Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Late Winter: Landscapes in Seoul

Stream on the grounds of the National Museum of Korea, October 2011

Don't let the deceptively lush photo above (taken back in October, before it Got Cold) fool you.  Those of you who read this blog regularly will be aware that it is still Winter in Seoul.  For the last few months, I've done nothing but whine written consistently about the freezing winds, arctic air masses, snow, slush, numb fingers and toes, and my practical but not necessarily fashionable approach to keeping warm, and I'm sure you're all sick and tired of it. Me, too.

In last week or so, though, there have been hints of Spring in the air as March approaches, with a few days in the low 50F/12C range, with more forecast for this week.  In fact, it was so (relatively) balmy one afternoon last week - just before my tiresome week-long bout of laryngitis, in fact - that my friend L and I ventured out for our first walk since last November.  We were not alone;  lots of our winter-weary fellow-citizens were also out soaking up the watery winter sun and enjoying being outdoors without fear of frostbite.  

However, as encouraging as the warmer temperatures were, we could tell that Spring was not exactly around the corner; signs of spring - at least in terms of buds or green leaves - were almost nonexistent, and most of the water we saw was still in the form of ice, frozen into stillness.  For those of you who are rolling your eyes and wondering just how much one woman can exaggerate, I have taken a few photos of some of my favorite spots on the grounds outside the National Museum of Korea that will prove to you that it really has been freaking cold here to give you an idea of what things look like.   Here's what the  stream pictured above (in early October) looks like right now in late February: 

Quite a difference, isn't it? Here's the stream from the other direction; first, in October:

Then, in late February:  

Observant readers will note that the water in the stream in the winter photos is all in the form of ice, and - from what I can see - it will be a while before it all thaws out.  

Another body of water in the park, popular with tourists and locals alike for its serene Zen-like design and natural beauty, is a small pond -complete with waterfall - called Dragon Falls. The first time I saw it back in October, this is what it looked like:

Here's what it looks like now:

Yes, that's right:  the ice is melting in some places - progress!
Having been there so many times when the waterfall (visible in the first photo at just past 12 O'clock) was running, I missed the background gurgle of the waterfall, which is apparently turned off in the winter.  It's clear that the ice is beginning to thin and melt in some places, but we've got a while to go.  

Another spot nearby, adjacent to the National Museum of Korea, is the Yongsan Family Park, which boasts a small, man-made lake.  In warmer parts of the year, the trailing branches of weeping willow trees encircle most of the lake:

Right now, the branches are bare, with just a few dead leaves clinging to them:

There are still big chunks of ice in this lake, but it's obvious that there's been a bit of melting going on.  There still aren't many 'real' signs of spring - no bulbs, no green leaves, no swelling buds - yet.  But the ice is melting.  I know Spring can't be far away.  I'll let you know what it looks like.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Review: Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital's International Clinic in Seoul

My regular readers know that I do not write the typical informative Korean expat blog full of useful information like how to navigate the subway system or where to find Pop-Tarts on the black market.  Oh, I've included a few descriptions of points of interest (palace here, museum of chicken art there) and an occasional comment on cultural differences, but I think we can all agree that this blog is really more about me and my observations than providing useful facts and hard data for present or potential expats in Seoul.

However, for every rule, there must be an exception, and it is with this adage in mind that I provide you with my first actual review that might actually be useful to someone who is new to Seoul or planning to move here soon:  Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital's International Clinic, located in Hannam-Dong.

The reason for my visit was a nasty case of laryngitis and what I assumed was a common cold, which are not things I ordinarily go to the doctor for.  However, as I have recently learned, if you have laryngitis badly enough (and I apparently did, lucky me) your vocal chords can swell so much that it makes getting air between them a bit challenging.  Since I place a high priority on breathing, I decided - after 8 months living in Korea - that it was time for the advice of a professional, and the wheels were put in motion for our first interface with the Korean health care system.

Since I could not actually talk, MrLogical made the appointment for me.  He was told by the English-speaking staff that, since it was such short notice (we wanted an appointment for that day) they could not get us an actual appointment, but that they did take walk-ins, and that we should come to the office at 1:30pm after the lunch break and they would get us in.  Used to the American healthcare system, I was not too encouraged by this.  In the US - even though we have always had excellent health care plans - it is not unusual to wait for anywhere from 15-45 minutes in the doctor's office even when you have an appointment.  Places that take walk-ins, like Urgent Treatment centers or clinics, usually mean at least an hour's wait - or longer.  MrL and I steeled ourselves for this - I brought my Kindle and MrL even brought his laptop to get a little work done during the long painful wait that was sure to come.

