Wednesday, October 31, 2012

This is Halloween. Sorta.

MsCaroline and MrLogical:  Halloween 2011.  

Halloween is once again, upon us, and MsCaroline admits to being something of a slacker this year.  Those who have been following this blog since its inception will notice immediately that the above photo is from last year's Halloween festivities:   MsCaroline admits that, yes, this is last year's Halloween photo.  However, MsCaroline is nothing if not a fan of recycling, and, if the truth be told, she doubts that she and MrL will ever come up with such good costumes again.  Ever.

So enjoy last year's photo.  MsCaroline may just make it an annual thing from now on.  Every year, she'll drag out the Halloween 2011 photo and relive her first Halloween in Seoul, -from the awkward subway ride right down to the eating of roasted silkworm larvae -and shake her head fondly over all her past shenanigans, while her readers go somewhere else.

Since this blog is - in theory at least - about expat life in Seoul, MsCaroline hastens to point out that Koreans do not really celebrate Halloween, although one sees signs of it here and there in the city, especially in the parts of the city where foreigners - especially Americans - are concentrated. One sees decorations, displays, and advertisements with a Halloween theme here and there, especially at US-based establishments like Baskin-Robbins and Dunkin' Donuts (yes, they have them in Seoul, really).  A number of bars and restaurants popular with foreigners decorate for Halloween, and Itaewon - the 'foreigner' neighborhood of Seoul - turns into one big Halloween party on the weekend closest to the actual date.  All the bars and dance clubs turn into one big Halloweeny extravaganza, it would seem, although MsCaroline - being a bit past the dance club part, at least - cannot give you any further details.

Outside a restaurant in Itaewon last weekend.  Skeleton balloons are always correct with either red or white wine. 
This year, Halloween somehow sneaked up on us without notice.  MsC and MrL were at a makgeoli bar restaurant with friends eating a convivial meal (there is no other kind of meal to eat when you have been drinking makgeoli (Korean rice wine) - trust me) when they noticed a larger-than-usual number of zombies and sexy kittens strolling by and realized, belatedly, that, it was indeed, Halloween.

As an aside -MsCaroline is not being judgmental or anything, but she feels that wearing your normal street clothes - in this instance, a minidress and very high heels - and slapping on a headband with some kitten ears on it at the last minute, is a very poor excuse for a costume and shows an astonishing lack of creativity.  But - as she said, she is not being judgmental.

The point is, MsCaroline has nothing much to say about Halloween this year, although she did discuss the finer points of an American Halloween with her students, who expressed skepticism when she explained that many Americans decorate their houses and yards for Halloween.  This forced MsCaroline to collect photos from her generous friends in the US to create a Power Point presentation to share with her students to prove to them she was telling the truth.  She is happy to report that they enjoyed it.  They also enjoyed the fact that she distributed (under the auspices of cultural authenticity) candy that looked like eyeballs and severed fingers, because they are disgusting, and when you are in elementary school, disgusting is a hot commodity.

In the meantime, MsCaroline is trying desperately to enjoy the waning days of Fall as she looks down the barrel of another Seoul winter and into the coming months of bitter cold, snow, wind, rain, and soggy public transport.

No, much too scary a note to close on.

Since MsCaroline is shamelessly recycling anyway, she will go ahead and leave you another recycled image from last year:

Happy Halloween.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Expat Life: Family Photos - Making The Cut

MsCaroline's maternal grandmother and her eldest uncle, ca. 1918.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to a friend's home for dinner.  It was a lovely evening - good food and wine, good conversation, and a breathtaking view of Seoul's sparkling evening cityscape. Like most expat homes in Seoul, S's villa was furnished by her landlord and appointed with a few things she'd brought with her from home, along with souvenirs she'd purchased in her travels around Seoul and the rest of Asia.  What interested me most of all was not the souvenirs - although I do admit coveting her 1800s-era map of Seoul - but the family photos.  Not many, mind you:  a few images of her family and friends; one of her daughter as a baby; and a photo of herself and her husband, young and in love and entirely pleased with each other and the life they were building together.

I've always enjoyed looking at photos anyway, but after I got home that night, I started thinking about the photos you see in expat homes, and how they differ from those you see when people are back in their own countries.  When you're overseas, the photos you have in your home seem to take on more meaning, somehow.
Family reunion and birthday celebration for MrL's mother on the occasion of her 70th birthday.

Not to say that photos don't mean a lot in the houses you visit back home.  But photos in an expat household take on more weight and more meaning, because most of us don't have many things from home with us to begin with.  That's understandable, of course:  most companies (ours included) put a limit on how much you can ship over, and one has to get ruthless in one's packing.

Naturally, a lot of us pick up objects de art once we arrive, which explains why the decor in all of our apartments here in Seoul looks vaguely familiar:  kimchi pots, wooden masks, Korean medicine chests. These items rub elbows with the generic landlord-provided furniture that you find in many expat apartments (not many of us bring furniture along, and those of us who do don't bring much), creating a predictable decor for most of us that I think of as 'Asian-Ikea-Hotel.'

For that reason, family photos seem to say a lot more over here simply because you see fewer of them.  Back home in the US, it's not unusual to see portrait-sized family photos hanging over fireplaces, galleries hanging on parlor walls and running up stairways.  And there are always (especially in the South) sterling-silver frames amassed on end tables, sideboards, nightstands, and bookshelves.  You can read family histories on people's walls and on their coffeetables.

It's a bit different if you're living in a foreign country, though.

No, not because we don't take photos (in fact, we probably take more than the average person, since everything is so unusual.)

