Wednesday, March 28, 2012

So long, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu


At the "Trick Eye" trompe l'oeil  Museum in Seoul.  Looks like I'm frightening B with my driving.


 As I've said before, being part of the expat community means becoming close to people in a short amount of time, and saying goodbye much more often than you do back in the 'real' world.  People in the expat world come and go with astonishing frequency;  Son#2 has already said goodbye to several friends he just met in August, and we already know a number of families that will be leaving this summer.  Today we had to say 'goodbye' to two people who have been an important part of our little expat 'family' since our paths first crossed barely a year ago.  MrL and MrA were working in the same office, both living in temporary accomodations in Seoul while we - their respective wives - packed up house and tied up loose ends back in the US.  I still remember MrL suggesting to me that I 'friend' MrA's wife, 'B,' on FaceBook, so we could forge a cyber-acquaintance before meeting in person in Seoul.  We commiserated long-distance over the headaches involved in trying to move house internationally, the excitement of seeing a new country, the heartache involved in leaving friends and family behind.  

By the time B and I actually met in person in late June, I felt like I already knew her.  She was the first friend I made in Seoul, and I soon discovered that she was a person who grabbed life with both hands. 

Whatever hair-brained scheme I came up with (Chicken museum? Foot-nibbling fish?) she was game to try it.  Within weeks of arriving, she'd used her incredible internal gyro to learn her way around Seoul like a native, mentally mapping the markets at Namdemun and Dongdemun with unerring accuracy, like some sort of superhuman GPS.  Need to find something in Seoul? B could tell you where to find it - and exactly how to get there.  Unlike so many expats (such as myself) who slowly and timidly worked their way in to life in a new country, she plunged in, and embraced it all, enjoying the people, the culture, and the experiences - fearlessly, enthusiastically, and with relish.  After her kids went back to the US at the end of the summer, I remember thinking that B had probably seen and done more in three months than most people do in an entire stay.  She was always ready to try something new, meet a new friend, visit a new place.  Didn't turn out so great? No problem.  It was still an adventure.  She always had time to meet me for one of our infamous 3-hour 'lunches,' laugh with me over everything and nothing, listen when I needed an ear, share teen parenting advice when I needed it, and encourage when I needed encouragement.

But the friendship wasn't ours alone.  Since MrL and A worked together, we were all often together at company functions, as well as the other get-togethers in our little expat community.  We had dinners together on weekends, explored Seoul, shared a Thanksgiving.  A & B got to know our children ( Son#2 dubbed them, "my other parents") and - when they came to visit that summer - we got to know theirs. Back home, in the 'real' world, a couple you'd only known for 6 months would be considered new acquaintances.  In the expat community, friendships grow exponentially, watered and fertilized with a rich combination of mutual dependence, a dash of homesickness, the sense of shared adventure, and the understanding that you are a little bit like castaways - sharing a small familiar island isolated in an enormous ocean of the foreign culture.  
Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Halloween Cruise, Seoul 2011


So, as you can imagine, when we heard that they would be leaving at the end of March, we were stunned.  Saddened.  Disappointed.  

Oh, we were happy (ish) for them - they'd be returning to friends and family, a great position for MrA, a location near their kids - but at the same time, we couldn't help but feel sorry for our own loss.  It seemed so cruel for us all to get to know each other, and -in just under a year - have them leave. 

But this is it:  friendship, expat-style.  You have to make friends quickly and fearlessly.  If you think too hard about where you all might be six months or a year from now, the inevitable partings to come, the uncertainty of the whole arrangement - well, you'd never make any friends at all.  So you plunge in.  You open yourself up, put yourself out there, extend your hand, and take your chances.   And yes, there are partings, and tears, and different continents and time zones, but at the end of the day, you know what?

It's worth it.  

Safe journey, friends.  

Seoul Lantern Festival,  2011


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Grrrrr


(Yes, yes, I know, I've already used the above photo in a previous post, but, as I've pointed out in the past, this is, after all, my blog, so I get to make the rules.  And honestly, this face really does sum up exactly how I've been feeling.)

