Monday, August 27, 2012

Stormy Weather

Typhoon Bolaven, via

"Life is bare,gloom and mis'ry everywhere
Stormy weather
Just can't get my poor self together,
I'm weary all the time
So weary all the time."

- "Stormy Weather" 
by Harold Arlen and Ted Kohler

Let me just start by saying that my last post - about how it had been raining constantly a lot since I returned from home leave - was not supposed to be the first one in a series.  It was my intention to write a single light-hearted post about the disappointingly rainy summer weather and then get back to whining about other things  blogging about everyday life in Seoul.

Naturally, I was not thinking at the time about typhoons.

Typhoons - which are sort of the Asian version of a hurricane - are well-known to me from my childhood in Thailand and Taiwan - especially Taiwan, which is an island and therefore seems to get the worst of it every time. Typhoons were so common that we had regular 'typhoon drills' in my elementary school;  when the sirens sounded, we'd all drop what we were doing and crawl under our desks - presumably to protect us from flying debris.  We all thought it was great fun as well as a nice break in an otherwise dull school day.

Almost as soon as the typhoon hit, the power would go out (you lost power all the time in Asia back then anyway, and a storm meant it could be out for days) and we would weather out the rest of it lit only by a few flickering candles or the big green flashlight that my father always kept at the ready. For whatever reason (probably because my parents always made me feel that we were perfectly safe in our house and that the stuff going on outdoors was just fascinating entertainment) I absolutely loved standing at the window and watching the storm rage all around us:  debris flew, limbs tore and broke, and the palm trees were blown almost parallel to the ground with each gust of wind.

Having had ample rain last summer - but no actual typhoons - I suppose MrL and I just sort of forgot that typhoons are a fairly common occurrence in Asia between May and October.  And one is heading our way.

Typhoon Bolaven has been building in strength for the last few days and is - if the meteorologists are to be believed (and why shouldn't they be?) an enormous storm roughly the size of France.  France, people!

Having done a bunch of damage in Okinawa already, it's now dusted off its hands, tucked its shirt back into its trousers, smoothed its hair, and set its sights on Korea in the manner of the deranged killer in a horror movie who has just violently taken out a roomful of screaming teenagers and now calmly turns to face the pretty coed trembling in the corner, ready to unleash some more grisly vengeance.

From what I can glean from alarmist CNN online news articles and the( far-more sanguine) English-language press in Korea, this storm is  full of rain and extremely windy. For us in downtown Seoul, what this means is possible flooding, loss of power (yes, I am charging my laptop and my Kindle) and lots of potentially-deadly flying projectiles (traffic lights, hubcaps, tree branches, tiny dogs.) Schools across the city are closed tomorrow, due to safety concerns (Son#2=very pleased.) Here on the 14th floor of our high-rise, flooding is not a major concern, and I am guessing that there won't be quite as many traffic lights and tiny dogs flying around up here either. I suppose - theoretically - that the wind could blow in all of our windows (and, yes, the walls of our living room are more or less all windows) but given the way the windows are built (and the extra-stout glass that's used) that doesn't seem very likely....I hope. That leaves only a power cut to worry about, and, while it would certainly be sticky and hot and dark and inconvenient (not to mention all of the food in the refrigerator going south,) it's not anything life-threatening.

In an interesting parallel, a number of our friends and family in the South and on the Gulf Coast of the U.S. are keeping their eyes on Hurricane Isaac even as we twiddle our thumbs waiting for Bolaven to arrive, so I've been keeping my eyes on both the Atlantic and the Pacific weather reports.

In the meantime, though, the sun is shining,skies are blue, the view of Namsan is clearer than I think I've ever seen it, and we're enjoying it while we can.

See you on the other side.

The calm before the storm:  blue skies and sunshine over Namsan mountain

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

In Which Mother Nature Has The Last Laugh

Those readers who have been following AsiaVu since its inception will likely remember that, not long after she moved to Seoul last summer, MsCaroline began her expatriate blogging career with a month-long whinge about the weather.  (In all fairness, the July after she arrived did turn out to be a record-breaking one, complete with rivers overrunning their banks, flooding highways, and historic levels of rainfall.) This is very unusual, long-time Seoulites pointed out:  Yes, it usually rains a lot during the summer monsoon season, but this year it's extremely bad.  It's not normally like this.  Readers who stuck with me were eventually rewarded in August with clear skies and more whining - this time, about the humidity.