And not because we don't love our families or want to display photos of our beautiful, brilliant, and marvelous children/nieces/grandchildren/friends.  Actually, we do.  But  expats have space and weight and packing limits that most people don't have to contend with.  So the images that do end up getting displayed - that 'make the cut,' so to speak - tend to be the really important ones.
Sons#1 and #2 with radiant bride, Auntie H.  
As an expat, even if you're lucky to have a generous moving allowance and weight limits (and that seems to be the exception rather than the rule), there's no guarantee that your photos will have anywhere to be.  You don't know how big or small your new home will be.  You don't know if your landlord will allow you to put hooks or nails in the wall. You may not have a nightstand or a sideboard for display purposes,and - even if you do - it may not be big enough to hold much.

So, you make your selections carefully.  You distill your life experiences, your family, and your friends into a few thoughtfully-chosen moments that you'll take along with you wherever you go.

You choose what's most important.  Who and what you most want to be reminded of.  The relationships and the experiences that define you and that remind you of what you care most about in the world.  The ones -when people do stop by - you can't wait to tell them about.
MrLogical and Korean cycling mates taking a breather.

The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is undeniably true.  But for expats,  the photos you see say even more than most.  These are not always professional photos;  they may be small and blurry and taken with camera phones. They may be taken in kitchens or in airports or in small back gardens, although - depending on the expat - you may glimpse more than one of the Seven Wonders of the World in the background.  From a professional standpoint, they may be lacking in color, composition, angle, and depth.

What they do all have in common is this:  they're too important, too precious, and too meaningful to be left behind.

They're the ones that make the cut.

Rare time with Mum back home last summer.  

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Meanwhile, Back in Canada: A Yellow Dog Update

The Yellow Dog, back home, lying on my book.  It's likely he drooled on it.

Long-time readers will remember that, before leaving for Seoul, the Asia Vu family made the difficult decision to leave their large, lovable, and marginally intelligent Yellow Dog behind in Canada in a foster arrangement with MsCaroline's kind, generous, thoughtful, and long-suffering Cousin S and her husband, G.

Just to be clear, when I say 'long-suffering,' I am not exaggerating in the least.  In this case, 'long-suffering' means  'having to make arrangements for the dog to have ACL surgery within a few months of his arrival and nursing him around the clock during his recuperation and then providing him with recuperative therapy as well as putting up with all of his skin allergies and personal idiosyncrasies."   So, you can see, it hasn't been a walk in the park for S&G, and likely for their own baby, the Brown Dog.

 While we know that the Yellow Dog is clearly in far better hands with his loving Canadian cousins (Cousin S cooks him breakfast every day) we all miss him terribly.  Fortunately, through the miracles of technology, we've been able to keep abreast of his doings.  Cousin S provides e-mail updates, frequent photos, and videos on a regular basis.  (And if you were wondering, yes, we have tried Skyping with him, but it was unsuccessful.  He just got very excited and looked around quizzically and barked a lot and had to be given a treat.)

So, when the first snow fell in Alberta recently, there was no question that Cousin S would record the Yellow Dog's first foray into it.  There is also no question that she would be sure to provide him with a jaunty red coat. ( I can't remember if she bought him boots or not, but I wouldn't put it past her.) 

We still miss the Yellow Dog, but if he can't be with us, we can't think of a better place for him to be than where he is right now.

And, to Cousins S&G:  Thanks.  Again, and again, and again.

The Yellow Dog and his cousin, the Brown Dog.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Grumpy Expat: How My Brain Works Sometimes

One of my favorite comics by the incomparable Oatmeal, whose observations are invariably spot-on.  This one's from a comic called, "If My Brain Were an Imaginary Friend,."  It's relevant to this post.  Really.

Today's topic, dear readers, is "The Expat Brain and How It Works. Sometimes."  We'll be investigating the daily realities of living in a foreign culture and how our brains perceive them.  Or, at least, how MsCaroline's brain has been perceiving them.

MsCaroline has moved enough - and is old enough - to know that no one, anywhere, has a perfect life.  If Keeping Up With The Kardashians has done nothing else for society, it has shown us that even the beautiful, the famous, and the über-wealthy have their crosses to bear.  The strings of pearls will get tangled during our photo shoot for Playboy. The new custom-ordered Bentley will not be ready for pickup when it was supposed to be.  Sex tapes will be released.  These people - they're just like you and me, putting on brave smiles even in the face of the most devastating crises.

With that in mind, MsCaroline did not expect to find her life in Seoul to be just one glamorous expat adventure after another.  She knew there would be down days, just like everyone has no matter where they live.  What she was not prepared for was the recent irrational reactions of her brain*** when these incidents took place, in which it (her brain I mean) repeatedly asserted something along the lines of "This is all crap, and if you were living back home, nothing like this would ever have happened."  

Anyone who has read any of MsCaroline's early posts when she was still in the US can see that that is a load of BS patently ridiculous, but try telling that to MsCaroline's subconcious brain structures, which delight in annoying her lately with unwanted - and completely improbable - commentary about how everything unpleasant that occurs is somehow directly related to her life as a guest in a foreign country.

Experts on expat living refer to this sort of reaction as the end of the 'honeymoon period.' According to them, when one first arrives in a new country, one's brain is bathed in endorphins and dazzled by the strange, exotic delights of living in a new culture.  Everything is seen through the lens of a besotted newcomer.  Life is glamorous, interesting, different, and new.