First of all, an apology for the long silence. I have no excuse, unless feeling sorry for yourself because winter is insisting on lingering into (what seems like) next Fall counts as an excuse.  I could also refer to the enormous bruise I got falling up the stairs at Seoul Station two Saturdays ago, but MrLogical would suggest that it was my own fault for having imbibed too much soju earlier in the evening.   This may or may not be the case, but the main thing is, the bruise really does hurt, and between icing it and telling people how much it hurts, there's not much time left for blogging.  

And let's not forget the demands of my job.  Granted, it's a part-time job, and only 15 hours per week at that, but singing, "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider" approximately 400 times each day takes it out of you.  (Let me tell you:  the week I taught them 'The Hokey Pokey' I was exhausted, not to mention perpetually dizzy, but it was worth it from a pedagogical standpoint.  It's true that their whole grasp of 'right' and 'left' is fairly vague, but on the other hand, I estimate 95% of the children have mastered the phrase, "then you shake it all about" which, as we are all aware, includes a verb as well as a preposition.)

So, yes, I've been busy, although that fact, in itself, is not the reason I'm in such a foul mood.  In fact, I have a veritable potpourri of reasons for being ill-tempered and crabby these days, none of them huge and life-threatening, but which - in the manner of the infamous Chinese Water Torture - have combined to wear away at my usual good spirits drop by drop, minute by minute, day by day.  In no particular order, they include:


-Mercury is Retrograde - 'nuff said.

-Winter -I know I've whined about this endlessly, but I really did think that we were over the worst of it, with days hovering around 9C(48F) and several fairly sunny days in a row.  Sadly, my hopes were once again dashed with another week or so of bona fide winter weather.  However, towards the end of last week, after lulling me into a false sense of hope with several less-arctic days, Mother Nature played another cruel trick on me.  Last Saturday morning, the sun was shining so brilliantly I dragged MrL and Son#2 out with me for a walk to the grounds of my beloved National Museum of Korea.  MrL and Son#2 patiently listened to me enthuse about how the buds on most of the viburnum were nearly getting ready to open, and how - if they looked really carefully - they could see that the straggly green blades at the foot of the Joseon Dynasty Pagoda were definitely going to be daffodils.  Someday.  I suspect they exchanged a lot of looks behind my back and over my head as I scrabbled madly in the dirt and amongst the plantings, pointing out the most infinitesimal signs of life and becoming more and more inflamed at any indication- no matter how slight- of impending Spring.  Eventually, the wind picked up to the point that we were all numb and even MrLogical- who is ordinarily far less sensitive to the vagaries of the weather than I am - conceded that he wished he'd worn a warmer coat, so we headed home. Within the hour, the sun had been obscured by a series of grey and businesslike-looking clouds,which - in an action that I took as a personal affront- began producing a series of snow squalls. This, naturally, plunged me into the depths of gloom, which I combated in a healthy and positive manner by going to the gym and running several miles on the treadmill, followed by an hour's weight-lifting. Ha! Gullible Reader, I did nothing of the kind.  In fact, I coped with my disappointment  by reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: A Novel in an afternoon and meeting friends for dinner at Zelen, where I was able to soothe my wounded spirits with stuffed tomatoes, svinsko verteno, and  Krombacher beer.  

Spring Break:  One of the things I had not contended with when accepting my part-time job was the possibility that my Spring Break and Son#2's Spring Break might not occur simultaneously, but - as you've probably already guessed, knowing what you do about Mercury -that's exactly what happened.  Son#2 (who will be appearing in the school musical at the end of April) was adamant that missing any rehearsals were Out Of The Question, so the option of pulling him out of his school during my Spring Break was not even considered.  As a brand-new employee, I was not exactly in a position to request a week's leave (during his Spring Break), so our hands were more or less tied.  Son#2 is therefore spending this week sleeping late, socializing with his friends, and generally enjoying not going to school, while I am working, after which he will go back to school, and I will be off.  This turn of events was particularly disappointing as we'd planned on visiting China during our break, which turned out (obviously) to be a no-go.  I was only slightly mollified to hear from an acquaintance that the weather in China right now is dreadful - colder than here, in fact - and that we would likely have found ourselves shivering miserably in the snow on The Great Wall.  Possibly true, but at least we would have seen it.  On the other hand, you would have then had to listen to me whine about how cold it is in China, so consider yourselves fortunate.

