Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Vacation Planning: Spring Break

Wreck Diving with Bali Scuba in Tulamben at the USS Liberty.  Not Hong Kong.  Not Chinese New Year.
If you opened this post thinking, "At last! She's finally going to get around to telling us about Chinese New Year in Hong Kong," MsCaroline is sorry to burst your bubble, but it's not happening this time, either.

It's true that the trip to Hong Kong was well over a month ago and MsC realizes that, in that time, a really responsible blogger would have already sorted photos, written the blog posts, and been looking forward to the next trip.  However, MsC has never claimed to be that responsible, so it should come as no surprise to you that all those photos are gathering (virtual) dust in the 'pictures' folder on her laptop.

(Actually, if MsCaroline can procrastinate long enough, she can just re-use the photos at next year's Chinese New Year and save herself the trouble of coming up with new content.)

So:  What's so time-consuming that MsC can't even write up a travel post that requires no more effort than a book report?

More travel, specifically, Spring Break, which is bearing down on us very quickly.

Choices this year were narrowed down to Cambodia or Bali, both of them being high on our list of 'places we want to travel while it's cheap to fly there we live in Asia.'

MsC (an avowed history geek) was plumping for Angkor Wat, because she is all about ancient overgrown temples and crumbling ruins and bygone dynasties.  However, MrL wanted to go to Bali, and, since MrL is celebrating a milestone birthday (I'll leave it at that) this April, MsCaroline graciously allowed him to have the final word.

If you are wondering, 'why Bali,' the reason is, that MrL has established that he must celebrate this milestone birthday by doing something that he did frequently and enjoyed tremendously when he was 18 and living in Manila (I mean scuba diving, people.  Get your minds out of the gutterwhich means the Asia Vus will be spending their spring break in Bali  getting our Open Water Diving certifications. (MrL had his certification, but hasn't used it in more years than he would like to think about, so we're all doing it together.)

While MsCaroline loves underwater wildlife, and has no problem with the concept of Scuba diving in and of itself, what she does have problems with is the idea of herself in a wetsuit.  This proposition has caused her to sleep badly and spend long moments meditating on one of her beloved late father's favorite descriptive phrases:  "gopher stuffed into a rubber glove."  However, as a loving and loyal wife, she has put aside her own misgivings ( do they even make wetsuits in her size, and if, so, does the Dive School even have one in stock?) and pretended to begun to look forward to the next adventure.  (That, Young People, is an example of True Love.)

Those of you who already have your diving certification will also recall that there is a certain amount of academic work associated with this certification, which means that, accordingly, MsC has begun online study, diligently working her way through units covering such burning topics as:  "Your second regulator is your friend,"  " how to calculate whether or not your lungs will explode if you swim another foot down toward that sea turtle" and 'Things that can hurt or kill you underwater,' as well as more mundane information such as what all the various straps and knobs are for, and how to use the buoyancy compensator (that's your 'BC' to those of us in the know.)

MsC is positive that, once she gets underwater, she will completely and totally enjoy herself.  She has also booked a lovely hotel that looks like just the place to relax and recover after a long day of learning how to breathe underwater without panicking.  And besides, the course only lasts for 4 days, after which they will all leave the remote northeastern beach and head further inland for some history and culture.

MsCaroline had then pictured a few days of peace and relaxation after the stress of spending 4 days in a wetsuit where people could see her learning the complexities of scuba diving, but - alas! - there is no rest for the weary.

While MsC mooned over the photos of the tranquil resort and spa they would head to for the 2nd half of the holiday, envisioning herself dozing over a book on the veranda with a gentle breeze rustling through the palm trees, Son#2 had other ideas.

MsC admits that she is at fault for this one, because she stupidly showed him a video clip of this activity,
never dreaming that he would be interested in doing it - mainly because it requires getting up at 3am, which is anathema to Son#2.  In this case, however, the thrill of climbing a live volcano in the dark appealed so powerfully to Son#2's inner daredevil that he has talked of little else since we booked our vacation.

Mt.Batur (a live volcano that Son#2 proposes to hike.  In the dark.) via
The activity in question is a "sunrise trek" to the top of Mt. Batur, a live (as in lava) volcano.  While MsC thinks viewing a sunrise from the top of a volcano in Bali sounds marvelous and life-affirming, she is less enamoured with the idea of rising at 3am and hiking up the side of a live volcano (lava, people.  Lava) in the dark to get there.

She has been slightly mollified by the thought of seeing monkeys warming themselves by the steam emanating from volcanic fissures, though.  Because, well, - monkeys.  