We got to the hospital where the clinic was located and easily found a parking spot in the lot directly in front of the building (you have to pay for parking, but get the first hour or so free.)  The International Clinic is located in the same building as the Women's and Children's services and easy to find.  We made our way up to the 2nd floor and found the door marked 'International Clinic' still closed for  lunch since we were about 15 minutes early and sat ourselves down to wait in the hall outside the clinic.  At exactly 1:30, the door opened, and we were ushered in.  The three or four women working at the front desk all spoke good English and told us apologetically that it would be just a few minutes' wait (even though we were walk-ins!).  We waited less than 5 minutes before we were ushered in to the doctor's office.  She examined me, asked about my symptoms, and told me that she would be sending me for sinus and lung xrays to check for infection and nebulizer treatments to help with my breathing.  One of the women from the front desk - whose job was both to guide us around the hospital and act as our interpreter - appeared and led us down the hall to a desk where she handed over the slip that the doctor had written for me, explained what I needed in Korean.  A clerk behind the desk printed out a few forms, which she gave to me.  Our guide led us down the hall to radiology, handed my form to someone at another desk, and told me to wait until my name was called.  Once again, the Kindle and the laptop were unnecessary.  I was xrayed and out of there in minutes.

Next stop was the nebulizer treatment, which was given to me across the hall from X-ray in what was called the 'injection room.' As it turned out, the injection room was connected to a much larger room full of patients in varying states of illness lying on gurneys, either receiving treatments, being visited by friends or family, or simply lying huddled under blankets and waiting (I assumed, to be admitted.)  It reminded me of an American ER, with gurneys lined up with curtains hanging between them, but much more crowded.  There was one empty gurney, and that was where I was given my neubulizer treatments- which had already been ordered via my doctor's computer and were waiting for me when I got there. The nurse who administered the treatment spoke enough clear and effective English to explain what the treatments were for and what I needed to do.

When the nebulizer treatments were finished, it was back to the clinic, where we sat for a few minutes before being ushered in to the doctor's office.  By this time, my xrays had already been sent to her computer, and she had already determined that I had no lung infection but that I did have a sinus infection, and would need antibiotics, as well as an steroid injection to help reduce some of the swelling and inflammation in my larynx.  While she was explaining this to me, she was entering information on her computer, and writing out prescriptions.  She also used an online program to make me an appointment to come back and see her  the following Wednesday for a follow-up  (in the US, this would not have been done by the doctor, but would have been done by the receptionist - after more waiting in line.)  We were told that we could have my prescriptions filled at any pharmacy, and then we were met by our English-speaking guide, who once again got my forms for me and led me back to the injection room, where the nurse had already received the orders for the steroid injection on her computer and had it waiting for me.

We were walking out the door to the parking lot in just under 1 1/2 hours, including the 15 minutes we'd waited because we'd arrived too early.  Cost for the whole thing, including consultations, xrays, nebulizer treatments and injections?  KRW84,000 (about $80 US with our expat insurance:  I've been told that, if you have Korean National Health Insurance, costs are cheaper.)

The longest wait we experienced (maybe 10 minutes) was at the pharmacy (we went to the Severance Pharmacy directly across the street from the hospital;  there are a number of pharmacies right there).  All of our information was already included on the printout with our prescription from the doctor, so there was no need to present our health insurance card or fill out any forms.  The pharmacist (apparently used to dealing with foreigners) spoke English and was able to give me clear directions.  An important note;  many medications that are over-the-counter in the US, such as certain decongestants or extra-strength ibuprofen, are not available without a prescription in Korea, so I was given prescriptions not only for antibiotics, but also for an anti-inflammatory, decongestants, and antihistamines  Here's how I got them:

That's right:  in individual dose-packs to be taken 3 times a day.  Beautifully efficient!  In the US, this would have been 4 different pill bottles with 4 different sets of directions, to be opened and closed 3 times a day.

Bottom Line:  Our first experience at the Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital's International Clinic was a very positive one.  The staff in the clinic were very professional, spoke good English and were helpful and efficient.  Wait times were minimal, and the cost was very reasonable in comparison to typical US health care prices.

Location:  Hannam-dong;  The Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital International Clinic is located on the 2nd floor of the building which also houses the Women's and Children's services and is well-marked.

