Wednesday, November 5, 2014

But what will I call the blog?

"Man plans, God laughs."  - Yiddish proverb

Those of you who have been reading this blog since its inception will be aware that the name, Asia Vu refers to that strange I've been here before feeling that MrLogical and I experienced when moving back to Asia (many years later) as adults after spending a good chunk of our expatriate childhoods in the Far East.

The original plan was to write a blog that would chronicle the 2 years we would spend in Seoul, then return to the US after our brief expat adventure and settle back into suburbia.  #1 would be halfway through University, #2 would be able to graduate high school with his friends.  The Yellow Dog would be returned to us, and (with the exception of the addition of one Boston Terrier) life would pretty much return to normal.

So, Asia Vu really fit.  Head back to Asia, see what it's like after all this time, have a little taste of the expat experience again, then - a return to reality.

I never thought beyond that.  Two years in Asia, I thought, and then we'll be heading back.

What I failed to do, however, was to think ahead about what I would call the blog if we didn't move back, or if we moved somewhere else.

Which, as it turns out, I should have done, because we'll be packing up and moving to the UK in just over 8 weeks.

To Bristol, England, to be precise (North American readers, on the off chance you are not intimately familiar with the location of cities in the UK like I was 7 weeks ago when this whole thing started, Bristol is located in the Southwest part of England, approximately a 2-hour train ride from London. It looks perfect for us, but more on that later.)

You may well be surprised.  MsCaroline was certainly surprised. Oh, there'd been a few rumblings here and there in late summer, but nothing serious enough to plan for. Certainly nothing that would have led us to believe we'd be packing up and moving across the world in 8 short weeks during the Christmas holidays. *cue maniacal laughter*

The short version of the story is that MrL has a new position (same company) which requires his presence in the UK by the start of January. Son #2   settled our most pressing concern (completing high school and applying for college) by sanctioning the move (some of you may remember that he is an ardent anglophile anyway) and applying for early graduation (one does not simply pull their child out of school in the middle of his senior year without a significant buy-in) and is presently knocking himself out to do the extra coursework that he needs to graduate in December as well as finishing up all of his college applications.  I will be wrapping up my teaching contract mid-year (someday, remind me to write a post about trailing spouses) and am beginning the process of getting my credentials assessed to get QTS (qualified teacher status) in the UK, which seems like it will be a long and headachy and excessively bureaucratic process.  (In this way, at least, it sounds exactly like the USA.) After having (what I consider to be) a dream job for the past 3 years, I'm not exactly rushing to jump into another position, but I'm wise enough to know that time will be hanging heavy on my hands after #2 heads off to University in August or September, and I'm trying to plan ahead.  *sob*

So, somehow, between now and 2nd January, we'll be packing up, moving out, and wrapping up our loose ends.  #2 will move along with us to spend a few months taking the train to London every single weekend to visit his friends at University experiencing life in England before returning to the US for university in the fall.  At some point, in the spring or summer, #1 will likely be out to visit us in our/his new home.

Things are slowly falling into place - as they always do.

But still....what will I call the blog?

Any ideas are welcome, although I can't promise anyone I won't just keep calling it Asia Vu and just tack on Moves West  or UK Version.  I really do love the name Asia Vu (MrL thought of it) but you're a clever bunch and likely will come up with something even better - I'm entertaining any and all suggestions.

In the meantime, my mantra is (in the words of the inimitable Eddie Murphy):


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Autumn in Seoul - Take Four

An argyle sweater vest is always correct for a brisk autumn walk.

Those of you who have been reading the blog for a while may recall that, our first September in Seoul, I wrote this slightly homesick-and-wistful post about missing the signs of autumn back in the US:  pumpkins, changing leaves, hayrides, scarecrows, and (if millions of Americans are to be believed) the annual return of the Pumpkin Spice Latte (MsC=not a fan, but she recognizes it as a harbinger of the season.)

While it wasn't a particularly outstanding post (looking back, MsC thinks it was a bit self-pitying,) I do, nonetheless, have to give my 2011 self kudos for making one true and accurate observation, which was:

 I imagine that, after a few years in Seoul, I will see (things) and get a slightly nostalgic 'it's almost fall' feeling because I'll connect (them with the season).  But this first year, I don't have any cultural connections, so I don't have any sense of being part of the culture or the sense of anticipation.  And that, of course, is the heart of the matter and part of belonging in a culture:  knowing what is coming and being able to anticipate it because you've seen it before and done it before.  Remembering, along with everyone else, the joys of the season, and looking forward to all it holds. 

As it turns out, I was right. 

This is my 4th autumn in Seoul, and I know what to expect and anticipate now.  Along with the rest of the city, I breathed a sigh of relief as the brutally hot and humid nights cooled off and we all started sleeping with our windows open again.  I noted with pleasure the familiar sight of the beautifully packaged gift sets of Spam and cooking oil as they appeared in the shops, the lovingly wrapped gift sets of enormous and flawless Korean apples and pears - all ready to be given to family and friends during the Chusok (Korean Thanksgiving) festival.  

As September has given way to October, there have been more signs, such as:

The annual falling of the Gingko berries.  If you are not familiar with the gingko tree, it is a sturdy, columnar tree that thrives in Seoul's climate and is widely used as a planting here in the city.  Its dense leaves provide excellent shade in the summer, and its deciduous nature means that it doesn't block the winter sunshine when it is needed the most.  The only real drawback of the Gingko tree is that it drops bazillions a copious number of berries (or whatever its fruit is called) in the autumn, and these berries - when crushed underfoot - don't smell exactly terrific. In fact, they smell pretty bad.  The street sweepers try to keep up with them, but it's a losing battle.  Everywhere you go, you'll find sidewalks everywhere littered with Gingko berries - both whole, crushed, and decomposing (as you can imagine, the decomposing variety are most popular with the dog.)  