Over the course of the following year, MsCaroline learned that the weather in Seoul is fairly consistent and tends to change in a very predictable manner, almost to the calendar date.  As such, things cooled down and became glorious right around mid-September and remained that way well into November, followed by a bitterly cold and snowy winter which gave way (in April, right on cue) to a glorious Spring.

Naturally MsCaroline took all this into account when making her reservations for Home Leave and very cleverly planned to get the hell out of Dodge leave at the first of July (when the monsoon period typically begins) and return at the first of August (when things typically calm down and get back to being Hot and Humid but Mostly Dry.)  Off she flew, laughing up her sleeve at having cleverly avoided the worst of Monsoon Season in Seoul and reveling in the beautiful sunshine of a Summer on the East Coast.

Those of you who are familiar with the concept of dramatic irony will, of course, have no trouble guessing what was awaiting her upon her return.

MsCaroline arrived in Seoul (still very pleased with her clever planning) to sun and humidity as expected, followed by - unexpectedly - torrential downpours.  That's right:  after a surprisingly mild July monsoon season (MrL:  "It really wasn't bad at all this year") Seoul is now experiencing what I can only assume is an equally surprising August, featuring rain, rain, and (you guessed it) more rain.  Oh, we've had a few dry days here and there, but for the most part, this is what we've been looking at for the past week or two:

Everyone else is walking around, shaking their head and murmuring How unusual this weather is for August - it really doesn't usually rain like this at this time of year.  Very strange.  According to the weather people, this is all somehow related to an unprecedented number of typhoons and tropical depressions and El Nino and God knows what else.

But MsCaroline isn't buying any of this climactic mumbo-jumbo.  She knows exactly who's to blame for these crazy weather patterns, the driving rain, this unusual August monsoon.

Oh, yes.  She knows.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Silent Sunday

Expat Life: Eating Out.....The Answer to "What's This?"

In yesterday's post, I shared a typical dilemma faced by many expats in Asia:  trying to figure out what they're eating.

For those of you who were up all night tossing and turning with the frustration of wondering what the above item I found in my soup was, have no fear:  relief is at hand.

The object in question was (drum roll, please):  a jujube, or Korean date, not to be confused with the American confectionery of the same name. (For those who are interested, there is also, apparently, an American drag queen and TV personality who goes by a similar name, which provided me with some rather electrifying Google search results)  They are common in the cooking of China, Korea, and parts of the Middle East.  When mature, they are a brownish color, which naturally turns to a deep red when the fruit is dried.

dried jujubes, via


None of the reader comments correctly identified the item as a jujube - or even as a date, -although a number of you got into the ball park with dried persimmons, plums, cherries and the like.  However, MsCaroline has decided that she absolutely loves this sort of guessing game, simply because she had such a good time reading your comments(both on the blog and on Facebook), some of which she will now share with you:

Most Likely to Become a Tongue Twister:  Goes to MrC:  "An adolescent ibex testicle?"

Closest Answer (based on research and/or personal experience):  Shared between fellow expat bloggers  Dkuroiwa and Stacy:  "..a small, sweet plum...."  and " rehydrated salt prune or plum..(later changed to - in my opinion, quite reasonably)...gingko berry."

Most Reasonable Answer Based on Personal Knowledge of MsCaroline and Son#2:  Goes to KarenA:  "A cranberry?"

Special Integrity Award:  Goes to my Seoul Sister, B, who knew - but didn't tell.

Most Likely To Cause the Reader to Snort Coffee Through The Nose Award:  Goes to Holly:  "An eyeball? A testicle? A liposarcoma?"  

We'll be going out to dinner again soon.....stay tuned.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Expat Life: Eating Out: "So....What's This?"


For those of you who have wondered 'What is it really like to live in a foreign country?' Let me give you one tiny example of a typical incident in our daily lives.

MrL, Son#2 and I decided to get some lunch yesterday, and Son#2 and I ordered galbitang, a Korean short-rib soup which contains (besides the short ribs) daikon radish, mushrooms, green onions, and glass noodles.  In this case, it also featured the lone red, wizened item pictured above.