More information, including directions and telephone numbers, is available here:  Soon Chun Hyan University Hospital International Clinic

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ask MsCaroline: February 2012

As the Winter in Seoul drags on endlessly continues to delight us with arctic winds, occasional snow, and sub-freezing temperatures, MsCaroline realizes that it has been several months since she has answered the fictional questions of her loyal readers.  In this edition of 'Ask MsCaroline' we address your burning - or less passionate - questions about parenting, working, child rearing,  and Expatriate Life in Seoul in general - keeping in mind that MsCaroline's qualifications for answering these questions are based on nothing more than the fact that she is the one who's writing this blog.

Question:  I am finding that winter in Seoul is very hard on my hands and nails - they look absolutely awful! What can I do about this?
Answer:  MsCaroline can relate to your plight, Gentle Reader.  She herself has been  finding that the bitterly cold weather, dry overheated indoor air, and frequent hand-washing (in the attempt to avoid catching the flu from her loving - yet virulent - students) have resulted in her hands looking very much like a Hobbit's.  Dry, cracked skin, brittle nails that seem to disintegrate at the lightest touch, and cuticles so ragged that they look like tree bark are par for the course, regardless of the number of emollients, unguents, salves, lotions, and gloves that are regularly applied.  A trip to the nail salon for a hot paraffin treatment (among other things) was also only temporarily helpful.  MsCaroline most definitely cannot recommend that you try warming 1/4 cup of olive oil in a small bowl and soaking your fingertips and nails in it, since that exercise had no lasting benefits for her and also ended up exposing her to the ridicule of her husband and son.  Also, as she found with the unsuccessful foot peel, it is quite difficult to take any sort of retaliatory action when one's hands (or feet) are submerged in a potentially staining liquid.  Since artificial or gel nails are not an option for MsCaroline, she has resigned herself to working on her sparkling personality and simply stopped worrying about how awful her hands look.  (Ironically, since her feet have been covered by at least one pair of socks 24/7 for the past several months, they have improved considerably.)

Question:  I have a job at a school in Korea and have been told to bring slippers.  Why is this?  
Answer:  Most people are familiar with the Korean custom of removing shoes before entering a home, but some people are not aware that this custom also extends in many cases to the school or workplace. In many Korean (and some international) schools, students and staff follow the traditional Korean custom of taking off their shoes when entering the building and putting on slippers, sandals, or other easy slip-on indoor shoes when entering the classrooms.  This keeps the mud/dirt/pesticides/melting snow out of the classrooms and makes cleanup significantly easier for the janitorial staff.  Naturally, it injects a certain amount of chaos into getting ready to go out for playtime, especially if you are working with very young children who are still mastering the art of getting their own shoes and boots on and off (thank God for Velcro).  The children and staff at MsCaroline's school wear anything from fuzzy slippers to Birkenstocks and everything in between, although (naturally) if you've spent a lot of time putting together just the right outfit to wear to work, adding a pair of slippers to the ensemble may not provide quite the same effect.  Fortunately, this is not a problem for MsCaroline who - while she spends ample time trying to make sure she stays warm - does not worry at all about how her shoes do or do not match the outfit.

Question:  I was walking down the street in Seoul yesterday and noticed that a number of people spit on the sidewalk.  What's up with that? 
Answer:  While spitting in public is not as common in Seoul as it seems to be in other parts of Asia, it certainly doesn't seem to carry the same sort of social taboo that it does in most Western countries.  People seem to have no problem spitting when the spirit moves them, and do so - often.  The equally cavalier attitude toward public urination (for men) is - in MsCaroline's opinion - simply further grounds for justifying the removal of shoes when entering a building.

Question:  My child's class at school in Seoul is having a party and I need to bring something to contribute that the kids will enjoy.  What do you suggest? 
Answer:    MsCaroline cannot speak for your child of course, but, based on what she has observed at her school, the hands-down most popular snack food with the elementary set - be they Western or Korean - seems to be gim (also spelled kim), which is similar to Japanese nori - basically sheets of thinly-pressed roasted seaweed, usually seasoned with sesame oil and/or garlic. Gim - which is often eaten wrapped around rice in the form of gimbap- can also be dipped in a sauce and eaten, but this is not necessary, since the children will gobble it up either way. MsCaroline has been alternately amazed and delighted by the way small children will ignore cookies, muffins, cake, or other sweets, and happily select a lumpy, green, transparent sheet of gim to munch on instead.  In her opinion, if you're looking for a good party food,  you cannot go wrong with gim.  


