Saturday, May 26, 2012

Silent Sunday

I know Silent Sunday is supposed to be, well, - silent.  But given that most of my readers are Westerners and the fact that I live in Asia, I just had to bend the rules a bit to clarify what was going on.  Tomorrow (Monday 28th May) is Buddha's Birthday.  For the last few weeks in Seoul, brightly colored lanterns of all shapes and sizes have begun to appear all over the city, symbolizing the light that the Buddha brought into the world. Devout Buddhists attach 'prayer requests' (the hanging tags) to these lanterns.  This shot of workmen and volunteers putting up lanterns in preparation for tomorrow's celebrations was taken at the Bonguensa Buddhist Temple in Seoul.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

It's All Good

For those of you wondering why MsCaroline's posting frequency has been diminished as of late, the answer is simple:  I'm busy, and there's nothing to complain about.  Lately, it's all been good.

The late-Spring weather in Seoul is -at the moment - gorgeous. Warm, sunny days, cool nights that lend themselves to late-night cafe-sitting, and - as of yet - no appreciable rain.  Yes, I know that, come mid-June, the temperatures and humidity will soar, ushering in the Season of Sticky Misery, followed by The Season of Ceaseless Rain.  However, this does not bother me, because this year, I will not be here to experience it, having wisely scheduled this year's Home Leave for the peak of monsoon season.

I've been taking advantage of the weather on my free days, heading out to points (as of yet) unexplored and seeing as much as I can.  At the moment, Seoul is gearing up for the annual celebration of Buddha's Birthday next Monday, and the city is decorated with lanterns in anticipation of the festivities:
Hanging lanterns decorate Seoul.  The tags hanging from each lantern express a wish that  the writer hopes will be fulfilled in the coming year.

Lanterns of all sizes, shapes, and designs are for sale everywhere and it seems every other person is carrying one.  These owl lanterns were on sale shortly before the Lotus Lantern Parade.
Last Saturday evening a group of us attended the Lotus Lantern Parade in Seoul, which was held downtown in an area near several Buddhist temples.  The parade included traditionally costumed performers and dancers:
This security guy was directly in front of our spot on the parade route.  Approximately 85% of our parade photos feature him or some part of him.
 enormous lanterns so large they had to be pushed along on wheeled floats;
Super awesome giant lantern floats plus Our Friend The Security Guy

 and members of civic and school groups simply walking en masse carrying their lanterns.

There's our guy again.
Another reason for my blog silence has been The Return of Son#1 from University.  He has come home taller (at least, he seems taller to me,) reasonably healthy, and happy to be back home (it is possible that he is also happy just to be back somewhere where his laundry is done, all of his expenses are covered, and his dinners are home-cooked, but I feel sure that's not the main reason.  Well, pretty sure.) I have thoroughly enjoyed spoiling him shamelessly and hearing all the details about the last semester that we simply never had time to cover during our phone calls and Skype sessions.  Never have I appreciated the luxury of time with my boy as much as in the past few days.

Son#1 enjoying his first legal beer in Korea.
 In a week or so, he will have not just one, but two friends here visiting, our small apartment will be full to bursting, and they will all be gallivanting around Seoul, so I am very conscious of having him all to myself for only a limited amount of time before things get busy again.

On the other side of the coin, Son#2 left on Saturday morning for London, and - as per our agreement, has maintained contact with us via a minimum of at least one text or FaceBook message per day (an idea I shamelessly pilfered from Trish at Mum's Gone To.... who established this requirement for her son when he was in France on an exchange program.)

Son#2 was an enthusiastic Anglophile before he even left for London, loved British TV shows, and frequently expressed his desire to attend University in the UK, so it was no surprise to me that he wholeheartedly embraced British English within hours of arriving there.  By the time he had been there 2 days, he had already sent me a message addressed 'Dear Mum' and referred to the noon hour as 'midday.'    He can still be understood by the average American at this point, although I may have to put my foot down if his vocabulary expands to include words like 'lorry' and 'chuffed.'

In other developments, he expressed some surprise at the astronomical cost of pretty much everything in London ("I see now why you said everything would be expensive here.") admiration for Windsor Castle ("amazing and intricate,") and raved about seeing Babel ("awesome and enriching".)

Just the fact that he used the word 'enriching' makes me very happy and not jealous in the least that we sent him on this trip.

But I'll be happy on Sunday when our little family of four is together again for the first time since Son#1 left in January.

