Monday, December 24, 2012

Expat Life: The University Flight

International arrivals area at Incheon, via

Waiting at the International Arrivals area at Incheon International Airport is a little bit like waiting for the beginning of a theater production:  the air of anticipation, the low murmur of the crowd, the (slightly irritated) re-adjustments as more people take their places in the audience.

Even the arrangement of the space is a bit like being in a theater: a wall of frosted 'no entrance' double doors is the backdrop, with cordoned-off empty area as the 'stage' in front of it.  On each side of the 'stage' are uniformed airport employees - crew and tech - whose job it is to make sure the whole deplaning production goes smoothly.

When you are the one arriving, it can be a bit intimidating, pushing through those doors to see a throng of people staring intently at you as you emerge, wrinkled and exhausted after 20-odd hours in the air, the rush to deplane, and what seems like endless queuing at Immigration, the baggage claim, and customs.

For the onlookers, it's very exciting, watching as one blurred figure after another approaches the frosted glass, and pushes the door open as you wonder if this time it will be your loved one.  You crane your neck, and stand on tiptoe, trying to see the figures behind the passenger who just emerged:  there's a blonde head at the back - maybe that's him? -the door swings shut again.

When we arrived last Friday to collect Son#1 from the flight that would deliver him to us for his winter break from his university in the US, it was more crowded than usual.  A slushy snow was falling, and - for reasons known only to themselves - the Powers That Be had decided to resurface parts of the Parking Garage, which just added to the general sense of pandemonium.

By the time we emerged into the Arrivals hall, an enormous crowd had gathered outside of the doors, thrumming with excitement.  We found ourselves standing well to the back, waiting for the flashing landed next to Son#1's flight number to change to arrived.  

We recognized two other families from the International School who were also there collecting college students, and I thought, What a nice coincidence.  25 million people in Seoul, dozens of flights to and from the USA, and we find ourselves here with not one, but two other families we know!  We chatted about where and what our kids were studying, how long they were staying, what our plans for the long Christmas break were - all while keeping one eye on the board.

After what seemed like ages, the doors opened; the crowd tensed as they revealed a couple of flight attendants, their scarves and hats still amazingly perky after 13 or more hours in the air.  The crowd slumped back down again, but the volume increased.  The door opened again - and this time, it was a passenger:  a young man, wearing a hooded university sweatshirt under his jacket, a backpack slung over one shoulder, earbuds hanging from the iPod in his pocket.  He peered at the crowd, apparently taken aback at its size, making his way toward the exit, where a middle-aged couple and a younger sister were waiting, wreathed in smiles.

The door opened again:  two girls - late teens or early twenties:  hoodies, backpacks, Uggs, long straight hair, heading for two more middle-aged couples.  More siblings.

Now they were coming thick and fast:  the doors barely had time to close behind one passenger before the next one emerged.  And then I realized something:  most of them - not all - were in their late teens or early twenties; very few older people;  very few babies and children;  just a parade of young people - happy, relieved, a little proud, apparently none the worse for their long-haul flights.

I don't know how long it took me to actually get what was going on;  all the young people - just like my son. All the US university sweatshirts.  All the middle-aged couples with a younger teen or two in tow.

The last Friday before Christmas, one of the last flights coming in from the US before the weekend began.

All those kids. All those backpacks.  All those sweatshirts. All those loving, expectant faces.

It was the university flight.  Not officially, of course.  But that's what it was, nonetheless.

I know that loving reunions at airports aren't unique to Seoul and the expat community.  I have plenty of friends with children attending college out of state - a plane flight away.  They haven't seen their kids for months, either.  Their kids are a plane ride away, too.

But maybe not 20 hours in flight and a 6-hour layover away.

Not in another country.

Not 14 hours' time difference.

For expat parents, it's a little more poignant.  A little more emotional.  A little more exciting.

And so, we were all there together, hundreds of us, waiting for that university flight:  the grinning, backslapping Dads, the teary, no-I'm-not-going-to-cry-but-I-could-so-easily Mums, the secretly awed younger siblings pretending not to be too excited.