So, as you can imagine, between reading up on regulators and buddy breathing and getting myself conditioned for a 3am hike up a volcano - there's really just been no time to do something like post about Chinese New Year.

And no, there will be no photos forthcoming of MsC in a wetsuit.  Lava and monkeys, yes.  Wetsuit, no.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Expat Life: Keep Calm And Carry On: North Korea

Click here for background on this WWII-era  poster

Ordinarily, this is a light-hearted blog.  I've written a few times about some things that are personal and serious, but for the most part, my blog is a place for my irreverent and (often) obnoxious observations about my experiences as a middle-aged Western wife and mother trying (with questionable success) to adjust to life in an Asian megacity.  That's it.

For obvious reasons, then, I haven't mentioned the, shall we say, 'aggressive' rhetoric streaming out of North Korea lately.  Partly because it's no fun to dwell on the possibility of one's own impending doom, but really because - and I'm going to be brutally honest here - we're not really thinking about it.

I know, I know, it sounds like we're crazy, especially since -from what I can see - every major media franchise has been putting out some pretty alarmist copy lately.  But it's the truth.  I can honestly tell you the number of conversations I have had about North Korea in the last three weeks with other expats:  one, with a co-worker who mentioned it in passing as we were heading to a meeting.

We got an e-mail yesterday from Son#2's school assuring us that the administration had been in constant contact with the US and British embassies and that had been assured that there was "no cause for immediate concern" and that they were monitoring the situation closely.  I assume this is because some parents had expressed concern, although - as I said before, it hadn't come up in conversation with any of the parents I knew.

My South Korean friends? They don't mention it either.  In fact, it's just not a Thing.

No civil defense drills, no gas masks, no evacuations.  We're not glued to televisions, or streaming video on our laptops, or radio broadcasts.  We don't jump nervously every time we hear a loud noise.

We just kind of go on with life as normal.

Now, part of this probably has to do with an observation I made in previous blog post, which is, if you are unfortunate enough to live less than 100 kilometers away from an unstable rogue state with nuclear capability, it's pretty much a given that, should something go down, you will be right there in Ground Zero, poof, gone in a blink of an eye.  Given this reality, there's really no point whatsoever in worrying about the 'what ifs.'

I also made the observation that - as pessimistic as it sounded - I felt  instant annihilation was highly preferable to wandering through a post-apocalyptic nuclear landscape, where one would be obligated to fight other survivors for potable water and mangled cans of Spam.  In addition, having been raised by a Canadian mother, I can't see myself prevailing in a primal sort of situation that calls for the complete eradication of good manners.  I'd invariably let everyone get in front of me in the line for water and apologize for bumping into people in the frenzy to scavenge for the last of the Twinkies.

Now, I'm not in the US or Europe right now, so I have no idea what the media is saying about the situation, but I can only imagine.  And we have heard from more than one concerned friend or relative asking how we were doing, wondering what things must be like over here.

The truth?

We're just fine. Life here is totally normal. Yes, we all know that North Korea is there, rattling its sabers.  We know it's got weapons.  We know it's perpetrated aggressive acts before.  But after almost 2 years? We're used to it.  That's not to say that there's no threat.  I suppose we're just following the example of our South Korean hosts, who are taking things in stride.

We're keeping calm and carrying on.

For an excellent explanation of the situation for those of us living in South Korea, take a look at this clip by expat ├╝berbloggers Eatyourkimchi.  It does a great job of summing things up.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

International Education or What MsCaroline Has Been Up To

Photo from the incredible Cathay Pacific Chinese New Year Night Parade in Kowloon. This may be the only thing I ever write about it.
(Note:  MsCaroline knows that many of her readers are expats who spend much time and energy worrying and wondering about the quality of their children's education overseas.  MsC is not saying that overseas education is a trouble-free proposition, but in the last few weeks, she has observed some amazing stuff at her own child's school, and she knows that what she has seen is more of the rule - rather than the exception - in many international schools.  She still wants to hit Son#2 upside the head (please excuse the Americanism) on occasion and shout, "Do you have any idea how fortunate you are? How incredible this opportunity is? How incomparable these experiences are?" But she knows that there is no point in it.  Suffice it say, parents, these are the aspects of international education that are priceless.)

Make no mistake:  MsCaroline is an independent spirit, wild and free, who answers to no one but her Inner Voice, so she does not feel obligated to update her blog regularly or provide posts about her travels even though she explicitly promised her readers that she would do so and typically posts fairly regularly. No, MsCaroline goes where the wind takes her, blogging when the spirit moves her, and dancing to the beat of her own drummer.  However, as a courtesy, she wants to let her readers know the whys and wherefores of her unusually long silence and why they probably will never hear haven't yet heard about Chinese New Year in Hong Kong.