Question:  I  live in Seoul and get around via public transportation.  How can I keep warm in Seoul's sub-zero winter temperatures while still making a fashion statement? 
Answer:  MsCaroline has absolutely no idea, darling.  Her own winter ensemble is chosen entirely for warmth and comfort and the statement it makes is more 'Former Weekend Outdoorswoman Who Has Let Herself Go" and less 'Fashionable Expat Matron.'  MsCaroline's typical outdoorwear used for winter travel (say, to and from work) is as follows:  long underwear (tops and bottoms); t-shirt; turtleneck; fleece jacket; gore-tex outer shell;  jeans/trousers; two pairs of socks (one liner, one thick); winter-weight light hikers; glove liners and gloves; scarf; hat or earmuffs.  She finds that this prevents her fingers, toes, and core from freezing while waiting at bus stops or walking to her destinations, but also provides the convenience of layers that can be easily shed - either indoors at work or en route if one is doing a lot of sustained uphill walking.  Of course, if you are a young, fashionable Korean woman,  none of the above applies.  You are required (possibly by law) to wear a thigh-length, figure-skimming black coat, black miniskirt,black tights, black stiletto heels, close-fitting black leather gloves, an expensive  handbag the size of a small Latin American country, and an artfully-draped cashmere scarf, none of which will keep you particularly warm, but which will look absolutely fabulous as you shiver at the bus stop.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Valentine's Day in Korea. Better Late Than Never.

Those of you who observe Valentine's Day will be aware that it is now more than a week after Valentine's Day, which means that I really have no business whatever relating this post to Valentine's Day.  In my defense, however, I actually started this entry two days before Valentine's Day and therefore feel entirely justified in posting it anyway.

During Valentine's Day week I was rather busier than usual, owing to an outbreak of flu at the school where I teach.  A number of the teachers - as well as the students - were out sick, and those that were able to make it to school were either coming down with it themselves or convalescing from it.  What is very strange is that I was not among the stricken.  Logic would tell you that I - as the newest member of the staff and only recently arrived in Korea - would be the most susceptible to the unique melange of germs that must surely be floating through the air in a kindergarten - especially when my exposure to small children has been so limited in recent years.  However, for whatever reason, I remained untouched, while my younger, fitter colleagues dropped like flies.  This could be due to the flu shot I got back in October, or perhaps an immunity-stimulating run-in with a powerful Korean virus back in December, or (more likely) sheer dumb luck which will soon run out (shall we take bets when that will be?)  For whatever reason - much to my very great surprise (and everlasting gratitude)-I have not been infected -yet - despite my thrice-weekly plunges into a sea of runny noses, unbridled expectoration, and spontaneous germy hugs.

But my point was, since so many of my colleagues were ill, I spent more time working than anticipated, and - what with dealing with the laundry and cooking and catching up on all those back episodes of Mad Men - I simply let our First Valentine's Day in Korea go by without so much as posting a photo on my blog.  Let it not be said that MsCaroline is a slacker, though, and I am ready to make it up to you now, although - as it turns out - none of us missed much at all.

Unlike the US, it seems that Korea has not yet turned Valentine's Day into a Celebration of RetailFrenzy, Guilt, and Potential Severe Disappointment.  I have seen modest displays of Valentine's Day gifts - primarily chocolate, and mostly in foreigner-heavy areas - here and there in stores, but otherwise, Valentine's Day seems to be fairly understated - sort of like Secretaries' Day in the US:  you see some signs and displays, a few people observe it, and most people know what it is if you mention it, but otherwise, it's not really a very big deal.  I took a photo of this sidewalk display in front of a 7-11 (yes, they have them in Korea, too!) in Hanam-dong, a section of town popular with foreigners.  No idea what the Korean words in the window say, but I assume they're exhorting people to buy something:

Down the street (in the same 'foreigner area', near the Indian embassy), I passed by this sign for a Valentine's Day special:

And, yes, it does say, "Get ur love spiced up."

But really, other than those few examples - and a few modest displays in coffee shops and the subway - Valentine's Day in Seoul was really not much of a big deal from what I could see.