Gingko berries everywhere

The truth is, I've gotten so used to them, I really don't notice their smell anymore.  The only time they bother me is when I'm walking down a steep hill.  If you step on a crushed Gingko berry the wrong way, it can be as treacherous as a banana peel.  

The arrival of the cafe' blanket:  Seoul is a city full of cafes, and people sit outdoors whenever possible, for as long as possible (until the winter just gets too brutal.)  To help extend the season, cafe' owners supply blankets for their patrons, usually hung over the backs of the chairs.  Once you see the blankets come out, you know cooler weather is on the way.  

The Fruits of The Harvest:  While we in the USA typically expect pumpkins, apples, and corn on the cob to feature in fall displays, there are a couple different players in Korea - for example, the persimmon.  Let me just come right out and say that persimmons were not a large part of my diet in the US, except when they showed up in a mixture of dried fruit.  Here in Seoul, though, there are persimmon trees everywhere, and, because they grow so well in this climate, one sees persimmons for sale at fabulous prices displayed in all the local markets.  

I was not aware that we actually had a persimmon tree in the garden behind our own building until I began spending a lot more time in it after we got the dog.  I kept wondering what the squashy, decomposing orange fruits were that she kept trying to roll in.  Here's the culprit, uphill from us.

As in the US, the apple harvest is a big part of autumn.  The fruit and vegetable truck guy who makes the rounds of our neighborhood(complete with terrifying loudspeaker that sounds like he is warning everyone about a North Korean invasion, but it's really just an announcement along the lines of, "Get your ripe fruit and veg right here at my truck!")  had had loads of delicious apples available lately - another reminder that fall is here.

And of course, chestnuts:

Restaurants gear up for colder weather:  As I mentioned, there are a lot of street cafes in Seoul, and many restaurants provide some (or all) of their seating outdoors.  Since space is at a premium and no one wants to lose customers all winter long, the restaurateurs of Seoul have figured out how to keep their customers warm and comfortable even after the snow starts to fall and blankets are no longer enough:  plastic tents.  It's another sure sign of the season when cafes, porches, and other outdoor seating areas begin to appear tented in clear plastic.  As the weather cools, space heaters will appear, and Seoulites will continue to enjoy their favorite foods (technically) out-of-doors.

Squash vines abound:  Although you probably don't think 'pumpkins' when you think of Korean food, the truth is, squash and zucchini, and their near relations, the cucumber (and don't get me started on how delicious a properly pickled Korean cucumber can be) abound here.  Korean cuisine includes a number of delicious pumpkin soups as well as all sorts of dishes made with squash and pumpkin.  At this time of year, you are likely to run across any number of squash vines - either planted on purpose in one of the community gardens, or (and this is one of the neatest things) tucked away on top of - or next to - a building.  

See those blossoms? They're going to be squash.  Or melons.  Or cucumbers.

One of my favorite incarnations of both pumpkin and zucchini (courgette) squash here in Korea is in the form of jeon,  a sort of pancake-type fritter made with any number of meats or vegetables.  The jeon is lightly battered and then fried in oil, then served, steaming hot, ideally along with the traditional makgeoli, a fermented rice wine.  When eaten on the street in a plastic tent next to a restaurant on a chilly October evening, you have the ultimate Seoul autumnal experience.
Freshly-cooked jeon, ready to be enjoyed

...ideally, with magkeoli (served from the brown pot and drunk out of tin bowls)

....eaten streetside, and served up with flair (thanks, T!)

I've probably been extra- sensitive to the signs of fall this year, because, in all likelihood, it will be my last one in Seoul.  As MrL's contract ends this summer and #2 finishes high school, there is every reason to assume that we won't be in Seoul this time next year - whether we find ourselves just moving to another city in Korea, or somewhere else altogether.  It's anybody's guess where we'll land, but with this knowledge in the back of my mind, I'm taking the time to pay attention and drink in every detail.  

And there's every chance that, wherever I am this time next year, I'll be missing autumn in Seoul.  

Monday, October 6, 2014

A few thoughts about owning a dog in Seoul

Give me food.

(Note:  MsCaroline's experiences are based on owning a smallish dog in an international neighborhood in Seoul.  It is likely that, if she had a larger/smaller/cuter/uglier/different breed dog and lived in a different part of Korea, her experience might well be completely different.  If you are thinking about owning a dog in Korea, do not take her experience as the final word.  Everyone's experience is different - this has been hers.)

As most of you know, we left our beloved Yellow Dog with my cousin in Canada when we moved to Seoul.  We had some serious doubts about his ability to adjust happily to life in a small apartment on the 14th floor of a high rise, as well as his ability to adjust to the general traffic and constant noise of a big city.  While it turns out that plenty of people do bring their big dogs to Korea and successfully make the adjustment to apartment living, we realize now that, despite all that,  it probably would not have worked for him, and we made the correct decision.  He is now living a life that most of us would envy, starting with the fact that my cousin makes him a cooked breakfast every. single. morning.

Just let that sink in for a minute. Every. single. morning.

