She was surprised, however, to discover that, for an expat, these feelings can resurface, even after quite a while.

"Oh, MsCaroline,"  you are saying, "Living in a foreign country is an adventure! You are living a life that many would love to experience!"

MsCaroline realizes this, and - when she is feeling more rational - agrees with you.  However, right now, as she mentioned, her brain is getting the best of her - even though she realizes its assertions are specious at best.  As evidence, she submits the following graphic organizer:

Unpleasant Incident
Normal Response
Irrational Expat Brain Response
Lost for an hour underground in the subway station looking for a nonexistent exit.  
This could happen to anyone and keep in mind if you’d studied more Korean you probably could have avoided it.
Korean is too hard and would it have killed them to put up a sign – just one sign – somewhere in English? This would have never happened back home.
Discover transportation card – recently loaded with more than KRW2,000,000 (about $20) suddenly will not work, with the line backing up behind her and no one available to help her sort it out in English. 
Sometimes magnetic strips on cards stop working, and if you’d studied more Korean, you could have explained yourself and gotten some help.
Back home I could DRIVE everywhere without fear of death and with certainty of easily finding ample parking and I did not NEED a stupid card to get on and off the bus every day on my way to work.
Umbrella turns inside out due to powerful winds and rain on the way to bus stop. Miserable huddling in rain at bus stop under broken umbrella ensues.
Your umbrella would have turned inside out just as easily back home in this sort of weather. 
Back home I could DRIVE to work and didn’t NEED to stand in the rain with a disabled umbrella for 10 minutes at a bus stop with no kiosk to protect me from the rain.  If my umbrella had turned inside out, I could have run quickly from my CAR to the building without getting soaked.
Message is left on apartment door stating ‘You Get Mail!’(Yes, it really said that) and apparently describes a package waiting for you.  A phone number is circled in red.  You call it and no one is available who speaks English to help you.
If you'd just learned more Korean, this would not have been a problem. Besides, the postal service in the US wasn’t exactly a paragon of efficiency, and you couldn’t always guarantee that you’d get someone who you could communicate with there, either.  Take the note to work and ask one of your Korean colleagues to help you. 
Back home, I would have been able to READ the damned note left by the post office BEFORE I called, before I went to the management office at my apartment building, and BEFORE I finally got a colleague to look at it and inform me that the package was for a Mr. Cho and had been sent to the wrong address. 
Unfortunate biting incident takes place during otherwise-idyllic reading of ‘The Little Engine That Could.” Perpetrator insists she was just pretending to be a ‘biting sort of animal’ which, of course, required biting.
Children bite each other sometimes.  It happens.
The children in my country never, EVER bite each other.  And anyway, I taught high school in my country, so they were past the biting stage.  All classroom interactions in my country were peaceful and enjoyable at all times.
“Super Margarita” ordered in Mexican restaurant turns out not to be a margarita at all, but instead a liter of tepid soju served in a margarita glass.
If you had read the menu more carefully, you’d have noticed that the ‘Super Margarita’ was in the section under the menu marked ‘Soju Cocktails’ so it’s your own fault.
Margaritas. are.not. made.from.soju.  This is an inviolable fact of nature understood by every rational being in the universe. This would never have happened back home.

As you can see, the ordinary slings and arrows of life, when viewed through a disgruntled expat lens, can sometimes be overwhelming, but MsCaroline is confident that she will prevail. She's said it before:  life in another country is not so different from life at home, but everything is a bit more complicated.

99% of the time, MsCaroline is grateful and thankful to be living here, having these fabulous experiences, and sharing this adventure with her family. Sometimes, though - you just miss home.  MsCaroline is not sure if this is a universal feeling, but she hopes that she is not the only expat who ever feels this way- even after 18 months of living somewhere.  She is looking forward to a speedy return to normal brain function and the vibrant renewal of appreciation of her good fortune in living in one of the most exciting cities in Asia.

***See? I told you the comic was relevant to this post.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Ask MsCaroline: Life in Seoul

("Ask MsCaroline" is an infrequent, semi-regular feature of the AsiaVu blog in which MsCaroline addresses issues and questions applying to the minutiae of daily life of a 40-something expat trailing spouse living in Seoul.  All opinions expressed are those of MsCaroline and do not necessarily reflect those of MrLogical, Sons#1 and #2, or their affiliates.)
Yes, loyal readers, MsCaroline is back, ready to share her knowledge, experience, and cautionary tales of expat life in Seoul with young and old.  MsCaroline would like to also point out that, after 18 months, she really felt that she was past the 'cautionary tale' stage, but apparently, she has a very slow learning curve, and is therefore still able to bring plenty of authentically wacky misadventure to the table.

Question:  I am fascinated and enraptured by the catchy hit, 'Gangnam Style,' sung by South Korean pop sensation 'Psy.'  My heart's desire would be to own a pair of socks with his likeness on them.  Is this possible?
Answer:  Have no fear, loyal fangirl! Your dream can, indeed, become reality! MsCaroline would like to assure you that you can buy any kind of sock nearly anywhere in Korea - in stores, at produce stands, and next to bus kiosks, as well as spread out on a tarpaulin on the pavement by the subway entrance, and even in vending machines (MsCaroline is not making this up:  she bought Son#2 a pair out of one just because she could.) As far as MsCaroline can tell, Koreans are passionate about socks, and an ample supply of them appears to be integral to the smooth running of the country.  You will find every color and style of sock you can imagine, emblazoned with every possible pattern, logo, emblem, cartoon, and image.  The sock epicenter of Seoul is probably  the Namdaemun Market, where sock aficionados such as yourself can indulge your every whim and desire in the sock arena, including your interest in Psy. 

