Monday, June 25, 2012

A Difference of Opinion...

(Note:  The content of this post has been awarded an 'R' rating by MsCaroline and MrLogical.  Parents strongly cautioned.)

MrLogical's suggested title for this post:  "  Preparations for the beach are well underway."

MsCaroline's suggested title for this post:  "Funny waxing salon advertisement."

Draw your own conclusions.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Grasping the Situation

"If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, it's just possible you haven't grasped the situation." - Jean Kerr

MsCaroline has never pretended to have a good grasp of many situations, and, now that she is looking down the barrel of a multi-week, multi-state vacation, it is clear to her that she doesn't have a good grasp on this one, either.

While other expat wives seem to look forward to their jaunts back in the mother/fatherland with enthusiasm and excitement, MsCaroline has not noticed any of them displaying the overt panic that she is feeling about now, with just days to go before we head to Incheon and our flight back home.

Make no mistake - it's not that I'm not delighted to get home.  In fact, it's all I can think about these days.  It's just what has to be done before I get there that has reduced me to state of gibbering idiocy.

I should note here that, as an educator, a huge part of my job is planning.  I sit down in August and plan out what I'll be doing all the way through June.  I think about where I want to be and how to get there, what I'll need to do, and how to do it.  It does not frighten or overwhelm me.  In fact, you would be astonished at how calmly and efficiently I can plan for  9 or 10 months of daily instruction without breaking a sweat or dropping small objects.

It stands to reason, then, that planning and packing for a little 6-week trip covering 7 U.S. states and  3 time zones should be a piece of cake for me.

But no.  For some reason, the planning part of my brain that so adeptly anticipates what we'll need to do in September in order to be ready for exams in May, cannot adapt its skills and accurately predict what it will need in Boston for two people 4 weeks from now.

What my brain does actually do (besides requesting carbohydrates) is become an energetic, talkative 6-year-old that will.not.shut.up. It keeps me up at night, and distracts me constantly during the work day.

Like a 6-year-old, it doesn't give a damn about my lists.  In fact, it could care less.  Even as I elbow my way through the crowded market alleyways at Namdemun, grimly determined to follow the list and and the list only (am I the only expat who rushes around at the last minute looking for exotic local swag to take home for gifts?), my brain is chattering away like a monkey, pulling on my hand with both of its own and dragging me off in directions where I wasn't planning to go:  "Ooooh, look! You really do need a new purse! Yours is too small, and think how much stuff you'll need to take along on that loooooong  flight! What about that one?..... Hey! That's a really cute t-shirt! Who could you get that for? Why not pick it up just in case?....It says online that there's another tropical depression forming in the Gulf of Mexico... will that affect our flight?....what about the weather at the beach?.....Why did in God's name did you agree to work the day before you fly out?Will there be time to work in a pedicure?.....Do not forget to pack Immodium and Pepto-Bismol in your purse.  Remember what happened last time you flew to the US.....what if it happens again?....No....Just.... No...  I cannot even ... Let's see...if I stop eating or drinking at midnight the night before, that should be safe......Wait - where's Son#2's passport?Did I put it back in the folder as soon as he got back from London?...Oh, yes...wait..No!..Where could it be? What if we can't find it?Is the Embassy open on Saturdays?.....What are you doing? Why did you buy that?   Is this really the best hostess gift for Son#2's friend's mother? She probably already has a dozen serving trays!

And on it goes, ad nauseum, my brain.  It runs - nonstop - on the train, on the bus, at work, in the shower, in bed, etc.  The closer the flight gets - the louder and more insistent its voice.

But I'm finally starting to make some progress.  Yesterday I finally made my last trip to the market, wrapped all the birthday/wedding/anniversary/hostess/graduation gifts (note to self:  mail them next year, you have no room for shoes), found the passports (thank God), left instructions with the housekeeper, and planned my next 4 days down to the last minute, resolutely ignoring the chattering of my brain all the while.

By the time I crawled into bed, I was was exhausted.  Ready to close my eyes and picture myself 5 days from now, lying on the beach, margarita in hand, listening to the rush of the waves and enjoying the fruits of my labor and discipline.