The same scene that is played out all over the world, but with a twist for expat students and their families.  Not just a return to home and family, but a return to a different country and a different culture.

We greeted each other quickly and then, with all the other families, made a rapid exit to the car, fighting our way through the dark, cold evening, the slush, the chaos, the parking attendants and their orange-glowing light wands.

Leaving the parking lot, we pulled up to the booth to pay our parking fee, handed in the ticket, waited to see the display, handed over the money.  The attendant gave us our change with a small bow and a gentle, singsong, Kam sa hamnida.(Thank you.)

As MrL rolled up the window and pulled out onto the highway, Son#1 remarked, "I've missed that."

I'm sure he has.  And I'm sure that, in car after car leaving Incheon that night, there were hundreds of college kids saying the same thing.

And hundreds of parents - like us - who were deeply grateful to be hearing it.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

American Expats and Gun Violence : How Does The World See Us?

When I started off the school year in August with my new 4th-grade English learners, I asked them if any of them had ever been to an English-speaking country: England, maybe? Australia? Or had any of them, perhaps, been to my home country - America?

A hand went up:

"My mummy says we can't visit America because it's too dangerous."

Me: (stunned)  Too dangerous?
Student:  Yes.  People shoot each other there all the time because everyone has a gun.
A few classmates:  (nodding vigorously) 'My mummy, too!'
Me:(still stunned).......
Student:  Weren't you afraid to live there?
Me:  (trying to recover and babbling):  Well, no.  I mean, I never lived anywhere dangerous.  I mean, there are probably dangerous places in every country.  And I don't have a gun. Lots of people don't have guns.
Student (skeptically):  Really? My mummy says that people shoot each other all the time in America.
Me:  (rallying slightly)  Well, I have lived there for many years and it has never happened to me or anyone I know.  So..who's been to New Zealand?

That little exchange...well, it gave me a new insight into how much of the world really sees me and my fellow Americans, one that I've been mulling over for the last few months, and which yesterday's events in Newtown, Connecticut, have put in a new light.

 I can't speak for all Americans, of course, but when I woke up yesterday morning (Korea time) and discovered that yet another armed gunman had committed yet another mass murder - this time of 6-and 7-year-olds and their teachers - I was in a state of shock.  Shock as a parent; shock as a teacher; and shock as an American.  I read article after article, and watched video after video, listening to voices that could have belonged to my family members, my friends, my neighbors - or even me.  And it was me.  It was my country, my people, my culture.

I know that Americans don't have a great international reputation these days.  I know that there are many countries with reason to dislike us.  I love my country, but I get that we have lots to work on.  I know all this, but I was still shocked to learn that there are people in the world - educated, sophisticated, well-traveled European and Asian expats whose children go to my school - who feel about my country the way I feel about Rwanda or Syria:  it's probably a lovely place, but based on what I know, it's  too dangerous for my family to visit.  

I can tell you, most of us who live in America don't think of it this way.  And yet - this is what the world sees and thinks about us.  About me.

Living in a foreign country - incidentally, one with one of the lowest rates of gun violence in the developed world -I'm wondering today as I go about my business what people are thinking about me - the American.  Me and the 'dangerous' 'violent' country I come from, where schools have to have lockdown procedures and metal detectors. Where people are gunned down at movie theaters, malls,  - and elementary schools.  Will they feel sorry for me?  Wonder how I can stand to live somewhere so dangerous? Whether I worry about my children? Wonder if I'm a violent person myself? Whether I own guns?

I'm actually relieved that the international school where I teach has already broken up for Christmas so I don't have to engage in any of the discussions in the teacher's room that would have been sure to have ensued.  My co-workers, who are all from European countries with strict gun laws, would likely express sympathy and shock, as have people from all over the world.  Of course, something like this could happen anywhere, they would all agree, and their hearts - like mine - would be breaking over the senseless loss of life.  But the unspoken (or maybe, spoken) comment would also be there:   why does it happen so often in America - and why don't you people do something about it? Would there be secret pity that I come from a country where my chances of dying from gun violence are approximately 15 times as great at theirs? Would there be morbid curiosity about what it is like to come from such a dangerous and violent place? Would they wonder why our 'world-class' healthcare system can't seem to provide adequate mental health care services for people who are suffering? Would they look at me differently, wondering how I'd been brought up, what I'd been taught in school, what my beliefs and philosophies must be if I come from a place that is so violent - and which, even now, rings with voices saying that the answer to this problem is more guns? Would they be asking me to explain all of that - as well as Aurora and Milwaukee and Columbine  and now - Sandy Hook?

