Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Winter of my Discontent*

This is lovely, but nothing like the part of Seoul I live in.

(*With apologies to Will Shakespeare, King Richard III, and anyone who has ever read the quote in context and therefore realizes it has nothing much to do with winter anyway.)

Well, here we are at the end of January, and - if the locals are to be believed - we still have a good 6-8 weeks of winter to go here in Seoul (there are a few unusually cruel people who have assured me that it doesn't really get warm until well into April, but that thought just doesn't bear contemplation at the moment, so I'm focusing on March.)

So far, this winter has not proved to be one of my best, especially since it's the first time in over 11 years that I've had to cope with anything resembling a 'real' winter, and I'm a bit bewildered by the the fact that it got cold and has actually stayed that way, which is not how it is done at all in the Southwest of the US.  There, we enjoy a day or two of 'cold' weather and then return to relative normalcy, light jackets, and year-round cookouts.  Here in Seoul, I am dealing with the doldrums of my first 'real' winter in over a decade in a completely predictable way:  whining, eating too much, feeling sorry for myself, and reading escapist literature, most of it involving small villages populated almost entirely by dear old cardigan-wearing ladies as well as the occasional lovable curmudgeon.  Also featured are cats, cozy fireplaces, and, occasionally, sheep.

Mind you, this grey and frigid weather seems to have no effect whatsoever on the Seoulites, who continue to stride about briskly in starkly chic winter fashions, sidestepping piles of leftover snow and slush and sneaky patches of ice- all while walking into the teeth of a bitter wind - without the slightest indication of discomfort or even a hint of self-pity.  It boggles the mind.

  If you want to know just how desperate I've gotten, you'll appreciate knowing that I searched the Internet for information on average monthly temperatures in Seoul, just to encourage myself that it really would get warmer by March (it does, although not nearly warm enough) and discovered that the reason it's so cold in the winter here is something to do with some sort of air mass that gets here from Siberia by way of China.  That's right, Siberia.  I don't think I really need to say anything else about this, now, do I? 

Needless to say, I'm not really embracing the unique beauty of winter's glories here in Seoul.  When I must go out - traveling as I do by bus, subway, or on foot - I am as well wrapped up as Ralphie's little brother in A Christmas Story, and - sadly - just about as attractive. 

In other winter news:

 I bought myself a Keurig, which has been excellent for keeping my mind off the fact that it's so damn cold outside.  I will be forever indebted to my friend T (you know who you are) for introducing me to hers when I was in Texas in January.  It is true that the cuppa you get from your Keurig does not taste quite as good as what you get when you grind your beans and brew your coffee freshly.  However, if you are like me and find that first 0-15 minutes of consciousness each morning (during which you must survive before the coffee is ground and brewed) to be interminable, then the slight decrease in quality is quite negligible.  For those of you who are trying to follow my convoluted prose, yes, you have understood correctly:  I need like to drink a cup of coffee while I'm waiting for the coffee to brew, and the Keurig (so far) provides a far superior flavor to the jar of emergency Folger's crystals I keep in my cupboard.  I come by this behavior honestly;  I have very fond childhood memories of my mother sitting blearily in pre-dawn winter mornings huddled over her cup of instant while waiting for the percolator to finish brewing her first cup of real coffee.  (It will come as no surprise to any of you who know my mother that she already has a Keurig of her own.)

Skin care:  The cold and dry air here in Seoul have conspired to dessicate my (already-dry) skin to the point that I am constantly slathering a variety of lotions, unguents, and salves about my person in an attempt (clearly vain) to stave off the inevitable itching, cracking, and general disintegration of my skin, hair, and nails.  Of course, the fact that I am now teaching very young children - who, as we all know, are simultaneously virulent and adorable - means that I am  washing my hands every five minutes in an attempt to stave off infection.  Accordingly, any good I might have otherwise gotten from said lotions is almost immediately canceled out.  I have had at least one finger wrapped in a Band-aid at all times in the last two weeks, my fingernails break at the slightest bump, and I have become compulsive very passionate about the care of my heels.  Of course, my skin is flaking off the rest of me at a tremendous rate too, but since I am almost always wearing two or three layers of clothing, it's really not that noticeable.

