Archive for November, 2007

Food, Community and Living Lightly

Friendly Friend Dough VendorPicture yourself walking home from work on a Friday night.  You pass eight or nine restaurants but it is 9 pm and you are not quite that hungry.  You decide maybe you will stop at the local market instead.  You pick up broccoli, chicken, bok choi, carrots and onions for tomorrow’s stir fry lunch, and find little “hair peppers” (dried red pepper strips thin as hair) which will make a perfect, spicy topping.  Having tried a number of the local potato chips, you decide to try “kelp chips” this time for something different.  [They taste like crunchy seawater with sugar.]

You wander across the street to get croissants for breakfast and then down five stores to the other French bakery for a walnut baguette (it will be perfect with butter and jam, an omelette and milk tea for breakfast).  The woman who owns your favorite neighborhood restaurant sees you through the window and waves hi.  Two students see you and wave hi.  You decide you need something more than kelp chips this evening and stop by the fruit stand for a basket of persimmons.  They have one basket left and the owner throws in a few apples because she knows you. 

TakkogiThen you see the “spicy chicken on a stick” (takkogi) vendor and realize that is exactly what you want.  You debate - pickle and pineapple sauce?  No, just spicy this time.  You pass by the sweet cinnamon fried dough vendor with deep regret - your hands are completely full!  Maybe tomorrow.  He waves and you head back to your apartment.  Total time, 25 minutes from leaving campus.

In New Hampshire I live in a rural community where each house sits on two acres.  I have a large garden and lots of trees.  We’ve seen bears, moose and deer on the property.  But the nearest shop (a small general store) is an eight minute drive.  In the summer I do my food shopping at the local farmers’ markets  - I can get vegetables, chicken, lamb, bread, eggs, jam, friendly conversation and even a music concert all on the Town Green in Weare, NH.   But the rest of the year, it is a 60 minute round trip drive to the supermarket where I rarely meet anyone I know.

Paris BaguetteMy Korean neighborhood is the best of “urban” living with a dry cleaners, a pharmacy, a hardware store, three food markets, a fruit stand, two bakeries, two dozen restaurants, a dessert shop, a bank, a copy center, four bars, three hair salons, a DVD rental place, a florist, and a sauna all within a 10 minute walk.  That list only includes the places whose English or Korean signs I can read - there are at least two dozen other shops I have not explored yet.

Do I miss having a garden and green space all my own?  A little, though I have not thought about mowing, weeding, tree-trimming or brush-hauling for almost three months!  The rice paddies here are a saving grace - they provide green space, a sense of the seasons, and a place for long, rambling walks.   Do I miss having a car?  Once or twice a car would have been nice, when public transportation did not easily go where I wanted.  But I have not actually needed one.  Do I miss having my own home instead of an apartment?  This is more troublesome - I am less fond of sharing my neighbors’ noise, wailing children and smoke.  But I am in one of the cheapest apartment buildings and could buy a fair bit of peace and quiet by moving to another building.

Tous Les JoursWith no car, no commute, and no need to drive to the supermarket or Walmart, I have probably never lived this lightly on the earth in my entire life.  Importantly, I am doing it without even trying - it comes with the shape of my urban environment.  While I do not know my immediate neighbors, I do know my neighborhood, a community of grocers, bakers, pharmacists and clerks.  And I have never eaten this well this easily!  As Americans think about “going green” and “building community,” we could learn a lot from a small neighborhood in Korea.

1 comment November 30, 2007

Thanksgiving, Food and Norebang

The Thanksgiving TableThe idea of Thanksgiving is not uniquely American.  Many cultures have a specific day, usually in fall, when they express gratefulness to God for all good things and spend time together with family.  In Korea, this is Chuseok.  But American Thanksgiving does have its unique aspects, particularly its food traditions.  (The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and college football are pretty special too, and Black Friday must be unique in the world).

I celebrated on Saturday this year with a former American military chaplain and his wife, both of whom teach at Pyeongtaek University.  Seven Korean friends joined us.  Because our hosts shopped at the military base, the Thanksgiving food was wonderfully familiar - a 26 pound (beautifully cooked) turkey, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, and green salad.  We also had rice and kimchee.  For dessert there was fruit salad, cheese pie, coffee cake and a decadent white cake with whipped cream and fruit from a local French bakery.  I said to my hostess I was glad she had not made pumpkin pie, because then I would have had to nominate her for sainthood!

