Sunday, August 18, 2013

Leaving Friends

If you've lived overseas--if you've moved at all--then you probably understand what I'm feeling right now. Any time you move far enough away to miss your friends and family, your heart splits--like the torn-off arm of a starfish. (I accidentally made a L'Engle reference. Oops.) If you're healthy--and lucky--you'll make enough new friends that your "torn off" social circle will regenerate--but that doesn't mean you'll stop missing those absent limbs.

Photo by Ed Bierman

I've made wonderful friends in the time I've been home. I had the opportunity to join an awesome writing group, and met people through book groups and old acquaintances as well. Now I'm moving away, though, and all those wonderful new friends are going to become lost arms.

Of course, I'll come home periodically. It's a long trip, but a decent ESL job generally pays enough for at least occasional visits to the homeland. We'll keep in touch on Facebook, too--Facebook is a lifeline when you're away from home. (If we were living 200 years ago, there's no way in hell I'd ever have left in the first place.) It's not the same, though. Quick meetings over coffee, or shared jokes online, can't replace all the meetings and game nights and parties I'll miss when I'm away. This is to say nothing of family--I'll miss them, of course, most of all.

But on the other hand, I get to see my "Korea friends." I don't just mean Koreans (though some of my Korean friends are as dear as sisters). I mean also the "foreigners" I met while working in Gimpo--teachers, mostly, who either stayed while I left, or wandered back again. We had a wonderful time exploring Seoul, and there's a special camaraderie among strangers in a strange land that can't really be replicated elsewhere.

One friend, in particular, is about to go back for her fifth year. We're already planning all the places we're going to go--we've been to Jeju-do and Osaka, and are hoping to make more successful trips before she finally moves back to Canada. I have a long list of places I want to go. Some are repeats (Jeju-do, Gangwha-do, Seoraksan). Others are tourist attractions (Herb Island, Namiseom). I'm looking forward to visiting amusement parks, testing out restaurants, and taking lots of pictures.

Preferably in silly hats.

I sort of grew up thinking that each person had one destined future, and that if you missed that destiny you would basically fail at life. I've been trying to get away from that. A lot of times you come to a crossroads, and there's no right path--you could take any of the three ways in front of you, or go back the way you came, and you'd be perfectly happy whichever way you chose. I was excited about Shanghai, and I tried to make it work... but even though I'm sorry it didn't, I'm excited about Seoul, too. I think this is going to be a good experience, and I'm definitely going to do my best to make it one.

Right now, though, I'm sitting in my room in my mother's house, listening to the frogs and crickets, enjoying the unseasonably cool and balmy air. I live in North Carolina, and it's far from a perfect place, but it will definitely always be home. I'm lucky enough to have another home I'm going back to--but I doubt there will ever be a time when I don't miss this one.

This was supposed to be a post about all the places I wanted to go when I got back to Korea. Sometimes things don't work out the way you plan them. (And that's okay.)


This post brought to you by the American Society for Maudlin Late-Night Meditations.

Friday, August 16, 2013

한국어를 공부하자!

I'd like to take a moment to recommend to anyone who's studying the language right now. It is hands-down the best resource I've ever used to study Korean (and I've used a lot of them). The lessons are clear and modular, supplemented on notes in PDF form, and there's a comments section where you can try out your language skills with the instructors' assistance. There are also printable "workbooks," advanced-level interviews for listening practice, and a store with extra audiobook lessons for under $5. I haven't used any of the extra lessons yet, but judging by the quality of the free materials I'm guessing they're pretty good.)

I actually heard about the site a long time ago, but didn't get into it until the last few weeks. After returning to Korea in 2011, I took a Korean class for several months, and one of my classmates recommended this as a good way to practice. Since I didn't think I'd be returning to Korea, I glanced at the site but didn't really pay attention. Now that I'm going back, though (job offers starting to come in!!), I'm taking my language study much more seriously, and TTMIK is really a godsend.