It's all all good.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

What - Me, Jealous?

London, which I am totally not jealous about not getting to visit.
*A competent and self-confident person is incapable of jealousy in anything. Jealousy is invariably a symptom of neurotic insecurity. -Robert A. Heinlein

Great excitement is brewing in the Asia Vu household as the final preparations are being made for Son#2's departure for London with his school group.  Suitcases have been pulled out of the closets, lists consulted, piles of clothes excavated from under furniture made ready for packing, Won exchanged for Pounds, camera batteries charged - you know the drill.

This is the first time (except for Summer Camp) that Son#2 will have been away from home so long, and his first trip to another country without his family, which used to be the sort of thing children did in their Junior Year Abroad, when they were about 21 and significantly closer to adulthood.  Of course, as with everything in the Modern Era, things are happening at an earlier and earlier age, which means that Son#2 is off on his first solo international jaunt at the tender age of 15 which, now that MsCaroline thinks of it, is really entirely too young.

MrLogical is taking the upcoming separation calmly in stride as is the way of fathers (do we really have to take him all the way to the airport? Can't we just put him on a bus?) while MsCaroline is slightly more apprehensive (at least one email or text every single day, understood? And stay with the group! Keep your wallet in your front pocket, and don't carry all your cash in it!) Apprehension notwithstanding, MsCaroline has been through this before with Son#1 and therefore in theory is handling the whole thing with complete relative sangfroid.

As his mother, MsCaroline is delighted and absolutely not jealous that Son#2 is able to have this tremendous opportunity to visit another country and experience some of the world's most famous sights that he didn't even know existed until she explained what they were.  He'll be attending a number of shows while he's there, including The Lion King, Babel, and Wicked and hopefully not wearing a t-shirt and torn jeans to any of them.  He'll tour Westminster Abby (It's a very big church, dear.  A lot of famous people are buried there) picnic along the Thames (Rhymes with 'hems' darling;  and the 'th' is pronounced as a 't',) go to Madame Tussaud's (Well, it's sort of like the original Ripley's Believe it or Not, but much older) and visit Abbey Road (You've heard of the Beatles, right? Well, they had this album, and...oh, never mind.)  

At the end of the day, of course, MsCaroline realizes she is fooling no one.  She is wildly, crazily, impossibly jealous of Son#2 and his incredible good fortune;  she would love to just take a week off work and go to London; she would love to see some beautiful buildings and historical sights; she would like to watch some outstanding shows, and find her favorite bloggers who live in the UK and stalk them meet them in person.

She would not even whine about the rain or the cold weather.  Not even once.

Of course, if Mr. Heinlein's quote* is to be believed, she  is also an insecure neurotic, but that really has no bearing on this discussion and - besides that - it is only Mr. Heinlein's opinion anyway.

Yes, if the truth must be told, MsCaroline is jealous.  But, in the inexplicable manner that mothers have, she is also delighted and happy for Son#2 in a way that makes any jealousy quite insignificant.  She can't wait for his horizons to be expanded, his understanding of history enhanced, and for his developing world view to be changed in a way that can only come from traveling to another country. (If MsCaroline were not so high-minded, she would also point out that she is very happy that this tour is a lot cheaper flying from Seoul than it would have been flying from the US, but let us not lower our level of discourse.)

Besides...she's already started planning her own trip.

Bon Voyage, Son#2.  

Sunday, May 13, 2012

This Is For The Expat Mothers - Especially My Own

MsCaroline and her mother before moving from Thailand to Taipei, around 1972

When I started this blog a little more than a year ago, one of my intentions was to explore the differences between life as an expat child and life as an expat adult.  

What I didn't realize was that almost every step I took would give me new insight into the life that my own mother had led - and a new and deep respect for the courage and aplomb she displayed even as she gamely packed our family up every few years for parts unknown. What my mother did when I was growing up is what expat mothers all over the world do on a daily basis, and is something those of us who haven't ever done it (or haven't done it very long) can only imagine.

Being a mother in a foreign country means separation from the support of home and family.  It means coping with homesickness while still trying to create a sense of belonging for the children you are raising.  It means trying to instill a sense of national pride in a child who doesn't remember the country of her nationality.  Being an expat mother means trying to keep family ties strong with a family that is thousands of miles away.  It means trying to wind your tongue around the names of your child's friends that you can barely pronounce, trying to make a birthday cake without the right ingredients, trying to explain national holidays back home when no one around you is celebrating them, and reminding your children that not every family has a maid, a yardboy, and a driver.  Being an expat mother means stepping out into uncharted territory - learning how to bring up children in an environment completely different to the one in which you grew up, and making up the rules as you go along.  It means trying to impart a sense of security to your children when you don't know the language or the culture yourself.  It means making new friends quickly who become like a second family - and then saying goodbye to those friends much sooner than you'd expected.