It was just about then that I remembered one item I'd left off the list.

A bathing suit.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Home Leave: The Asia Vu Whistlestop Tour of Summer 2012

I don't know that we'll have photographers waiting for us, but the stops will  certainly be nearly as frequent. Image via

It's that time again.  The time that most expats yearn for all year long:  Home Leave.

Ahead of most of us are weeks back home, where we'll soak up our native language, drive through old neighborhoods, visit family and friends, and wander excitedly through grocery stores (if you have not lived abroad, it's hard to appreciate just how exciting a grocery store back home can be,especially if you live in a city where women pass around information on how to find black market Crisco with the same level of intensity and passion used by women back home to share news of an engagement or a pregnancy).  We'll revel in the most mundane activities of daily life, marveling at how easy it is to ask a question, order a meal, get directions, or find just the right type of moisturizing shampoo. We won't nervously scan signs, hoping to recognize a few familiar words in a strange language that will let us know where to get in line for tickets or where to pay for merchandise.  We will not look desperately out the taxi windows for familiar landmarks, hoping that we accurately conveyed the subtle difference between 'Ichon' and "Incheon" (one is the neighborhood where we live:  the other is a city approximately an hour away. The spoken Korean words are frighteningly similar.  Do not ask me how I know this.)

Don't get me wrong:  I love Korea, and I am enjoying every single minute of living here (OK, maybe not the really cold parts) but even the most enthusiastic expatriate has her moments of longing to be back where everything is familiar and understood; somewhere where you feel completely at home.

Of course, for a family like ours, the concept of home is a bit broader.  Oh, we'll be comfortable, and in some familiar places, and surrounded by people we love, but it won't quite be the "Now we're home, let's unpack and stay put for 6 weeks" scenario that many of our fellow expats experience on their home leaves.

 Remembering that MsCaroline and MrLogical grew up as expats, the scenario necessarily has to look somewhat different.  There's no cozy hometown for us to return to, no nostalgic stroll around the old high school football field, no visit to the kindly neighbor who's known us since we were born and always baked the best chocolate chip cookies.  MrL finished his school years in the Philippines, MsCaroline did so in Germany (not including our other 14 or so schools in 5 countries over 12 years) - so there's no strolling around the old football field for us - well, not just one, at least - when we're back in the U.S.  Our parents have all settled down - more or less - in homes and states (3 different ones, by the way) where they are happy and comfortable, but they're not exactly places we grew up.  Add to that, a marriage in which we are on our fourth 'home' (3 in the US, in distinctly different parts of the country at least 1-2 days' drive apart and in each place we or the children have significant ties) and relatives who come from two different ends of the country and you have a recipe for a Home Leave which is not so much relaxing-on-the-porch-swing-with-a-glass-of-lemonade, but more along the lines of one of those whistle stop tours beloved of American political candidates.

The good thing is that we'll get to see our families and friends - the people we love and who love us.  The challenging ('challenging' is the politically correct way to say 'bad') thing is that the four of us will spend some time together on the East Coast (at the BEACH, people! The BEACH!), but eventually split up to go our separate ways.  MrL will return to Seoul first, heading back to work. The boys will head to the West, and I will head to the Midwest, eventually reconnecting with Son#2 in Boston (Son#1 will be back in Texas, taking a summer course) before heading back the the Land of the Morning Calm a few weeks before the start of the new school year.

If the logistics of these four distinctly different itineraries strike you as potentially complex and confusing, I can only say that the folks who make the travel arrangements at MrL's company are powerful magicians extremely talented at what they do.  The tactical and strategic maneuvering involved in designing our four diverse itineraries were of a complexity and level of detail worthy of The Battle of Guadalcanal.  Or at least it felt that way when we were planning them.

Some of the stops on the Asia Vu Summer 2012 Whistlestop Tour
Between the four of us, we will be either flying or driving to:

Washington, DC
North Carolina
Texas *
New Jersey
*multiple cities

(For those of you not conversant with the size of the US and/or the distance between some of the cities and states, let's just say that the longer distances are between 1000km(650miles) and 2000km(1200 miles) - but we'll only be driving some of it.)