But after a few months, the glow begins to fade, and the expat finds that life in the fascinating new culture has the same ups and downs as it did in the last place - and sometimes, even more, leading on to subsequent stages of frustration and even rage.  This happened to MsCaroline (more or less) last Autumn, and -she assumed - that she had moved on to the acclimation stage, accepting her life in a new country and even beginning to put down some roots.  She was surprised, however, to discover that, for an expat, these feelings can resurface, even after quite a while.

"Oh, MsCaroline,"  you are saying, "Living in a foreign country is an adventure! You are living a life that many would love to experience!"

MsCaroline realizes this, and - when she is feeling more rational - agrees with you.  However, right now, as she mentioned, her brain is getting the best of her - even though she realizes its assertions are specious at best.  As evidence, she submits the following graphic organizer:

Unpleasant Incident
Normal Response
Irrational Expat Brain Response
Lost for an hour underground in the subway station looking for a nonexistent exit.  
This could happen to anyone and keep in mind if you’d studied more Korean you probably could have avoided it.
Korean is too hard and would it have killed them to put up a sign – just one sign – somewhere in English? This would have never happened back home.
Discover transportation card – recently loaded with more than KRW2,000,000 (about $20) suddenly will not work, with the line backing up behind her and no one available to help her sort it out in English. 
Sometimes magnetic strips on cards stop working, and if you’d studied more Korean, you could have explained yourself and gotten some help.
Back home I could DRIVE everywhere without fear of death and with certainty of easily finding ample parking and I did not NEED a stupid card to get on and off the bus every day on my way to work.
Umbrella turns inside out due to powerful winds and rain on the way to bus stop. Miserable huddling in rain at bus stop under broken umbrella ensues.
Your umbrella would have turned inside out just as easily back home in this sort of weather. 
Back home I could DRIVE to work and didn’t NEED to stand in the rain with a disabled umbrella for 10 minutes at a bus stop with no kiosk to protect me from the rain.  If my umbrella had turned inside out, I could have run quickly from my CAR to the building without getting soaked.
Message is left on apartment door stating ‘You Get Mail!’(Yes, it really said that) and apparently describes a package waiting for you.  A phone number is circled in red.  You call it and no one is available who speaks English to help you.
If you'd just learned more Korean, this would not have been a problem. Besides, the postal service in the US wasn’t exactly a paragon of efficiency, and you couldn’t always guarantee that you’d get someone who you could communicate with there, either.  Take the note to work and ask one of your Korean colleagues to help you. 
Back home, I would have been able to READ the damned note left by the post office BEFORE I called, before I went to the management office at my apartment building, and BEFORE I finally got a colleague to look at it and inform me that the package was for a Mr. Cho and had been sent to the wrong address. 
Unfortunate biting incident takes place during otherwise-idyllic reading of ‘The Little Engine That Could.” Perpetrator insists she was just pretending to be a ‘biting sort of animal’ which, of course, required biting.
Children bite each other sometimes.  It happens.
The children in my country never, EVER bite each other.  And anyway, I taught high school in my country, so they were past the biting stage.  All classroom interactions in my country were peaceful and enjoyable at all times.
“Super Margarita” ordered in Mexican restaurant turns out not to be a margarita at all, but instead a liter of tepid soju served in a margarita glass.
If you had read the menu more carefully, you’d have noticed that the ‘Super Margarita’ was in the section under the menu marked ‘Soju Cocktails’ so it’s your own fault.
Margaritas. are.not. made.from.soju.  This is an inviolable fact of nature understood by every rational being in the universe. This would never have happened back home.

As you can see, the ordinary slings and arrows of life, when viewed through a disgruntled expat lens, can sometimes be overwhelming, but MsCaroline is confident that she will prevail. She's said it before:  life in another country is not so different from life at home, but everything is a bit more complicated.

99% of the time, MsCaroline is grateful and thankful to be living here, having these fabulous experiences, and sharing this adventure with her family. Sometimes, though - you just miss home.  MsCaroline is not sure if this is a universal feeling, but she hopes that she is not the only expat who ever feels this way- even after 18 months of living somewhere.  She is looking forward to a speedy return to normal brain function and the vibrant renewal of appreciation of her good fortune in living in one of the most exciting cities in Asia.

***See? I told you the comic was relevant to this post.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Ask MsCaroline: Life in Seoul

("Ask MsCaroline" is an infrequent, semi-regular feature of the AsiaVu blog in which MsCaroline addresses issues and questions applying to the minutiae of daily life of a 40-something expat trailing spouse living in Seoul.  All opinions expressed are those of MsCaroline and do not necessarily reflect those of MrLogical, Sons#1 and #2, or their affiliates.)
Yes, loyal readers, MsCaroline is back, ready to share her knowledge, experience, and cautionary tales of expat life in Seoul with young and old.  MsCaroline would like to also point out that, after 18 months, she really felt that she was past the 'cautionary tale' stage, but apparently, she has a very slow learning curve, and is therefore still able to bring plenty of authentically wacky misadventure to the table.

Question:  I am fascinated and enraptured by the catchy hit, 'Gangnam Style,' sung by South Korean pop sensation 'Psy.'  My heart's desire would be to own a pair of socks with his likeness on them.  Is this possible?
Answer:  Have no fear, loyal fangirl! Your dream can, indeed, become reality! MsCaroline would like to assure you that you can buy any kind of sock nearly anywhere in Korea - in stores, at produce stands, and next to bus kiosks, as well as spread out on a tarpaulin on the pavement by the subway entrance, and even in vending machines (MsCaroline is not making this up:  she bought Son#2 a pair out of one just because she could.) As far as MsCaroline can tell, Koreans are passionate about socks, and an ample supply of them appears to be integral to the smooth running of the country.  You will find every color and style of sock you can imagine, emblazoned with every possible pattern, logo, emblem, cartoon, and image.  The sock epicenter of Seoul is probably  the Namdaemun Market, where sock aficionados such as yourself can indulge your every whim and desire in the sock arena, including your interest in Psy. 