And millions of women across the world - like my own mother and mother-in-law -have done it.

What I know now- a year into my own expat journey- is that my mother had exactly the right combination of courage, optimism, enthusiasm, and humor to weather the many twists and turns that would come her way over the course of her life.  And that, just possibly, those experiences would give her a strength and a perspective that would help her to face even greater challenges once she was 'home' again.

 MsCaroline's mother, circa age 3
A minister's daughter from Canada, my mother had grown up moving from parsonage to parsonage, culminating with a move to the U.S. when she was in her late teens.   When she married my father- a military officer - I doubt she could have begun to anticipate the life that was ahead of her. In their first years in Bangkok, my father was often in Vietnam, and she was not only separated from him, but also alone in a strange country with a small child.

Over the course of the next 30-odd years, she moved house many times - sometimes in as little time as a year and a half - to many cities, and several countries.

What must it have been like for her, packing up and moving every few years, never having a real home of her own, and never knowing how long we might be there? According to her, that's just the way it was, and she made the best of it. (Having weathered only 4 major (interstate/international) moves during my own 20-year marriage, I suspect that's a huge understatement.)

I can only imagine how she felt being so far away from her large extended family (she is the youngest of 9) in a time before Skype and the cheap long-distance phone call, when slow-moving letters and snapshots were the primary means of communication, and a phone call was a rare event.  It was a time when air travel was still very much a luxury, so the idea of a yearly flight home to see friends and family was out of the question for military wives.  She knew it might well be years before she saw her family again.

Despite these challenges, I can only say that she has seized every opportunity and met every obstacle with tremendous faith, courage, optimism, and an enthusiasm for life that have been a wonderful example for me, especially as I began my own expat journey.

Snake handling in Bangkok.  Or Taipei.  Or Panang.  Or somewhere.

A petite redhead, she is referred to by MrL as  'The Red Tornado,'  a reference to both her red hair and her fast-moving, high-energy demeanor (although she insists that, at her age, she should really be downgraded from 'Tornado' to 'Zephyr.')  Yet she is a sensitive and thoughtful person who loves to garden, and enjoys nothing more than telling me about the nests the birds are building next to her patio.  She is an avid reader who brought me up saturated in the written and spoken word (the poetry she read to me as a child is still deeply ingrained.)  Early on, she instilled in me a love for music, and one of my earliest memories is of her playing the piano for me in our house in Bangkok after she had put me to bed at night.

Of course, for every soft and gentle story I have about her, I have another that illustrates her zest for life and her willingness to try something new.  The fact that we bought her an iPhone for her 70th birthday - and that she took to it immediately- is just one example of the way she meets life head-on.  To this day she has a penchant for fast cars, long road trips, and new experiences. I still clearly remember her coming home when we lived in Germany and complaining to my father that her car had an annoying shimmy on the Autobahn 'Whenever I go over 100."

Of course, my mother is nothing if not a realist. One of the best illustrations of her highly practical nature is an oft-related family story about her killing a snake when we lived in Bangkok and I was about 4 or 5.  It was evening, she was alone, and she had encountered a snake on the doorstep of our house.  Worried that, if she simply shooed it away, it might lurk in the garden and bite me, she decided that the only reasonable course of action would be to kill it, which she did (quite neatly, I might add) by dropping part of a heavy stone hibachi on its head and crushing it.  The next morning, upon finding the deceased reptile on the doorstep, the maids and houseboy came to her in great consternation, asking if she had killed it.  As it turned out, the snake she had so creatively dispatched (and come well within striking distance of) had been a Banded Krait, also known as the 'two-step' - the number of steps one could reputedly take before dropping dead after being bitten.  My mother (who hadn't known this) simply pointed out that she was concerned about me and to this day I'm sure that she believes that anyone with a child would have done the same thing.