I hope not.  Because I wouldn't be able to.

I look at my country and its people, and I think about the millions of well-meaning, warmhearted, go-the-extra-mile citizens that you find virtually everywhere in America, and I think, 'how can this be?' We Americans are enthusiastic to a fault; we are optimistic, we are energetic; we see a need, and we fill it.  And if there's not a way, we make it.  We hug strangers in times of grief (yes, we're a huggy country,) we chat on elevators, we open doors for each other, we hold fundraisers and walk-a-thons and food drives. We are soft-hearted; many of us are deeply religious; we are fiercely patriotic. We love animals, small children, and our hometown heroes. We bring cookies to new neighbors, lend cups of sugar, feed each others' cats when we go out of town.  We shovel our neighbor's sidewalk when it snows.  We fight for the underdog.  Yes, we're occasionally like a big, enthusiastic, barking Labrador puppy in the china shop of the Global Village:  we don't always get that the rest of the world sometimes rolls their eyes at us and our Good Intentions.  We are well-meaning, even if we don't always see the whole picture.  We think our brand of freedom is worth fighting and dying for - and we do it.  We believe in education, in awareness, in fixing things when they're broken. When our laundry is dirty, we still put it out there for the world to see, and we try to learn from our mistakes.  We believe that all it takes is one person with a message to start a wave of change- and we do it. We believe that ordinary people - people without power or money - have voices, too, and we have a system of government which - though imperfect - allows people to raise those voices.  We are people of great love and incredible compassion.

And we kill each other with guns.

We have a mental health care system that is broken.

We can't agree on how to fix things.

And people - beautiful little children and their dedicated teachers -are dying.

If there's one thing that I've tried to remember as an expat, it's this:  I may be the only American that this person ever meets. I do my best to be a good ambassador. I try to remember that the world is full of people whose ideas about America and Americans are based entirely on what they read or see on the news - not on relationships with any of us.

Today, I'll try to be kinder, more polite, more patient.  I'll work on being a better ambassador.  I'll do what I can to dispel the picture the world has of America and its people as violent and angry and gun-loving. But I can't do anything to change what people hear in the news, read in the papers, watch on TV.  I can't do much to change their image of my country as a dangerous, violent place where children are not safe in their schools and people are gunned down in shopping malls.

I can't change it until America changes.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Song for (an expat's) Winter Night

Getting ready for Christmas on the 14th floor in an Asian metropolis.  Not bad:  just different.

(Warning:  This is not one of MsCaroline's more lighthearted posts.  In fact, it's probably a bit of a downer.  But you might as well know that expat life is not always a bed of roses.  You've been warned.)

One of the things I've tried to avoid in my blog is whining too much about being homesick.  (Regular readers will note that MsC has no such scruples about whining about anything and everything else, but she really does try to avoid the 'I'm homesick' refrain.)

In fact, while my family and I do occasionally get homesick, most of the time, we're going about our everyday lives and not giving too much thought to the fact that we are thousands of miles away from our families. Really not much different from our situation in the US, where we almost always lived no closer than a day's drive or a 4-hour airplane journey.  Nothing new, technically speaking.

In addition, I have to say, since MrLogical and I made the decision to move to Seoul with wide-open eyes and an intimate understanding of the pros and cons of expat life,I'm in no position to be sniveling about being homesick.  When fleeting twinges of homesickness hit me, I usually just channel my inner New Englander, stiffen my upper lip, and get on with whatever I'm doing.  No point in feeling sorry for yourself when you're the one who decided to move halfway across the world, right? Right.