Now, in the US, had an unidentifiable object made an appearance in my soup, I would have either:  1) summoned the server and asked what it was:  2) removed it and ignored it, or 3) eaten it anyway.  Naturally, in Korea, things are a little different. Even if I had been able to say, "What is this?" to the wait staff (and I still can't *hangs head in shame*), they would have been unable to convey the information to me in a language I could understand anyway.

I asked MrL (who eats out with Korean co-workers on a daily basis.)  He had no idea.  Son#2's helpful guess was:  "It's a cranberry," (A cranberry? Really?) which I promptly dismissed.

With no other useful information coming in, I was faced with a common expat dilemma:  Do it eat it, or not?

Because MsCaroline is an adventurous spirit who embraces all that life has to give (and also because it was clearly a plant-based item and therefore unlikely to turn out to be brains or intestines or some sort of squid.) she went with option #3.

Reader, I ate it.

It was mildly sweet (I had feared it might be something in the chili-pepper family and had my water  at the ready), and - as soon as I bit into it - the flavor was instantly recognizable.

A Google search once I got back home confirmed my identification, although it took some serious sleuthing to find it. I was also surprised to find that very few traditional galbitang recipes include this particular ingredient.

I know that I have at least one serious foodie reader, so I shall throw down the gauntlet   :What do you think it is? Correct guessers will receive my eternal admiration and the glory of public recognition when I reveal the answer tomorrow.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Expat Life: Readjusting After Home Leave

So, after 6 weeks Home Leave in the Land of the Fast Food Drive-through, MsCaroline is back in the Land of the Morning Calm. The jet lag seems to be letting up a bit, although she is still finding herself inexorably drawn to the couch around 4:30 each afternoon (where she ostensibly 'reads' but in reality, finds herself dozing off.)  This no doubt has to do with the fact that she find herself wide awake each morning between 3 and 4 am, mind racing, full of vim, vigor, and alternative furniture arrangements. This has not won her any popularity contests with MrL, who has already had 3 weeks to readjust and is, quite naturally, interested in sleeping during those hours.

Regular readers will be happy to know that MsCaroline is not having any major culture shock this time round, but she has been finding that extended time back home caused her to forget some of the things that had become second nature to her here in Korea, and there has been a slight period of readjustment.  For example:

  • Access Cards:  Getting on the elevator and realizing - belatedly - that she had forgotten her building access card, which enables residents to get into the building as well as operate the elevators.  After several fruitless button-pressing episodes - resulting only in a stationary elevator and an unintelligible (to her) message repeated in a soothing Korean voice - MsC finally realized that the voice was saying, "Hey, idiot:  you need an access card to operate the elevator in this building.  Scan your card already."  Oh, yeah. Right. 
  • How To Park:  After 6 weeks' worth of swinging blithely into American parking spots designed for vehicles with names like 'Invasion,' 'Godzilla,' and 'Behemoth,' MsCaroline has had to readjust to squeezing into spots more suited to cars with names like, '' 'Atomic Particle' and 'Speck.' It's taken her a couple days of making humiliating 15-point turns trying to maneuver into minuscule parking spaces (while the queue of cars entering the parking garage backs up behind her,) but she thinks she's finally got her groove back.
  • Korean 'air conditioning:'  Since MsCaroline arrived in Korea last summer, she has made great strides in acclimating herself to both the Korean climate and also the Korean attitude towards air conditioning.  So much so that, if left to her own devices, she is now perfectly happy to keep her apartment temperature at 26 or 27 (78 or 80F,) which is a significant improvement from last summer when she engaged in a constant, clandestine thermostat war with MrLogical kept the apartment slightly cooler.  However, 6 weeks of American air-conditioning levels - which apparently only have settings that range between 'arctic' and 'permafrost' - have definitely affected her sensibilities, which means that, now, upon entering any number of Korean public establishments, she now finds herself slowly and inexorably melting.  This is not actually a problem for anyone except MsCaroline, who finds it embarrassing to be walking around a mall with sweat running down her face or -even worse - onto the merchandise. 
  • Korean Restaurants:   It is worth remembering that, in traditional Korean restaurants, diners often sit cross-legged on cushions on the floor around a low table.  While this is very charming and authentic, it is an activity best undertaken by Westerners when one is mentally prepared for an authentic dining experience and - ideally- has also been engaging in a regular program of stretching. The least ideal time for this sort of traditional floor-sitting experience - and this is just MsCaroline's opinion - is a mere 3 days after having spent close to 24 hours in the confines of an airplane when that old disc injury has been acting up.  Unfortunately, once you walk into the restaurant and indicate your desire to eat there, you cannot ask for a do-over once you realize you will be sitting on the floor.  

