Archive for March, 2008

Just in case you missed it….

A few readers who get the blog delivered by e-mail missed the last couple of blog entries.  There seems to have been a technological difficulty.  The last four blogs were:

March 8 - International Women’s Day

Globalization One Bus Trip At a Time (foreigners in Korea)

Holidays (Valentines Day, White Day and Easter)

Square Dancing in Korea

If for some reason you missed one, they are all available at .

This is my 50th blog entry.  Starting today I have exactly three months left in my adventure.  Thank you as always for reading.  It is nice to have company on adventures.

Add comment March 31, 2008

Square Dancing in Korea

The Five Point SerenadersAfter Saint Patrick’s Day parades, square dances are the next LEAST likely thing I ever thought I’d see in Korea.  But a Fulbrighter who plays banjo organized an “old time music” (Appalachian fok) concert through the U.S. Embassy and it ended with a square dance.   Since I love to contra dance in New England, I had to go.  Here are my  5 favorite moments:

1)  Listening to a fine guitar player belt out an Appalachian folk tune about drinking too much and living too hard.  I realized if you substitued “soju (rice liquor)” for “whiskey”, most Koreans would absolutely understand the point of the song.

 2)  Having a Korean student ask me if “old-time” music means it is older than Rock & Roll.

Weaving the Basket 3)  Watching the banjo player try to call his first ever square dance and immediately run into a basic problem.  When he said “take hands with the person on your left” he thought he was speaking to the men.  But everybody turned to the person on their left and held hands.  Then he tried, “take her hand in yours”.  Koreans do not use gendered pronouns and often mix them up in English (my nephew she is 8), so this was not much more help.  Plus many couples were same sex! (Koreans prefer to hang out in single sex groups).   So we spent much of the evening with women or men leading depending on who could translate faster!

4)  Realizing that once the music started, we had two dances going.  When the caller said “Alamande left” everyone who spoke English did it.  When the translator raced through “Please extend your left hand toward your partner, on the left for the person being a male, take their hand, and then turn in a circle” all the Koreans did it.   So if you were in a mixed-language square (or a mixed-language pairing) you danced to a very different rhythm than single language squares and pairs. 

Swing Your Partner5)  Curtseying automatically at the end of a dance, as is common in the contra dancing I do, and totally confusing my Korean partner.  At first he bowed stiffly and deeply, Korean style.  Then recognizing his “error,” he put one hand behind his back, used his other to execute a beautiful sweeping flourish, and bowed as if he had just been presented to Queen Elizabeth. 

I had no idea that our embassies across the world have cultural departments that focus solely on deepening foreigners’ knowledge of American culture.  For the Koreans it was a window into….yet more strange things Americans do.  For me, it was a totally unexpected piece of home in a far away place.   

1 comment March 29, 2008


Sharing holidays in Korea has been one of the best parts of my stay here.  You can see previous blogs for discussions of Korean Thanksgiving (Chuseok), Halloween and American Thanksgiving.

This month the students shared a holiday triple-play with me and I shared one with them.

I thought Americans made a huge deal of Valentine’s Day.  Flowers, chocolates, red and pink hearts, candy, music:  February is always a bit overwhelming.  But Koreans have taken the idea of Valentine’s Day to a new level, turning it into THREE separate holidays.  Here’s how it works:

On Valentine’s Day, tradition here says that girls should give their boyfriends chocolate and a gift.  Flowers are way too expensive in February since everyone is already buying them for middle school, high school and college graduations.  But what do guys get girls?


Yep.  Guys get girls nothing for Valentine’s Day.  ( I can hear American guys cheering all the way over here).  But wait.  This is because the true Korean Valentine’s Day is in March - March 14 to be exact.

On “White Day”, guys buy girls flowers or candy and a gift.  While I was surprised the advertising for Valentines’ Day was so ordinary, this is because White Day is the BIG day.  Candy baskets cascade into the street and florists have a waiting line.  In my March 14 class, I was interrupted by the delivery of a dozen red roses and a chocolate cake from one girl’s boyfriend, studying abroad in Australia.  (I didn’t notice but I’m sure the guys in the class just groaned, watching the ante get upped before their eyes).

