Archive for June, 2008

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Baegundae Stairs at BukhansanTod and I arrived back home in New Hampshire in the wee hours of June 23.  Turbulence over the pacific and thunderstorms over New England made for rough flights and various delays.  But we, and now our luggage, are safe at home, and we are re-adapting to life together in the USA.

As I expected, “culture shock” has me quite off-balance.  At the airport in Chicago, I automatically used Korean for the basic daily phrases like “Excuse me” and “Thank you”.  I also used the hand gestures that are standard politeness in Korea.  I was surprised how automatic these had become.  Also, many small things simply feel “wrong”.  Spoons are too short and narrow; in Korea there are only soup spoons and they have quite long handles.  Bathrooms sinks are too high; I had gotten used to them being just above my knees.  Today I drove a car for the first time in 10 months.  I found I was far more apprehensive than I expected.  All of these will pass.

View from BaegundaeSince I am home and safe, I will post only one more blog entry after this.  Thank you to all of you who have read these postings regularly or on occasion. Special thanks to those of you who sent thoughts and encouragement during my time away.  I have really appreciated having this space where I could process my experiences, share them with others, and feel part of a community of enthusiastic supporters.

Here is one short story from my last week in Korea.  Eight days before I left, Tod and I climbed Baegundae Peak on Mount Bukhansan.  I had climbed everything EXCEPT the peak in early October (see blog entry titled “Lessons Learned in Bukhansan National Park”).  The peak was too much for me - you pulled yourself up on steel cables, with nothing between you and the ground except a stunning view.  I had been, and still am, proud that I managed to get to the mountain and find the peak, with minimal Korean and no map, only one month after I arrived; that I could not climb the peak was not a big deal.  But this time, with Tod along to encourage and cajole me, I had the courage to actually scale the peak.  The view was spectacular and the sense of accomplishment was even better. 

As always, life is easier and better with help along the way. 

Add comment June 24, 2008

Preparing to Come Home

sunset on GangwhadoMy adventure in Korea is almost over.  In just over one week I will be back in the U.S.  I still have two finals to give and grades to turn in.  And my husband is coming, so I will be grading those finals on a tropical beach!  But the end is rapidly approaching.

Many travelers suggest that one should prepare to come home much the way one prepares to go away.  Beyond buying the tickets and packing, one should think about unpacking and settling back into a place that may not quite feel like home.  “Reverse” culture shock is the realization that neither you nor the world are the same as when you left.

That comes as no surprise to me.  During my time in Korea, two relatives were diagnosed with cancer, and one broke two bones.  Friends got new jobs and colleagues got pregnant.  Students graduated, new faculty were hired, staff moved on.  Plants in my house and my garden died.  My cats have probably forgotten who I am.

Neolithic Woman on GangwhadoOf course I have changed too.  What I “usually” do or what is “normal” to eat  or what I “expect” to happen is different as well.

So what does all that mean for preparing to come home?  And how can you, each of you, help?

1)  Please understand that readjusting will take time.  I will likely be surprised by things you think are absolutely normal (”Oh, that’s right, we don’t recycle those Styrofoam trays under the steak”).  I will not know things you thought everybody knew (”When did that happen?  Oh, you had a big meeting about that?  Last semester?”).   I might seem off balance at strange times (perhaps when I first meet someone and am reminding myself not to bow).  While I might seem perfectly settled in week 2 or 3, remember that culture shock and reverse culture shock often hit in week 6, when you realize “this really is my life, this is normal.” Or in month 6, when you think “OK, I’m ready to go back now.”

Students in my apartment for dinner2)  Please understand that talking about something else will take time too.  All I have done for the past year is live in Korea.  While you talk about your vacation, your kids or your job, I will talk about Korea.  Everything will relate to Korea because I do not have much else!  I will try not to share every story with everyone, and there may even be a stretch where I am tired of talking about Korea (just as you get tired of talking about a pregnancy or a vacation or an illness).  But to ask me not to talk about Korea is to ask me to not talk about a year of my life. And to not ask about it is to ignore a year of my life.

3)  Please understand that reconnecting will take time, but is exactly what I need to do.   I have been very blessed with friends and family who worked hard to keep up with me while I was gone.  But I will have a lot of people to catch up with when I get back, while also trying to settle into old routines, a new semester, and “normal” life.  So if you are inclined, please make an effort to reconnect - lunch dates, emails, phone calls, office “drop bys”, dinners - whatever works for you.  There will be moments when I just need to hide, when settling back in or readjusting is more work than I can handle.  Please understand, and try again.

I learned coming here that no matter how much I prepared, life was not what I had expected.  It will not be what I expect at home either.  But preparing might just make it a little bit easier - for me and everybody else.

1 comment June 11, 2008

Koreans have a “beef” with America

Anti US beef posterI am beginning to understand what people meant when they told me “Anti-Americanism can flare up in Korea in a moment.”  I am also realizing anew how huge a gap there is our “international” news coverage in the U.S.