Anyway, the point is, before we moved to Korea, we heard a lot of conflicting information about dogs in Korea:  how they were treated (badly), how they were perceived(Koreans hate dogs, don't have them as pets, etc,) what it was like to own a dog in Korea (challenging), and how hard it was to find landlords who permitted pets.  Now that we've lived here for 3+ years and have experienced dog culture in Seoul ourselves, we have come to our own set of conclusions, which have occasionally fit with what we'd heard, but more often, did not.

Most of you know that, after 2 years in the high-rise, we moved to a new apartment which permitted 'small dogs,' and, 4 months later, brought home a small, flat-faced dog, which was represented to us as being either a French Bulldog or, possibly, a Boston Terrier.  Or, possibly, some of each, which is probably the most likely scenario.

I may or may not be a French Bulldog.  Or Boston Terrier. You won't know for a few months. 

 In any case, Merlot (our other dog is named after beer) joined the household, and the learning curve began.(Note:  It is not a coincidence that MsCaroline's posting frequency dropped drastically after Merlot joined the household.  When she wasn't trying to exercise the dog enough to get it to sleep, she was trying to engineer a pen that would contain it.  It was a dark time.)

Over the past year, we've learned plenty about having a dog in Seoul, some of which confirmed the 'myths' we'd heard, and some of which made us realize that things have been changing even in the 3 short years we've been here.  Here's what our experience has been:

Not all Koreans are scared of dogs:  Before we moved to Korea, we read plenty of blogs and forums that told us that Koreans - who have not traditionally kept dogs as pets - were scared of all dogs and that the mere act of walking down the street with one could cause grown men to shriek like little girls and leap off the sidewalk.  The truth is, yeah, there are a lot more people who are scared of dogs in Korea than there are in North America - even more so if you have a large dog, I'm sure.  MrL and I have personally observed grown adults flattening themselves against a wall, pale with terror, as Merlot ( or, "9 kilos of raging fury" as MrL calls her ) trots pleasantly by on heel, hoping for ear scratches.  Yes, I have seen mothers pull their children behind them when we walk past;  I have seen people deliberately step off the sidewalk or cross the street, just to avoid possible contact with the dog; I have seen schoolchildren scream (yes scream) and run away.  It happens at least a few times a week on our daily walks.
Striding down city sidewalks, terrifying all in her path....

However, in all fairness, there are many more people who love our dog and stop to pet her, admire her, or ask about her.  As it happens, the flat-faced, big-eyed, goblinlike appeal of Frenchies and Boston Terriers is extremely high at the moment, and many hip young Koreans view our girl as a bit of a trendy fashion accessory, sort of like a pair of Doc Martens.  In any case, we rarely complete a walk without at least one lovely young Korean woman stopping to exclaim, "Oh, gwiyoun!" (sounds like 'key-oh!' and means "Oh, cute!")  Merlot is so familiar with this now, that if someone says, 'gwiyoun!' in her hearing, she immediately assumes they are addressing her and turns to the speaker.
Goofy and ridiculous, yes.  Some days, the word 'cute' is not exactly applicable.

I should also add that in many places we take her, she is a virtual Rock Star, attracting actual crowds. While I would like to think this is a result of her innate charm, the truth is, one sees very few flat-faced breeds over here, so it's more like taking a 3-toed sloth for a walk.  Hey, what's that? -I don't know, I think it's one of those things I saw on the Discovery Channel. Let's go look at it! - People gather around her, ask to take photos with her or to have her photo taken with their kids (sure, she's cute, but - a photo? Whatever.  Go ahead) .  The day we took this photo on top of Namsan Mountain at the Lighting of the Beacons Ceremony, there had been a crowd around her for the past half hour, documenting everything she did with their camera phones, including her photo op with one of the guards (who struggled to maintain his gravitas):

Go on.  You know you want to laugh.

Initially, we thought this was an older -vs. - younger generation thing, with the younger generation becoming more westernized and more familiar with the concept of dogs as housepets, but since some of Merlot's biggest admirers in our own neighborhood are elderly - and since plenty of schoolchildren still shriek and run away when they see me coming with Merlot (securely fastened to her lead) - the evidence doesn't support that assumption at all.

Plenty of Seoulites have dogs as pets:   When we got here 3 years ago, the dogs we saw most were the tiny, frou-frou types:  chihuahuas, Yorkie-poos, miniature poodles and mini dachshunds - basically, anything under about 5kg that could be carried in one of those dog purses.  They are still very popular - often dressed in tutus, smoking jackets, onesies, dresses, and shoes.  They have dyed hair (pink is probably the most popular at the moment,) polished fingernails, and quite a few have raincoats and boots. I have seen them carried in front packs (like an infant) and even doggie strollers. So, yes, Koreans do keep dogs as pets. Lately, we have been seeing more medium-to-large sized dogs in our neighborhood, and a Korean friend of mine told me that larger dogs (Dobermans, Labs) are starting to be seen as something of a status symbol:  if you live somewhere with enough space to keep a large dog, you must therefore have a substantial income.  I should also note that I know many people who keep dogs in their apartments, which disproves our earlier belief that Korean landlords do not allow pets.  For every landlord who doesn't, there is likely one who does.  Space, however, is still an issue, especially if you live in apartment, as most expats do.  If you do not mind taking your dog up and down an elevator every time it needs to do its business (or teaching it to do its business indoors on absorbent pads) you should be fine, as long as your dog can adjust to living in an apartment and does not absolutely need a big yard to run in in order to be happy.
Sometimes a dog needs space to roam. And sometimes a dog thinks she is a cat.
Eating dog - less prevalent than in the past:  It is true that Koreans - along with many other Asian cultures - traditionally viewed dogs as livestock or food.  It is also true that there are several traditional dishes that feature dogmeat, including bosintang, a stew traditionally eaten during the hottest part of the summer.  However, it is far less common for Koreans to eat dog than it used to be, and many younger Koreans have never done so.  Laws surrounding the raising of dogs for meat and its sale are vague at best, implying that it is against the law, but not actually illegal (I told you the laws were vague.  Or maybe I meant illogical) and there are still markets that sell dogs for meat, as well as restaurants that sell dishes containing dogmeat, so it is not exactly a charmingly antiquated custom that will necessarily die out anytime soon.  Nonetheless, I have never (knowingly) been in a restaurant that sold dog meat entrees, although I know they are out there (MrL has been to one.)  I could be wrong, but my best guess is that eating dog in Korea is a lot like eating squirrel or rattlesnake meat in the US:  yes, people do it, and those who do so aren't about to quit just because it makes some people uncomfortable, but you're not going to walk into your average grocery store and find it in the meat section.  In any case, in my 3 years in Seoul, I have not run across it, and I am more than happy to keep it that way.