The holidays, however - as you can all imagine - are a little different, and I occasionally find myself getting sentimental.  I tend to wallow in music, books, and films that conjure up so many memories of Christmas Past and People Loved that it's almost impossible to make it through December without experiencing at least one crack in my 'expat realist' veneer.

Today was that sort of day.

It's my day off, and I've spent it in the most Christmas-y way:  wrapping presents, baking cookies, and listening to seasonal music on Spotify.  I had just finished up my 4th batch of reindeer cookies (yes, I'm one of those people) when I stopped what I was doing and listened - really listened - to the lyrics of 'Song for a Winter's Night' that Sara Mclachlan was crooning in the background of the sunny apartment:

If I could only have you near
To breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
Upon this winter night with you.*

Granted, it wasn't a 'winter night' (although by the time you read this, it may be): but the sentiment was the same: having you near would be enough for me.

That's all.  Just your presence.  We wouldn't even have to talk.  We could just be in the same room, or - for that matter - in the same house, or even the same town.  I would know that you were nearby, and that I could reach out. And, if I wanted to, I could hold your hand.

And that's what we expats can't have.  It's what we miss.  The casual daily contact, the dropping-in, the 'I'm just down the road,' the 'running-into-you-in-the-grocery-store.'  Holding hands.

We can call, we can Skype, we can email, we can IM.  In fact, technology sometimes fools us into thinking that we aren't really that far away, that the distance isn't that great.  We see our loved ones' faces on Skype, we hear their voices, we see videos, we chat and instant message.  We're just a plane ride away anyway, we tell ourselves, it's not that different from living on the West Coast when your family lives in Philly. It's really almost the same as being there. 

But we can't reach out and hold your hand.  And that, my friends, is what we miss. At least, it's what I miss.

Living abroad is not a decision that people make lightly, and, once we do, we have to live with the consequences of our decision.  Each of us has to make our own peace with our grief, our homesickness, our regrets for what we've missed, and - it has to be said - our guilt, which (I believe) all of us feel at some time or another. Living overseas is a choice most expats make with much thought and care, and one that most of us do not usually regret - much.  We relish the opportunities, the experiences, and the new horizons that living abroad brings with it, and most of the time we are deeply satisfied with our choices.

But there are times when you realize just what it means not to be able to hold the 'hands you love,' and those times are hard.

And that is all I have to say about that.

If the link below ends up being disabled (as they so often are), you can find many recordings online by Googling "Sarah McLachlan Song for a Winter's Night" 

*The lyrics and melody were written and recorded by Gordon Lightfoot in 1975 and were probably meant to be a wintry love ballad, but since I must have been either overseas or too young to pay attention to it, the song hit me in a very different way.  

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Advent Season in Seoul: A Smattering

Christmas decor for sale at Namdaemun Market in Seoul.  If glitter and tinsel had a baby.

MsCaroline is behind in all things right now, including blogging.  She has tons of interesting and ironic material to share with her readers, but, even as she speaks, the snow is falling and she is beginning to panic about how long it will take her to get to work in the snow/slush/ice/sleet-covered city.  

For those of you who assume that an Asian country will naturally be devoid of Christmas-ness (-osity?) let me just put your minds at ease:  the Christmas spirit is all over the place in Seoul.  Some of it arrives here with the expats themselves, but most of it is just Seoul itself - a city that loves lights, glitter, decorations, and all the trappings of the season, even if only 30% of Seoulites actually observe the holiday.

Of course, since MsCaroline works at an international school with ties to Europe, she has been up to her ears in small excited children, and quite a few excited adults as well.
At private homes, at school, and on the city streets, it's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas:

Clever Advent 'Calendar' in a friend's apartment, hand-knitted by a doting Grandma in the Old Country and containing a small gift for each day of Advent.

Musical Santas in downtown Seoul.

First snow of the season, with more on the way.

And, of course, who can forget that the 6th of December is St. Nicholas Day? He made a special visit to the children at MsCaroline's school and graciously agreed to pose for a photo op (MsCaroline will be sure to provide him with extra cookies in the teacher's workroom the next time she sees him.).