But her courage wasn't limited to facing reptiles in Asia:  later, back in the U.S., in the space of just two years, she battled breast cancer and coped with the heartbreaking death of  her husband.  Instead of the happy retirement she had been looking forward to with my father, she found herself facing a life as a single woman after 34 years of marriage.  But with her typical no-nonsense, no self-pity attitude, she set about living a full life:  making new friends, volunteering in her church, traveling extensively, enjoying her grandchildren and her family, and reveling in new opportunities as they came along.  She saw glaciers crumble in Alaska, admired the grandeur of New Zealand ("I think I need to see this Lord of the Rings movie they keep talking about."), traveled to the Grand Canyon.

Visiting Son#2 at Summer Camp...of course she had to try out the rope suspension bridge.
In her late 60s, she decided that it would be a good idea to exercise our rambunctious new Labrador puppy by throwing a ball and racing him for it (who races a labrador puppy?).  She probably would have beaten him, too, except that the dog tripped her up, causing her to fall and break her wrist.  While I was still wallowing in guilt and regret about our unruly dog, she was showing her grandsons the x-rays of the metal pins that had been surgically placed in her wrist "just like Frankenstein" and sporting a hot-pink cast on her arm.

Thirteen years after my father died, she met a lovely man, a widower himself, and, in her 70's, remarried, adding new children and grandchildren to our extended family and beginning a new chapter of her life with her typical energy and enthusiasm.

After all these years, not much that she can say surprises me, which is why, when I last talked to her about our plans for my Home Leave this summer, she suggested that, instead of just 'sitting around' her house in Ohio, we consider a road trip to see some of the New England family. It will give Son#2 a chance to see his Boston relations, she said, and really - it's only a few days' drive.

Just a few days' drive.  Sure.

Let's just hope I can keep up with her.

Happy Mother's Day.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Things That Begin With S

In the last month or so, I've read several blog posts that are based on letters of the alphabet.  The first time I remember seeing one was in a fellow Korean expat's blog, Coffee Helps, in which items beginning with the letter 'D' were explored.  Today, I ran across this post, at Welsh Hills Again, talking about things that begin with S, and it was such a concise and evocative post, I decided to borrow the title and run with it, since I'd been meaning to post for a while but could not seem to find a reasonable heading under which to lump gather the loose and random conglomerate of persons and activities which pass for my life at the moment.

So, without further ado....


  Son#1 is in the throes of his semester exams even as I write this, hopefully performing well and justifying the eye-watering costs of his U.S. university education.  As is the case with many (most?) American mothers of Uni students, I sent off a 'care package' to him stocked with some of his favorite snacks to nourish him through the grueling week.  Most of what I sent was either sugar or caffeine-based, but I did throw in a couple of Korean goodies into the mix, including a bag of something that said, "Shrimp Meat Chip" on the package - just because the name intrigued me.  After  little post-exam R&R, Son#1 will pack up his things, move out of the dorms, and fly to Seoul.  Needless to say, I'm thrilled delighted over the moon so happy I can hardly stand it really looking forward to seeing him.

Son#2 - having finished up his musical (and my volunteering) for the year, is preparing for a trip to London with his school.  He and a small group of classmates and teachers (mostly from the drama department), will be spending 10 days there on a 'London Theatre' tour.   While I think it's a fabulous educational opportunity, I am not quite sure that I've quite come to terms with putting my 15-year-old on a plane and sending him approximately 9,000 kilometers away across the world, not to mention the fact that I'm wildly jealous.

Son#3 - Regular readers may remember that Son#3 - the friend of Son#1 - is an honorary Son, who is presently serving his required 2-year stint in the Korean Army (all Korean males are required to do this at age 21) and will be coming to the end of his first 100 days of basic training in just a few weeks.  Son#3's parents are presently living in the U.S., so he will be coming to stay with us in Seoul during this short leave.  It says a lot about the kind of young man Son#3 is that I am just about as excited to see him as I am to see Son#1.

Summer Weather:  It's coming to Seoul.  I don't know where I got the idea that we'd have a month or two of sunny, cool days after Winter and before things got hot and sticky, but clearly I was mistaken,as we've gone from jackets and gloves straight to shorts.  As I mentioned in my last post about fan death, we have been sleeping with the windows open at night, delaying the inevitable moment when the apartment must be sealed up and the air conditioning turned on.  I have learned to sleep through all of the typical city noises:  sirens, horns, rumbling trains, trucks, screeching brakes, motorcycles, and the like.  Ironically, what is keeping me up most nights are the sounds emanating from the small decorative lily pond located a mere 14 floors below us.  As it turns out, somehow in the middle of downtown Seoul, a community of bullfrogs have managed to colonize this little pond, and - since it's the season - they spend each evening croaking out their (surprisingly loud) love songs as they compete for the attentions of (apparently deaf) females.  I don't remember hearing them when we moved in last June, so presumably they quiet down at the end of the season, either preoccupied with impending fatherhood or wallowing in the dark silence of the failed lover.  In the meantime, it's sort of like a loud amphibian nightclub down there, full of the frog equivalent of guys in polyester leisure suits with bad comb-overs leering over their drinks and asking, ' come here often?'