My new job:  As I only just started last week, I'm still in a bit of a honeymoon period, but so far, so good.  I am teaching English in a German kindergarten, which means (a bit schizophrenically) that all of my interactions with colleagues and parents are in German, and all of my interactions with the children are in English, although (obviously) I know what they're saying to me and each other in German.  As I mentioned in a previous post, even though I have always taught older students, I had a good reason for wanting this particular job, namely, for the opportunity to work in a German school with German colleagues and students (since I have spent most of my career teaching German, although I am also a qualified English/ESL teacher.) As I suspected it would be, it has already proved to be extremely rewarding on both a personal and professional level.  The school follows a Montessori model, so the interactions are very much child-led and fairly unstructured.  On any given day, I may find myself reading a storybook, playing a board game, or helping to make a pirate hat, depending on what interests the children.  The planned-to-the-minute lessons I was used to doing when I taught high school and university simply don't work here, so I find myself simply interacting with the kids like I did with my own boys,  keeping up a running commentary (what we language teachers refer to as 'comprehensible input') on whatever we're doing.  On Friday, the group I had was passionate about 'The Itsy-Bitsy Spider,' so we sang it a dozen times.  The group I had yesterday could not have cared less about spiders and instead wanted to read Good Dog, Carl - over and over and over.  I am learning to go with the flow.  For my part, I have already learned at least four new rhymes used to teach the children to politely wish one another 'Guten Appetit' before eating their noon meal -as it is a German school, is always a hot one with soup, salad, main course, and pudding - as well as a catchy little tune about a sleepy rabbit who can't (or, perhaps, won't) hop.

Cultural opportunities:  Besides going out to the occasional dinner, work, and shopping, I have been quite the homebody lately, preferring to stay home and knit, curled up in my slanket  (yes, we've sunk that low.  It's very sad, but I refuse to be ashamed.)  However, last weekend, I dragged MrL and Son#2 out into the cold to the Gwachon National Science Museum to see the King Tut Exhibition.  As it turned out, this was, apparently, the same plan that about 2 million other parents in Seoul had that Saturday, and, as a result, the whole thing was unpleasantly crowded-even by Seoul standards.  Strangely, despite the fact that it was Saturday afternoon, there was an enormous number of (what looked like) school groups (they surely couldn't all have been scouts) running excitedly around defying the herding efforts of  their harassed-looking caregivers.  Due to both the crush of people and the need for constant vigilance (for purposes of avoiding the running children), I was not able to get more than a general impression of the whole thing, which was disappointing, since I am the sort of museum-goer who likes to read everything - and everything was in English this time, although I could only rarely get close enough to the exhibits to actually do any reading.  I was very impressed with those artifacts I did see, especially the golden finger and toenail covers, which were apparently put there to reaffirm Tut's immortality - although I cannot be sure since I couldn't read the comments next to the exhibit.  Since the rest of it passed in something of a blur of the backs of people's heads and scampering children, I cannot give you a much more detailed description.  While I am not exactly a misanthrope, I can say that, in the case of museums, I prefer them empty rather than full, and I plan to return to see the exhibit on a weekday - and I also plan to be first in line.

Sending you all the warmest of thoughts from snowy Seoul!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Happy (belated) New Year

For those of you who may not celebrate the Lunar New Year (OK, so, most of you), this New Year's Post may seem shamefully outdated.  However, if you do celebrate - or are even aware of - Lunar, or Chinese New Year (as it tends to be called in the US, although obviously the Chinese don't have a monopoly on it), then you realize that I'm not really that late - only 7 days, actually.  This year is a Year of The Dragon (Korean and Chinese zodiac signs go by year, with each sign occurring only once every 12 years) and is supposedly a quite lucky one.  (Since MsCaroline is, herself, a Dragon, she has enjoyed hearing all of the complimentary and attractive Dragon qualities attributed to her in the last few weeks, but is positive that such qualities as "a loud voice" "bossy" and "irritating" must surely be mistranslations.)  Since it's our first Lunar New Year in Korea, I felt that, as a responsible blogger, the least I could do would be to share a little of what I have learned about the celebration of Lunar New Year in Korea, and pass it on to you, my readers.  