Many of you probably know that Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the U.S. in April.  It was the first time an American President invited a Korean leader to Camp David.  Both President Lee and President Bush would like to see the Korean-US Free Trade Agreement passed and both face an uphill battle in their Legislatures.

You may not know that Korea and the US signed a controversial beef import deal right before that visit.  Korea used to be the third largest importer of US beef.  Then mad cow disease hit one cow in the Pacific Northwest.   Korea limited imports to beef without bones.  About a year ago, they stopped imports altogether when they kept finding banned bones in U.S. shipments.  The new deal was supposed to reopen the lucrative Korean market and drive down amazingly high beef prices here.  I have paid $12 for a small, ordinary steak.

The Mad CowSince then, there have been growing protests.  First they were protests against potentially dangerous U.S. beef.  I noted in an earlier blog that I had to answer questions from students about whether I ate beef and was it safe.  Then some of the protests became anti-American government protests, as people felt the beef deal was a “give-away” by President Lee to the Americans in order to get the Free Trade Agreement passed. 

Now the protests are strongly anti-President Lee.  The beef deal was one more action by a President apparently deeply out of touch with the people who only 4 months ago voted him into office by a wide margin.  His approval ratings are hovering at the 18% mark!  Images of black-booted young policemen kicking fallen protestors have only heightened the tension in a nation which still vividly remembers military dictatorships.

Yesterday I was in Seoul to say some goodbyes and passed two separate protest marches.  One building had a banner depicting sick cows “Made in USA” and a worried consumer.  The subways had advertisements for Australian beef :  “Clean & Safe”. 

Australian Beef AdvertisementI feel perfectly safe, especially since I do not live in downtown Seoul.  No foreigners have been targeted, and the anger is clearly directed at the government - especially the Korean President and the U.S. Ambassador. 

This coming Tuesday is the anniversary of massive nation-wide protests against Korean dictatorship and there are expected to be rallies and marches all over the country.  I expect people at the University will be mostly apathetic - it is final exam week.  But I’ll be avoiding Seoul, just in case. 

I will also be curious to see what turns up in the U.S. newspapers.  Part of my goal in coming to Asia was to understand how people in other regions viewed the United States.  Now I understand a little of that.  I am also far more aware how much international news never shows up in the U.S. media, even when it directly relates to U.S. interests.  There is only so much bandwidth, and Clinton and Obama take up an awful lot of it.  Everyone here knows about Clinton and Obama.  How much do people at home know about Lee and U.S. beef?   

1 comment June 8, 2008

Three Milestones Reached

The steps to Enlightenment (Haeinsa)In the past two weeks, I reached two major milestones in my Korean life.  The vast gap between them tells you a lot about my life abroad.

Milestone #1:  For the first time in 9 months, I ordered food over the phone and had it delivered to my apartment.  I danced for joy when I hung up the phone.  Ordering food by phone is actually pretty complicated.  You have to know the words for (and pronunciations of) the food, ordering, delivery, and your address.  You have no chance to read body language or hand gestures.  You also have to field the unexpected questions:  Is a 10 minute delay ok?  We are really busy.  Do you want our special side order?  Such small things are really hard when you only have basic language skills!

Milestone #2:  For the first time in Korea, I gave a paper at an international conference without translation.  Ancient Kaya Clothing and meThe audience had people from a half dozen countries, but the majority were Korean.  All understood English, but about half could not speak comfortably in English.  Therefore after taking questions in English, I encouraged the audience to ask questions in Korean.  Only then did I have the horrible realization- the bilingual conference organizers had left the room to arrange the next panel and no one was available to translate the questions!

Professor Hwang and I imitate Korean royaltySo, for three questions in a row, I drew on my minimal knowledge of Korean, bi-cultural knowledge of gender issues, body language, and wonderfully helpful Korean terms in English (like “golden miss” - the Korean term for single women in their 30s with good jobs and no desire to marry).  I could not answer the questions in Korean, but I did my best with slow, clear English.  Afterward one Korean graduate student shook my hand and said in utter awe (and rather good English), “No foreigner has ever LET me ask a question in Korean before.  And you even UNDERSTOOD me!”

Her comment says volumes about the complicated relationship Koreans have with English.  She probably COULD have asked a question in English, but she WOULD NOT have.  She was not comfortable enough.  Just as I probably could have ordered food delivery a few months ago, but I did not want to get half way through my order and realize I had no idea how to say the word “delivery”!   Her distinction between my allowing her to ask a question and my understanding her Korean also shows she recognized that allowing the question was about respect, but understanding and answering it was about skill.  Leaving HaeinsaOut of sheer stubborn pride, I did not tell her I only understood 6 words in her 8 sentence question and I only knew that much because one of my Pyeongtaek University students had asked a similar question during my Race and Gender class.  I take my victories however I can get them!