Question:  I am meeting some friends for dinner.  We live in different parts of the city and are planning to meet somewhere near the restaurant where we're eating. Two people in our party are very new to Seoul and do not know their way around well.  Where do you suggest we meet? 
Answer:  Up until last weekend, MsCaroline would have said, "meet them at a nearby subway entrance."  The Seoul subway is fast, efficient, safe, and well-marked, and directions in Seoul are often based on the nearest subway entrance, eg:  "Go to X Station, leave from Exit 3, take a right, and walk 500 meters."  In the last 18 months, MsCaroline has confidently and successfully navigated all over the city, never once experiencing a problem with this method.  However, there is an exception to every rule, and, naturally, MsCaroline got to experience this one.  Although MsCaroline would still recommend meeting your friends at a subway station exit, she recommends that you establish an alternate exit as a meeting spot in advance.  Otherwise, you may end up getting to the subway station (as MsCaroline did) and discovering that, not only have you exited the train at one end of an enormous station (which you thought you knew pretty well but apparently didn't) that links up with the Airport Railroad, but that the exit you need seems to be at the opposite end of the station.  If you are like MsCaroline, though, you will not mind a bit of a walk and strike out for the exit, following the standard clearly-marked and numbered exit signs, confident in your understanding and knowledge of the Seoul subway system and your 18 months of experience in navigating it.  However, you should be prepared for the possibility that the exit no longer exists, even though it is still marked on every sign you see, and you won't realize it since you can't read the Korean signs that probably say in very small print, "There's no more station 6, even though we have it still marked all over the station." You will, therefore, wander endlessly through the labyrinthine subway station, calling your friends - who are also trying to find exit 6, only they are aboveground - and trying to figure out where the hell you are. You will exit the subway a number of times, only to find yourself in strange surroundings in the dark with no landmarks and - at least once - exit into a huge, empty construction site.   When you finally establish - through conversations with no less than 5 people with varying degrees of English speaking ability - that the exit you are looking for has been closed up and turned into a wall(unmarked in any way to show that it was ever even Exit 6), you will call your friends and agree to meet at another exit, only to (belatedly) discover that the exit you agreed upon is approximately a mile away.  This is unlikely to happen to you, but MsCaroline just wants you to know it is a possibility.  So be prepared.

Red circle=where MsCaroline started.  Red dashes=where MsCaroline went.  Black circle=Where exit 6 used to be but is no longer.  Blue circles:  points where MsCaroline exited the subway, trying (unsuccessfully) to strike out overland for the former Exit 6.  Blue dashes= MsCaroline's return trip. 

Question:  I would like to go out for Mexican food in Seoul.  I know you have lived in two states in the American Southwest and therefore have reason to know something about what constitutes good Mexican food.  Can you give me some tips on finding good Mexican food in Korea?
Answer:  First of all, MsCaroline is not a food snob.  She will eat almost anything -as evidenced by previous blog posts - and she understands that restaurants in Korea are serving a public with different palates and different expectations than her own, so her personal opinion may differ significantly from someone else's.  However, after spending 11 years in the American Southwest, MsCaroline has come to have certain basic expectations of Mexican cuisine which - she imagines - are shared by those of her fellow Americans who have had regular access to it, and she has found many Mexican restaurants in Seoul who also share those standards. As she has learned, however, there are also a number of restaurants who do not.  Due to circumstances beyond her control,  MsCaroline recently found herself in just such an establishment, consuming a meal that would most likely not have even been recognized as Mexican food by anyone living in the state of Texas.  Had she been alert and on her guard, she might have saved herself some trauma disappointment by observing some of the most obvious indicators much sooner, including:
  • The absence of salsa:  It should have been an enormous red flag to MsCaroline when chips and salsa did not appear at her table within a few minutes of sitting down.  Unfortunately, by the time she observed this glaring omission(because, of course, she was talking,) she had already ordered a drink (see below) and was committed.  The small plastic squirt bottle on the table did turn out to have a form of picante in it, but she did not realize this until she had choked her way through most of her meal anyway, so the point was moot.
  • Croutons and Italian dressing in the taco salad*:  If you do not understand what is wrong with this, MsCaroline thinks you probably would have found nothing wrong with this meal and do not need the information contained in this part of the blog post.
  • In the same vein, check carefully to see what the taco salad is served in.  MsCaroline bets you did not know that it is possible to serve a taco salad in a baked white flour tortilla (as opposed to the traditional corn variety.)  MsCaroline did not know this either.  MsCaroline is not saying that this is necessarily bad, but she does not consider this to be part of a legitimate taco salad. 
  • What kind of margaritas does the restaurant serve? This was a new concept for MsCaroline, who did not know that there could be a question about what constituted a margarita.  Oh, she knew there were different versions to which different flavors had been added, but she assumed that any beverage called a 'margarita' would be a variation on the time-honored combination of tequila and triple sec. As it turns out, this is not necessarily a foregone conclusion, at least not in Seoul.  All MsCaroline can say is, "order with caution," especially when one of your dinnermates suggests that you order something called the 'Super Margarita,' containing 1.3-liters of alcoholic beverage.  If you are not careful (and she was not) you will be served an enormous margarita glass full of pale-brown liquid in which about 6 feeble-looking ice cubes are floating (no limes, no salt) and which tastes like battery acid.  When you inquire what it is, the waitress will inform you that it is a margarita made out of soju, (which, in MsCaroline's book, is not a margarita but something else entirely and therefore false advertising) and that it is nonrefundable, which means you are committed to drinking it.  Due to its staggeringly high alcohol content,  you will gradually become reconciled to this violation of the laws of both God and man, but you will vow never again to order a margarita in Seoul without first ascertaining that it contains tequila.