THEN on April 14, Koreans celebrate “Black Day”.  In America, single people tend to protest the overwhelming “couple” focus of Valentine’s Day by wearing black and hanging out with their single friends.  Here there is a whole day for doing that.  Same-sex friends, whether single or dating, give each other chocolate and flowers and spend the day together, celebrating friendship.

Hallmark has a whole new market to explore here.

In return, I shared American Easter with my students.  It is hard to believe but Korea has no Easter bunny!

Korean Christians celebrate the spiritual holiday of Easter, but the holiday does not seem to have a secular component the way it does in the United States.  No Easter baskets, no pastel-colored malted milk eggs, no towering displays of chocolate bunnies, no Easter egg dying, no Easter egg hunts.  It is as if the Christian holiday arrived in Korea stripped of the pagan celebrations of spring inherent in the eggs, the pastels, the little bunny rabbits.

My husband and parents, guessing I would want to share “American” Easter with my students, sent me plastic Easter eggs, Easter “grass”, and all the traditional candies.  So I began all my classes this week with questions about Easter in Korea, discussions of the Christian holiday, and then explanations of the other ways Americans celebrate Easter in addition to going to church.  The students were a bit baffled; to be fair “secularized” religious holidays are a bit baffling.  But on a warm, sunny day, it was easy to understand celebrating the return of spring, the rising of the world from the death of winter. 

The discussion of holidays pointed out one more interesting piece of culture.  Whenever older Koreans visit each other or give a hoiliday gift, it tends to be food.  Cartons of fresh fruit, decorative boxes of Spam, gift-wrapped containers of hand-made kimchee, even bottles of olive and grapeseed oil.  The younger generation likes any excuse for chocolate.  So how long will it be before foot-high Easter bunnies are all the rage in Korea?

1 comment March 23, 2008

Globalization One Bus Trip At A Time

Arched Bridge at South Sorak MountainWhen I imagined life in Korea, I never imagined a Saint Patrick’s Day Parade with  6,000 people, green rice cakes, Irish bands, step dancing, and Guinness on tap.  I missed out on attending the parade this past weekend, but just knowing it happened gave me a very different sense of Korea!

Foreigners make up 2% of Korea’s population, doubling in number since last year.  Chinese, Southeast Asians and South Asians made up the largest groups, with majorities in unskilled and agricultural labor.  The next biggest group is Americans, with about 30,000 U.S. soldiers and 30,000 U.S. citizens in non-military roles.   While English speaking “expats” (expatriates, or people living outside their country) make up far less than 1% of the population in Korea, they dominate my weekends three or four days a month.  This is due to my travel through the Royal Asiatic Society - Korea Branch (RAS-KB) which organizes English-language trips all over Korea.  The pictures in this blog are from my latest trip to the Inner and South Sorak Mountain areas.  You can see two dozen more by clicking on any of the images and checking out the ”set” they belong to on Flickr.  (The slide show is worth it!). 

Here is a brief list of the types of people I have met on recent trips:Path along the edge of the mountainA woman from Germany who works in an agricultural NGO in North Korea; a protocol officer at the German embassy; the Ambassador from Colombia and his wife; a tour guide from Yemen;  a reporter from Japan learning Korean; an insurance claims adjuster from Australia on his fourth one year tour in Korea; a couple from England teaching elementary school English; a U.S. army captain;  a New Zealander dealing with divorce by teaching English in rural Korea; an adjunct professor of English literature teaching seven year olds English; a Thai woman currently living in Korea after two decades in Singapore, and her mom; an American twenty something giving private English lessons until George Bush leaves office. There are many, many more - each person has a story.  But there are three things about white, western “expats” (the people here most like me) that I find particularly fascinating.

First, the vast majority of them are “migrant labor” (although here in Korea that term always implies a non-white person).  Whether from the U.K., New Zealand, Australia, Canada or the U.S.A., people come to Korea to make money that they can take back home.  Huge numbers come to teach English, since until this year Korea did not require any credentials other than native-speaking ability.  The adjunct professor of English mentioned above had taught in America for three years and could not make enough money to cover her rent.  Here she teaches 6 hours a day to elementary and middle school students, makes 3 times her previous salary, and has sent her first novel off to a publisher.  Many young people are paying off their student loans; a few couples are paying down their mortgages.  There is a whole economic world here I never imagined when I finished college! 