North Korea - living within 30 of so miles of a shared border with a rogue state that has nuclear capability does tend to keep one somewhat on edge, although - not surprisingly- it's not something we think about daily.  Well, honestly, who could? No point in worrying about things that are entirely out of your control, after all.  Of course, yesterday's news that North Korea intends to launch a rocket as part of a 'peaceful' nuclear intimidation space exploration program - and the ensuing response from South Korea - that it intends to shoot it down if it infringes on South Korean airspace - did stir up a bit of anxiety, to be honest.  If the truth be told, though, those of us living in Seoul derive a certain amount of comfort from the fact that, should Pyeongyang actually deploy a nuclear weapon against South Korea, Seoul would most certainly be Ground Zero.  This means an efficient instant annihilation, as opposed to a slow, lingering death in a post-apocalyptic landscape fighting fellow survivors for potable water.  Of course, all this nuclear talk leads me to the next topic on my list, namely:

The International Nuclear Summit - taking place in Seoul as we speak.  Heads of State from across the world (hence the term, "international") began arriving in Seoul last week, and it's obvious from the vastly increased police presence that everyone wants things to go smoothly.  I don't know what it's like in the rest of Seoul, but in the foreigner-concentrated areas in which I live and work, there's a policeman (so far, I have seen no policewomen in Korea) about every 5 yards.   Traffic - heinous at the best of times - has become unbelievable, what with all the important people, their handlers, wives, children, assistants, and - of course - the media.  Seoulites have been strongly encouraged to use public transportation to help avoid traffic jams, and someone told me that only vehicles with even license plate numbers were supposed to be driving yesterday, although I cannot confirm that.  Besides the heightened police presence, there's also the increased number of tour buses, as all of the entourages accompanying the various Heads of State make whirlwind visits to all the top Seoul tourist destinations. It's a bit like normal Seoul on steroids.  And of course, since we live in an apartment complex overlooking the US Army Post, we've been privy to the comings and goings of fleets of aircraft (mostly enormous troop transport helicopters).  On Sunday morning at about 6:30 am, we were jerked out of sleep by the glass-shaking reverberations of the double propellers of not one or two, but FOUR of the giant helicopters.  Remembering that President Obama (or, 'POTUS*' as he's referred to by the acronym-loving US Military) was supposed to be arriving sometime that day (exact time a closely-guarded secret, but 7am on Sunday was looking promising), MrL and I - having already been rattled out of bed - blearily made ourselves some coffee, located the binoculars and observed the activities below us with interest, hoping to catch a glimpse of POTUS and/or any of his entourage, which - regardless of one's political leanings - is still a pretty exciting thing.  Watching as the giant transport helicopters disgorged dozens of tiny personnel, MrL observed that, as they were all carrying their own luggage, it was unlikely that POTUS was among them.  His observation was confirmed a few moments later when a more traditional (only one propeller) helicopter with an enormous US Flag emblazoned across its roof landed on the helipad across from the field and from whence disembarked a swarm of tiny figures in black overcoats, none of them carrying luggage, and one of whom (we could only assume - damn cheap binoculars) was the POTUS himself.  The figures quickly dispersed themselves into a long line of vehicles (many of them with flashing lights) which moved off in a stately procession.  While it was all a bit exciting, I can't say that I found it to be a particularly pleasant way to start my Sunday, especially as I never really did actually get to see POTUS.  At least, not that I know of.

Physical Deterioration - While I am fully aware that my jeans size is not nearly as significant as the International Nuclear Summit, it does, nonetheless, occupy more of my attention these days as I have begun to realize exactly what kind of toll the winter has taken on me.  All those hearty stews and 'comfort baking' I did during the dark and frigid months of January and February, combined with my unwillingness to set a foot outside the apartment if not absolutely necessary, have had a cumulative effect, and I am in need of some decisive action.  Clearly, the 10-minute walk up the hill to work 3 times a week isn't burning nearly as many calories as I'd been hoping.  MrL is quick to point out that my bicycle is already set up on the stationary trainer in Son#1's (old) bedroom and nothing is keeping me from using it.  Damn.