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Expat Life: Watching the Olympics


Unless you have been living under a rock on some sort of a media fast lately, you can't have missed the fact that the London Olympics are presently in full swing.

Son#2 and I were still in the US for the Opening Ceremonies, and managed to juggle our frantic social schedule enough to catch at least part of the excitement, as well as a few hours here and there in the following days (yay, Gabby Douglas!) as we wrapped up our 6-week visit.  We both fully expected to increase our Olympic viewing quota once we returned to Seoul and didn't have anything nearly as much to do.

Naturally, in the process of hatching these plans, we had both realized that the coverage we'd be watching back in Seoul would be in Korean, on Korean television.  We reasoned, however, that one didn't need too much language to figure out what was going on, and that we'd still be able to watch the events and figure out who had won without too much trouble.  After all, MrLogical (who had returned to Korea several weeks ahead of us) had mentioned that he'd been watching regularly, and he didn't speak much Korean either, so it shouldn't be a problem - right?

Not exactly.  What MrL had failed to mention was that, while there is certainly Olympic coverage here in Korea, it's not quite what we're used to.  And not just because of the language.

Yes, there are Olympics on here, round-the-clock, just like in the US.  However, what all of us had failed to take into consideration was that there are numerous events taking place at the Olympics, at any number of venues, and television broadcasters have to make decisions about what they will show their audience, based on - and this is the important part - the tastes and interests of their viewers.

"Well, of course" you are saying to yourself, "it stands to reason that different cultures would have different interests, MsCaroline.  What did you expect?" 

Alright, I'll admit it: what I was expecting was more or less exactly what I'd watched back in the US - only in Korean.  You know.  Beach volleyball, lots of gymnastics, basketball, track and field, Michael Phelps. Which is -of course - not at all what I got.

It might interest you to know, for example, that badminton and table tennis are of extreme importance to Korean viewers, as are shooting, archery, fencing and judo (since I'm displaying my ignorance already, I might as well seal the deal by confessing that I had no idea that there even was judo at the Olympics.) Yes, they show the other stuff, too - at least a little bit -  but the emphasis is certainly on different sports than we are used to. Where, in the US, there might be lengthy coverage of beach volleyball followed by a short clip of the final seconds of the winning badminton match, you will find the reverse is true in Korea.

And, naturally, the announcers don't get excited and start shouting when an American wins the heat/match/game, which is reasonable - but still feels odd when you're cheering your head off and the announcer matter-of-factly states the winner in roughly the same tone he might tell you what the temperature is.

In hindsight, I shouldn't have been surprised about this.  After all, this is the type of thing we mean when we talk about the way living in another country changes your viewpoint and your perspective. We're living in Korea, and we're learning (and sharing) what's important in the culture, which includes the sports.  And so, we've been watching badminton, and table tennis, and tae kwon do.  We shared the delight as Yang Hak-Seon won the gold in Men's Vault  and you can be sure we'll be watching when  South Korea plays Brazil in the football(soccer) semifinals this evening.

 Granted, we won't understand the commentary - but we'll know who to cheer for.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Ask MsCaroline: Expat Life: Home Leave

As the summer begins to wind down, the far-flung expat community - many of whom have spent their summers back in Good Ol - insert country of origin here - begins its return from Home Leave. 'Home Leave' - for the uninitiated - is just what it sounds like - a trip back to your home country - often in the summer when the kids are out of school.   MsCaroline  is, herself,  in the process of readjusting to life in Seoul after 6 weeks' Home Leave in the US, and - in the spirit of generosity that fuels some most all of her undertakings - is ready to share what she has learned about this unique aspect of expatriate living.