Question:  I am meeting some friends for dinner.  We live in different parts of the city and are planning to meet somewhere near the restaurant where we're eating. Two people in our party are very new to Seoul and do not know their way around well.  Where do you suggest we meet? 
Answer:  Up until last weekend, MsCaroline would have said, "meet them at a nearby subway entrance."  The Seoul subway is fast, efficient, safe, and well-marked, and directions in Seoul are often based on the nearest subway entrance, eg:  "Go to X Station, leave from Exit 3, take a right, and walk 500 meters."  In the last 18 months, MsCaroline has confidently and successfully navigated all over the city, never once experiencing a problem with this method.  However, there is an exception to every rule, and, naturally, MsCaroline got to experience this one.  Although MsCaroline would still recommend meeting your friends at a subway station exit, she recommends that you establish an alternate exit as a meeting spot in advance.  Otherwise, you may end up getting to the subway station (as MsCaroline did) and discovering that, not only have you exited the train at one end of an enormous station (which you thought you knew pretty well but apparently didn't) that links up with the Airport Railroad, but that the exit you need seems to be at the opposite end of the station.  If you are like MsCaroline, though, you will not mind a bit of a walk and strike out for the exit, following the standard clearly-marked and numbered exit signs, confident in your understanding and knowledge of the Seoul subway system and your 18 months of experience in navigating it.  However, you should be prepared for the possibility that the exit no longer exists, even though it is still marked on every sign you see, and you won't realize it since you can't read the Korean signs that probably say in very small print, "There's no more station 6, even though we have it still marked all over the station." You will, therefore, wander endlessly through the labyrinthine subway station, calling your friends - who are also trying to find exit 6, only they are aboveground - and trying to figure out where the hell you are. You will exit the subway a number of times, only to find yourself in strange surroundings in the dark with no landmarks and - at least once - exit into a huge, empty construction site.   When you finally establish - through conversations with no less than 5 people with varying degrees of English speaking ability - that the exit you are looking for has been closed up and turned into a wall(unmarked in any way to show that it was ever even Exit 6), you will call your friends and agree to meet at another exit, only to (belatedly) discover that the exit you agreed upon is approximately a mile away.  This is unlikely to happen to you, but MsCaroline just wants you to know it is a possibility.  So be prepared.

Red circle=where MsCaroline started.  Red dashes=where MsCaroline went.  Black circle=Where exit 6 used to be but is no longer.  Blue circles:  points where MsCaroline exited the subway, trying (unsuccessfully) to strike out overland for the former Exit 6.  Blue dashes= MsCaroline's return trip. 

Question:  I would like to go out for Mexican food in Seoul.  I know you have lived in two states in the American Southwest and therefore have reason to know something about what constitutes good Mexican food.  Can you give me some tips on finding good Mexican food in Korea?
Answer:  First of all, MsCaroline is not a food snob.  She will eat almost anything -as evidenced by previous blog posts - and she understands that restaurants in Korea are serving a public with different palates and different expectations than her own, so her personal opinion may differ significantly from someone else's.  However, after spending 11 years in the American Southwest, MsCaroline has come to have certain basic expectations of Mexican cuisine which - she imagines - are shared by those of her fellow Americans who have had regular access to it, and she has found many Mexican restaurants in Seoul who also share those standards. As she has learned, however, there are also a number of restaurants who do not.  Due to circumstances beyond her control,  MsCaroline recently found herself in just such an establishment, consuming a meal that would most likely not have even been recognized as Mexican food by anyone living in the state of Texas.  Had she been alert and on her guard, she might have saved herself some trauma disappointment by observing some of the most obvious indicators much sooner, including:
  • The absence of salsa:  It should have been an enormous red flag to MsCaroline when chips and salsa did not appear at her table within a few minutes of sitting down.  Unfortunately, by the time she observed this glaring omission(because, of course, she was talking,) she had already ordered a drink (see below) and was committed.  The small plastic squirt bottle on the table did turn out to have a form of picante in it, but she did not realize this until she had choked her way through most of her meal anyway, so the point was moot.
  • Croutons and Italian dressing in the taco salad*:  If you do not understand what is wrong with this, MsCaroline thinks you probably would have found nothing wrong with this meal and do not need the information contained in this part of the blog post.
  • In the same vein, check carefully to see what the taco salad is served in.  MsCaroline bets you did not know that it is possible to serve a taco salad in a baked white flour tortilla (as opposed to the traditional corn variety.)  MsCaroline did not know this either.  MsCaroline is not saying that this is necessarily bad, but she does not consider this to be part of a legitimate taco salad. 
  • What kind of margaritas does the restaurant serve? This was a new concept for MsCaroline, who did not know that there could be a question about what constituted a margarita.  Oh, she knew there were different versions to which different flavors had been added, but she assumed that any beverage called a 'margarita' would be a variation on the time-honored combination of tequila and triple sec. As it turns out, this is not necessarily a foregone conclusion, at least not in Seoul.  All MsCaroline can say is, "order with caution," especially when one of your dinnermates suggests that you order something called the 'Super Margarita,' containing 1.3-liters of alcoholic beverage.  If you are not careful (and she was not) you will be served an enormous margarita glass full of pale-brown liquid in which about 6 feeble-looking ice cubes are floating (no limes, no salt) and which tastes like battery acid.  When you inquire what it is, the waitress will inform you that it is a margarita made out of soju, (which, in MsCaroline's book, is not a margarita but something else entirely and therefore false advertising) and that it is nonrefundable, which means you are committed to drinking it.  Due to its staggeringly high alcohol content,  you will gradually become reconciled to this violation of the laws of both God and man, but you will vow never again to order a margarita in Seoul without first ascertaining that it contains tequila.

*MsCaroline has eaten a lot of taco salads in her day and can say with some authority that croutons do not belong in them.