Goodbyes - The curse of the expat - frequent goodbyes - has reared its ugly head already and I have not even been here a full year. At lunch today, we said goodbye to a couple who were some of our very first friends in Korea. I still can't believe that they're leaving, and, even though I know we'll see them this summer, it won't be the same as having them here as part of our expat family.  I will write more about these special people and a wonderful friendship in a while, but for right now.......ouch.  Just..... ouch.



*President Of The United States




Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Bluebonnets: Ask, And Ye Shall Receive

When I wrote this post a few weeks ago about how I was missing Bluebonnet season in Texas, it was really more an extension of my long whiny rant about Winter in Seoul that began back in November and is still continuing as we speak.  I was cold, tired of winter, and desperately missing sunshine and spring flowers that I knew were to be had in abundance back in Texas.  I was hoping for a certain amount of sympathy for suffering through the Winter That Would Not End (which you all provided in spades, thank you very much) and also thought I might enlighten a few readers who might not have ever seen or heard of Texas Bluebonnets.  Beyond that, I had no particular goals.

Naturally, I knew that no one could pack me up some actual bluebonnets and send them to me.  However, I had not counted on the creativity and resourcefulness of my friends, who saw my need, and filled it.  The first response came from my friend, M, who had read my post and decided that my bluebonnet-less situation just Would Not Do.  About a week after the post went up, I got a package from her containing, among other things - a bowl, some plates, and two enormous coffee mugs (exactly MsCaroline size - do my friends know me, or what?) While the items themselves were welcome, it was the pattern on them - bluebonnets, of course - that really warmed my heart:

Bluebonnets
More bluebonnets - and, yes, this mug is huge!

 (Thanks, M.)

The second response from home came in the form of a FaceBook photo, posted by my friend, T.  The photo was of her dog, Yogi, lying in a field of bluebonnets. Granted, Yogi was clearly recovering from some powerful exertion, since his tongue was hanging out to such an extent that it looked photoshopped, but since I usually saw him looking something like that anyway, I found it charming and endearing.  (Note:  Yogi was one of the yellow dog's first-ever 'friends' and, as such, dear to us as well.  In fact, when I was staying at T's house back in January, I actually got more choked up over my reunion with Yogi than I did with T and her family.  What this says about me, I do not want to know.)  


Anyway, as soon as I saw the photo (and 'liking' it), I immediately messaged T and asked her if I could use the photo in my blog.  She responded in the affirmative, and stated that, actually, she'd had me in mind when she took it.  Why this should have made me feel so happy, I do not know, except to say that, when you're on the other side of the world, it does you a world of good to know that you're still being thought of back home.

Of course, I'm still 6,000 miles away from home, and winter hasn't quite let us out of its grip here in Seoul. But I'm sipping coffee out of my bluebonnet mug, and looking at Yogi's happy, exhausted face in a meadow of bluebonnets, and it doesn't feel like Spring - or home - is quite so far away.

Yogi-in-the-bluebonnets

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Cold Comfort: Korean Home Remedies


My regular blog readers will be aware (how could you have missed it, with all the whining?) that we at AsiaVu have had a challenging Winter as far as cold and flu season goes. In a clear case of One-Upmanship, no sooner had I been diagnosed with my case of Extreme Laryngitis, then MrLogical succumbed to his own batch of germs, and has spent the last week or so alienating my affections stubbornly battling his own personal respiratory demons - mostly in the form of coughing all.night.long.  Even Son#2 - who had thus far made it through the entire school year without missing a single day and ordinarily bursting with the rude health of the Young - finally went down with what we have generically termed 'The Funk.'  

As you would expect, along with our antibiotics we also pulled out all our tried-and-true home remedies:  hot tea, hot baths, Vicks Vaporub, humidifiers, chicken soup, and the like.

What's different now that we're in Korea is that we have access to Korean home remedies, and lately we've added two more items to the arsenal in the hope that they'll prove more effective against Korean germs than our ineffective waygook* comfort measures.

I was introduced to the first when I was sick back in December.  Son#3 (honorary title for Son#1's Korean friend) brought it over and explained that, while many Koreans drank it just because it tasted wonderful, it was also very good for colds and flu.  It was a Honey Citrus Tea concentrate, which you can buy at any Korean supermarket.