On January 23rd, Koreans (along with the Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Mongolians) celebrated the Lunar New Year, which, according to Wikipedia, "generally falls on the day of the second new moon after winter solstice, unless there is a very rare intercalary eleventh or twelfth month in the lead-up to the New Year. In such a case, the New Year falls on the day of the third new moon after the solstice (next occurrence will be 2033)."  What this meant to me and my family as expatriates in Korea (besides the fact that I don't know what the word 'intercalary' means) was an excellent 4-day weekend, during which Seoul more or less emptied out, which was delightful.  Except that pretty much everything was closed on Monday, which I had completely forgotten to plan for when doing the shopping the previous week.  But I digress.

Lunar New Year, or 'Seollal' in Korean, is typically spent with family, and, according to what we had been told, our Korean friends and co-workers would be traveling to visit parents or grandparents, where they would participate in preparing an abundant feast which would first be offered to their ancestors at a family shrine as part of a ritual ceremony before being eaten. 

 After the meal, all would pay their respects to parents and other older relatives by performing an elaborate ritual bow while wishing them health, happiness, and luck in the coming year. What is particularly exciting for the children is that, after they perform their bows, they receive cash.  In fact, Son#2 informed me that his Korean friends at school were extremely excited ("More than Christmas!"-which, by the way, many of them do celebrate) about this holiday, because apparently - depending on the number of elderly relations one has - it can be extremely lucrative, and, what with the cost of MacBooks these days, every penny (or in this case, Won) counts.  In case you're interested in what the ritual bows look like, I've included a few YouTube videos:  One, with a demonstration showing how to do the male and female bows (warning:  you'll have to sit through a Korean RedBull advert first)

This one includes the children of the family performing the bow and being duly rewarded by relatives:

And this touching one that I am pretty sure was made by a family far away from home and sent to parents and grandparents:   


In any case, since we weren't celebrating Seollal with our families, MrLogical and I took the opportunity to visit the Korean Folk Museum, which was hosting a number of New Year's cultural activities, including traditional games and a Year of the Dragon dramatic presentation.  Actually, we weren't really clear at all on the Dragon presentation, which - reasonably - was in Korean and therefore difficult for us to follow.  We assumed that the large animal (which, to my mind, looked remarkably like Mr. Snuffleupagus) was, indeed, a dragon, but we have no proof, and, since it did not look like the dragons of my childhood years in Taipei, I could only make a guess.  In any case, the drama (or presentation, or fable, or whatever it was) involved a number of traditionally-dressed characters and this dragon*, who, only moments into the presentation, began to collapse, quite dramatically on the pavement, apparently suffering from an unknown illness:

 The rest of the play subsequently involved a number of traditionally-dressed persons (Shaman, acupuncturist, noble gentleman) attempting  the dragon*s revival, a certain amount of unintelligible (to us) Korean dialogue, and some lovely ritual bowing:

 Apparently, whatever was done to revive the dragon* was successful, because, after everyone had been put through their paces - and a lot of gong-banging and drumming - we were rewarded with the eventual resurrection of the dragon*, complete with a joyous procession throughout the courtyard, accompanied by enthusiastic applause, rousing song, and general satisfaction by all concerned.  

We also had the opportunity to have our New Year's fortunes told by a Korean shaman (fortuneteller).  (You will all be happy to know that, according to ancient wisdom, if I happen to have a baby this year (unlikely without divine intervention), it will most certainly be a boy.)  Finally, before leaving, we visited the 12 statues of the Korean Zodiac (identical to the Chinese Zodiac) and had our photographs taken standing next to 'our' statues.  Me, next to the Dragon:

MrLogical - somewhat less enthusiastically - next to The Rabbit:  

 새해 복 많이 받으세요 !!!! (Receive many New Year Blessings/Have a blessed New Year!)

*While I am not 100% certain he is, indeed, a dragon, I've made a reasonable guess based on the information available to me at the time.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Distance Parenting or: The Curse of Modern Technology

Deepest thanks to all of my readers who sent me such kind words of encouragement after my last pitiful little 'I'm -so-sorry-for-myself-because-my-son-is-at-University-in-the-US-and-I-had-to-come-back-to-Korea' blog post.  It's been just over a week since I got on the plane and left him behind to the tender in loco parentis mercies of the impersonal University system, and - up until yesterday - things seemed to be going swimmingly.