Most of the site users--according to the comments here, anyway--are under 20, and from a number of different countries--mostly non-English-speaking. Since the lessons are all in English (interspersed with Korean, of course), the abilities of these polyglot learners are definitely impressive. There are definitely some English speakers among them, though, and I can't help but be a little shamefully grateful that they haven't graduated from college yet. If sites like this really catch on--and the popularity of K-pop continues--there may well be an influx of really interested, enthusiastic, Korean-speaking English teachers to South Korea in a few years. Since the job market there is already getting competitive, it might be time for the rest of us to brush up our skills.

I first lived in SK from 2007-2011, and though I had a wonderful experience, I never picked up as much of the language as I would have liked. This was partly because of laziness (isn't it always?) and partly because I lived in Gimpo, and hadn't heard of any convenient language classes nearby. The textbooks available at the time were pretty terrible, and even though some of my Korean friends were up for language exchanges, we always ended up gossiping in English because it was easy and we were friends.

This time, however, I'm hoping to take the KLPT and/or the TOPIK, so I'm quite serious about studying. Though the lessons in TTMIK aren't quite as helpful as face-to-face instruction, when combined with daily immersion they should give me an excellent foundation.


In other news, I'm kind of developing an Instagram problem.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


I have it.

Korea: The Re-Weigukin-ing

So I should probably have been getting on a plane for China today. It didn't work out that way, for various reasons. As of now, I'm doing my best to get back to Korea.

I've collected several of the required documents, including:

1) Three sealed transcripts. (The WCU Registrar's Office was amazingly prompt--thank you so much, folks!)
2) Six awful passport photos. At least they're not going on my actual passport?
3) A passport, valid until 2021.

I'm waiting (trying not to bite my nails) as the FBI processes my criminal background check. In the US, this can take anywhere from four to twelve weeks (it's been about three), and there's no way of knowing upfront how long it's going to take. In the meantime, I need to copy my diplomas and have them notarized and apostilled. I think there's also a health affidavit, but there are apparently several different versions, so I'll wait till the actual application process to fill one out. Fortunately I've had an E2 visa before, so I don't need to do the consular interview.

Of course, I still have to get an actual job. Because the process is so long now, most schools won't talk to you till you have all your documents in hand, and this has been rather a last-minute thing. I'm starting to get offers, anyway, but I'll have a lot more flexibility once I can just step on a plane.

I want to be absolutely ready when I do get my visa, so I'm thinning my possessions again and packing away what I won't be taking. I've also taken Yggi (my cat) in for a rabies titer test, which is needed according to the new animal import regulations. It was pure luck that I even found out the regulations had changed--can't remember what I was looking up, but I'm glad I figured it out in time!

I'm thinking about getting an Instagram account. I've never seen the need for one before, but cell phone photos are way more convenient, by and large, than using a regular camera. If I do get an account, I'll link it here.

Updates hopefully more regular henceforth. XOXO,


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Reawakening the Blog

For various reasons, I'm about to set off on a new adventure. Starting in August, I'll be teaching ESL once more--this time in Shanghai. I hope you'll follow along.

Right now I'm running around frantically trying to get my visa in order. I'd also love it it my house elf came back from wherever he's been hiding and started packing my stuff, but you can't have everything, I guess. These tasks--plus trying to export my cat--should make me very busy the next few weeks, not least because we've got a big family wedding to go to at the end of this month. Excitement is what pushes the world forward, I guess. Wish me luck!



Thursday, February 23, 2012

If I Ran The Country #1: Civil Service Exams

Hi! I'm back. I'm not in Korea anymore-- I came back in August, and am staying with my mom &co while I work on what I hope will be my first polished novel. You can read more about that over at my other blog, where I post anything not related to reading or writing. (You can even read two of my stories, Under Glass and Warmth in Winter. Don't you want to? Go! Go!)

Anyway. Back in Korea, I had a notebook I had dedicated to ideas I planned to implement if I were ever somehow placed in charge of a country. This country, more specifically. I'm not sure where the notebook is now, but I still have the ideas-- and I might as well put them here, right? I mean, if I don't have anything else going on over here, I might as well publish the occasional manifesto.