Oh, we're all excited and looking forward to seeing those familiar, beloved faces; swapping stories, seeing how much kids have grown, and soaking up every detail to store up for the next 10 or so months ahead of us. We actually probably will end up on a few front porches, drinking lemonade.

Or maybe after all that traveling, something a bit stronger.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sights in Seoul: Seodaemun Prison and History Hall

Note:  If - like mine - your grasp of Korean history is a bit vague, let me just give you the briefest of all primers by saying that Korea has a centuries-old history of being invaded by the Japanese- who did so with depressing frequency -most recently in 1905.   Seodaemun - along with a number of other prisons in Korea - was built by the Japanese to house Koreans who protested against Japanese rule or who actively participated in Nationalist movements.  It was originally built to house 500 prisoners, but eventually ended up holding as many as 3000 men and women at a time, who were subjected to torture, forced labor, and incredibly harsh living conditions.  Hundreds (maybe thousands) of them died during their imprisonment and are today looked on as martyrs and patriots of the Korean people.

As I believe I established some time ago, travel blogging is not exactly my strong point.  I'm happy to tell you about the fellow I heard crooning to a potato on the subway on Sunday, or the articulate elderly Korean gentleman who approached me at the bus stop last week and asked me (in English) , "For how long, and in what specific capacity are you in Korea?"  But describing a building and its historical provenance? Meh.  Especially since a quick google of Seodaemun Prison Seoul pulls up approximately eighty-gazillion hits that will tell you everything you could ever want to know about the prison and its history.

However, as responsible(ish) blogger, I would be remiss if I didn't at least give you my basic impressions and (possibly) enough insight to help you decide if you wanted to go see it yourself the next time you happen to be in Seoul. it is:  my take on Seodaemun Prison.

Like America's Alcatraz, Seodaemun is a relatively modern prison (well, modern compared to, say, the Tower of London.)  But that's really where the similarities end, because while Alcatraz housed hardened criminals who (presumably) deserved to be there, Sodaemun was built to house Koreans who'd committed no crime except wanting to run their own country.

So, while Soedaemun has exactly the grim, quiet, ghost-filled air about it that you'd expect, there's also a surprising undercurrent of passionate patriotism and gratitude to the many men and women who suffered and died for the cause of an independent Korea.  It was this undercurrent that I was not expecting, and it did imbue the whole experience with  certain quiet nobility, although I have to admit that the whole torture-beating-misery display down in the basement could have been just a tad less authentic without taking anything away from the overall experience.  (Of course, that might just be wussy me.  The adult males who accompanied me didn't seem to have the slightest problem with it.)

The main prison building has been turned into a series of display rooms which house photographs, blueprints, artifacts (such as clandestine resistance movement newspapers, prison records, and even shoes worn by the prisoners.)  One of the most moving displays is a room which is covered from wall to ceiling with what look like the official 'mug shots' of the thousands of men and women who were imprisoned in Seodaemun over the years.  Further on, there are video and photographic displays of some of the best known patriots of the Nationalist Movement, including a huge portrait of Yu Gwan Sun,  a young woman who was tortured and eventually killed in Seodaemun and who is viewed today as a martyr of the Korean Independence movement.  

Blueprints and scale model of the prison

As you move down to the basement, the displays take a more grisly turn; visitors are treated to tableaux of torture featuring lifelike mannequins: suffice it to say, the Japanese were very creative with their techniques.  There are also video interviews with elderly survivors of Seodaemun describing their torture, and there is even a pretty high-tech interactive exhibit in which your face can be superimposed on a series of images(you select male or female) in which you are roughly dragged through the prison yard by soldiers and then beaten.
There's even a solitary confinement cell which has a recording of a man screaming repeatedly. In retrospect, this would have been a great place to visit right around Halloween.

Sorry, kids.  Don't get your hopes up.  It was an exhibit, not an experience.

Once you leave the solitary confinement and torture area, you move into one of the wings of the prison with actual cells.  You can enter some of them,

while others are blocked off and still others feature more life-sized mannequins in various states of despair.