Merlot's primary interaction with the restaurant industry is not as an ingredient, but as a customer. She is well-known at a number of cafes in our neighborhood.
Many Koreans interact differently with dogs than westerners do:

Clucking/tsking/kissing noises:    If you ever want a perfect example of a cultural difference, this would be it. (This is by no means a 'right' or 'wrong' thing, but simply a difference in how we communicate, and it's kind of fascinating, if a bit annoying at times.) In North America, when we make these noises at dogs, we do it with the intention of enticing the dog to come toward us - sort of a, "here, nice doggie" sound. It follows, then, that western dogs who hear this kind of sound respond by heading in the direction of the person who is summoning them. The problem is that when people in Korea make this noise at a dog, it just means, 'this is a noise I make at dogs' or, possibly, "Oh, that's a nice dog," - but it does not necessarily mean that the sound-maker wants the dog to come anywhere near him.  As you can imagine, this leads to daily awkward and embarrassing amusing incidents, wherein the dog is minding its business walking down the sidewalk, someone gets its attention by making noises at it, and the dog stops what it's doing and heads toward the person who has summoned him.  In the US, this would not be a problem, because if you are clucking or 'tsk'ing at a dog, you expect him to come towards you.  In Korea, however, it leads to people backing up and exclaiming in horror alarm as your dog walks towards them. I used to think that, every time I heard someone tsking or clucking at Merlot, it meant they wanted to call her to them for a little visit or an ear scratch.  I know better now, but the first few hundred times I experienced it, I was always confused about what I considered to be 'mixed messages' that were being sent as the 'tsker' backed away.  I asked a Korean friend about this, and she was very surprised to hear that we use these sounds to actually summon our dogs - for her, it's more of just a reaction to seeing a dog. The best I can come up with is to compare it to the way Americans with little kids point to cows and say, "moo."  No response is ever expected from the cow.  It's just what you do.

Petting them differently:  When a Korean person wants to pet Merlot, it's sometimes an interesting - and different - cultural approach.  In the US, typically if you want to interact with a dog, you hold out your hand.  The dog sniffs it, decides whether or not to continue the relationship, and - if the dog approves - you pet it.  By 'pet,' I mean, you do some gentle patting, stroking, or scratching - and if it's a really big dog - maybe give it some gentle whacks on the side, like a cow.

 In Korea, this is not always the case.  In the first place, we run into a lot of people who approach the dog by 'chucking' it under its muzzle.  (This is sort of like what you would do to yourself if you were a middle-aged woman who was hoping against hope to pat away a double chin. Not that MsCaroline would be familiar with this gesture.)  It's not painful or violent or anything - in fact, it seems more like rhythmic tapping - just under the chin, which is (in North American culture, at least) not a typical place for petting dogs.  The other thing that is interesting is when people go to pet Merlot and - before they get their hand to the top of her head - she sniffs or licks their hand.  More often than not, there is either a rapid pulling back of the hand, or a little squeal of alarm, as though the petter fears that she will tear their hand off.  While MsCaroline concedes that an immaculately-behaved dog(which we can all agree Merlot is not) would probably remain perfectly still while being patted on top of the head, she also does not feel that it is completely out of the realm of reasonable behavior for a dog to sniff or lick a hand that is petting it.  However, it is possible that Merlot is the canine equivalent of one of those dreadful children who get away with murder because their soft-headed and weak parents instill no discipline in them.  It could very well be that MsCaroline - as is so often the case with doting parents - is just the last to accept it.

But I can't help it.  She's so.....gwiyoun.

You gonna eat that all yourself? MsCaroline knows - we're working on table manners....

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Home again, home again....30 hours later

Typhoon updates at the airport in Tokyo

Let MsCaroline be perfectly clear:  this blog post is basically an excuse to post hilarious photos of her dog in a backpack, so don't expect any Pulitzer-prize level writing, mkay?

Shrewd readers will have deduced that the date on this post (nearly mid-August) signifies that Summer is drawing to a close and things are returning to normal chez Asia Vu.  They are correct (hence their designation as 'shrewd.')

In fact, this is the first morning since mid-June that all 3 of us (and the dog) have woken up under the same roof in our apartment in Seoul.  It was a long (and mostly very pleasant) 6 weeks of visiting old friends and family, making memories, sharing reminiscences, and (if we're going to be real here, as #2 would say) shopping.