First of all, those of you who have children and/or jobs will understand that, while taking a whirlwind 5-day trip to Hong Kong sounds fabulous and jet-setterish, the reality is that preparing for - and recovering from - such a trip takes much more time than it sounds.  MsCaroline wishes she were the type who just threw a toothbrush, a few pairs of clean underwear, and a thoughtfully-combined selection of mix-n-match tops and bottoms that would all coordinate flawlessly and take her from the boardroom to an evening at the Nightclub with the merest addition of a well-placed scarf.  However, either because MsCaroline does not frequent boardrooms or Nightclubs, or because she buys the wrong scarves, she always ends up packing too many things and ends up wearing the same jeans and sweater for her entire trip anyway.  The problem is, MsCaroline never knows in advance which jeans and which sweater will turn out to be the perfect combination, so she has to pack all possible options, which then just sit in the corner of the hotel room, being pushed around by the housekeeping staff while MsC trots out the same boring ensemble each morning.  

The point of this rambling commentary on MsCaroline's poor packing skills is that, once she gets back home, it's not just a simple matter of unpacking a few items, tossing the suitcase into the closet, and returning to daily life.  No, it's piles of washing, drying, folding and putting away (times 3) and fighting your way into the storage closet shelf which only MrL can reach anyway. Not to mention all the flotsam and jetsam you pick up when you go on such a trip (ticket stubs:  keep or toss? Brochures? Free magazines? Complimentary maps? Dragon calendar? MsCaroline does not scrapbook, so there's really no point in keeping any of it, yet she struggles with letting it go.  Topic for another post.)

So, what with the unpacking and washing and trying to cram the suitcases into the closet, and going back to work, MsCaroline found herself a bit short of time and therefore has not yet been able to share anything but the tiniest taste of the glories of Chinese New Year in Hong Kong with whomever's reading these days.  

This time, however, there was even more to contend with.  Within days of her return, MsCaroline found herself sucked into a whirlwind of activity, most of it concerning Son#2 and his involvement with his school's interscholastic activities in the area of Drama.  The international schools in the Asia Pacific region have a variety of competitions and exchanges in all the areas you would expect(sports, music, arts), which is just like what one would expect Back Home, except that, instead of hopping onto a bus or train or plane and spending the day or weekend in another city, the teams all hop onto airplanes and spend a day or weekend in another country in Asia, staying with families at the hosting school and learning about another country and culture.  (Note:  when people talk about the 'incredible opportunities' experienced by expat kids, this is an excellent example of what they mean.)  

Naturally, Son#2's school was hosting this year, so of course MsCaroline was hosting a student from another school.  Our guest turned out to be a delightful young Aussie from Hong Kong, of all places, which gave MsC an opportunity to learn all about the Egg Flip, a sort of Australian(British?) breakfast smoothie involving raw eggs, which seemed suspect to her but was heartily consumed by her young guest, who was just bursting with health, so the raw eggs apparently weren't a problem. Naturally, MsCaroline had also volunteered to help feed the hordes of starving teenagers who were spending long hours each day at school learning about a variety of aspects of international theater arts, performing for each other, and creating a final performance for parents and the community.  For the most part MrL and MsC's involvment (when not whipping up Egg Flips)consisted of carting students (or food for them) back and forth from the school (a 45-minute drive across Seoul) and/or attending performances, which was definitely the highlight of the 5-day event.  

For this year's event, the school had arranged for instruction by experts in 3 different fields of theatre arts, including a type of Indian dance,  Japanese dance/performance art, and a rare type of Korean Mask Dance.  The 3 experts in their fields (and I do not use the term 'expert' lightly:  the artist who taught the Korean Mask Dance workshop is listed as 'National Intangible Treasure #17' in Korea, where people can be National Treasures, along with the more mundane priceless ceramics, palaces, and artwork;  the other two are also internationally known for their work) coached their teams of young thespians to teach them the basics of their respective arts and put together a brilliant performance in the space of just a few days.  