Upon leaving the main building, you can tour more of prison compound, including outbuildings, an execution area, an engineering building, a recreation yard (charmingly mismarked as 'playground'), and a unique bowl-shaped memorial sculpture.

A bit more grim and serious than most of our undertakings, but a very worthwhile one, and one in which I learned quite a bit of recent Korean history.  Those faces will stay with me for quite a while.

Seodaemun Prison is located at Dongnimmun Station, Line 3, exit 5  - the prison is located almost immediately on your left as you come up the stairs. This is one of the most accessible sites I have visited with regard to providing English language information throughout the exhibit.  There is an English brochure, and all of the exhibits are marked in English;  many of them have relatively detailed explanations in English as well, and all videos are subtitled in English. This tour can be completed in a fairly leisurely 2 hours or less, depending on how slowly you read and how many photos you want to take.  If you have impressionable young children, this tour might be a good one to skip, although I did see scout-type groups there with children who looked as young as 8 or 9 years old, and a number of families with quite young children (4-5) so this is obviously a matter of personal discretion. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

My Excuses...

(Note:  When I first moved to Seoul, hadn't met anyone yet, and wasn't working, I had ample time to write long, rambling posts about things like my towels and the rain and the sorts of notes that Son#2's school sent home regarding transportation.  Ironically, now that I have actual things to write about that actually might be worth reading, I have almost no time to write about them, which means I'm resorting to lazy techniques like lists and photographs.  In my defense, at least I got a post in between Silent Sundays.  That is all.)

Yes, I know, I've been neglecting my blog horribly, but things have been busy here in the last few weeks -really!
  • Son#2 headed to London - and returned without incident, although I lost a certain amount of credibility when it failed to rain a single time during the 9 days he was in London.  I can only assume the skies opened up the second he left the country.  I was also quite puzzled by the fact that he complained about the Tube being difficult to navigate, and not nearly as easy as using the Seoul Metro.  He failed to see any irony at all in the fact that he cannot read or speak much Korean at all, while the Tube is marked in (what is presumably) his native language.  
  •  Son#1 returned home from University,
  •  Son#3(honorary) had his first leave 4.5 months after beginning his mandatory Korean military service, and was thunderstruck to find Son#1 (who he had not expected to be back in Korea) there to welcome him - it was one of the most satisfying surprises I have ever orchestrated and a wonderful reunion between friends. Naturally, this made it all the harder for him to return to his duty station after his leave was up....
  • Son#1's high school friend, R, made the trip out from Texas to visit us and is here experiencing a taste of life in the Land of the Morning Calm. We are all driving him crazy with our own suggestions for what we think he needs to see, which is complicated since he only has 2 weeks.  He is an unfailingly pleasant and cheerful houseguest, and does thoughtful things like rinsing off his dishes when he's finished eating.  My own children are tired of me pointing out the fact that he does this without being reminded.
  • We celebrated Buddha's birthday with a parade, lanterns, and a visit to one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Seoul.
  • hiked up a couple of mountains
  • were lucky enough to be invited to attend our first-ever wedding in Korea (and yes, I cried.  It was just beautiful.) xx and congratulations again if you're reading this, J&J!
  • changes in my job and workload for next year are under discussion (good, but different)
  • MrL's office has moved to a city approximately 1 hour South of Seoul; he is now commuting at least 1.5 hours each way on the train and stays down there some nights at a generous co-worker's apartment, which we have dubbed 'Man Camp:'  Red meat is eaten, beer is consumed, bicycles are ridden, iron is pumped. This takes some of the commuting strain off of MrL, but (necessarily) changes things just a bit back here on the home front.
  • Along with about 75% of the expat community here in Seoul, we are preparing to head back home for at least part of the summer.  I am working on my lists of Things To Buy Back Home That Just Can't Be Found in Seoul as well as my list of Things To Buy To Take To People Back Home That Can't Be Found in the US.
Oh, and there's that pesky work thing, too.

I'll leave you to figure out which photos relate to which descriptions, and extend a (weak and vague) promise to fill you in with details when I get around to it as soon as possible....