Friday, June 12, 2009

Stuff and Things

I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want to do next. I'm about to start a new contract, and it will be my third year of teaching here- same school, same job. I like it, but it's starting to get old.

I want to keep Having Adventures. The more I read, the more I want to see. I've thought about the Peace Corps, but I don't feel very comfortable with the whole go-where-you're-sent, do-what-you're-told thing. (I briefly considered the military, back in high school, and rejected it mostly for the same reason.) Ditto the Foreign Service, though that would be more to my taste. I'm not sure I want a full-on career working in Points Abroad, and embassy work sounds a bit boring. (There's also the exam and hiring process, if it comes to that.)

The easiest thing would be to just keep on teaching, maybe in another country. I briefly thought of going to China for a year or so, just for the experience. I feel like I'm starting to be in a rut, though, and the thought of spending years and years more teaching ESL abroad for profit is starting to feel a little suffocating.

Another option would be to try and do grad school abroad. I don't know where I'd study, but I'm still thinking about urban planning off and on (especially whenever I read something remotely environmentalist). My main concern there is the expense: from what I know, most places won't let you work on a student visa, so I'd be living abroad and pouring my savings into school with no guarantee of a job afterward.

It sounds cliche, but I do feel like I'm being pulled in two different directions. One part of me gets a little wistful whenever I see updates about friends my age getting married, moving into new apartments, having friends with other friends I haven't seen in years. Another part thinks I'm lucky to be free of all that, and wants to cut all ties and go wandering in Cambodia or something. I've tied myself down a bit with the cat, which is one weight on the "settling" side of the balance, but I don't quite want to put down permanent roots yet.

On the other hand, I miss my family. I miss my friends. I miss going to parties with people I've known since college, catching up on people's lives, being at home and making a place for myself in a neighborhood I can plan to stay in for a while. My life here is many things, but one big one is TEMPORARY. I have to avoid picking up too much stuff-- knickknacks, dishes, things to move later. My friends come and go-- one of my best friends here is leaving in a couple of weeks, and I've only known her a year. Starting over again means I'll have to pull up what roots I have put down and start the whole awkward feeling-out process again, in a new town at least, maybe a new country. It's a daunting prospect.

The obvious downside about going home, right now, is that the job market is terrible. If I go home, even for graduate school, there's no guarantee I'd be able to find a decent job, and there's the terrible risk of ending up right back where I started. The one thing I DO NOT want to do is get stuck in a retail rut all over again, even if I could start at a slightly higher level. I've gotten used to being able to afford to do the things I want to do. I like having the money to travel, eat out, buy clothes-- these are things I couldn't do, before, not with a bank account that was always veering towards the negative. I'm luxuriating in stability. The problem is that it's a false stability. No matter how many roots I put down here, this is not a place where I could stay forever.


I tried to spend yesterday making plans for Tokyo. Made lots of lists, but didn't get much concrete planning done. I've almost decided-- pending in-person inspection of the area-- to stay in Ueno, at least. I plan to find a motel first, set up camp, then read my guidebook a little and go out for a bit of sightseeing before dinner. That will probably be all I'm up for, the first day. Ueno's the area that had most of the most interesting restaurants, according to the guidebook. It's also right on the railway, and has some interesting things to see. It seems like a safe, comfortable area to base myself from. I tried to make reservations for a ryokan, but I'm not really comfortable doing that over the internet. Since travel plans always change, anyway, I'm leaving mine fluid this time. I plan to take my laptop and will try to update as possible; if nothing else, I'll try to do some kind of a write-up when I get back next week.


A story for you. I'll preface it by explaining that all the foreign teachers' apartments are leased by our school, and the school handles all the maintenance requests (largely because none of us speak much Korean).

A year ago, I came back from my end-of-contract vacation and noticed that a section of my ceiling was sagging a bit. I didn't do anything about it, because I thought it was just the wallpaper coming loose and didn't want to deal with the fuss of repairs over something so simple.

Over time, the sag got bigger, and I realized there was stuff inside the paper-- as in, the damp, crumbling contents of the ceiling. I told John, our school's man-of-all-work, and he brought in the building guard to look at the problem. The guard opened the ceiling panel, looked inside, frowned a lot and made some noises. He left, promising repairs.