I have it from several authorities (OK, two people I know, plus Wikipedia) that Valentine's Day in Korea - insofar as it is observed at all - only requires action on the part of women, who are supposed to present chocolate to men on this day.  The men, oddly enough, do not have to reciprocate until March 14th, when they present candy to their lady-loves.  But get this:  it's specifically non-chocolate candy (I know:  how can this possibly work? I'm still struggling with this.)  So far, so good:  what really moves the Koreans up an additional notch in my esteem is that they have yet another holiday, on the 14th of April, just for people who did not get or give candy in February and March.  On this day, it seems, unhappy singles drown their sorrows by consuming traditional black noodles (which I have, in my mind, christened, 'the noodles of despair', although they probably have a more humdrum name.) Frankly, if I were going to drown my sorrows, I probably would choose something more powerful than noodles to do it with, but this is probably another one of those cultural differences that makes expatriate life so broadening. And to be fair, noodles are carbohydrates, which means they can be classified as comfort food.

As far as Valentine's Day at our place goes, MrLogical and I, having been married for more than 20 years (and having known one another for more than 30) do not typically make a big deal out of it, partly because we both tend to forget it, but mostly because neither of us is particularly romantic, at least in the traditional sense.  This is perfectly understandable on MrL's part, since he is, of course, a man.  However, I, as a woman, am apparently deficient:  I did not get the gene that causes me to yearn for candlelight, champagne, bouquets of roses, and whatever else belongs in that picture - maybe violin serenades or some moonlight or something.  I am not sure what has led to this flaw in my personality, but I tend to chalk it up to the powerful influence of my German and New England forbears - two groups known somewhat more for their stiff upper lips and practicality rather than for their romantic tendencies.  This has worked out well for MrL, who at least does not have the pressure of having to think up romantic gestures for Valentines' Day or anniversaries or what have you in addition to keeping the car in order, unscrewing the really tight jar lids, and sorting out the income tax.

The lovely thing about MrL is that he really knows me, which means that he knows that I'm much more likely to swoon over a cup of really good coffee and a new book than I am over champagne and flowers anyway.  Even better, he makes these gestures when he senses they are most needed, not just when they are prescribed by society.  Instead of waiting until Valentine's Day to bring me roses or chocolate (and let's face it:  I'm always on a diet in February anyway), he brought me a potted orchid last weekend - no, not as an early Valentines' Day present, but because he had noticed that the grey and the cold of the Seoul winter were wearing on me, and he knew that something green and growing would cheer me up.  But MrL's thoughtfulness is not limited to bringing home plants when I'm going crazy with the horrible grey winters here yearning for Spring.  No, this man regularly goes above and beyond the call of duty.  He has willingly watched all of Season 1 of Downton Abbey with me (despite the lack of even a single significant explosion, collision, or gunfire), feigned interest in helping me pick out just the right picture frames, and patiently indulged my lengthy browsing sessions in bookstores and not saying a word when I buy overpriced books even though he just bought me a new Kindle in November (and yes, there are plenty of bookstores that carry English books in Seoul).  All of this even when it isn't  February 14th!  Roses are a nice gesture, but that potted orchid on the table reminds me that he loves me all the time - and why, after 20 years, I still count myself among the luckiest of women - every day.

A Love Orchid for a Winter-weary spouse.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Why I Love Korea

Lately, I've been writing very wintry posts.  They're sort of sluggish and uninspired and slightly petulant - sort of like me right now - probably because I've been spending a lot of time indoors, cooking food that's just bursting with fat and calories hearty warming sorts of meals for my family, staring gloomily out the window at the bleak Seoul skyline, and appreciating the under-floor heating system.  I don't think it would take a whole lot of insight for anyone reading my last few posts to figure out very quickly that I am not a Fan Of Winter or that I don't find all this gloomy grey and freezing crisp and brisk Seoul weather to be in the least bit invigorating.

However, while it's true I do not like Winter in Korea, make no mistake:  I still like Korea  (well, what I've seen in Seoul, at least;  I'm not very well informed about the rest of it yet.) I thought - after all the whining I've been doing - I should provide equal time for some of the things I love about living here. I realize you can't generalize about an entire country based on interacting with a small group of its citizens, but, after 8 months, I think I've collected a large enough sample to make some well-informed generalizations, so here they are.  It's worth noting that these are just my own impressions and that other people may have a very different take on things.  I may also end up with a completely different outlook after I've been here for another 8 months, but so far, here are a few of the