Snow capped mountainsSecond, the Korean language level of most expats is pretty terrible.  I was amazed to discover my seriously limited Korean is better than 80% of the people I have traveled with, despite their sometimes far longer residence.  I had not realized how much of a gift living outside Seoul can be.  In Seoul, a foreigner can find just about everything in English and can live within a foreign enclave that requires little interaction with Koreans.  When you spend all day teaching English and all night with English teachers, when would you speak Korean?

Third, every expat knows a different Korea.  One U.S. army soldier is an unwilling expert on the drug and prostitution culture of northern South Korea due to his required policing of his platoon’s weekend activities.  English teachers who have seriously dated Koreans have learned family hierarchies, dating customs, and the perils of cross-cultural communication.  I’ve met a few scholars of ancient Korea and many students of modern Korean bar culture.  Once again living outside Seoul makes a huge difference - those within Seoul often seem completely unaware of basic customs I have come to take for granted, while those from rural areas tell me customs I thought outdated are still alive near them.

Footbridge to the TempleI did not expect to travel the world while living in Korea.  But long bus rides have turned into explorations of Colombian cities, tours of South Africa’s coasts, descriptions of Pyeongyang now and 10 years ago, comparisons of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, and introductions to Japanese culture.   I’ve heard about little gardens in Berlin, and seen pictures of sand-scrubbed cities in Yemen.

Globalization has taken on new meaning for me here.  We ignore the world to our political peril in the United States.  But we also ignore it to our cultural peril.  What a different person I might have been if I’d known that one could bounce from country to country, teaching English, learning about the best of each culture and bringing back such richness to inform my life.  What a different country we would be if many of our citizens did that, or if we openly welcomed other citizens to bring what they have to us.

Add comment March 22, 2008

March 8 - International Women’s Day

Women Open the WorldIn America March is Women’s History Month, but in much of the rest of the world, March means International Women’s Day.  On March 8, 1908 15,000 women marched through New York City to demand shorter working hours and better working conditions.  In 1911, a German woman launched the first International Women’s Day in Copenhagen, Denmark to demand equal rights for women.  Since then this has been an international celebration not of women’s past, but of their present status, needs and hopes.

This year marked South Korea’s 24th International Women’s Day celebration and my first.  I joined 5000 other people and 167 women’s groups for an information fair, concert, ceremony, and parade.  Foreigners were invited to wear purple and white (the colors worn by US suffragists).  I ended up marching next to another Fulbrighter, an English teaching assistant.  We were warmly welcomed, handed pinwheels and balloons and coached through the Korean cheers.  In a crowd wearing purple hats, carrying blue umbrellas, waving bright red “No human trafficking signs”, or trailing green and yellow streamers, for once no one had eyes for the white face in the crowd!

The White and Purple FloatThe guests of honor this year were the women and volunteers of Sharing House.  This organization was created to house, care for and honor the Korean women who were kidnapped during World War II and forced to work as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers.  For decades they were abandoned by their families and shunned by society, but in the past ten years there has been an outpouring of support for them.  Some of these women and their supporters have protested in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul for 800 straight weeks, demanding an apology and reparations.  Recently the US passed House Resolution 121 calling on Japan to apologize, which was not welcomed by Japan.  You can learn more at  or .

Women’s status in Korea is remarkably similar to that of US women in the 1980s. Laws for women’s equality are on the books, but popular attitudes have not caught up.  Rapists often escape punishment on the argument that a woman wore revealing clothing and thus incited the man to rape.  Victims of domestic violence are assumed to have acted in a way that provoked violence.  There is an increasingly sharp split among women as well, best shown by the contrast between “golden misses” (single, highly educated, highly paid urban women who disdain marriage) and “golden egg mothers” (rural, uneducated, farm wives who have third, fourth and fifth children to reap the benefits provided by a government desperate to fend off a future worker shortage by increasing the lowest birthrate in the world).

An In some ways, Korea is way ahead of other countries.  A 2004 law criminalized the prostitution of women, providing punishments for “johns”, “pimps”, and “procurers” rather than women forced into prostitution.  It also provides mental and medical health care, empowerment and vocational training, and guaranteed jobs for women who choose to leave prostitution.  Advocates say simply changing the language from “prostitute” to “prostituted woman” and from “morally degrading behavior for women” to “morally degrading behavior for men” makes a huge difference.  This is especially true in a nation where red light districts are still highlighted as tourist destinations and both government and business officials continue to see providing a sexual partner for clients as part of the deal-closing culture.   Then again we have Eliot Spitzer.