A few weeks later, the ceiling started to drip. I put a pot under the leak and called in John again. He called the building guard. The building guard came up, opened the ceiling panel, looked inside, spotted the leak, and commandeered my (one and only) mixing bowl. He put the bowl up inside the ceiling to catch the drips and went away, promising repairs.

The leaking stopped for a while. John said that the problem had been a leak in the water pipes upstairs (our floors are heated with hot water), but that it had been fixed. I forgot about the problem (and the mixing bowl) and waited for the ceiling to dry out. The bulge was by now very unsightly, and the paper was starting to peel a little at the seam.

A couple of months later, the leaking started again. I called in John. John called the building guard. The building guard came in, opened the ceiling panel, took out my mixing bowl (now overflowing with water and silt), emptied it out, and stuck it back up again. Apparently the problem had not been fixed. He left, and John promised me they would fix it this time. The leak seemed to stop, the ceiling dried up it was ugly, but not unstable. I breathed a sigh of relief and went on with my life.

On Tuesday, the ceiling started to leak. Again. I touched the bulge, and found that it was wet again. The paper is now gaping about two inches at the seam, the inside of the crack is black with mold, and the whole thing looks like it's thinking about coming down. (I tried to take some pictures, but was unable to capture the full effect.) The kindergarten had its 100th Day event today, and I'd gone in for fun, so I let John know that the Problem had returned. He brought the building guard over right away. Lo and behold: My mixing bowl, still faithfully serving its new purpose, was once more overflowing, and the problem had SPREAD. Water was now pooling in other areas of the ceiling, which are now subtly beginning to sag. The guard mopped something up inside the panel, replaced the bowl again, and stuck the biggest sag with my paring knife like he was lancing a boil. Water immediately began to drip out-- and not clean water, either, but brown and rusty, enough to fill a tupperware container halfway. The guard said it would stop after about ten minutes; it was more like three hours, though it did stop.

I started crying. This is my house; this is where I live. The fact that Upstairs is having a problem with its sink (that's the latest explanation) should have no bearing on the structural soundness of my roof. The guard left. John gave me a hug and promised that someone would be in to work on the thing tomorrow-- I'm leaving him my key so he can let the guy in whenever he ends up coming, since I have an errand to run in Seoul tomorrow and we don't know when the repair guy would be coming. John also promised they would fix the problem permanently next week. We'll see.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What I'm Doing Now

It seemed like a good idea-- not least because my mother suggested it-- to resurrect this blog from the sands of time.


I'm on vacation. A serious vacation, from the middle of May till the end of June. The first two weeks were spent with my mom, traveling all around inside Korea. We hit a lot of tourist spots, ate a lot of food, enjoyed each other's company and generally had a great time. Now I have the month of June to fill.

I have one more trip planned, from June 13th-21st. I'm going to Tokyo. I've always wanted to go-- to Japan in general, and Kyoto and Tokyo specifically. I'd like to go more than once, and I decided I'd stick to one city this time. Partially it's to motivate me to go again, though I don't think that will be a problem. I haven't made very detailed plans yet, but that's my only goal for tomorrow so I should get some details sketched in then.

I'm going alone. I found out after I'd booked the tickets that some friends of mine were going a week earlier, but I have things to do in Korea this week and couldn't change the dates. I used to think about traveling alone without even blinking-- I've spent a lot of time alone-- but now the idea is less appealing. Part of the reason I'm not doing more traveling this month is that it doesn't seem as much fun going myself as it would be going with friends.

It should be a nice, relaxed trip. I'm thinking about spending each day in a different area of the city, though I'll probably change my plans (such as they may be) once I actually get there. I'll probably do a lot of wandering around, shopping and taking pictures and watching people. I'd like to talk to people, too; I wish I knew more Japanese. I know a lot of people speak English, but I feel bad not knowing the local language, even though I'm only going for a week. Hopefully people won't be too offended.