*MsCaroline has eaten a lot of taco salads in her day and can say with some authority that croutons do not belong in them.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Blogging: The Seamy Underbelly

As some readers know, I am fairly new to the blogging world, having only started blogging in April 2011.  Mind you, I'd been reading blogs for years, so when we learned that we were moving to Korea, one of my first thoughts was, Hey, this would be a good excuse to start blogging.  I'll finally have something interesting to write about. 

Of course, as most of you know, my fact-based expat living blog quickly devolved into a protracted whine about the weather and packing for overseas moves and tiny kitchen appliances, but the point is, I've stuck with it, and that's something, right?

Along the way, I've learned quite a bit more about blogging.  For example, even though I never had any intention of being a 'professional' blogger, I have discovered the thrill that comes from knowing that complete strangers are reading your words and - sometimes - enjoying them enough to come back and read more - sometimes often enough that you consider them to be friends and really look forward to meeting them in the flesh (you know who you are).  I've learned that comments are like gold, because even when your blog counter tells you that a couple hundred people have looked at your blog in the last 24 hours, that doesn't necessarily mean they actually read your post. And of course, there's always the possibility that most of the people visiting landed there by mistake and immediately clicked back to their Google Search results. Comments give you a sense that you're not just shooting in the dark, so to speak.

Of course, as I've mentioned in previous posts, I've also learned about spambots ("Buy Uggs at wholesale prices!" "Enhance your love life!" "Order Xanax from India!"), and memes, and tagging, and blogger's block, and the sharp and painful realization that your photography skills are really very bad.

Somewhere along the line, I also stumbled across a nifty little gadget which runs down the side of your blog and tells you - among other things - where your readers are located.  So I can tell when someone in New Zealand or Egypt or Chicago has seen my blog.  And that's actually been kind of an unexpected thrill in itself.

Another aspect of blogging that I had no idea about  was the fact that bloggers can look at their statistics.  You can see how many people are reading your blog on a daily basis, how many views each of your blog posts gets, and even look at nifty graphs that tell you whether your readership is going up or down or staying about the same. What's most interesting to me, though, is a feature in the 'stats' section that tells you what types of search keywords people type that lead them to your blog.  In my case, for example, a lot of people type words like:
  • Seoul
  • kimchi
  • Asia
  • expat 
and, of course, the ever-popular "bluebonnet."

However... sometimes, you see a string of keywords that cause you to really question what exactly you are doing as a blogger, and - more importantly - who exactly is coming to your blog, and why.  These keywords cause you to comb through your posts, looking for dubious undertones you might have missed, and wondering how in the world the search engines ever could have associated your genial family-friendly* blog with a phrase of such a disturbing nature.

Up until now, I've seen some weird ones, like, "international surgery cheap" (which brought the reader to my post on a local international clinic.) Or, "Seoul for children in winter" (probably the post in which I despaired of my children ever wearing winter coats.)  And of course, we can't forget the ever-popular pxnis fish  post (compliments of MrLogical) that continues to get dozens of hits daily (I'll leave the types of keyword searches that people use to your imagination, thanks.)

Today's search query, however, really did take the cake.  Leading to a perfectly innocent discussion of the laundry arrangements in our temporary accommodation when we first moved to Seoul, was this gem:

 "female prostitute inside a garbage bag"

Yeah, I had that same reaction, except - since it was my blog- even more intense.

I'm not sure what was more disturbing:  the fact that someone is out there typing this sort of search query, or that the search engines have a reason to direct them to my blog.

In the meantime, maybe I should just stick to writing about bluebonnets.  It was working for me.


Monday, October 15, 2012

Expat Life: What Do Farmers Do?

Black pigs of Jeju Island.  They are largely unrelated to this post.  

Teaching a foreign language always has its amusing moments. I've been teaching (off and on, with breaks for child-rearing) for around 20 years now, and have enjoyed some of my very best belly laughs   as the result of entirely innocent comments made by my students during the course of instruction.  Today's laugh, however, was one of those reminders that living in another country affects everything - even those classroom bon mots. (Note:  you will probably really only find this funny if you've lived in Korea, but it's a great illustration of how even a straightforward discussion about farmers is not as simple as it sounds when you are dealing with a group of kids from various international backgrounds.)

Scene:  4th grade class of English-learners in an international school in Seoul.  Topic of discussion is community helpers - specifically, farmers.

MsCaroline:  So, how do farmers help us?
Various students:  They grow vegetables! They grow rice! They grow corn!
MsCaroline:  That's right.  And some farmers also raise animals that give us food.  For example, some farmers raise cows.  Cows give us...(expectant pause while kids think)
Students (in chorus):  Milk!
MsCaroline:  Yes, and some farmers raise chickens, who give us...(pause)
Students: (in chorus):  Eggs!
MsCaroline:  That's right! Chickens lay eggs!(getting ready to up the ante with some higher-order thinking skills and congratulating herself on her pedagogical technique) Now, there are also some farmers who raise pigs.  What do we get from pigs?
Student: Samgyeopsal!**


** Samgyeopsal (삼겹살; Korean pronunciation: [samɡjʌp̚sal]) is a popular Korean dish. Commonly served as an evening meal, it consists of thick, fatty slices of pork bellymeat (similar to uncured bacon).