Question:  Isn't 'Home Leave' just a fancy name for 'vacation' or 'holiday'? 
Answer:  It depends.  If spending anywhere from 2-10 weeks in the bosom of your family while suffering from jet lag, living out of a suitcase, sleeping in guest bedrooms and on couches and visiting a dizzying number of people provides you with the same level of enjoyment and pleasure as, say, a trip to Tahiti or a visit to Disneyland, then, most certainly 'vacation' or 'holiday' would be a more appropriate description.  However, for whatever reason, most expats continue to use the term 'Home Leave.'  MsCaroline cannot imagine why.

Question:  How can I recognize an expatriate family returning from Home Leave the next time I am at the airport? 
Answer:  MsCaroline commends you for realizing that there are significant differences between expats and your typical tourist or traveler.  There are several distinct signs to alert you that you may be in the presence of expats returning from Home Leave, including:  
  •  High Mileage:   the entire family marches itself up to the Premiere Club (or whatever the airline calls its mileage rewards program) entrance at boarding time, providing an interesting contrast with all the typical snappily-dressed long-haul business travelers.  
  • Frequent-flyer children:   The children in this family are all as familiar with airport protocol, airplane layouts, security processes, and on-board entertainment options as most flight attendants.  They can slip out of their shoes, toss their laptops in a bin, and zip through security in the same amount of time that it takes an average traveler to dig out his government-issued ID.  
  • Dressing for comfort:   The fact that many of these families are traveling thousands of miles over at least 24 hours means that comfort- not necessarily style - is paramount:  these people travel in sweatpants comfortable clothes, own inflatable neck pillows, and sometimes even bring their own blankets with them.  Those who have particularly long flights also tend to exhibit a certain slightly-rumpled, down-at-the-heels, crumb-encrusted look, especially on the last leg of the journey.
  • Knowing when to rush, and when to take it easy:  The keen observer will note that the truly seasoned expat family is among the first to  trample their fellow passengers in a frantic scramble for the exit deplane and will move speedily and confidently in the direction of Immigration, where they will unerringly pick the shortest line and be on their way to the baggage claim while their tourist counterparts are still squinting questioningly at the airport signage and wondering why everyone else seems to be in such a hurry. (Note:  this was precisely what MsCaroline did when she initially arrived in Seoul last summer, deplaning at her leisure and - she is still ashamed to admit - actually stopping to use the toilet  along the way.  It only took one experience standing at the back of the monstrously long queue at Immigration for three hundred bazillion hours for her to understand - at least in the case of international flights to Asia - that Time Is Of The Essence When it Comes to Getting to Immigration After the Flight.)
  • Their Luggage:  Once your typical expat family has cleared Immigration, they will head in a leisurely manner to the Baggage Claim, where the keen-eyed observer will note the most obvious indicator of the returning expat:  luggage.  Your typical traveler or tourist may have only a carry-on, or possibly one or two checked bags, but a returning expat is likely to have not only lots of bags, but also boxes and other containers - and a lot of them.  Most expats use their Home Leave to stock up for the year on items that are difficult to obtain in their country of residence (MsCaroline, for example, returned laden with - among other things - all the really good flavors of Crystal Light, brassieres, greeting cards, and antiperspirant.) This is why MsCaroline was not surprised in the least when the family next to her at the baggage claim proceeded to load onto their trolleys no less than 8 large-sized Rubbermaid storage boxes along with their luggage and calmly head for Customs.  
Question:  What is 'jet lag' and what is its effect on the expatriate on Home Leave? 
Answer:  Jet lag is an interesting medical condition resulting when one travels across a number of Time Zones.  The resulting disorientation, confusion, and erratic sleeping/waking pattern that result are referred to as Jet Lag.  In MsCaroline's case, the 11-zone change that exists between Seoul and the East Coast of the US tends to manifest itself in waking up at 4:30 am, which - on the plus side - allows one to be up and at 'em well before the sun has risen.  The price one pays for this early morning burst of energy is, unfortunately, a tendency to become comatose when everyone else is just warming up for cocktail hour.  In the case of MsCaroline and MrLogical, this tendency manifested itself on the deck of the beach house in the afternoons, and provided a certain amount of entertainment for the extended family (as well as a number of individuals in the FaceBook community):