Marching for better working conditionsListening to Koreans talk about women is fascinating.  Most women complain about the “double shift” of working full time and having sole responsibility for home and family care.  The Korean tradition of building bonds at work through 5 hour long drinking rounds after work tends to automatically exclude married women.  Women only make 63% of a male salary for the same job.  (The number in the US is 78% and in Europe it is 90%).  Korean Men however talk about how there are more women in college than men, women are excused/excluded from military duty, and they are perceived as better at learning English and thus getting better jobs.  Women think they have made only small progress toward equality.  Even with legal requirements that women fill half the spots on party ballots, there are few prominent female political leaders in Korea.  Yet men feel strongly that they are losing power and that women are running the country.

The Rainbow CoalitionThese differences actually show up in the two major political divisions in Korea.  The former “liberal party” President created a Ministry (Cabinet level post) of Gender Equality and the Family.  The name implied attention to both male and female issues.  This was a crucial realization, since there had previously been little discussion about the problems of men in Korean society. Why do some seek out prostitutes?  Who will rural Korean men marry when more and more Korean women reject marriage?  Already rural counties are more multicultural than the cities as male farmers import wives from the Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam - into a nation that has long valued its racial homogeneity!  However, the current President tried to eliminate the ministry altogether, and settled for downsizing it and changing its name to the Ministry of Women.   This implies that women are getting special treatment, and it will likely doom the ministry’s effectiveness here.  President Lee’s 24-7 “pragmatic, responsive” government is also causing women (and men) to resign from government service.  Being constantly on call for government needs leaves little time for family needs.

Goddesses?For all these reasons, women and men paraded through central Seoul, carrying signs, shouting slogans, and singing songs.  They celebrated what has been accomplished and they demanded attention to continuing problems.  I did not always understand the language, but I understood the point.  And I was glad to be there.

Add comment March 17, 2008

The first hike of spring

Seoul Fortress Wall up BugaksanAh, the fresh, sweet scent of arnica gel, sure sign of spring and sore muscles.

It was supposed to be an easy hike - less than three hours with no metal stairways or ladders.  Mount Bugak (Bugaksan) is a small mountain behind the Korean Presidential Residence (called the Blue House) and Gyeongbokgung Palace.  The mountain was crucial to the decision to make Seoul the capital of Korea, since it provided a good buttress against enemies coming from the North, had neighboring mountains to the South and West, and a huge big brother mountain behind it to the North.  (Remember, Korea is a peninsula - land enemies come from the North).  The lack of a good mountain in the East led to centuries of debate over whether to move the capital; the debates continue today for reasons unrelated to mountains. 

Bugaksan was off-limits to all hikers for almost 35 years due to a major attack by North Korean commandos in the early 1970s.  15 North Koreans managed to sneak into South Korea, camp on a nearby mountain for three weeks,  observe the Presidential Residence, and eventually attack the President during an outdoor ceremony.  The President escaped, but the First Lady was killed.   The army was given sole control over Bugaksan thereafter, filling it with barracks and look-out posts, but also allowing a rich diversity of wildlife to develop.   The area was reopened to the public two years ago, with a formal system for signing in and limits on how long and how late you can hike.

Seoul against Bugaksan RangeI had not counted on three things.  First, as promised there were no metal stairways.  Instead there were lots and lots of stone and wooden steps.  The trail followed the old fortress wall of Seoul, passing the Northern Gate (equivalent to the now burned South Gate, Namdemun).  Up, down, up, down.  Second, I had not realized how little verticality there has been in my winter life.  Rice fields are pretty flat, my walk anywhere in town is pretty flat, and since I wasn’t in my office for 2 months, I wasn’t doing 3 flights of stairs 4-5 times a day.  After lots of flatness, your calves notice every up, your knees every down. 

The third factor was putting too much leg work in one weekend.  But, really, the square dance had only lasted a couple of hours.  And it was supposed to be a very short parade!  More on those in future entries.

Add comment March 9, 2008

Winter is Jealous of Spring

Winter View from my Apartment WindowWinter’s hold is finally loosening, though he is mighty reluctant to give up for the year.