MsCaroline has plenty of stories from her summer roamings to share, which she will get around to if and when she has time (see how cagey she's getting? She knows better than to make any promises like she did when she was a naive new blogger, like, 'I'll be writing a post about this.'  Maybe she will, and maybe she won't.  See how savvy she is?) but right now, she is surrounded by mountains of unpacking and piles of boxes (full of things she shipped to herself while she was Back Home) so she is going to limit herself to the last 48 hours, which is a manageable chunk of time.

MsCaroline will skip over the details and simply say that, due to a Giant Typhoon that was attacking Japan (where they had a 4-hour layover) as they arrived, they ended up spending 9 hours in the Tokyo Narita airport waiting for the weather to clear so they could take off.

 This was not all bad, since Japan Airlines -possibly the most polite airline in the Universe - gave them complimentary access to their Sakura First Class Lounge in order to apologize for the delay. Free food and drinks in a luxurious airport club will go a long way toward reconciling an exhausted traveler to her fate.  (remember this, airlines!)

 MrL and MsC spent their 9 hours  in relative comfort, enjoying this:

Luxury in the JAL lounge.  We were mollified.

...and doing a lot of this:

Free wine= reasonably happy travelers.

 Anyway, following innumerable delays, their flight finally landed in Incheon at around 1:30 am, and - after hiking miles through an eerily empty airport, navigating Immigration (also blessedly empty) and waiting forever  for their checked luggage - they tiredly boarded a charter bus (supplied by the airlines, since normal service had stopped hours earlier) and trundled off into the night for the hourlong drive to Seoul, transferring to a taxi when they reached Seoul Station, and arriving home at about 4am.

Although they were both bone-tired, they found that - as is always the case when one knows one really should be sleeping - they were far too keyed up to sleep, and ended up sitting in the beautifully cool pre-dawn darkness on their patio with a Belgian beer (purely for medicinal purposes - as a sleep aid) and an enormous sense of relief that the 31-hour odyssey had finally come to an end.

Were we a little punchy after 30 hours of nonstop travel? Yeah.

The next day progressed as all days do when you have gone to bed at 4:30am after too much traveling and have a heinous case of jetlag - raggedly, with any number of ups and downs.  At midday, they collected the Dog from the magician dogsitter, and after dinner, they set out for the drive back to Incheon, where they planned to collect Son#2, who was returning from a summer program for high schoolers in Berkeley (MrL's work schedule mandated that he be back for Monday morning meetings, a day before #2's program ended, so they flew separately, which was probably a huge relief to #2 anyway.)

MsC and MrL decided that it would also be entertaining to take the Dog with them, carrying her through the airport in her newest doggie backpack (she had been used to traveling in her smaller one until she outgrew it,) where she could see and hear all the proceedings and (most importantly) be there to welcome #2 back to Korea.

Let MsC assure her dog-loving readers that the Dog fits perfectly in the backpack, is comfortable in it, and enjoys getting in there - in fact, she can even stand up in it - but that her inclination toward curling up in small spaces causes her to spend much of her time looking squashed.

Like this:

And like this:

But when she was sitting up normally, she looked very comfortable.  Really.

Naturally, MsCaroline failed to get a touching photograph of the tender reunion between a boy and his dog, mostly because she was busy taking surreptitious photographs of the Buddhist monk standing near her, not because he was a Buddhist monk in the middle of an airport (really not such an odd thing in Korea), but because he had on a pair of the brightest orange Crocs you have ever seen, and she was trying to get a shot of them.  Partly because she did not know that monks even wore Crocs, but also because she would not have expected them to be color-coordinated, and she likes the unexpected. So here you are:  a monk and his Crocs.  You're welcome.

If you look really closely, you can see the orange Crocs.  They are fabulous.

Note:  MsCaroline slept for 11 glorious hours last night and is feeling energetic enough to declare that she'll post again soon with a few highlights from her summer Home Leave. Probably.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Expat Life: MsCaroline's Early Summer 2014 Roundup

(Note:  this post was begun in April, and has been languishing in the 'drafts' folder ever since.  Originally titled, "MsCaroline's Spring 2014 Roundup," it has been reworked, revised, and added to for obvious reasons, most specifically, that it is no longer Spring.)

If you were wondering what happened during the rest of our holiday in Hanoi, you will have to wait for a while, because time is short.  MsCaroline will save Hanoi and its motor scooters and excellent coffee and warm weather for a later post.  Right now, it's time to try and put down in cyberspace all the details that don't warrant a post of their own, but which need to at least be mentioned if MsC is ever going to be able to move forward and stop thinking about all the things she hasn't mentioned on the blog lately.  So, without further ado:

Spring 2014 included a bit of travel (Kyoto and Hanoi,) some cycling, and a lot of work (MsC took on 3 extra classes in January and spent the rest of the semester with her head just barely above the water) She is happy it is over, although she loved teaching high school again.

AsiaVu's 3-Year Blogiversary: This was the 3rd of April.  MsCaroline went back and nostalgically read her first blog post, which was actually not bad at all.  Then she started thinking about how much more time and effort she used to put into blogging, which led her to think about how little she posts compared to when she first started blogging.  On the plus side, she is pleased that she has stuck with it (more or less) for THREE YEARS, and knows that, somewhere down the road when she is settled down somewhere again, she will be glad to have such a comprehensive record - including her thoughts and opinions about it all - of her time in Seoul.

The End of the 3rd Year in Seoul:  This anniversary was in June.  Strange to think that what started out as a 2-year stint in Korea will end, 4 years later, with #2 finishing his school days here.  Even stranger to think that, at 3 years, one becomes something of a 'veteran' in the expat community, where 1- and 2-year corporate contracts are the rule, rather than the exception.