Things I Love About Korea and the Koreans  

The Way People Take Care of You:  Korean people really want to help you.  Some people may find this well-intended advice-giving to be interfering or bossy, but I think it's lovely when complete strangers come up to me to let me know that my purse is unzipped and my wallet's about to fall out; or when the lady at the market stall at Namdemun tells me to put my earmuffs back on or my ears will freeze (she was right, although I had taken them off so I could hear her, so I wasn't as careless as it seemed.) People who see me staring at the subway map (and who assume I'm a tourist) will come up to me and give me directions (whether I need them or not- usually not, but I never tell them that.) Last week, an ajumma (general term for any married woman, but usually reserved for a feisty sort of middle-aged (or older) lady most often seen wearing an enormous sun visor and a certain kind of track suit) practically threw me into an empty seat on the train (despite my protestations that I would be happy to stand) and stood over me to make sure I stayed put.

The Relationships:  Koreans place a high premium on relationships, whether they are from school, business, or work.  Once a relationship is formed - no matter when - that's that; relationships are valued in a way that I wish I saw more of in American culture.    It is very common, for example, for people who were in the same elementary school class to keep in touch and to maintain strong ties with their classmates for life, with frequent and regular reunions.  In fact, we were in a restaurant last night with a very loud and boisterous group which we assumed were a bunch of co-workers.  After going through countless bottles of soju and numerous enthusiastic (if off-key) songs and choruses, the party broke up.  As they were filing out past our table, one of the gentlemen stopped to apologize for their loud and rowdy behavior, explaining that this had been a reunion of his elementary school class from 40 years ago which still met regularly.   Which leads me to my next observation:

The Manners:  While I'll probably never get used to being pushed out of the way on the sidewalk, for the most part, I love Korean manners.  I like the respectful bowing (even in the elevator when you've just ridden up a couple floors with strangers;  love this), the greetings everywhere (everyone, from the lobby attendant in my apartment building to the bus driver greets me with a nod and a pleasant 'Anyonghaseyo') and the (mostly) thoughtful treatment of children and the elderly.

The Little 'Extras':  I've mentioned this before, but - going back to the concept of 'relationships' - Korean merchants often throw in little extras for their customers- either as a sign of appreciation for their custom, or as a sign of appreciation for loyalty. I know I have already mentioned the free juice boxes MrL and I were given the last time we bought something at the electronics market; this inclusion of little a little 'something extra' really does seem to be everywhere. For example:  I have been buying my bojagi from the same lady (stall #98) in the flower market building in Namdemun since I discovered her back in October, and she recognizes me now.  Every time I buy bojagi from her, she throws in a little goodie - a few beautifully knotted ties, some extra rubber bands for doing more elaborate folds, an elegant little card.  When L and I went to lunch at a little pizzeria we found last week (creatively named, 'Pizzeria') the proprietor popped out from behind the counter with complimentary steaming mugs of honey citron tea for us when we finished our lunch - just because he was nice and it was cold outside.

The Public Transportation:  I'm sure this isn't the case in more rural parts of Korea, but here in Seoul, I love that I can get just about anywhere I want to go quickly, easily, cheaply, and - most of all - safely without a car.  (Especially since the automobile traffic is not on my 'things I love about Korea' list.)

The Restaurants:  No, not just the food (although that's an obvious one).  I love the restaurant culture in Korea.  I love that they bring you a pitcher of water and glasses when you sit down - no waiting around to ask for it.  I love that there's no tipping - the bill is all you pay.  I love that many restaurants have a buzzer on the corner of the table for you to summon a waiter/waitress and that no one is offended if you use it or just call to your waiter ('yeogioh') to get his/her attention. (In the US, wait staff are supposed to be aware of you at all times, magically sense when you need something, and appear before they are needed.  If you have to summon your waiter, it's often because you've been sitting around and fuming, wondering why they haven't already been over to your table by now.) This 'holler-when-you-need-me' attitude seems much more reasonable to me, as well as more efficient, although most of the time I have found Korean wait staff to be more than attentive, since - at least at Korean bbq places - they are both cooking your food at the table for you as well as serving it to you! Best of all, I love that the bill is put down on your table once your order's completed and you simply get up and pay at the register on your way out - no waiting around at the table for your waiter to bring the check and then waiting around some more until (s)he returns with your change or credit card slip.