Winter in Korea varies dramatically by geography as it does in the United States.  The northern province of Kangwondo has world-class skiing facilities; the city of Pyeongchang was a contender for the 2012 winter Olympics. On the other hand, Jeju Island in the south is semi-tropical, like a slightly chilly Hawaii.  Pyeongtaek is known for getting the least snow of anywhere in this province.  This is partly why Pyeongtaek is famous for pears and Anseong for grapes - the blossoms are rarely killed by a late frost or snow.

Apparently this winter has been harsher than most.  We have had bitter winds, but as promised, minimal snow.  I actually saw the most snow when I traveled all the way to the south of the country to Yeosu, a city made up of dozens of islands.  We got almost 3 inches on the way down, though there was none when we arrived.

Winter at the ZooLast week the temperatures began to sneak into the high forties.  Then Wednesday we suddenly had a freak inch of snow.  When I expressed surprise about this, I was told there is a name for this season “Winter is jealous of spring”.  I shared this with my husband, who agreed it was a good name for those “return to winter” days.  His name for the current season in New Hampshire?  “Winter is abusive of spring and keeps it chained in a closet.”

The lack of snow means winter has been very brown.  The cut rice straw litters the fields and the irrigation canals are dry or frozen over.  What were vibrant corner gardens have straggly, dead plants, blown litter, and mounds of rock hard dirt.  Snow was a blessing for covering everything in white and making it all shiny and clean for a day or two. 

Ice Graffiti at SongwongsaBut there are definite signs of spring.  I have seen farmers and gardeners out cleaning up their property.  One nearby farmers’ cooperative covered their fields in big white bags for two days.  Then they opened the bags and spread the contents.  My entire neighborhood has smelled distinctly of  ripe pig manure ever since!  The dry, spindly flower stalks in one corner garden have tiny green shoots at the base of every plant.  In larger gardens, scallions and garlic, which overwintered, are starting to come up, and some beds of spinach, left covered with tight reed mats all winter, are now putting out new leaves for spring’s freshest vegetable. 

Full spring will come when the pear and cherry blossoms explode into color - probably another month.  For now, the signs are smaller, less colorful, harder to see.  But perhaps for all that, they are more welcome.  They mean spring really will come. 

(For more pictures of winter, click any image in this entry, and then the little words that say “Korean winter set”.) 

1 comment March 8, 2008

Second semester, final third

My classroomOn Monday March 3, classes officially start at Pyeongtaek University for the 2008 academic year.  We will have Convocation and the once every four year installation of the University President.  I will start teaching on Thursday the 7th and classes will run until the 13th of June.

I am excited to start teaching again.  My colleagues in New Hampshire are already giving midterms and thinking about spring break!  But I am also very aware that when this semester ends, I am going home.  I arrived in August and one week later plunged into classes.  I knew so little; I just rode whatever waves came and hoped for the best.  Then I had a two and a half month break, with Tod’s visit, illness, research, travel, and class preparation.  Now the last piece starts, the second semester, but the final third of my appointment here. 

Already I can feel the pull of home.  My Saint Anselm department chair and I have chosen my classes and teaching times for the fall, and I’ve written course descriptions and talked to students about classes.  I’ve signed my contract to return to Saint Anselm in the fall.  I have plane tickets home for June 30th.

Little Red Riding Hood's momThis feeling of being “caught between” two places is partly why I agreed to come for an entire year.  If I knew I was going home in December, I would already be thinking about it in October.  But thinking about home, does not mean I am unhappy here.  I have cherry and pear blossoms to see, mountains still to hike, an exotic island to visit.  My parents are coming for a week in May, I’m giving a paper on teaching in Korea, and I still have some Benedictine monks to visit here.  Who knows what will happen on campus.  Last semester we had Halloween parties and department plays, sports events and class dinners.  This photo is me playing Little Red Riding Hood’s mom.

The American Studies DepartmentMost importantly I will be teaching, and I am looking forward to the energy and excitement of a new group of students.  My two courses are outside my expertise - American Political Culture and Contemporary America (1945 to the present).  So I will be learning as much as the students!  I have been reading over break to understand the Korean political system.  I have also been trying to think “What would a person need to know about 1945 to the present to understand why America is the way it is today?”  With more than 50 students in one class and less than 10 in the other, the pedagogy or teaching techniques may be a challenge as well.  So bring on the semester!  Let the adventure continue!

1 comment March 2, 2008


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