Thanks to the wonders of Skype and FaceBook instant messenger, MrLogical and I have been able to chat with him at odd times during the week and ascertain that he had been tested and enrolled into appropriate courses, had a suitable meal plan, had enough money to pay for his books, and found his new roommates (when they returned from Christmas break) to be congenial.  He'd driven up to Dallas to see a concert and visit some high school friends, test-driven the new mountain bike (purchased for him by his bicycle-loving father supposedly as a means of getting around campus but really as well as a means of kicking a** on the mountain biking trails in TX), and was, in general settling in.  As I said, swimmingly.

Yesterday morning (here in Korea) MrLogical and I - enjoying a day off, thanks to Lunar New Year celebrations - caught him in passing on Instant Messenger over our morning coffee.  After a brief chat about generalities, the IM was taken over by MrLogical, who wanted to discuss Son#1's mountain bike  As the conversation devolved into MrL holding forth on the technicalities of bicycle maintenance schedules, I leaned back with my coffee, only half paying attention to the words popping up between the on the computer screen.  Just as I'd almost decided to go do something more interesting else, Son#1 typed - in passing, mind you - that he had a 'scratch or cut or something' on his face that he thought might be infected - sustained during his ride on Friday  and was thinking that he would visit the University clinic the next day.  As you may imagine, I was instantly on alert and once again fully involved in the conversation (no doubt much to Son#1s utter chagrin.)

And, of course, when MrLogical and I (insisting on a video session on Skype after this statement) saw his face - looking very much like he'd had several teeth extracted, or was suffering from a terrible one-sided case of the mumps - we insisted suggested that, instead of waiting until the next morning, he get himself to Urgent Treatment.  Immediately.

(Note:  Having been through a harrowing ordeal a number of years ago involving a drug-resistant infection that had taken up residence in  MrLogical (quote from the surgeon:  "I think we can save the leg"),  I am  probably more cautious than the average bear when it comes to infection, but my personal motto - as paranoid as it sounds - is "Never Fool Around With Infections That Are Close To Your Brain" and I stand by it.)

 Accordingly, Son#1 made his way off to the nearest Urgent Treatment Center, where they ascertained that, yes, he did have an infection and, yes, he did need antibiotics. Strong ones. The kind they use for 'serious infections'. (See? I'm not as paranoid as you thought.)

But there was more.  Once diagnosed and armed with the prescription,  Son#1 was able to experience the joys of driving around the city on a Sunday night in the dark and cold with a painfully swollen face - and hay fever to boot -, trying to find a 24-hour pharmacy, doubtless wishing he had never mentioned the damn cut to us in the first place, and knowing full well that, although there was nothing more that he would like than to  simply go back home, get in bed, and get the prescription filled in the morning, it was patently impossible, because we,  his parents, would nag him electronically, long-distance, by all possible means until the prescription was filled and we were satisfied that he had, indeed, begun treatment.

Enough to make any university student wish for the bygone days of the  70s, 80s and 90s when the only way parents could nag long-distance was via the telephone.

(Note:  As of this writing, Son#1 is responding well to treatment, no longer looks quite so much like the Elephant Man, and has just returned from having two rocks medically extracted from his thumb as a result of a (completely different) mountain biking escapade, causing MrLogical to burst with pride.  It's going to be a long semester.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

By The Numbers: MsCaroline's World Travels

It has been so long since I posted here, I suspect that most of my readers will have assumed by now that I've stopped keeping a blog and deleted me from their readers.  Actually, I had every intention of writing while I' was in the US ( I did manage to squeeze a post in while in Thailand), but jet lag, lingering malaise, and the whirlwind pace of activities left me very little time for sitting down to write once Son#1 and I arrived in the US to install him at University.  Ultimately, what with the busy-ness of the Festive Season, our trip to Thailand, and the almost immediate trip to the US, it turns out that I have spent a grand total of 3 nights in my own bed since 24 December, and (as I whined more than once on FaceBook) it also turns out that I am clearly getting too old for this sort of nonsense.