Here goes:

Our political system is ridiculous.

I think we all know this. The two main political parties have too much power; lobbying destroys the integrity of the government; the Electoral College is nonsensical. Most importantly, our political process has been more or less reduced to a reality TV show: we elect whoever looks the best on camera.

It is entirely too easy to qualify for public office in this country.

If you're like me, you learned in elementary school what it takes to be a Presidential candidate here. If you want to run for President in the USA, you must:
  1. Have been born here.
  2. Be at least 35 years old. 
  3. Have lived in the country for at least 14 years. They don't even have to have been consecutive.
That's it. Those are the only requirements. As you go down the ranks-- Senate, House, Governor-- it gets even easier. There's a reason pro wrestlers and movie stars are able to ascend the ranks of political leadership in this country: you don't have to be qualified to be elected. You just have to be charismatic.

I'm sure a lot of people think this is a good thing. Everyone loved Dubya because he passed himself off as a a beer-drinkin' good ol' boy who was Just Like You.  You can be a total idiot and still get elected to public office here-- one could argue that it helps not to be too smart, or at least not to admit to it.

It's no good for anyone when you have elected officials who, say, lack a basic understanding of modern technology, or believe US law should be subject to the dictates of the Bible. Knowledge is power, so it's important that those in power be well informed if they're going to do their jobs.

One of the things that's almost always mentioned in stories about pre-Revolution China is the civil service examination. The idea was that any candidate for government office of any kind had to be well-versed in a certain group of disciplines-- literature, Confucian philosophy, military strategy, economics, etc.-- before they could be appointed to positions of civic responsibility. Naturally, like any human system, this one had its flaws (most notably the fact that only upper-class men could actually expect to make any headway). Still, I think it's a good concept. We like to convince ourselves that our Presidents and other public officials are exceptional human beings, capable of making wise and well-informed decisions in high-pressure situations. But how many of them are really qualified for the jobs they're elected to do? I am a hard-core Obama supporter, but I believe his election is due at least as much to his charisma, good looks, interesting background, photogenic family, and terrific PR campaign as it is to his ability to lead. With a good enough advertising team, even an incoherent buffoon can have a pretty good chance of being elected to public office. As we've seen.

So if I ran the country, all candidates for public office would have to meet a set of clearly-defined standards before they could even be considered for the jobs they wanted. For example:

  • Public service
My mom thinks everyone should be required to do a term of public service at some point in their lives, and I think she's probably right. (Do as I say, not as I do-- I thought about the Peace Corps, but it wasn't financially feasible at the time.) The idea here would be to get away from home and family for a while (a year? Two years?) and spend time doing things that had a positive impact on the world. Habitat for Humanity, Teach For America, and Doctors Without Borders are some examples. Exceptions could be made for people who've served as soldiers, police officers, firefighters, EMTs, etc. It can be considered a gesture of good faith: "Look, folks, I may not be a completely selfish bastard!"

  • An encyclopedic knowledge of the Constitution
Mandatory. Everyone should know more about "the supreme law of the land" than most of us do, but the person in charge of executing it should be held to much higher standards than the rest of us. Candidates for state and local government would also need to know all about their state constitutions, local charters, and whatever other documents were relevant.

  • Knowledge of languages other than English
Apparently Newt Gingrich has been sneering at Mitt Romney because he speaks French. Now, from personal experience I can tell you that studying French is not of much practical use in this country, and I'm not saying Mittens doesn't give us plenty to sneer at. I'm disgusted, however, that Gingrich would imply that an ability to communicate with non-English speakers makes a person less reliable. Doesn't bode well for his ability to lead our decidedly multicultural country.