Summer Travel:   also means every expat's delight:  Home Leave.  Along with many of our contemporaries the world over, we'll be getting on a plane and heading home for a good chunk of the summer.  In our case, however, 'home leave' doesn't mean getting on the plane in Seoul, getting off the plane in a city and state back in the U.S. and spending the summer there.  We have 3 sets of parents to visit in 3 different states, not to mention other family members and friends to see in a few other states.  Add to this the fact that MrL will be coming back before Son#2 and I do, as well as the fact that Son#1 will be heading back to Uni early for a summer course (this means he'll start Fall 2012 as a junior, wahoo), combined with the fact that I'll be heading to the Northeast with my mum to see my New England relatives...let's just say that our Summer itinerary will probably require its own spreadsheet before all the planning is said and done.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Something New To Worry About: Fan Death

Spring has finally sprung in Seoul.  More correctly, Winter has given way to Summer, because it seems like we've gone from being miserably cold to being miserably hot within the space of just a week or two.  We're not quite ready yet to pay for turn on the air conditioning, so MrLogical and I went out last weekend (after all of Son#2's musical performances - and my corresponding food responsibilities - were over forever and ever, Amen and Amen) and bought a couple of oscillating floor fans to keep the air circulating (especially at night while we were sleeping) in the apartment.

I had long been curious about the fact that - given that electricity is so expensive in Seoul - none of the apartments we had looked at had ceiling fans.  The ceiling fan is ubiquitous in homes in many parts of America;  in the case of cooling,they are less expensive to run than air conditioning, and can also be used in the winter to circulate warm air.  Why the Seoulites - usually so practical and thrifty - had not figured this out yet was puzzling.

And then I learned about fan death.

That's right.  Death by fan.  Electric fans, to be precise.  And not in the evil-criminal-pushes- innocent-victim-into-sharp-whirling-blades-and-makes-hamburger sort of way.  Nothing nearly that dramatic.

As it turns out, 'fan death' - according to those in Korea who believe in it -occurs when an individual goes to sleep in a room with an electric fan in a room with a closed door and windows.  The fan then, by some mysterious process not understood by me (or scientists), is believed to either suck out all the oxygen from the room, or thin it, or freeze it or something, and the individual who goes to sleep in a bedroom with an electric fan running risks waking up dead.

For this reason, electric fans in Korea are always equipped with a timer (so you don't leave them running all night and accidentally do yourself in) and also often include a safety warning:

Image from Source

If you are questioning MsCaroline's veracity, and possibly considering that she has fabricated this theory just to spice up her occasionally dull  blog, let her direct your attention to this article in Wikipedia and doubt her word no more.  She'll accept your apologies when you're finished reading.

After MsCaroline - who is nothing if not fair-minded - first heard about this concept, she did some more reading on this topic besides just the Wikipedia article, and found a number of blogs, as well as this article at, that scoffed at the concept of fan death.  However, there was at least one blogger who - while admitting that fan death was indeed a rare occurrence - went into a complex explanation of exactly how a person could theoretically die from 'fan death' if conditions were exactly right.  MsCaroline, who studied the Liberal Arts at University (and would be happy to discuss the Romantic movement in German literature with you at length if you're interested) puzzled over all of the scientific explanations - and their counter-explanations - and decided that they all sounded completely plausible to her.  (This is mostly because as soon as the discussion started including concepts like 'air convection' ' heat transfer' 'hyperthermia' and 'airflow,' MsCaroline lost interest and began thinking about Goethe, and - what with one thing and another - didn't really get the gist of either argument.)

MrLogical - who has an Engineering degree and therefore understands heat transfer - scoffed and tried to explain - using small words and simple concepts - just why these arguments were so improbable, but MsCaroline (who, again, wasn't really paying attention) remained unconvinced (and, if truth be told, slightly intrigued.)

Besides - it makes a nice change from worrying about North Korea.

Always a silver lining, right?