Passports:  Back in November, a very responsible Son#2 informed MsCaroline that his passport would expire in a year and that they should make arrangements to get him a new one.  MsC replied absently that she would make a note of it and of course they would get it done before he had fewer than 6 months remaining on the passport (most countries will not issue you a visa - even a tourist one - if your passport expires in fewer than 6 months.)  (Oh, and lest readers jump to conclusions and assume that MsC let things slide, resulting in wacky diplomatic proceedings in Hanoi, let her quickly assure them that #2's passport still had 7 months of validity remaining when they arrived in Vietnam.) However, what MsCaroline had not realized was that #2's passport photo - taken when he was an angelic chubby-cheeked 12-year-old- no longer bore any resemblance whatsoever to the lanky almost-6-footer who had to bend nearly double just for the official in the visa booth to see his face.  After some initial skepticism on the part of the immigration folk, MsC and MrL managed to convince them that the passport was, indeed, #2 and - after a great deal of mirth on the part of all of the officials on duty at that time (and a certain amount of humiliation on the part of #2) they were given their visas and sent on their way. Needless to say, MsC made an appointment at the embassy for the new passport as soon as they arrived back in Seoul. She is thankful to say that the passport process went smoothly, although there was a small glitch in which she forgot to get a new visa stamp in the new passport until 2 days before #2 left for the US.  Addressing this involved an early wake-up and a few silly hijinks in the immigration office. But all's well that ends well, so we won't discuss that, shall we?

The Dog:  At 10 months, the Dog has become a mostly pleasant family companion, although MsCaroline will never would not be likely try to train and housebreak a puppy in a 4th-floor apartment ever again as long as she lives and all of you are her witnesses.  While the AsiaVus were in Hanoi, the Dog stayed with a magician dog whispering sort of person who has far more experience with Boston Terriers than the AsiaVus do and cast some sort of spell on her.  In addition to having a friend to play with 24/7, the Dog was apparently on her best behavior, managing to convince the DogWhisperer that she was one of the best-adjusted and friendliest Boston Terriers that she had ever seen.  This only proves MsCaroline's theory, that the Dog is, in fact, smarter than everyone, and will ultimately rule the world.

Gratuitously cute shot of Dog and her Friend, sent to us while we were in Hanoi. Who would guess that such destruction could lurk just below that sweet exterior?  
Apartment-hunting - again:  Due to having added a dog to the household, the AsiaVus were looking around for a more dog-friendly apartment or house with some sort of garden attached. Those who read the posts about house hunt last year will remember that house-hunting in Seoul is about a zillion times more challenging than it is in the US.   Of course, the parameters - which were already narrow - became even narrower, because the AsiaVus absolutely loved their neighborhood and their present apartment, so the new apartment would have had to have been located in a 5-block radius.  Ultimately, this turned out to be nothing more than a time-waster;  all the garden apartments were too small (in one of them, #2 turned to me with stricken eyes and whispered sadly about the bedroom that would have been his, 'This is like a prison cell.') and all the other apartments without gardens had nothing to recommend them over the present apartment.  So, we soldier on as we are, dreaming of someday being able to open the back door again in order to let the dog out.

Getting Back on The Bike:  As most readers know, MrL's sport of choice is cycling.  He has several bicycles (road and mountain) and has been riding with serious and/or competitive amateur teams for years. What readers may not know is that MsC, once upon a time, was also a (very very amateur) cyclist.  That is, she could ride her bicycle semi-competently for 50 or 60 kilometers, including up hills, and she was  modestly fit for a person of her age and shape (round.)  For various reasons, she stopped cycling not long before moving to Seoul, but had been considering taking it up again (an idea fully supported and encouraged by MrL.)  Sometime in March, she took her first tentative steps back into cycling, and has since been riding every weekend with MrL as her kindly and encouraging companion.  So far, things have gone reasonably well (eg, no major falls, although she is still nervous about getting her feet out of the clips fast enough when she needs to stop.)  Two weekends ago, she completed her first-ever 100-km ride (about 62 miles) and was very pleased with herself.  While MsCaroline is delighted to have faced a challenge and met it head-on, she has also learned some new and important lessons about how to prepare oneself for such a lengthy ride.  Because it is her wish that this blog should remain G-rated, she will simply say that, after completing the 5.5-hour ride, she sat down (carefully) and ordered this product from the internets, which should allow discerning readers to draw their own conclusions:

MsCaroline is not sure what is better:  the product, or its name.  She can tell you, though, she will never do a long ride without it again.  Should you be interested in ordering some, you can do so here.

Summer Plans/Home Leave:  So complex that MsCaroline does not even want to try to sum them up in brief.  Suffice it to say that #2 has already left, and MsC will leave in about a week, to be joined 2 weeks later by MrL. This summer's agenda will cover the Northeast, the West, the South, the Midwest, and the West Coast of the US (possibly a foray to Canada, not sure) due to a variety of reasons and events.  #1 is staying in the US this summer (sob) for the best of reasons:  a paid internship with a well-known and highly respected global financial institution (which MsC is not going to say the name of because it would be bragging, but it rhymes with 'shapey organ base'), which will give him valuable experience in the field of finance as well as (hallelujah!) paying him a salary.  MsC is disappointed that she won't have him home this summer, but she understands that life moves on, and will appreciate whatever time she gets to spend with him.

MsCaroline has (as always) plenty of additional detritus floating around in her brain, which she really does plan to share with her readers...eventually.  But for now, she's off to walk the dog.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Expat Life: Traveling to Hanoi and Some Thoughts on Driving in SE Asia

We did not ride in a cyclo, but they were everywhere in Hanoi.