This seemed perfectly reasonable, since tea with honey and lemon was a familiar remedy to me from my childhood.  I had just never seen the ingredients in this form before:


It's sort of like a lemon curd jam, with slices of lemon peel in it.  Dissolve a spoonful or two in a cup of nearly-boiling water and stir.  Soothes sore throats like a charm.  Also smells really good.

The second remedy was actually given to MrLogical by a concerned Korean co-worker who heard him coughing like he was trying to expel a lung and insisted that he drink a cup of this tea:

Whether the co-worker provided the tea out of concern for MrL's welfare or out of alarm at the frightening intensity of his coughing remains unknown:  in either case, the tea is a sweet and spicy ginger tea. In case you don't speak Korean, you can tell by smell and taste (or by this helpful photo of a ginger root on the back label:)


At the risk of jinxing ourselves, it seems like we're all finally on the road to recovery.  How much of it was due to the Korean remedies, we'll probably never know.  But we're happy we found them, and next year?  We'll be prepared.

*Korean word for 'foreigner'

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Lone Star State of Mind: Bluebonnet Time

The iconic Texas Longhorn in a field of bluebonnets.  You can find this photo and more of Linda Cox' gorgeous work at her Etsy page.

(Note: I realize that this is technically supposed to be a blog about living in Asia, which makes a post about Texas in the Spring somewhat incongruous.  However, I would imagine that most expats experience some longing for Springtime (or Summertime, or whenever) Back Home, which means that this post is actually more germane than it seems.)


(Additional Note:  As it turns out, "Lone Star State of Mind" is the name of a 2002 film which I have never seen, and may be a song, too.  I have never seen/heard either of them, but obviously the phrase stuck somewhere in my subconscious when I was thinking of titles for this post.  In my case, the title refers to the fact that I 'm thinking about Texas in the springtime.  That is all.)




Spring is coming to Seoul.  The days are starting to get warmer, with temperatures as high as the low 50sF/12-14C each day.  The cafes are putting their chairs and umbrellas out on their patios again, and not nearly as many people are walking around wearing hats and gloves.  It's been (to quote Pooh Bear) very blustery, and we've had a few grey and rainy days, but I am not complaining, because rain means it's too warm for snow (how's that for some advanced logic?)

It goes without saying that I am really looking forward to Spring this year, especially after making it through (what turned out to be a record-breaking) winter in Korea.  It will be my first Spring in Seoul, and I've been told that it is lovely, complete with cherry blossoms just like neighboring Japan.  At the moment, however, everything is still grey (or, more accurately, brown) and dreary -nothing green quite yet.

But, back in Texas, it is getting to be Spring.  Ecstatic FaceBook posts from friends and family tell me that temperatures in South Texas are in the low 70s/about 23C, and the sun is shining again. Son#1 (at University in TX) is talking about Spring Break plans for camping and outdoor concerts.  People are cleaning up their yards and mowing their lawns.  I know there must be new green leaves showing up on the Live Oaks; the Texas Mountain Laurels are getting ready to bloom (their distinctive grape Kool-aid aroma should really be the topic for an entire post of their own) and the Redbuds are probably on their way.  But right now, what I am thinking about most are the Bluebonnets.

I might have heard of Bluebonnets once or twice before moving to Texas - that is, I think I may have known that they were some sort of blueish flower - but I had certainly never seen one, and certainly never seen a field of them.  When we moved to Texas in February of 2005, I was coming from Arizona, where our Springs for the last 6 years had been brief glorious explosions of bright wildflowers and cactus blossoms in a rocky desert landscape - a breathtaking sight as the desert threw all its energy into a brief burst of glory before the long, hot summer arrived.

Springtime in Arizona via

  South Texas was not much different, temperaturewise, but its landscapes were a huge change.  We left behind us craggy mountains, rocky foothills and mostly-barren mesas studded with towering Saguaro cacti, and arrived in the gentle, rolling landscape of the Texas Hill Country.  Oh, there were still cacti, but these were mostly low and shrubby, blending in among the twisted Live Oak trees and tough meadow grasses that somehow managed to survive in the dry, rocky soil.  Those differences notwithstanding, I was not expecting Spring in Texas to be too much different from Spring in Arizona:  patches of ebullient, riotous blooms in an otherwise rocky and forbidding setting, rushing to do their work before the arrival of the long, arid, summer.