Eating!As in the U.S., we ate, and ate, and ate some more, telling jokes and stories, drinking wine and laughing.  I was asked to contribute a Thanksgiving joke, so here’s my effort:

A woman bought a parrot a few days before Thanksgiving.  She had been assured that the parrot knew many words, but so far he had not spoken. However, as each guest came in the door, he greeted them with a series of curse words!  He sounded like a drunken sailor.  The woman was frantic.  She yelled at him, threw things at him.  Finally, desperate, she walked him past the dining room table into the kitchen and put him in the refrigerator where no one could hear him.  After 5 minutes she felt terrible and let him out.  From then on, he was perfectly behaved, saying only the most polite things.  When the last guest had left, he turned to her and asked, quietly, “So what did the turkey do?”

NorebangThis is Korea after all, so after dinner there was no football.  Instead we went out for norebang.  Norebang is the Korean word for karaoke or “singing room”, a private room with karaoke machine, lights, and a wall of video monitors.  I love to sing, but never know the titles of songs, making it hard to find something I know in a book of 6000 song titles, 5000 in Korean.  But this was my third experience, and my colleagues are very supportive, often singing in English.  Watching a former Korean military general belt out Frank Sinatra’s My Way ranks up there with my best experiences in Korea!  This time I contributed Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl, Desperado, and John Denver’s Take Me Home Country Roads.  I have promised to learn one song completely in Korean before I leave for home!

Given all the richness of my experience here, I gave extra special thanks this Thanksgiving.  While my family and old friends were far away, they were safe and happy.  I had new friends and familiar foods and plenty of laughter.  From the very beginning, one could say Thanksgiving has been an international holiday.  Both the turkey and the Indians were named after countries far away.  The Indians who joined the colonists were representing their own nations.  Colonists were integrating European traditions (like harvest festivals and pie) with American foods (like turkeys and pumpkins).  So perhaps my multinational celebration was more American than I had thought.  I wonder if there was a colonial American tradition of norebang too? 

1 comment November 24, 2007

Second Half of Interview Now Available

First Snow of Winter from my apartment window

Time is passing quickly.  Today was the first day of my fourth month in Korea (I have finished exactly 1/3 of my appointment).  It was also the first snow of winter, an icy, crunchy inch or two that melted off by noon.  

The second half of my podcast interview is now available at  In it I talk about the relationship between North and South Korea, how my experience here will impact my teaching, and the reasons you should come touring in Korea.  My husband Tod and my two cats get their 5 seconds of fame as well.

Add comment November 21, 2007

History and Forgiveness

Korean Flags at KIHA few weeks ago, the student assistant in the American Studies Department asked if he could take me to a museum.  On a Saturday morning Ji Jae-yong showed up with two friends and a picnic lunch.  We drove about 40 minutes to the town of Cheonan, eating tangerines and sharing stories.   After a great lunch in a blustery wind, we headed into the museum complex, eventually seeing 6 buildings of out 10. 

In case you do not know (I did not before I came here), Japan ruled Korea from the mid-1890s until the end of World War II.  This is called the “colonial period” and it was filled with Japanese brutality and Korean independence movements.  The March 1 (1919) uprising is the most famous.  Japan required all Koreans to learn Japanese, to take Japanese names, and to serve the Japanese economy.  Korean resistance was physical as well as cultural, especially the teaching of hanguel (the Korean alphabet) and the sewing of national flags.

A Cold Day at the Korean Independence HallThe Independence Hall of Korea was created in the 1980s specifically to counter Japanese histories of this period.  Koreans firmly believe that Japan has still not fully understood or repented its colonial activities.  They point to Japan’s history books, which tend to gloss over any negative aspects of the period, as evidence.

While I could argue with a few signs in the museum which referred to “those wily Japanese imperialists,” one sign was absolutely perfect.  It came after an exhibit depicting Japanese soldiers inflicting horrible torture on members of the Korean Language Association (being a Korean language teacher was a revolutionary and deadly position under colonialism).  The Japanese appeared to be either enjoying their work, or bored by it.  I wondered what the point of this horror was (I would have skipped the exhibit, but the students were eager for me to see it).  Then I found the sign.  It said, more or less, “The actions shown in this exhibit can be forgiven, but should never be forgotten.  We did not create this exhibit to excite hatred or anger toward another nation, but to present the truth as reported in oral testimonies and historical documents.  Only when we understand and accept the truth of the past can we create a united future.”