That's three weeks of travel. The other three weeks, interspersed with important things (a wedding, a good bye dinner, etc.) are devoted mostly to idleness. At first I was going stir crazy, but now I'm getting to enjoy it. Every day I get to sleep late, stay up late, eat when I want to, go where I want to, and spend most of my time reading and playing with the cat. (The cat seems to be pretty happy about all the attention. I feel bad for leaving him alone so much when I'm at work.) Overall, I'm enjoying the hell out of my free time, and I don't want to go back to work.


At some point while my mom was here, we hit that point where Korea suddenly decided it was summer. Korea dresses by the season, not by the weather. There seem to be cut-off dates inscribed in the culture, which perhaps I could read if my Korean were better. They tell people when it's okay to wear short sleeves, or go sleeveless, or turn on the A.C. Maybe it's in the news; maybe everyone just watches the celebrities and does what they do. We foreigners tend to dress more for comfort, and I've often been the only one on a subway car in summer clothes, despite the weather. Right now the trendy Seoul ladies are all wearing gladiator sandals and cute little buns in their hair. I've seen several people in sleeveless tops, and am no longer getting funny looks for wearing mine.

The weather ranges mostly between sullen heat and heavy rain, with a few muggy days in between. It poured down rain tonight. The sidewalks here are all uneven bricks, and the water stands in puddles or runs everywhere in little creeks. I soaked the cuffs of two pairs of pants and was glad to put on dry pajamas when I finally got home for good.

As long as I don't have to go outside too much, I almost prefer the rain to the "clear" days. There are millions of cars here, and the air pollution is getting really bad. Looking out the bus windows, sometimes I feel like I'm in a futuristic landscape being toted through poison gases in a protective bubble.

Bug season has also begun. Aside from the mosquitoes, I really don't mind them-- mostly they're delicate little black things, easily squished and not very noticeable. The mosquitoes themselves are a bit of a problem, always out for my sweet blood. I keep thinking about getting a net-- there's a hook above my bed where someone must have hung one before-- but I've been through two summers here without one and don't know if the expesnse is really worth one. If I catch a horrible mosquito-borne disease, feel free to point fingers and say "You should have bothered!" The mosquito trucks are almost more troubling than the mosquitoes themselves. They come out at dusk, and drive around trailing pesticide fogs that smell kind of like a more noxious form of auto exhaust. Does not smell healthy to me, though Korean kids seem to like it. (Old clip, but still funny.)


Went to a friend's wedding on Sunday. She's American, but married a Korean, and they had a full-on Korean ceremonies. Korean wedding ceremonies are big photo-shoots, staged and short, with fabulous gowns and lots of staff and a very assembly-line feel about them. I've been to several of them here, all for co-workers, and they're mostly variations on a theme. Most people get married in a wedding hall, which is a big building with one or several chapels in it, each of which can be rented for about a one-hour ceremony and is then cycled over to the next group (not counting clean-up, set-up, and other prep time). Guests give money, not gifts, and in return are given meal tickets for the buffet dinner that follows the wedding. There are a lot of guests at these things. Many are friends or colleagues of the couple's parents, and may not know the bride and groom personally at all. Everyone pays their respects to the couple and their parents, gets a picture taken with the bride, watches the ceremony, eats fairly quickly, and leaves en masse.

My friend's wedding was fairly typical-- except, of course, for the fact that the bride was not Korean. The Koreans involved in the wedding did not seem to know how to handle this. The ceremony was in Korean, and only a few phrases were translated. Most of the Korean guests I saw spoke to the groom's parents, but did not have much to say to the bride or her mother. Worst of all was how my friend's mother was treated. She'd just arrived in the country the day before, speaks no Korean, and was obviously uncomfortable. The wedding hall staff dealt with the situation by sticking her in a corner and ignoring her. All the foreign guests made a point of talking with her, but I thought it was really shabby of the staff-- and the groom's parents- not to make more of an effort to include her. The language barrier is not really an excuse; there were plenty of bilingual Korean guests present who would probably have been happy to translate.