If you are asking yourself, "Wait! Didn't MsCaroline just get back from spending a weekend in Kyoto?" you are correct.  In fact, it was just over 2 weeks after the AsiaVus got back from Japan that they turned around and boarded a plane for Vietnam.

Why? Because MsCaroline and her family love the thrill of travel and exploring new cultures? Well, yes, partly.  But the truth is, coordinating their 3 vastly disparate schedules (including 2 international schools on completely different holiday plans) requires nothing short of a mathematical algorithm.  So if all of them are free for a long weekend - they go somewhere, even if the last trip was just 2 weeks ago and the older people in the family are still not fully recovered.

So it came to pass that the AsiaVus found themselves seated on an aircraft in the midst of a party of loud and obnoxious hearty and ebullient middle-aged Korean gentlemen who appeared to be heading to Vietnam for either a stag party or a trip with their hiking club (from what MsC has seen on the mountains around Seoul, both seem to involve roughly the same amount of drinking.)  It was with great foreboding (and a certain amount of grudging respect) that MsCaroline watched the man in front of her put away enough whiskey - neat, mind you - to fell an ox. To the everlasting relief of MsC and her fellow travelers, though, he and the rest of his party managed to avoid puking or starting fights some of the more typically dramatic outcomes of such a high level of consumption, and drank themselves into a state of - if not complete insensibility - at least relative silence, by the 4th hour of the 5-hour flight.

The point here is that the AsiaVus were already somewhat short-tempered and crabby when they entered the arrival hall of Noi Bai airport and discovered what can best be described as 'a scrum' directly in front of the 'Visa On Arrival' booth, where it turned out that a massive Brazilian tour group had just arrived moments earlier and all of them were trying to fill out their VOA forms (Note:  MsC would like to point out that she had had the sheer dumb luck forethought to find the forms online and fill them out in advance, which put them well ahead of the Brazilians, none of whom seemed to have brought a pen with them to Hanoi, and were clearly becoming desperate.)

MrL -whose formative years in Manila had outfitted him superbly for this precise moment - plunged into the sea of humanity and elbowed worked his way purposefully toward the counter, where a torrent of people thronged around a dimly lit sign that stated, "Visa On Arrival."  Of course, it turned out that the end he'd  gone to was the wrong end of the kiosk (no signs, of course), so he fought his way back through the crowd and went to the right end of the counter, where he submitted the paperwork, necessitating a return to the other end of the counter, where the madding crowds still milled about in terrifying density, presumably still searching for pens.  Picking up the visas involved squeezing one's way through a glut of tourists moaning and pawing around the glass booth, which reminded MsCaroline a bit too vividly of the zombies in The Walking Dead.

Visas and luggage having been sorted, the AsiaVus headed out to find their driver, who was (thankfully) waiting exactly where he said he would be.  The 45-minute drive from the airport into the Old Quarter of Hanoi then proceeded as most such trips proceed in Southeast Asia:  the driver expertly weaving his way through a variety of vehicles (cyclos, motorbikes, scooters, bicycles, trucks, other cars) while keeping his hand permanently affixed to the horn at all times.

Keep your wits about you at all times.

 Now, MsCaroline realizes that there are major differences between many Western and Asian countries, and, for the most part, she continues to be amazed and impressed by the way people, cars, bikes, and animals all manage to share such limited space in a relatively peaceful way and with comparatively few casualties.  A huge player in this scenario is that fact that driving is, for the most part, much more of a fluid and interactive pastime than it is in the US, where we all just follow the rules as written and people get alarmed and incensed when anyone does even the slightest thing out of the ordinary.

Compare this to just about anywhere in Asia, where space is limited and a wide variety of people and vehicles must share fewer, often smaller, roads. Some of these circumstances are unique to Southeast Asia, while some of them apply across the region, even in modern, highly-technological Seoul, where you are unlikely to cross paths with livestock while driving, but still have every possibility of the car in front of you stopping abruptly in traffic and putting its flashers on for no apparent reason.    In every case, drivers must do their best to adapt to these circumstances, and in no way is this more obvious than in the difference in the way that Western and Eastern drivers use their horns. Should you be unfamiliar with these differences, MsCaroline has comprised a handy chart which travelers may wish to carry along on their next journey to the region:

In North America the honking of a horn can mean:
In Southeast Asia, the honking of a horn can mean: 
The light has changed.  Go.

The light has changed.  Go.
Hey! You very nearly caused an accident, you !@#$%^&*(!!!!!
The light has not changed.  Go.
I am waiting to pick you up in your driveway and am too lazy to get out of my car.
Move out of my way, I am going.  I do not care what color the light is.

Here I come, watch out.

I am about to pass you.

I am passing you.

I am passing you and you may or may not see me.

I have just passed you.

Move out of the way, goat/dog/cat/cow/horse/child/chicken, I am about to pass you.

I am passing you and you are drifting into my lane, because lane markers are more of a suggestion than a rule in this part of the world, so driving between the lines is not necessarily an expectation.

Just so you know, I am driving next to you.

(While waving)You should go around me, since I have stopped my vehicle in the middle of the street to do something and it is inconvenient for me to move at the moment.

I am driving quickly toward you on the sidewalk and you are in my way

I am parked on the sidewalk and trying to drive into traffic and you are in my way

I am about to drive onto the sidewalk and you are in my way.