We all paused and thought.  As an American I was particularly stunned. I fear some day I will read such a sign after an exhibit depicting American atrocities.  Whatever our political beliefs about the reasons such things happen, torture by Americans has and likely is still happening.  We will some day have to account for and perhaps apologize for it.  If we do not, I hope someone creates such a carefully worded exhibit.  We must understand and accept before we can move on.National Museum of Korea

A week later I went to the National Museum of Korea.  It used to be housed in a building built by the Japanese during the colonial period.  Late in the 1990s this was considered inappropriate for Korea’s national museum and it has been moved to a stunningly beautiful new building and park.  I wandered the grounds, deeply impressed with the economic investment Korea could make in protecting its heritage.  It has only been 50 years since colonization and a devastating civil war.  Living people still remember.

National Museum Pagoda GardenA colleague provided excellent explanations of the moveable type exhibit (Koreans invented moveable type 200 years before Gutenberg). She underscored the connections between patriotism and hanguel, language and resistance.  So you may understand why I was rocked a little off-balance when we next entered an entire exhibit devoted to Japanese art.  Not just Japanese art, but Japanese art in the 1930s, when Japan was using Korea’s economic and human resources to build an Asian empire.  The exhibit had delicately painted screens in gold and bright blue, modernist renderings of Mount Fuji, azure blue pottery, stunningly lacquered boxes, and intricately woven baskets.  The exhibit was mounted with care, thoughtfulness, and a clear love for the pieces.

Here was true forgiveness.  A curator at Korea’s National Museum installed an exhibit of Japanese beauty from a period of Japanese brutality.  There were no signs pointing this out, no hint of politics, just a quiet act of acceptance and generosity.  Here, in a sense, was also Korea’s self-confidence, the ability to showcase Japanese productions amid Korea’s own, knowing Korea’s art would not suffer by comparison. 

I am grateful to the students and the English colleague who made sure I got to see the museums.  And I am especially grateful to two museum curators for an unexpected vision of history and forgiveness. 

1 comment November 18, 2007

Being a Minority Person

[Sorry, no pictures this week.  I have had some great experiences recently, but I have also had a cold.  Learning how to say “Where can I buy cold medicine?” was NOT on my to do list! Hopefully there will be pictures by next week.]

Being a minority person means being stared at.  Everywhere I go in Korea, people notice me and stare openly or covertly, briefly or until I return their gaze.  Each look says, “That’s odd” or “What is she doing here?”  So far almost everyone has seemed curious, noticing me the way one would notice a bright red bus.  I am merely something unusual, almost always the only non-Asian in a crowd.

But being a minority person means I have to try and understand the stares to separate friendly curiosity from potentially threatening situations.    My experience here has been so positive that I generally assume the stares are friendly.  I attribute the rare, apparently unfriendly stare to causes other than me, like gas pains or a bad day.  Had my experience been negative, I probably would feel singled out by the stares.  The question, “What is she doing here?” would not feel like curiosity, but rather a denial of my right to be present. 

I have the advantage here that I am a welcome minority person.  I am white, which means racism works in my favor.  A few Koreans are anti-American (and that number is growing).  However, most have accepted the advertising culture which associates whiter skin, wider eyes, English-speaking, and relative wealth with success.  Therefore I to some extent represent what Koreans want to be or have, rather than a threat to their culture and society.  Immigrants and visitors from the Philippines, Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam would likely have a very different minority experience.  I know African American service members and African immigrants are still pretty baffling -and often less welcome - to most Koreans.

The respect for English speaking means my limited Korean does not make me look like a four year old as often as I had thought.  In this way my experience is far different from that of visitors to the United States, who often are often met with frustration and anger when they cannot speak the local language.  There is also great respect for professors and teachers here, so when I manage to say that I am a professor, most people immediately grant me some level of respect.  A few people have even switched from the polite verb endings to the honorific verb endings (a major problem for me since I am less competent [more incompetent?] with the honorific endings).

Because it has been remarkably positive, I cannot compare my experience here to that of most minority persons in America.  Yet there are two shared parts of the experience.  First there is the shared sense of feeling different, separated, an object of curiosity, always defined as other due to the color of my skin, even by people who are trying to be nice.  It gets very tiring to always be noticed and different. 