Studying foreign languages changes the way you think. If you learn a language, you also learn culture, and start to see new ways of looking at the world. Furthermore, if you're trying to represent your country-- and that is one of the POTUS' most important jobs-- then you'll make a much better showing if you're able to communicate with people when you travel outside of it. I was very disappointed to read that Obama doesn't speak a foreign language (and surprised, as well! I'm not sure how he managed it). If I ran the world, I would require every Presidential candidate to speak and write three languages besides English fluently. If I couldn't have that, I'd require at least two. Impossible, you say? South Africa, India, Belgium, Switzerland, and a number of other countries beg to differ.

You know how, when you go overseas, everyone's able to speak to you in English? That's because (unless you're traveling in a Commonwealth nation) the people you meet have been studying English for years. They are using it to make new friends, get better jobs, and advance in ways that are now out of reach for most Americans.

Honestly, that's another subject. But I think it's clear why an extensive knowledge of foreign languages is one of my requirements for an ideal political candidate.

So: secondary languages. At least two for Presidential candidates-- though three or more would be better. One for Congressional candidates and everybody else. Candidates for political office would have to pass a university-level proficiency test of each language s/he claimed to speak within two years of running for office. These tests, and their results, would be open to public scrutiny, so as to discourage cheating.

If you're from Hawaii, or any state where more than 10% of the citizens speak a language other than English at home, then congratulations: your secondary language is already picked out for you. I just learned that Hawaii is officially bilingual, and also that the Hawaiian language is endangered. French is apparently the de facto second language of Maine as well as Louisiana. Officials in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Texas should be fluent in Spanish. (As should everyone, really. Even if no one in the US spoke Spanish, it would still be the official language of most countries in the Western Hemisphere. Good manners alone suggest that we learn it.)

(Note: I know very little Spanish. It's on my list of things to do. If I ruled the world, I would tell myself to get on that shit pronto.)

  • An encyclopedic knowledge of US culture, history, and geography
Self-explanatory. To discourage cheating, make each test a different combination of randomly-generated questions. Submit and grade anonymously. Results and answers would all go into the public record.

  • A very thorough knowledge of world cultures, history, and geography
Also self-explanatory. "I can see Russia from my house" does not cut it. Bonus points for time spent abroad. (For state officials, substitute-- or, preferably, add-- an encyclopedic knowledge of the state in question.)

  • Graduate-level coursework in law, economics, and political science
Look, we want the best of the best, right? In a nation of 313 million people, I'm sure we can come up with at least a few stellar individuals who meet all these criteria.

You've probably noticed the obvious problem: education requires money. The way things are now, things would play out the same way they did in Imperial China: only the rich and powerful would be able to take the test, let alone pass it. Unfortunately, we're not yet at the point where we can start everyone off on the same foot, and people always want to give their kids all the advantages they can. If you start everyone on the same footing, those who can afford it will pay to get their kids extra help in the form of tutors, books, summers abroad, etc. For right now, we're not likely to solve that problem.

But you know what? I would rather rich people got elected to public office by being better educated than other rich people than by simply having more money (which is what generally happens now).

Maybe the exams could be free to anyone who meets certain criteria-- the right age, the right GPA, letters of recommendation from teachers and public-service supervisors. For the Presidency and other high-level positions, maybe candidates would have to prove themselves by finishing out terms in humbler positions first. That would level the field drastically.

The exams should be free (they'd just be standardized tests, anyway, and lord knows we already give plenty of those). You'd conduct them in rounds, making cuts as needed as you moved from level to level. At the end, you'd be left with a small pool of highly qualified candidates-- whom you could then put on the hot seat.

Phew. That took awhile.

So much for the qualifications. Now: the election.

1) Extremely strict limitations on campaign advertising.

Leave the internet alone-- there's no point in trying to regulate banner ads-- but get the worthless attack ads out of the other media. Each candidate would be allowed a set number of advertising minutes per channel/station per day. In each ad,

  • You may state your positions on various issues.
  • You may list your qualifications for office.
  • That's it.
    Political attack ads are ugly and unproductive. They accomplish nothing worthwhile, and lend an unsavory tone to the entire political process. (Not that it didn't have one to begin with.) Political candidates can say whatever they want to on their own blogs and in their own literature, but they shouldn't be allowed to manipulate public opinion by throwing buckets of dollars at the TV stations.