The Korean wedding guests also seemed uncomfortable with the large number of foreign guests at the wedding. Mostly they just decided not to look at us. Eye contact or at least a nod would have been appreciated. Maybe it's just me; no one else I asked seemed to have noticed anything unusual in the vibe. Since both the foreigners and the Koreans pretty much talked amongst themselves (with the exception of our school's Korean English teachers, who mingled), I guess they wouldn't have. Anyway, it was a pretty ceremony, and the bride and groom both seemed very happy, which I guess is the most important part. (I actually sang a song-- they asked me a while ago if I would-- which came off pretty well; fortunately a friend of mine was nice enough to play the guitar. We did "Love Me Tender," which might not be exciting but was really appropriate for the bride and groom. So-- not a gig, but the first time I've sung on personal request. Huzzah!)


I think I'm starting to understand how resident aliens in the US must feel most of the time. One big problem is the frustration of being unable to communicate. The worst was the first few weeks after I got here, in June of 2007. I couldn't read anything without a lengthy struggle-- all the signage might as well have been hieroglyphics. For someone who spends mostof her free time reading things, this was intensely frustrating, almost suffocating. My Korean's gotten better, and I can usually get my point across, but complex conversations are beyond me. If something goes wrong-- if there's a problem with my cell phone, or a notice gets posted in the apartment building, or something breaks in my apartment, I need an interpreter to get anything done. I need to study, and have been better about it lately, but I really want to be able to acquire the language instantaneously. I'm impatient.

There are different ways of communicating here-- different nonverbal cues, different postures and gestures, different connotations. I think about the subtleties involved in communicating in English-- subtle shifts in tone, obscure references and metareferences, the fine shades of meaning that make us choose one word over anothere-- and am frustrated by the knowledge of how much I must be missing even of those conversations I do understand. It's not that I have any particular fascination with the Korean culture-- it's just that my main goal in life has always been to understand things.

There's also a sense, here, that many people don't see you as quite a real person. There's plenty of the oh-look-Mommy-a-blond/tall/fat/foreign person that I expected when I came over here. I've gotten used to it, and it doesn't bother me that much, though it does set my teeth on edge a bit every time I hear someone say "Whoa, look, a foreigner!" or some variation. (I've started responding with "Oh, look, a Korean!" which always gets a stunned look from kids who'd never conceived of a non-Korean being able to speak even a little of their language. Sometimes I just glare.)

What really bothers me, though, is something I've noticed more and more of lately: people who treat me as if I'm not there at all, or as if I've got the plague or something. I don't mean line-cutting, or jostling in a crowd, though there's plenty of that to go around. I mean I am standing in a store or bank, face-to-face with an employee, mouth open to ask a question-- and then some Korean person comes up and interrupts the conversation with a question of their own, as if the employee had been staring at nothing. And the employee answers them, and lets me sit and stew until the More Important Person's concerns have been dealt with. Or I am on a bus or subway, and there is an empty seat next to me, and some Korean who has just boarded looks desperately up and down the car for any other seat before taking the one that is available right in front of them. Foreigner cooties. I know we're associated with the Swine Flu now, being as how the furrn devils had it first, but this all predates that.

Korean culture is quite homogenous, and it's usually very easy to tell if someone is Not From Around Here. Most people are not used to trying to decipher a foreign accent; mispronounce your Korean a little bit and you're speaking a foreign language to them. Koreans as a whole are also very nationalistic. "Us and Them" rhetoric is not just popular, but standard. An exceptionally popular name for things is "Uri," or "Our." "Our Bank." "Our Rice." "Our Potatoes." The "Us" in question is clearly defined." It's a bit much to overcome if you want to interact normally with someone to whom you might as well be an extraterrestrial.

Not everyone is like this. The vast majority of the people I talk to here are exceptionally kind and friendly-- curious about where I'm from and where I'm working, complimentary about my poor Korean, eager to communicate as well as we're able to. That's why it's so startling-- and so hurtful-- when that one person in a crowd suddenly stops what they're doing to give me a blank-faced full-bodied stare as I walk by. I guess it's like with anything-- no matter how many positive things there are, the negative ones still stand out.


This wasn't meant to be such a negative post, but all this has been bothering me. I'll try to think of something a little more upbeat for next time.

Take care--