Second, perhaps I can also understand what it means to “represent” my culture.  In America, a bad action by a white person is an individual act.  A bad action by a minority person is assumed to be due to their race and thus taints an entire group of people.  Here I feel distinctly American in a way I rarely do at home.  I feel like my successes (and my failures) will reflect on the next thousand Americans coming to Korea, giving them a little more or a little less respect in Korean eyes.  Usually I try to forget this or it makes it hard to do much of anything!  But it lurks in the background, the reminder that because I stand out, I am easily identified and easily judged.  I wonder if that is the central aspect of being a minority person.

Add comment November 15, 2007

Visiting North Korea

Manmulsang Ocean ViewRecently I hiked the Geumgan Mountains, which are just *north* of the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea.  It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.  Even though I was limited in where I could visit, I could see why Buddhist monks, Confucian scholars, and Korean poets have written about the mountains for centuries.  I have uploaded 24 pictures to and you can see them by clicking on any photo in this blog entry and looking for the North Korea ”set”.

But beautiful as the mountains were, this blog entry is about visiting North Korea more generally.  I crossed what is still technically a war zone and entered what the United States considers a terrorist state.  I did not do it lightly and I learned a huge amount from doing it.  But I have few pictures of the North Korea I will write about, because taking them would have meant at a minimum having my camera confiscated.Fenced Beach

To get to the mountains, I took a bus to the South Korean city of Gosong and stayed overnight.  In the morning, I looked out over a beautiful beach.  Between me and the beach was an 8 foot tall iron fence.  South Korean soldiers patrolled the beach with machine guns to deter North Korean infiltrators.  Apparently South Korea suffered many of these incursions up through the 1960s, including an attack on the South Korean Presidential Residence (called the Blue House).  By 1998 the entire inter-Korean border and much of the northern coastline had been fenced off.

After going through South Korean emigration procedures, we drove through a green, rolling landscape.  There were tree-covered hills, with scattered farms, vineyards, and farmers.  There were also fences, barbed wire, and military observation posts.  Yet even after we passed the last South Korean soldier waving to us there continued to be farms and vineyards - on the very edge of the Demilitarized Zone!  There were also hundreds of white egrets on pristine lakes and other wildlife thriving in the deserted area (except for those which step on landmines, I assume). 

When we entered North Korea, the difference was stark.  There were no trees on the hillsides.  The land was much browner.  Farmers in the field plowed with oxen and pulled wooden carts by hand.  The entire road had electric fencing on both sides and the few openings in the fence were staffed with armed soldiers.  The soldiers did not wave.  We were warned not to speak to, speak about, or make eye contact with the soldiers, who were armed and serious.

North Korean Flag and Patriotic WritingAt the immigration processing office, my bag fell off the inspection conveyer belt. A North Korean soldier picked it up.  I automatically said, “Kamsa hamnida” (thank you) to the guard.  He barked something at me, which I realized was “You speak Korean?!”  I quietly muttered “Hangukmal chogum haeyo” (I have a little Korean) and he reached for my identification tag (we wore these around our necks the entire time we were in North Korea, with our nationality, profession, names and photos).  “You are an American?” he asked in Korean.  “Yes, I am an American person.  I arrived in August,” I replied in Korean.  Two other soldiers had walked over now and I thought, “Boy I’m in trouble.”  All three put their hands together in a brief moment of applause and dismissed me.  I hustled away, dumbfounded.

Line Up ManmulsangThis was the first sign that the Cold War is thawing on the inter-Korean border.  The second and third came at the end of my two hikes.  Because we had a bus accident on the way across the border (I’m fine, just a bruised knee), we arrived at the mountain late.  Since I was one of the last people up the mountain and a slow hiker, twice I found myself followed up by a South Korean guide and then followed down by North Korean officials.  The South Korean was making sure no stragglers missed the bus.  The North Koreans were likely making sure no stragglers intentionally missed the bus.  Both were willing to talk with me, and the North Koreans were very nice.  One gave me a Snickers bar as a reward for being the last one to the summit!  Others asked the standard Korean introduction questions - how old are you?  Are you married?  Do you have children?  Where are you from?  We did not discuss politics, and I did not ask about the bright red pins with pictures of the North Korean leader on their brown official jackets.  We were all cautious and civil and tentative, not really friendly, but not enemies either.  We were all curious, which overcomes many barriers.