But then, it was Bluebonnet time.

It was probably March or April when I first noticed them in people's front yards as I walked by in the morning on the way to the bus stop with Son#2.  There they would be, a few green stalks topped with blueish-purple blossoms.  I thought they were a sort of grape hyacinth.


A few days later, I noticed a cluster of them on the grassy median along the freeway.  (Texas maintains a 'no-mow' zone along many of its roadways in the spring, and it's an absolute joy in orderly suburbia to see a tangled riot of wildflowers waving in the breeze between the grim lanes of traffic.)  An interesting note about bluebonnets is that, while they are pretty in a small group in someone's front yard, they are breathtaking in large groups, especially in a climate as scrubby and rocky as the Texas Hill Country's.




After that, I started noticing them everywhere.  In addition to the tiny, delightful blooms popping up in my neighbors' lawns, I saw them popping up in fields, in vacant lots, on highway medians, and in parks.  Driving out into the Hill Country, you would see huge swaths of them in fields, along rural roadsides, and spangling the grass beneath horse fences.  And it wasn't just the plants I saw:  there were Bluebonnets on the tea towels and coffee mugs that tourists bought while checking out at the supermarket.  I saw packets of Bluebonnet seeds at the gas station.  Friends at school or church would show me photos they'd taken of their children sitting in field of Bluebonnets (I don't know if it is an actual law, but it is practically a requirement for Texans to have family or pet photographs taken sitting in a field of bluebonnets.  This is something we never did while we lived there and I still regret it.)  There are Bluebonnet festivals, Bluebonnet garden shows, trips to the beloved LBJ Wildflower Center, and of course, there is the Legend of the Bluebonnet, which I'm pretty sure every Texas child hears or reads at some time.  The point is, Texans love their bluebonnets, and they really are everywhere:


Bluebonnet tea towels and other merchandise via

2007 Texas Longhorn Football Helmet - complete with Bluebonnet.
Yes, it's a Bluebonnet Margarita glass


Of course, I enjoyed all of the Spring flowers, but the Bluebonnet, for me, was such a lovely surprise that first Spring, that I always got a thrill of excitement each year when they started to bloom.  For me, nothing says 'Spring in Texas' like Bluebonnets, and I'm just now coming to the realization that I'll be missing them this year.

Don't get me wrong:   I'm looking forward to experiencing Seoul in the Spring:   warm days, cherry blossoms, and more of those long walks along the Han River.  I'm curious to see how Spring comes in this sprawling high-tech, international Asian metropolis.  In the big picture of my nomadic life, Texas is just one of many places that I've called home:  I have seen Spring come in many places and in several countries, and each one was beautiful in its own way.

But right now, a field of Bluebonnets would be a sight for sore eyes.







Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Silver Zone: Signs in Seoul



This sign hangs just a few meters away from the bus stop where I wait in the afternoon on the days I work.  To be honest, I never noticed it until last week when (the ever-observant) MrLogical pointed it out to me.  I finally got a photo today, and have been thinking it over ever since.  I love the idea of a 'Silver Zone' - which I assume is an area where special care should be taken for the elderly.  In the US, we have plenty of warning signs telling drivers to drive especially carefully because of special populations:  school zones, pedestrian zones, playgrounds, sports fields.  We have warning signs that tell us to watch out for bicyclists and motorcyclists, joggers and skateboarders:  in rural parts of the US, I have seen signs warning me to watch out for cattle and sheep, and, of course, the ubiquitous deer. In our neighborhoods in Arizona and Texas, there were signs that warned you to take caution because children might run out into the street chasing a ball.  And of course, a uniquely American sign that we ran across almost every time we vacationed in California:  the one that warned you to be on the alert for possible illegal immigrants:




However (and I would love to hear from people in the US who can tell me if they have something like this in their community) I have never seen a sign in the US exhorting us to take special care in watching out for the elderly.  

I don't know enough Korean - or Korean culture - to be able to tell you any more about this sign, but it seems that there's definitely a care and a respect for the elderly here that permeates the culture and shows up in everyday life - like street signs.  I love that this sign says something about the esteem in which older people are held in this culture, and the appreciation for the contributions they have made - and are still making.  And  I would love to see some signs like this back home.