As I expected, now that I have a clue what I am doing, I am headed home.  My third milestone was today - I taught my final class in Korea.  I will give final exams next week and I leave the country a little earlier than planned on June 22.   With luck I will come back to Korea at some point and get to use all this experience.  But if not, the learning process was a reward in itself - now I know I was up to the challenge.  Besides, ordering food by phone will never feel this good again.

1 comment June 5, 2008

Overlooking the Obvious

View from Mount Manisan, GangwhadoThis past weekend the 15 year-old daughter of two Korean colleagues and I went to Gangwha and Seongmodo Islands. These are at the mouth of the Han River, an hour west of Seoul.  We had many adventures and learned a lot of American History (some of which will appear in the next blog entry).  This entry however could have happened anywhere - and according to my family, often does.

We were walking through a glorious patchwork of rice paddies and vegetable gardens, under a bright blue sky, along a swift flowing river.  We were talking and wondering how far we had to walk to get where we were going.  Over time we noticed thousands of black “beans” on the walkway, which smeared when scuffed by a shoe.  We agreed they looked like animal droppings.  Soon we saw hoofprints in the mud, and Hee-min tried to describe the animal that made them.

Hee-min on Gangwhado“It’s not this,” she said, miming a large animal with big attachments on its head.  “No, it is not a moose” I agreed, “more likely a deer.”  “Yes,” she affirmed, “we have deer here like the one in the movie by Disney.”  “Bambi?” I asked.  “Do you realize Bambi was a baby deer in the beginning? He got a lot bigger.”  “Oh,” she replied, “well these deer stay the size of Bambi, they are brown and soft, and they live….” 

At that moment we all but walked into a large black thing and we were so startled we were lucky not to fall into the river or the irrigation canal.

“Baaaaa,” it said, staunchly defending the three littler black things prancing about behind it.

“Or,” Hee-min said, “maybe they were made by a goat.”

We gave Billy Goat Gruff a wide berth and hustled by until we were beyond the length of his tether.  Then we laughed at our inept mystery-solving skills and continued on through the rice fields, until we met the next adventure.

Add comment June 3, 2008

Western-style Food that is Not Quite Western

Green Tea Breakfast Bran FlakesDuring my stay here, I have occasionally tried Korea’s version of western food.  It is never quite what I’m expecting.  Here are a few brief examples of not quite getting what you expect:

1)  Koreans do not usually eat cereal for breakfast so the selections in the local market were limited:  Frosted Flakes, Fruit Loops, and Bran flakes - in Green Tea flavor.

2)  Lotteria is the Korean McDonald’s.  Like western “burger and fries” restaurants, it serves a variety of hamburgers, including some very Korean items like bulgogi burger (marinated beef) and hanwoo burger (using Korean beef).  But the regular, ordinary hamburger looks just like its U.S. counterpart except for one detail.  Unless you specify, it will come with mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise AND steak sauce.

3)  Pizza is very popular in Korea, especially with young people.  At my local pizza chain, the basic standard pizza is about $5.00 per pie.  It comes with a crisp crust, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and…canned corn.  At the local Pizza Hut, you can get “Cheese Bite” pizza for about $20.  It comes with with spiced chicken and white and brown sauce.

Pyeongtaek Pizza Hut cheese bite pizza4)  Two students thought I might be missing U.S. food so they took me out for spaghetti and sauce.  The bowls were huge, the spaghetti perfectly cooked “al dente” and the sauce bright red with chunks of vegetables.  It was also achingly sweet and bitingly hot.  Clearly sugar and hot pepper paste rivaled the tomatoes as main ingredient!

5)  Shaved ice with fruit is a favorite Korean summer treat.  Slowly, frozen yogurt is becoming equally popular and one frozen yogurt chain, Red Mango, has now opened branches in California.  That chain’s basic “fruit and yogurt” is a mound of frozen yogurt (more tart than in the U.S.) covered with fresh fruit and fruit in syrup.  Very much like home.  Today I went to a local Pyeongtaek dessert place for “fruit and yogurt”.  When my bowl arrived, I so wished I had my camera with me.  Picture please:  One large bowl with shaved ice, covered in purple syrup.  Then a layer of corn flakes and fruit loops.  Then three towering twists of vanilla frozen yogurt, studded with banana slices, kiwi, apple and pear.  Topped with - cherry tomatoes.   It was served with two free slices of white toast - with whipped cream.

After these items, “fusion” restaurants take on a whole new meaning (smile).

1 comment June 3, 2008


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Baegundae Stairs at Bukhansan  View from Baegundae  Baegundae  Me in Dr. Park's office  Students at my apartment for dinner  sunset on Gangwhado  Neolithic Woman  Australian beef advertisement  Anti US beef poster  Professor Hwang and me as Princess and Queen  
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