The rest of the trip was like being in South Korea.  This is not surprising since all the tourist amenities (from restaurants to souvenir shops to the amazing outdoor hotspring spa) are all run by South Koreans and staffed by ethnic Koreans from China brought in to work for low wages.  In a sense, I was on North Korean land being rented by a South Korean company.  The few North Koreans in fields, on bicycles, or walking along the fence must have thought we had arrived from another planet - rich, well-fed, and thoroughly corrupted by capitalism.  I was sorry we were their only vision of the south and west.  But I was grateful to see them, to have a chance, however small, to put a face to people I usually only read about.  Everyone I saw looked old.

Those people could be the wives or brothers or children of people in South Korea.  The war is not yet over and neither is the grief.  Reunions between North and South Koreans happen more frequently than they used to, but thousands of people do not know what happened to their relatives after they separated, frightened but hopeful, on a night during or after the war. 

Two BrothersAm I sorry that some of the money I paid went to support the North Korean dictator?  Yes, of course.  But I saw it as an investment.  A few North Koreans met an American who speaks some Korean.  That briefly put Americans in a different light for them.  And one American now understands a little more about North Korea.  If the DMZ is a sign of failure - the failure of either side to win the war, the failure of politicians to find a way to reunite the divided nation - my bus ride across the border was a sign of hope.   

The South Korean War Museum has a statue called “Two Brothers”.  It shows a true story in which a South Korean soldier met his younger brother on a Korean War battlefield.  The younger brother was fighting for the North.  The two embraced, battle forgotten.  Perhaps one day all Koreans will be able to embrace their loved ones.  I have stood on the rubble that was the Berlin Wall.  I hope I have a chance some day to stand on the iron fencing that now bounds the DMZ. 

2 comments November 7, 2007

Halloween in South Korea

Showing off our WorkLiving abroad makes clear that what we Americans take for granted as ordinary and common might be unusual or strange to other cultures.  Halloween is my latest example.

South Koreans have not traditionally celebrated Halloween.  It has recently become popular at big amusement parks and in a few neighborhoods in the capital Seoul, but generally South Koreans do not know about it.  Therefore planning a Halloween party for my students was a major undertaking in cultural exchange and creative shopping.

Mighty Pumpkin CarversFirst I looked for pumpkins.  American history textbooks will tell you that pumpkins are a New World vegetable which delighted English colonists who had, until then, been carving radishes and turnips for Halloween (yes, radishes and turnips - I cannot quite imagine!).  The jack-o-lantern pumpkins that are absolutely everywhere in America throughout October simply do not exist in South Korea.  The much rarer, flattened, dusty orange pumpkin (sometimes called a cheese pumpkin in America) is the only kind of pumpkin I could find here. 

A Good Time was Had By AllThen there were the decorations.  The huge supercenter in my town had orange and black balloons (which even said Happy Halloween!).  Two days before Halloween I got the last bag.  I also found a few tiny plastic pumpkins.  I bought construction paper and used all the black and orange sheets to make bats, cats, spiders and jack-o-lanterns - and then had to look up why we used those symbols for Halloween so I could explain them to my students!   

My students seemed to enjoy the story of Jack.  When the Devil came for Jack, Jack trapped him in a tree and demanded an extra ten years of life in exchange for releasing him.  When Jack died and went to Hell, the Devil got his revenge by refusing Jack entrance. Jack was forced to walk the earth with a lantern in his hand forever.  I felt obligated to tell my students that most Americans have no idea who Jack is or why we carve Jack-o-lanterns.  It is fascinating what we do not know until we have to explain it to others.

a Tokaebbi or Korean ghostOnly two students made an effort at a costume, but all helped to carve their first ever jack-o-lanterns and many made Halloween decorations.  A few students collaborated on a glowing orange skull with a cigarette that looks like a great anti-smoking ad, and I now have a collection of tokaebbies or Korean ghosts on my wall.  A few students shared Korean ghost stories, and all who said “trick or treat” left with candy.  My local stores did not carry a single American candy item except extra dark Snickers minis.  So my little pumpkins were filled with Snickers, red ginseng caramels, and sweet pumpkin chewies. 

It was not quite an American Halloween - maybe “fusion Halloween” would be more appropriate.  But when cultural exchange involves “brain surgery” on pumpkins, how can you go wrong? 

1 comment November 1, 2007


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