You have the right-of-way in a pedestrian crosswalk, but I am driving anyway, so you might want to be aware that I am driving toward you and move more swiftly.

(Note:  Clearly, these are not the only possible meanings a horn can have, but these are the primary occurrences that MsC has noted in her recent travels.  It should also be noted that, 99% of the time, the honking in SE Asia is pleasant and good-humored, unlike in N. America, where it tends to be accompanied by a certain level of rage and impatience, and - if windows are down - can get quite shouty.)  
You name it - you saw one on the streets or on the sidewalks.
Everyone has to share the space.

An hour later, the AsiaVus were walking into their hotel rooms, no worse for the wear, and looking forward to exploring Hanoi in the morning.

Silent Sunday

So hard to believe I shot this on the busy Han River in the middle of Seoul. I love watching all the water birds, but the cranes are my favorites.  It's like a tiny, holy, moment whenever I catch a glimpse of one like this.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Expat Life: New Neighbors

The nosy dog is fascinated by the moving van (note mint sprouting in the pot - mojitos in our future...)

One of the facts of life overseas is the frequency with which people come and go.  Typically, the summer months are the times of biggest turnover, as they are in most places.  However, expat life being what it is, it's not really a surprise when people come and go at any time of year.  Back in December, our across-the-hall neighbors - a contentious older couple who kept to themselves (by 'kept to themselves,' I actually mean 'avoided human contact like the plague') moved out.  Since then, we've been treated to a regular stream of workmen, realtors, and prospective buyers - but no new neighbors.  We actually haven't minded - the last couple displayed an alarming tendency to engage in heated discussion (by 'heated discussion' I mean 'domestic brawls') on their patio. This was bad enough if all our windows were open - which they are for at least half the year - but was even more unpleasant if MrL and I happened to be sitting on our patio right next door while it was taking place.

In any case, the apartment across the hall has been blessedly empty (and its patio correspondingly serene) for 4 months now, but our halcyon days may be coming to an end.

The first hint of this came when I tried to turn my car into the narrow street by my building this afternoon and found the entrance to our parking garage blocked by a moving van.

After circumnavigating the block and narrowly escaping death by taxi dodging a certain amount of traffic, I was able to get into the building and up to my own apartment, where I discovered that the moving van's hydraulic lift was positioned on the balcony next to mine.

If you, like me, have spent most of your adult life inhabiting one-or-two story suburban houses, then you will be just as interested as I was in how people get furniture into buildings with small stairwells and tiny elevators in a crowded metropolis. Or, possibly, you will not be. We were not actually present when our things were moved into our apartments in Korea, so I didn't get to see how it was done;  I've seen lifts moving furniture in and out of apartments in Seoul, but have never watched the process 'up close,' so this was an excellent opportunity. Anyway, the point is,  the Nosy Dog and I trotted ourselves out to our patio and -under the guise of watering my plants - unabashedly goggled at the Moving Guys and their Really Cool Truck and Lift Arrangement until we were treated to a view of exactly how they get the stuff up there:

MsCaroline thinks it would be really fun to ride on one of these things.
No signs of the new inhabitants yet, but there has been a great deal of Lego going up on the lift, so the likelihood seems high that we'll end up with a semi-normal family for neighbors instead of shrieking misanthropes (sounds like the name of a band, doesn't it?)

We'll see.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Expat Life: Musings of an Adult Third Culture Kid (TCK)

MsCaroline, adoring the baby chicks at the market in Bangkok.  This was (obviously) before Bird Flu.

Anyone who's read my sidebars (or just the headline on this blog) knows that MrL and I both grew up (more or less) overseas, and identify as TCKs (Third Culture Kids, or 'kids who have spent more time overseas than in their 'passport culture.')

Part of the fun of moving to Asia has been visiting places we lived as kids - not always so easy for TCKs to do - as well as enjoying some of the aspects of the culture that we remember so fondly (MsCaroline, for instance, has re-discovered just how much she loves anything made of sweet bean paste. Anything.)

Of course, as I've mentioned before, our kids are not typical TCKs.  While we did move several times thither and yon across the continental US, Sons#1 and #2 did not have to contend with any international moves until 2011, when we moved to Seoul.  Son#1, a recent high school graduate, delayed his University studies for a semester and enjoyed living abroad for 6 months before heading back to the US;  by the time we return to the US, he will undoubtedly be finished with his studies and living on his own.

While Son #1 spent his entire childhood in the USA, Son#2 moved to Seoul when he was just 14 and starting high school. While he's not exactly a TCK - at least not by his parents' standards -  by the time he leaves for Uni in the fall of 2015, he will have spent 4 years living overseas and attending an international school.

Like his parents, his high school experience has been one spent very interestingly - but far from typically for the average North American.  His teachers come from 6 countries;  his schoolmates, from at least a hundred.  His speech contains a mix of Canadian, British, and American terminology, (sprinkled liberally with Korean slang.)  When he says goodbye to his friends in the graduating class this year, they will be heading for universities on at least 5 continents.

It's not a typical sort of school experience;  in fact, it will undoubtedly set him apart for the rest of his life.  Not in a bad way, but in a way that will make him recognize other TCKs and international school students as 'kindred spirits' of a sort;  fellow travelers who've experienced a life outside the norm and who can't always identify with the shared cultural experiences of their fellow citizens.   Even all these years later, I found myself relating very strongly to this slideshow;  if you attended an international school, or your child does, I know you will be nodding your head in sympathy.  If you aren't, it's a great little insight into a world that's completely different - but, at the same time, maybe not so different at all.

 22 Signs You Were an International School Kid