    I would limit ad minutes because just limiting spending  doesn't work. If you put a cap on how much individuals can spend, they'll just find other individuals to act as smokescreens: "This ad paid for by the Basket Weavers in Support of Joe Blow."

    (It would probably be best to have some kind of clean election financing system, anyway. I don't know enough about campaign finance to really comment, though, and my eyes are getting tired.)

    2) Kick out the parties.

    I'm not saying political parties should be shut down. They're a great way for people to organize themselves around ideological lines. But in my system, candidates for office would be legally required to remain politically neutral throughout the election and (if applicable) throughout their terms in office. Naturally most candidates would feel that one party or another suited their interests the best, but it's not right for public officials, whose duty is to the city, state, or country, to owe their election to a political group that's the enemy of half their constituents. Once the pool of politically-neutral candidates has been selected, the political parties can decide who they like and go crazy supporting them. But I don't think a given candidate should run as a Democrat or a Republican. It's a built-in conflict of interest.

    3) Debates: High-pressure oral exams from hell.

    Once the candidates are established-- and at this point they should be the best of the best-- schedule a series of debates. The more the better, probably-- maybe one pertaining to each major department? I don't know much about debating, but the Canadian system looks like a reasonable way to manage it.

    Debate moderators should be like that one professor who never let you get away with anything. "Can you expand more on that argument? Tell me why you chose this word. I noticed a factual error in the statement you just made that renders your entire argument invalid. Would you like to reconsider?" This is the candidates' last chance to show off for the audience. It should serve mostly to tell the voters what they can expect if a given candidate is elected. It is not an opportunity for grandstanding.

    This process would take forever, but that wouldn't matter. Since the selection of candidates wouldn't be politically motivated-- at least not till the end-- there wouldn't be nearly as much stumping and glad-handing to get through before the race began. At the end of the debate series, each candidate-- maybe now you'd be down to two or three-- would have a chance to make a final speech, like a lawyer's closing arguments, summing up all his/her positions and qualifications. And after that would come Election Day.

    I want my political leaders to be decent, intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, eloquent, and diplomatic. I would really like to see if this is a way to get them that way.

    Monday, June 6, 2011

    Appropriate extravagance

    Today was my friend Aneika's birthday, and she had the most wonderfully indulgent ideas! Both of them were significant firsts for me:

    1) My first real massage (outside of friendly shoulder-rubs).

    2) My first deliberately extravagant French meal. I've been to France twice before, but was a student both times and stuck to the budget-safe tourist menus. It... makes a difference.

    I always had the idea that spa treatments and expensive foods were pointless indulgences-- something rich people did to show off their excess money. I was kind of proud to be a non-participant. But this evening, combined with my first-ever pedicure a few weeks ago, is starting to change my mind. I'm realizing that treating oneself well is not a pointless waste of money. It has a real impact on quality of life.

    I typically spend a lot of money on food. I love to eat. The things I buy, though, are not big-ticket items. I've tended instead to get a lot of cheap stuff-- little pastries, convenience-store sandwiches, candy bars (definitely a sweet snacker, here)-- and just graze on them throughout the day. Though the food is not the best, it provides a lot of cheap thrills, so to speak-- it's fast and easy and tastes good going down.

    This evening's dinner was different. The portions were small-- my entree would have fit on a bread plate with room to spare-- but the food was so rich and the flavors so intense that all of us were stuffed before we finished. Every bite of it was perfect, and I felt no need for more.

    One of the girls at the table had taken a cooking class on a trip to France, and was talking about how strict the French food regulations are. Even vegetables, she said, are classed differently depending on quality. Our (French) waiter, who looked about 25, seemed as knowledgeable and passionate about wine and food as anyone I've ever met. I felt really out of my depth listening to him talk about cheeses with the girl who'd taken the cooking class.