The Human Touch:  This may not be a popular one with many Westerners, but it's something I love.  Korean culture is more physical than in many Western cultures:  we tend to have a much bigger 'personal envelope' and touch is usually limited to close family members or between friends making greetings and farewells. In Korean culture, it's very common to see friends - both males(!) and females - holding hands or walking arm-in-arm on the street.  As well, there is more casual 'hands-on' contact between people of both genders (occasionally a bit alarming for Western males) during the course of conversation than most Westerners are used to. My Korean friends, for example, will put their hands on my arms or hold my hand while we're talking. Shivering on the way home after a choir performance one night it seemed  the most natural - as well as practical - thing in the world for my Korean friend to tuck my arm in hers as we made our way down into the chilly subway. I don't know if it's due to my childhood years in Asia, or if it's something in my personality, but I like the way people touch each other in this culture - it seems like such a nice way of connecting, especially in all of the anonymous hustle and bustle in this ultra-modern, ultra-technological metropolis.

There you are:  a few of the reasons I love Korea.  Not to say that there aren't drawbacks, too, but  I'm glad I took the time to think about the good things; it's given my day a little glow that I really hadn't expected to find.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Good and Bad

Now that I've gone back to work, albeit part-time, I'm finding that I have a little less time for lounging around drinking coffee, talking on the phone and reading blogs brainstorming for good blog topics, which is why I was delighted to stumble across this topic on Katyboo's Weblog, which was - in blogging terms - the equivalent of opening my refrigerator at 6.30 (with a hungry family due in the door at any moment) and magically finding there a fully-cooked lasagna that just needed to be heated up for a few minutes.

The topic was "Good and Bad" and the idea was for one to list things that one is good at and bad at.  Initially, I wasn't going to do it all, since my "Good" list was depressingly short not as long as I would have liked.  After some thought, though, I decided to give the topic a little tweak and go with "Good and Bad" in relationship to "Things That Are Going On In My Life" as opposed to 'My Skill Set."  Therefore, I give you:  Good and Bad.


Snow and Cold Combined With Taking Public Transport to Work:  As I may have already whined incessantly mentioned, it has been bitterly cold here due to something to do with Siberia and air masses blah blah.  I have sensibly remained indoors unless I am forced to do otherwise, mostly only to go to work.  This involves walking to the bus stop and standing in the cold and snow and wind until the bus comes, which is supposed to be every 15 minutes.  Due to the vagaries of Seoul traffic, it is nearly impossible for one to accurately time the arrival of the bus.  Most of the time, I am waddling (in all my layers) toward the stop just in time to see the bus pull away, guaranteeing that I will be able to enjoy the maximum possible wait at the open-air stop.  The bus ride (15-20 minutes ) is, I have found, just long enough to thaw my toes (frozen despite two pairs of socks and stout hiking boots) in time for the brisk 10-minute uphill climb to the school.

MrLogical's Sinuses:  MrL, who has more or less chronic allergies but ordinarily controls them with a cocktail of OTC meds of his own devising and sheer force of will, has been struggling with congestion, runny nose, and coughing for the last few days, which he has been insisting are due to some sort of  new allergen in the environment.  Since it's the middle of winter and we're all indoors all the time anyway, I have been skeptical but silent as he continued to delude himself snuffled and wheezed through the past few days.  Finally, today, he conceded that perhaps he did have a cold after all.  MrL is not a bad patient in any way, mind you:  he basically goes to bed and drinks gallons of fluids and takes care of himself prudently, although his frequent nighttime nose-blowing, coughing, and wandering in search of more effective medicaments are not particularly conducive to a good night's sleep on my part, although he tries not to disturb me. However, given the fact that I am now already wading into a pool of affectionately germy small children 3 days a week, the likelihood that I will be able to avoid capitulating  to either the powerful kid germs at work or MrL's more benign adult variety is slim.  Fighting my natural inclination to believe that everything I do is futile, I am being as proactive as possible, and am indiscriminately entertaining all suggestions for prevention of illness, including AirBorne, Vitamin C, Zinc, Hot Tea, fanatical handwashing, hand sanitizers, some extremely pungent Korean throat lozenges offered to me by a colleague, and voodoo.  I am holding out little hope that any of it will work, but I really feel I must at least make an effort.