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Expat Life: The Great Coffee Crisis of 2012

The  Keurig.  If you do not have one, you should.  
(Note:  Today's 'Silent Sunday' post has been superseded by a matter of utmost urgency.  Regular service will resume next Sunday.  Unless we still haven't gotten our coffee. - ed.)

Back in January, when I was suffering through my first real winter in 11 years, I mentioned in this post that we'd bought ourselves a Keurig coffeemaker and had fallen head over heels in love with it.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Keurig system, it's more or less a coffee maker that brews you a cup of coffee - quickly - whenever you want it. The coffee is packaged in these little pre-measured containers called 'K-cups:' you pop one into your machine, press a button, and the machine brews you a fresh cup of coffee in seconds.  It is a Beautiful Thing.

Our absolute favorite crack coffee via

Unlike regular coffeemakers, there's no measuring, no spilling coffee grounds, no filters, no waiting for the pot to brew - you get the idea.  After using one at my friend T's house back in the US in January, I flew back to Korea determined to get one of my own and begin living the good life.

Now, you should know that the Keurig is not yet sold in Korea, which means that  -obviously - the K-cups are not sold there, either.  We were, of course, aware of this, but it did not overly concern us, because one of the perks of MrL's job is that we have the privilege of accessing the US military base here in Seoul (although MrL is not in the military) and the US military retail arm understands that a ready supply of coffee is vital to their mission. We knew that the PX carried K-cups, and, secure in this knowledge, we confidently moved forward with our purchase.

For the first six months or so, things went swimmingly.  MrL and I, in the honeymoon period with our new machine, enjoyed trying the variety of coffees available to us.  Eventually, though, we settled on our favorite:  Starbuck's brand Sumatra dark.  (Readers should know that MrL and MsCaroline like their coffee to be serious:  strong, dark, bold, and just a few chemical changes away from being a solid.) This coffee was so serious, that the other brands fell more or less by the wayside.  Our relationship became exclusive.

And then, the first signs of trouble appeared:  one day, MsCaroline stopped in to pick up her weekly box, only to find an empty space on the shelf.  Reasoning that she'd gotten there the day before the next shipment arrived, she returned a few days later, only to find more empty space.  On her next trip, though, the shelves had been restocked, and she picked up her week's supply, slightly shaky with relief.

But the ordeal - far from being over - was, in reality, just beginning.  As the weeks went by, a distressing pattern of empty shelves (only where the Sumatra Dark belonged,naturally) began to emerge, and MsCaroline and MrL found themselves increasingly short-tempered and bitter with one another in the morning as they were forced to greet the day more often than not drinking lesser coffees.  Weeks would go by when the supply would be ample, and all would be sunshine.  Then - for no apparent reason - the coffee would disappear and simply not be restocked.

After several months of this roller-coaster coffee situation, MsCaroline finally sat down and did what she should have done months ago:  she ordered a case of Sumatra Dark from, looking forward to peace and harmony in her household and a future of excellent coffee.

Naturally, as soon as MsCaroline did this, the PX sorted out whatever the supply glitch had been and began to regularly and consistently stock its shelves with Sumatra Dark.  The Amazon order (which we expected to take several weeks anyway) slid out of consciousness and into the murk in the back of MsCaroline's mind.

Months went by, and, as astute readers will have guessed - the day came when MsCaroline was, once again, confronted with an empty shelf.  Immediately, she remembered the missing case of Sumatra Dark, and was shocked to realize 2 months had passed without a sign of it.

Panicked and righteously indignant, she drove home and sat down in front of the laptop to try and find her missing box.

Amazon claimed it had been delivered less than two weeks after ordering.

But to whom?

After casting quite a few unjust aspersions on Amazon's integrity (sorry Amazon, can we still be friends?)  MsCaroline discovered that the whole situation was entirely her own fault.  She had blithely sent the case of coffee to her US address (no doubt puzzling the tenants presently living there) instead of the one in Korea.  After a series of international emails/phone calls/Instant Messages, MsCaroline eventually tracked down the case of coffee (the tenants did have it) and made a number of arrangements of Byzantine complexity to ensure the eventual safe delivery of the coffee to her apartment in Korea, some of which involved:

  • e-mail to renters, asking if package had been delivered to them and asking, if so, would they mind giving the box to family friends 2 doors down.
  • email to family friends 2 doors down(Thanks, M!) asking if they would mind holding the box and passing it on to Son#1, who is at Uni nearby and would soon swing by to pick it up.
  • IM to Son#1 at University, asking him to contact family friends to arrange pickup time, go pick up the coffee, and mail it the fastest way possible to us in Korea.
So, at the moment, MrL and I are sitting here, drinking insipid coffee and wondering if our son the University Student has jumped up out of bed extra early on a Saturday morning to pick up the case of coffee and rush it to the post office.

We can only hope.  

Friday, October 12, 2012

Chuseok in Taean: A (Proper) Review

On the deck of the pension.  Photo compliments of Son#2

In my last post, I shared a few life lessons learned during our recent trip to Taean during the Chuseok holiday, promising to follow up soon with a proper review about the area and our stay there (as opposed to musing about crowded train stations and why an otherwise rational middle-aged woman would eat raw cuttlefish.)  So, without further ado - our trip to Taean.