We returned from almost 2 weeks in Thailand, had 2 days to wash and re-pack, and then Son#1 and I headed to the US.  As many of you are aware,  due to circumstances beyond my control, I spent the first 36 or so hours in the US in bed at my in-laws', trying to re-hydrate myself and work through some of my trauma (I'll be just fine with a few years of therapy, really.)  Once I was back on my feet, Son#1 and I undertook the 6-hour journey back 'home' to the Texas city where our family had lived for 6 years before moving to Seoul and where Son#1 would be beginning his new life at Uni.

Once arrived, we were immediately plunged into a whirlwind of visiting and to-do lists as we tried to cram in all that needed to be done and purchased to get Son#1 settled in as well as all of the catching up with friends and the mad shopping frenzy of buying things from home that most expats know all too well.  MrLogical, of course, sent me off with a specific list of items to collect,  including oil filters for his car (a Japanese make, which means all parts must be special-ordered in Korea and therefore cost the earth, so why not have the wife just pop a few parts into her luggage to save a bit of cash down the road?), so - along with the items that I deemed necessary (and let's just say that the January sales back home were fabulous), I returned with two bulging suitcases and an eclectic assortment of items that may or may not have proved puzzling to the baggage examination folks in the TSA.

Given that I've been on the road (more or less) for over three weeks without posting more than once or twice, it seems almost impossible for me to catch up without writing a novel, so I thought I'd steal an idea from those 'end of the year' news shows and simply share a few highlights of both our Thailand and US trips 'by the numbers', which should (if I do it correctly) give you a general sense of both trips without boring you into a stupor.

7/36/52 - In the past 23 days, the:  a) number of flights I have taken, b) hours I have spent flying and c) hours I have spent in airports in and between 3 different countries.  Hardly worth noting for your seasoned world traveler, but way too much, especially at my age a lot for me.

9 - approximate number of times MrLogical and I reminded ourselves that Bangkok was no longer quite the tropical children's paradise of loving amahs, free candy at the markets, and year-round swimming we remembered from our elementary school days.  Reinforced regularly by the presence of condoms in the minibar, profusion of sex toys on offer in the street markets between the t-shirts and the Hello Kitty merchandise, and the high number of single male travelers (clearly not on business trips) at the breakfast buffet in our hotel.   

2 - high-pressure sales tours 'included' by our Bangkok tour guide after our trip to the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha;  one, to a gem showroom, one to a tailor shop.  I'm sure that anyone with a desire to buy gems would have found bargains galore, but since none of us were interested (mind you, I was there with two teen boys and MrLogical) we viewed the whole thing as an annoying joke, with much obnoxious badinage. The tailors were luckier, and all 3 boys had dress shirts tailor-made for a very reasonable price, delivered the next afternoon to our hotel.

1-  embarrassing misunderstandings between Son#1 and well-meaning (but limited English-speaking) concierge at front desk of hotel in Bangkok, who confused Son#1's request for directions to a restaurant with a request for the services of a 'Thai friend.'

35(and counting) - minutes of laughter enjoyed by MrLogical and me remembering Son#1 recounting the above story.

6 - mornings that I sat on my balcony in Phuket, trying to memorize the mountains, the beach, the incredible blue sky, the tropical bird calls, and the bougainvillea spilling over my balcony, so I could take the image back with me to the grey winter of Seoul. 

1,379 -  Russian tourists on Kata beach in Phuket at any given moment during our stay there.  Immediately identifiable by tiny Lycra grape-smuggler bikini suits on  (often enormously corpulent) men,  apparent 3rd-degree sunburns on parties of both genders and grim and dour expressions on countenances at all times.

0- number of roommates present in university residence apartment when Nana and I helped Son#1 move in.

3- Number of roommates who would be sharing university apartment with Son#1 but still back home on Christmas break when we moved him into his bedroom.   Based on appearance of apartment, not obsessive about apartment hygiene.  As the mother of two teenage boys, I was not overly shocked by the state of the apartment (left, as it was, at the end of semester exams and right before Christmas break by 3 boys who were ready to head back home.)  However, Son#1's grandmother, who raised two girls, was clearly stunned.