Skyrocketing Coffee Consumption:  As I mentioned in another post, I recently bought myself a Keruig coffee machine, which, ordinarily, I would put under the 'good' heading.  The problem is, I love it far more than I realized I would, and am using it far more than I led MrL to believe I would.  When I began the campaign to convince him that our family needed not one, but two, coffeemakers, I pointed out that having a high-speed, one-cup brewer that used expensive, pre-packaged capsules would actually save us money (I know, I know, I was desperate).  According to my logic, the Keurig would only be used occasionally, say, first thing in the morning, while waiting for the 'real' coffee to brew, or in the afternoon or evening, when I wanted 'just a cup' of coffee, allowing me to brew just one cup instead of a whole (wasteful) pot.  Of course, this has not been the case at all.  Besides the fact that I've discovered that the Keurig coffee (in many cases) really tastes better - not to mention, fresher -  than anything my coffeemaker can produce, I also love the fact that I can vary my tastes from cup to cup:  a cup of Espresso Blend here, a mellow cup of French Roast there, and (in this way I am at least maintaining my integrity) the inevitable cup (or two) of decaf in the evening.  I have gotten very sneaky about this, sort of like an addict, which means that I watch for opportunities to brew myself a cup when no one's around (the Keurig, while a beautiful thing in every other way, is not exactly quiet, and -particularly in a very small apartment - it is impossible for one to brew oneself a cup quietly and without having anyone notice.)  While MrL has remained innocently unaware, sharp-eyed Son#2 has observed the number of used coffee capsules piling up (despite my best attempts to hide them under the other trash and recycling) and will probably use this information against me in the form of blackmail in the future.

My declining level of fitness:  I suppose this is to be expected, since I'm essentially behaving like a hibernating animal, holing up in my den and packing on the layers of blubber to protect me against the harsh winter winds.  The really shameful part is, I have no excuse, since, only days after the departure of Son#1 to Uni, his cruel and unsentimental father  MrL commandeered his former bedroom and turned it into a spinning studio.  He set up both of our bicycles (yes, mine, too, damn him) on stationary trainers and he (at least) spends several hours a week in there working up a sweat and avoiding the winter pudge that is slowly and mercilessly threatening to completely envelop his wife. I have tried to tell myself that the 20 or 30 minutes I do of walking from the bus stop to school and home (mostly uphill, mind you) several days a week must count for something, but my innate honesty compels me to admit that it's probably not doing much to counteract all of the hearty, warm, calorie-laden comfort food I've been indulging myself with lately.  The rest of the time, my bicycle sits, unused and silently mocking me.  I cope with this by keeping the door closed.

The Spin Studio.
And now, for the Good:

My Job:  All I can say is, if you have a child leaving for University and are feeling blue about it, there is nothing like working with young children to make you feel about 90% better, especially if your only remaining child is in school all day himself. I spend several days a week with darling little children who want me to hug them and read to them and play with them and cuddle them and hold my hand when we go out to the playground, which provides me with an outlet for all of my frustrated nurturing instincts.  The job also provides a much-needed reminder of the toileting accidents, hair-pulling, incessant repetition of the word, "why" (in a number of different languages), tantrums, sharing issues, questionable table manners, and overall low standard of personal hygiene that one inevitably runs across while in the company of young children. This has gone a long way towards reconciling me to the flight of Son#1 from the nest and effectively squelched any fantasies I might have entertained of enlarging our family at this late date (although I would hasten to remind all you skeptics that, if  Galina Shevchenko and some of her peers' experience is anything to go by, this is not as far out of the realm of possibility as it would seem, although I would undoubtedly go stark raving mad if I really were to have to start again at this age.)

Son#2:  Despite (or, possibly, due to) the departure of his brother for Uni, doing very well indeed, allaying the concerns I had about possible negative results of the change in our family dynamic.  Successfully auditioned for the chorus in the school's Spring musical, producing very good academic work, and cheerfully tolerating being the sole focus of both parents' attention for the first time in his life.

Son#1:  Doing well at Uni, contacting his parents enough to keep us from worrying, happy to be back in the States and with his friends, spending prudently, and (so far) avoiding any further mountain biking accidents.

Rising Temperatures:  Temperatures have stopped hovering around 8F/-13C and are now in the balmy high 30sF/5-6C  range.  I would never have believed that this could feel springlike, but it does, and I'll take it. This does not in any way detract from the fabulousness of the next item, which may seem laughable, but has made a huge difference in my mood and attitude, namely:

Heated Toilet Seats:  If you are female, and you have ever had to face getting up in the middle of the night and going to the loo when it's extremely cold, you will appreciate this heretofore-overlooked feature of our nifty Korean toilet/bidet (christened 'The Arse-Blaster 9000' by MrL.)  It has provided a (warm) light in an otherwise cold and bleak winter, and I refuse to feel ashamed.