    It made me sad, because that kind of knowledge and passion is something most Americans really don't have. We feed ourselves on what is cheap and easy, focusing on bulk instead of quality. I would guess that most of us are only familiar with a handful of ingredients, and can only prepare a handful of dishes using a handful of cooking techniques. (I'm going by my own experience, here: my non-dessert modes are limited to "steam," "boil," "fry" and "eat raw.") Junk-food companies are allowed to advertise more or less anything as "food." Beyond cookout fare and soul food, we don't really have a proper food culture at all, and I think that's horribly sad.

    I know that this post is not covering any new ground. All these points have been made a million times (notably in French Women Don't Get Fat, which I think I put down because its suggestions seemed far too hard to follow). I was just struck by how dramatic the difference can be between top-quality ingredients well prepared and the processed stuff most restaurants will sell you.

    I decided that this week, at least, I would try to move back towards high-quality ingredients and cooking at home. (I love eating out, and generally prefer it, but health food is not what you get at most restaurants around here.) Top-quality stuff seems really expensive, at first-- I just bought a carton of organic eggs for double what the regular ones cost. But when you think about what's necessary for survival, food is at the top of the list. I am hoping that eating more high-quality food is going to do me some good.

    Sunday, April 3, 2011

    Who needs sleep?

    A while ago, my aunt Emily posted a link to an article entitled "Sleep is More Important Than Food." (And may I say how much I love being able to type a few keywords and come up with an article I read weeks ago.) It's something everyone says, but I guess it had never been pointed out to me this starkly before. Since reading that article I've been trying, and mostly succeeding, to get at least something like a full night's sleep every day. I've pretty much been sleep-deprived since high school (late nights reading + early-morning church "seminary" classes = no good for a developing adolescent brain), so this has taken some adjustment. I'm still not 100%-- I have a particularly hard time when I've been at work late and haven't had much time to myself-- but I've improved my sleeping patterns enough to notice a significant difference.

    Anyone who knows me well knows that I am an evil dinosaur first thing in the morning. Multiple cups of stimulant are required to get me functional (though at least I've switched to tea lately), and I'm prone to snap at anyone who approaches me with a question before I've had them. This remains the case, of course-- I love my caffeine much too dearly to give it up without a fight-- but I think the species of dinosaur is much less dire when I've had at least seven hours of sleep. Maybe down to a stegosaurus instead of an ankylosaurus. (Loads of F-bombs in that video; beware.)

    I also have a much easier time getting up-- I still pull the covers over my head at least five times before getting up, but at least I feel like I'm capable of getting up before that. In the past I've slept through multiple alarms, and even been late for work, because I went to bed too late. (My brain has developed a nifty self-defense mechanism wherein it says "FU" and ignores alarm clocks if I haven't been getting enough sleep. For several years I went to bed paranoid every night that I might be about to oversleep again.)

    Someone on Twitter linked in passing to this article-- Arianna Huffington's "Sleep Challenge 2010." I read it and thought it had a good point. It prevents sleep-deprivation as a feminist issue-- citing stats on how women in the US tend to get less sleep than men do. I'm sure that's true, but I'm also sure that this is an important issue for everyone.

     The other big thing-- and something I've only concretely noticed this week-- is that when I'm really tired I eat way more junk food. Like, follow a full meal with a muffin and a cream bun, or down a whole bag of cookies or four donuts or three slices of pizza in a sitting when I'm not even hungry. This is something that goes way back with me, too. As it happens, the HuffPost article links to this one from Glamour. While I would ordinarily roll my eyes-- "pfft, Glamour"-- I think I'm starting to have anecdotal evidence that you can "Lose Weight While You Sleep": I'm starting to lose weight.

    Not a lot, so far, and certainly not enough to write home about (though apparently I'm doing that), but... it's encouraging. I shall follow this trend and see how it goes.

    And, as it is a Saturday night, I happily resolve to sleep as long as I can tomorrow morning, with all the alarms turned off. (This is something I fantasize sometimes during the workweek.) I hope that all of you can, and will, do the same. Sweet dreams!