As I said, the AsiaVu family had decided to take advantage of an invitation from friends to join them for the holiday at a western beach - Taean - in a province called Chungcheongdo, about a 3 hours' drive southwest of Seoul.  The 8 of us left very early on Saturday morning from varying points of departure and made the drive with varying degrees of trauma.  The drive down to Taean was scenic and rural - a pleasure for those of us who are used to the endless skyscrapers and crowded streets of Seoul.

Open space and rice paddies galore on the trip west.

Our ultimate goal was the beach in Taean, but we initially ended up overshooting our destination slightly because someone didn't program the GPS correctly and landed on the beach at a scenic overview in the nearby Taeanhean National Park, which consists mostly of high pine ridges overlooking a gloriously wild and rocky coastline:
View from one of the scenic overlook pagodas at Taeanhaean National Park

MrLogical, MsCaroline, and LKT, enjoying an unexpected stop in TaeanHaean National Park. And yes, it was colder than I'd thought it would be. Thank God I brought that fleece at the last minute.

A little reprogramming of the GPS took us 30 minutes south and we arrived at our destination no worse for the wear.  Our gracious friend M, who speaks Korean, had planned the weekend and arranged lodging for us in a pension.  (As in Europe, these are usually a sort of inexpensive guesthouse or boarding house, more homey than a hotel.) Having not ever stayed in a Korean pension, we weren't quite sure what to expect, but ended up being very pleasantly surprised.  In our case, the pension in question -Pension Blue Lagoon (note: this site loads best in Explorer - doesn't seem to like my Google Chrome) was a series of detached houses on a ridge overlooking the the Yellow Sea.

Decks overlooking the sea.

Morning coffee on the deck.  Yeah, it was that gorgeous.

Most of the houses were divided into one or more apartments, each of which contained a small kitchen with cooking equipment (as in most traditional Korean establishments, this means a stovetop and a rice cooker but no oven for baking), refrigerator, sink, and basic dishes and cutlery.  Our unit contained a large washer/dryer and also a fireplace, although we did not use it. Most of the units we could see had, like ours, sliding doors with a view of the ocean, a large outside deck with picnic tables, and a grill.
Our unit included a bedroom with a western-style bed, but also included a closetfull of yos- traditional Korean sleeping mats - as well as blankets and pillows.

Sliding doors on the deck of the pension.  As in every good Korean establishment, indoor sandals are provided.

In addition to the basic accommodations, this pension also boasted a 3-story building on the property that we initially thought was just a cafe', but which turned out to be more of a clubhouse, containing decks overlooking the beach, a cafe (only operational in the summer months, but open for guests to sit in and enjoy at all times), a rooftop swimming pool (we didn't use this, as it was too cold, but it looked gorgeous) and two noraebang; private karaoke rooms which could be rented out by the hour.
The pension cafe' with rooftop pool.  The name took me a bit aback at first, but I decided later that the name referred to Johnathan Swift's Laputa, rather than the Spanish translation of 'La Puta' - which was initially the source of some immature snickering.  

Once we had all arrived and gotten more or less unpacked, it was time to start thinking about what we were going to do, and there were plenty of options:  hiking, cycling, beachcombing and fishing (although we didn't fish) were probably the most popular options.  T, a member of our party, brought his sea kayak as well.

The pension is located right near several hiking trails of varying lengths and difficulty:

Which led up onto steep forested ridges overlooking the ocean:

  You could see down through the trees to the beaches below:

The beaches in this part of Korea are more like those you would find the far northeast of the US or - I imagine - the Northwest:  flanked by evergreen-covered mountains and much rockier than the flat sandy dunes of your typical beach in the southeastern US:

Which didn't stop anyone from enjoying them:

We all hiked the trails and walked the beaches.

One of the members of our party had brought a kayak, and thoroughly enjoyed using it, although the rest of us were not quite intrepid enough to brave the brisk fall winds.

Beachcombing was a popular activity:

One of many, many crabs we ran across on our beach walks.  

Korea's coastline is dotted with numerous small, rocky islands, only a few of which are inhabited.  There was one right near the pension.  If it hadn't been quite so chilly, I would have loved to try and swim out to explore it:

Because we were there during Chuseok, the place was fairly quiet, but there was a small grocery store down the road, and M (who had been there before) said that there were several good restaurants nearby - specializing in seafood, of course.  We had brought our own food, planning group meals in advance and showing up with enough to feed an army. The meals we prepared were quite international in nature, including not only traditional Korean bbq, (compliments of M) -grilled on our deck overlooking the sea, but also Louisiana gumbo, lovingly prepared at home and carefully transported all the way to Taean in a cooler.  I suspect that this was the first and only time that gumbo had been served at Pension Blue Lagoon - but what can I say? My mother-in-law's gumbo has been served pretty much all over the world:  why not at a beach house in Korea? Breakfast included made-to-order omelettes prepared by chef K and her sous chef, B, and yes - we were spoiled.  All of this simply goes to show what can be accomplished in a kitchen with 1 sink, 4 burners, and not much counter space.

The evenings were gorgeous, with delicious sunsets that could be enjoyed from our deck:

Not to mention the delights that awaited us in the noraebang (private Korean karaoke room), which I mentioned in my last post.  The beauty of the noraebang, as I see it, is that, because it's private, only your friends hear you singing, as opposed to an entire bar full of people as is the case in a karaoke bar.  Miraculously, none of the people who heard me sing have unfriended me on FaceBook, which says a lot either for 1) their level of compassion or 2) the amount of alcohol that was consumed.