The culminating performance was a far cry from the typical American high-school auditorium fare, and included:

Son#2's most excellent eyeliner

  • Kathakali dance, a type of Indian classical storytelling dance that includes highly stylized gestures, makeup, and costumes.  Son#2 performed with this group, and - as far as we could tell- acquitted himself admirably.  (Granted, when he was an infant and we were engaging in those parental daydreams of our child's future, I admit that we neglected to include Kathakali dance in the list of possibilities, but once we got used to the heavy eyeliner, we enjoyed it tremendously.) The piece we saw involved a Hindu God who wanted to find a flower for his wife and included encounters with a number of other deities, all with their own glorious face paint and stylized hand and foot gestures and facial expressions.  

  • Butoh, a post-WWII performance art that originated in Japan and is (in a huge, over-generalized nutshell) a response to post-war industrialization and the exploration of societal taboos.  This performance we saw was a group of students who moved together in slow, waving motions, like a giant sea anemone, with hideous expressions on their faces and extremely ungraceful foot placement.  MsCaroline thought it was all very grotesque, and was relievedpleased to discover after the performance that that was precisely the look they were going for. 
This made MsC think of zombies, which turned out to be pretty much the reaction they wanted.

Tremendous use of shadow and light.  My favorite part.
  • Korean Mask Dance, which was very colorful and bright and accompanied by traditional Korean drums and percussion instruments.  The masks themselves were all hand-made by the expert leading the group, and were works of art within themselves.  All of us living in Korea have seen at least a little bit of this type of dancing, so it was very enlightening for the students to get an inside look into the art and its nuances.

Masks hand-made by an expert

While MsCaroline absolutely enjoyed the weekend and her (extremely polite, much-neater-than-her-own-son-as-she-pointed-out-on-several-occasions) out-of-town-guest, she found it slightly difficult to keep up with her own job and her duties at home, which, naturally, is why she volunteered to spend her day off going on a field trip with Son#2's art class.  Needless to say, it wasn't anything normal, like going to a museum. If MsCaroline's readers know anything about her, it is that she jumps at the opportunity to experience the bizarre, which explains why, just days after watching our son stalk around the stage in yellow makeup and artfully angled  eyeliner, I accompanied his art class on a short field trip to the fish market.  

Yes, you read that correctly.  A field trip to the fish market.  Let me point out that, since I knew what was going on, this did not strike me as an unusual thing when I posted my status on FaceBook until one of my friends responded:  "Art trip class field trip to the fish market? Interesting.  Does the band club go on field trips to slaughterhouses?"

However, now that I recognize my error, let me clarify:  Son#2's teacher had learned about the Japanese art form of Gyotaku, and decided to teach it to her high school art class. For those of you not interested in following the link, Gyotaku is, at its most basic, the art of covering your fish with ink and using it like a giant stamp.  Apparently, this was how Japanese fishermen recorded their catches (no more lying about the one that got away, I guess) which eventually evolved into an art form in its own right. Given the fact that we have an outstanding fish market here in Seoul, she arranged for the students to take a brief trip to the Noryangin Fish Market where they could purchase their own fish/octopus/denizen of the deep for use in preparing their own prints.  MsCaroline - who is hardened from years of teaching teenagers - volunteered to chaperone, which basically involved riding the bus there with the students and walking around the fish market watching the groups bargain for their fish and explain to the mystified fishmongers that they would be using them for artistic purposes.

The nature of the art dictated that the fish would need to be gutted (but not de-scaled) and, ideally, have their eyes removed (apparently, they tend to leak if you press them too hard onto the paper) - an activity which resulted in a great deal of squealing (on the part of the girls) and hearty laughter (on the part of the good-natured merchants.)  

The return bus ride was relatively quiet, as all of the students came to the unpleasant realization that they smelled like a fish market and would be likely to spend the rest of the day smelling like one.  The gloom was only punctuated occasionally by hysterical shrieking as one of the freshly-butchered fish engaged in some post-mortem reflex activity and began flopping jerkily on a bus seat in its shroud of newspaper and plastic bags.  This made the return trip somewhat less pleasant, but far more exciting.

Fortunately for MsCaroline, her presence was only needed during the Fish Market part of the day, and she was able to gratefully head straight home, where she washed every. single. thing. she wore to the market, including her shoes, her coat, and her purse. Son#2 and his classmates, however, spent the rest of the day in Gyotaku workshop, where - after a number of dismal failures, he produced this, which MsCaroline thinks is much cooler than anything she ever produced in art class:

Octopus and, no, he did not drop the octopus, those are called 'ghost prints.' 

While MsCaroline realizes that she still hasn't told you about Chinese New Year in Hong Kong, she's pleased to report that things are looking pretty good on the international education front, although she reserves the right to change her mind after Son#2 sits his iGCSEs in May.  Stay tuned.