6 - approximate number of cleaning products  purchased by Son #1's grandmother before tackling kitchen and bathroom of abovementioned university apartment, including rubber gloves.  *Note:  this number would have been significantly higher, except that it was clear that other female relatives had amply provided the other residents with (as yet, unused) cleaning supplies at the beginning of the term.

5 - containers of Clorox and Lysol handi-wipes located in bathroom and kitchen of university apartment, likely purchased by optimistic mothers of Son#1's roommates at beginning of 1st semester and never opened.

10 - lunches, coffees, and dinners with friends (and groups of friends) I had while in Texas.

15- (and probably more than that) people I did not have time to see due to scheduling conflicts and who I still feel bad about.

5- number of pounds I probably gained from all those lunches, coffees and dinners.

6 or 7 - times I was overwhelmed by waves of homesickness while in the US and a desire to chuck the whole expat experience and move home.

4-  times I handed or received money in the US holding my elbow as is the custom in Korea (one always gives and receives items with two hands or at least one hand touching the other elbow) and immediately felt stupid and pretentious.

14-  times I went to Target, just because I could.

3:30 -  time I seem to wake up in the morning when I have jet lag, regardless of time zone or location,

5 - pairs of shoes I bought while in the US.  (Yes, they have shoes in Seoul, but they tend to be narrow and to run quite small.)  Finding 'larger' sizes (US 8 is about as big as they get; I wear a 7 and that is hard to find) is a challenge.  I have never bought so many shoes so quickly and so decisively.  No time to dither.

6 - boxes of Mucinex (guafenesin) extra-strength extended release 1200-mg tablets preferred by MrLogical and unprocurable in South Korea, the amount needed to tide over MrLogical (aka 'Mr. Allergies') until we go back on home leave this summer.  Fleeting concerns about being arrested as drug mule at Incheon but clear conscience as to the fact that items were purchased for personal use.

200- dollars' worth of charges for overweight bag on return trip to Seoul

3- pounds' worth of gourmet Thai curry blends jettisoned at airline ticket counter to avoid paying  abovementioned overweight charges.

1 - times I fell apart over leaving Son#1 in the US while I headed back to Seoul.  It only happened once, when I said goodbye to him.  This is another one of those expat moments that make you think twice about living overseas, and I cannot think of a single lighthearted or amusing thing to say about it.  That is all.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Piece of New Year's Advice From MsCaroline

Yes, this illustration is ironic.

For those of you who have been wondering, I am no longer in Thailand and, yes, it was a lovely getaway, and (most importantly) very warm.  I've been feeling a bit guilty, since I've hardly blogged at all (a cardinal sin in the world of blogging, I understand) and have not even come up with a witty, luminous or at least amusing New Year's post, much less shared some of the highlights of our trip, which included a monkey named Mr. Jack, Russian holidaymakers, and a silly misunderstanding in Bangkok which (as some of you may know) is a place known for its sex tourism.

Let it not be said, though, that MsCaroline cannot provide meaningful New Year's insight:  I therefore pass on this piece of wisdom to you, my readers:

If you happen to be a middle-aged woman living in Asia and have a son who is returning to the US for university, and
If you plan to accompany that son to the US to get him settled in there, and
If you happen to plan a family trip just before that to Thailand during the winter holidays, 
Do not, under any circumstances, schedule the return trip from Thailand a mere 48 hours before you get back on a plane to the US,
because, 3 hours into the international flight, you may be smitten with a violent tummy bug (caught God only knows where) and spend most of the rest of the flight in the airplane lavatory, wishing for death.
Oh, you will survive.  You will be dehydrated, sleep-deprived, and incredibly terribly unbelievably hugely embarrassed, but you will survive.  And you will still have to drag yourself and your luggage through the lunatic merry-go-round of international customs and immigration in San Francisco before you embark on yet another 3-hour flight( followed by a drive of approximately the same length) to the peace and quiet of your in-laws' house on the river(where Son#1s car has been stored), where you will collapse in a grateful heap and sleep more or less around the clock until you have to get up and make the 6-hour drive with Son #1to get to the University the next day.

You have been warned.

Happy New Year!