As a final note, I absolutely cannot miss giving enormous kudos to Son#2, who was the only person there under the age of 40, yet took the weekend in stride, was a pleasant travel companion, and cheerfully put up with antics of seven adults above and beyond the call of duty.  He also served as our ad hoc photographer, and is responsible for many of the photographs in this post and the last.  If you have ever had a teenager, you will understand why I am even bothering to mention it.

Well done, Son#2.

We loved Pension Blue Lagoon and would highly recommend it.  It is about a 3 hour-drive southwest of Seoul in Taean, Chungcheongdo Province.  The website is in Korean, but the telephone number is listed on the site and the property manager speaks English.  You can find the street address on TripAdvisor by searching for 'Pension Bluelagoon (Taean). 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Chuseok in Taean: Life Lessons Learned

Gorgeous beach near our pension in Taean

At the moment, the AsiaVu family is slowly returning to normal after some much-needed time off.  Last weekend (Saturday through Monday) was the enormous annual mid-Autumn lunar festival of Chuseok, which is a sort of Korean Thanksgiving ( but imbued with all of the retail frenzy and media hype that surrounds Christmas in the US.) This year, Chuseok happened to fall very close to Korea's National Foundation Day, which meant a 5-day weekend for many people.  In our case, it is also Fall Break week at the schools Son#2 and I are associated with.  What this means is that the AsiaVu family joined in with about 40 million(ish) others in traveling during the holiday weekend.

In our case, we joined some friends on a trip to Korea's west coast, a beach area known as Taean,  staying in a pension (same concept as in Europe - an inexpensive guesthouse, usually privately owned.) It was an absolutely lovely weekend in every way - good friends, excellent food, gorgeous surroundings - and we are absolutely indebted to our friend, M, for making all the arrangements for us.

MsCaroline has every intention of posting a proper trip review with information and photos, but until she sorts through all 1000+ photos and finishes unpacking and yes she knows it's been nearly a week since she got back gets herself organized, she will simply share a few life lessons learned during her trip to Taean:

  • If you are traveling by car on Chuseok, the difference between leaving 4:30am and 5:00am is huge.  
  • If you are planning on traveling by train on Chuseok, always buy your ticket well in advance.  Otherwise, you will have to stand in a line that looks like the one below and most likely end up standing for the entire duration of your train trip.  (Note:  MsCaroline, whose tickets were purchased 3 weeks in advance, did not have to stand in this line, for which she was deeply grateful:  but let this be a lesson to you.)
Yongsan station, Friday before Chuseok;  the line starts under the green-and-yellow sign on the right and continues out of the photo to your left.  
  • If you are traveling to the Southwest coast of Korea in September, no matter how warm it is in Seoul, do not succumb to the temptation of wearing capri pants and flip flops, or you will end up regretting it.  Do, however, dig out your fleece jacket (unworn since last April) at the last minute "just in case."  You will end up wearing it all weekend.  It will not, however, compensate for the flip-flops, and you will be cold until you get to the pension and have a chance to put on jeans and some socks and shoes, which you will congratulate yourself for thinking to pack.  

Not shown:  MsCaroline's freezing ankles and feet in capris and flip-flops during unplanned stop at Taeanhaean National Park.
  • Always insist on accurate directions when using the GPS.  Otherwise, you will discover that your husband the driver has simply programmed in directions to a nearby national park and expected to find the pension by magic.  Oh, you'll get to see some pretty spectacular scenery that you may otherwise have missed, but if you are freezing to death due to having worn capris and flip flops (see above,) you will not be impressed.
Gorgeous - if unplanned - view of TaeanHaean National Park
  • Do not try exotic new foods when you have had a few drinks, especially in a country whose idea of cuisine differs significantly from your own.  Your normal instincts of self-preservation will be weak and dulled, and when someone offers you raw cuttlefish, you will decide it's a grand idea and put your chopsticks into action before your brain engages.  (As I have said before, coming from a country whose idea of new and enlightened cuisine includes the deep-fried Twinkie, I am no food critic.  But, as a rule, with the exception of some sushi, I prefer to eat my food cooked, especially food that is in the squid family, which requires an extreme amount of chewing before you can swallow it, thus giving you ample time to regret your decision.)  Long-time readers will recall that a similar event took place last year at Halloween when MsCaroline decided that roasted silkworm larvae sounded like a fabulous idea.  Clearly, she is a slow learner.
  • In the same cautionary vein, after those drinks, do not sing in a noraebang (Korean karaoke room) when one of the attendees is your 15-year-old son, who is in possession of a camera with video capability.  It will be bad enough when you discover that he has taken pictures of you getting your groove on to 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road;'  it will be even worse when you learn that he has video footage of the entire thing and that he has no intention of erasing it anytime soon.  
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
  • No matter how charming and romantic it seems for you and your spouse to spend the night 'camping out' out on the deck of your pension under the Chuseok full moon with the roar of the ocean and the sighs of the evergreens in your ears, always check the weather forecast first.  Extremely low temperatures and unexpectedly high wind velocity can turn what seemed like a fabulous idea into a night of great discomfort.  Furthermore, you will be reluctant to wake everyone else in the house up by dragging yourselves and your bedding into the house in the middle of the night, so you will just huddle together for warmth and deeply regret your rash decision in another one of those shared experiences that have so enriched 21 years of marriage.  (You will also regret having fed the pension's semi-feral resident cat all of those little tidbits of meat earlier in the evening, because you are positive you he is lurking somewhere around the deck, waiting to leap on your face if you go to sleep.)
  • A few poor decisions on your part and life lessons learned simply enhanced a wonderful holiday.  You'll be back.
View from the deck of our pension in Taean.  And yes, it was that gorgeous.