19 December 2014

The Two Types of Expats in Korea

Now that I have been living in Korea for six and a half years it is interesting to look back over these neglected pages and see the ways in which my perspective has changed. One way to frame this is to think about how I perceived my journey when I came here and how I think about it now. Reflecting on this I theorize that there are two kinds of expats in Korea (at least in the teaching community): those who are "short-term" and those who are "Lifers." I never intended to become the latter. I still want to think of myself as a "short-termer" and of my time in Korea as temporary, but somehow, as the years here have passed I have never really found the motivation to seek out someplace else to go. Like many people (mostly men) who come here, I have fallen in love with a Korean person. This has made finding an exit strategy immensely more complicated. Luckily, the Korean person I am dating is ok with the idea of immigrating elsewhere. But the logistics of doing so (finding jobs for two people, finding places where we can both get resident status, etc.) make moving two much harder than moving alone. And then there is the cat to think of. I have also been fortunate to procure a good job at a university here. And I have one of the better jobs at one of the better universities in Korea (imho). I teach American Literature in an English department, something that would basically be impossible in the US given the glut of unemployed PhDs floating around (I have an MA). My job is incredibly rewarding from the personal standpoint, and while the pay isn't fantastic, it supports the travel that I love and allows me a comfortable lifestyle here. Another issue is the matter of where to go and why. I have heard people talk of greener pastures in the Middle East, BRICS countries, Eastern Europe...and while all of them have their upsides, (money, adventure, culture) somehow none of them offer anything (at least for me) that can motivate me to give up my cushy sinecure here in Korea at this time.

"An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion..." Newton's First Law
It seems ironic, to me at least, that the forces that moved me to pick up stakes and leave my country (which have been enumerated ad nauseam in this blog) have not affected me here. I still face many of the same challenges and frustrations, but the cumulative effect is lessened somehow. I think this points to a fundamental difference between Short-timers and Lifers that may explain why they end up leaving quickly or staying forever, respectively. Short-timers, I have noticed, are always talking about going somewhere, planning for some goal, using their experience here as a stepping-stone to something else. For them, the expat experience is often less a destination than a stop-off on the way to someplace else, most often back to where they began. This is a fundamentally good way to look at the opportunity to live in another country. I have also seen that Lifers, people who tend to stay here long term, often talk about escaping from something in their past. In my case this is certainly true. I have heard Lifers talk about escaping from addictions, bad relationships, bad jobs, frustration with political or cultural conditions, poverty, unemployment, and many other things. For these people, finding a place where we felt loved, valued, safe, healthy, or whatever is an end in itself. "Going back" is something with negative connotations,"moving on" a prospect with inherent risks. We are, in many ways, objects at rest...happy to have found a place to exist in relative peace and comfort. There are exceptions to every rule, and everyone has a different perception of the expat experience, but I have seen this pattern again and again as I visit with people living in Korea. People seem to have some idea of what they are after, whether it be a place to land or another step on a journey. And both are ok. I am not sure what the future holds for me. For the time being I am here, doing what I can to live a good life and help those around me.

08 November 2012

Post-Election Reflections

  Things are going swimmingly here in Korea. The weather is cooling steadily and the trees are turning on the mountains here in Busan. It is lovely. A sense of optimism has returned following the elections. There is nothing more depressing than an election cycle and this one was worse than most. I was encouraged by the numbers in Florida and elsewhere that suggested the GOP has a real problem with Hispanics. It was also lovely to see Akin and Mourdock go down on their slimy barges of misogyny. This gives me hope. The Republican party will have to somehow separate itself from the vitriol of the ultra-con Teabaggery or risk political oblivion. In doing so the will shoot themselves in the foot with their biggest grassroots constituency and most well-heeled political donors. And I am going to make a prediction: in the next presidential election there will be a tangible third party threat from the right. A Pawlenty/Palin ticket.  I also predict that Hillary Clinton will resign from the Department of State at some point to begin gearing up for her run. The abysmal display by the GOP must have been very encouraging to her. If Obama can work with Boehner to introduce moderate fiscal reforms and further repair the economy the next Democratic nominee will be in pretty good shape against a divided conservative movement.

05 December 2010

Still Here

It's long since I have written but I once again take the thing out and dust it off. I recently returned home from a visit to the US, my second since coming to Korea, and my reaction to that journey seems to require some comment, if only as a way-point for my own personal reference. This blog, after all, has been if anything a record of dis-orientation, beginning with my first dizzying days in a foreign land, progressing through my gradual (and sometimes difficult) acclimatisation, and even, though only referred to by the absence of any post whatsoever, to a level of comfort where further comment seemed either completely unnecessary or merely trivial. I have always allowed myself the illusion that I am writing for myself alone which might excuse to some extent the content if not the tone of these missives.

To come to the point, or a point, my recent trip home was not much fun. I enjoyed seeing my family and friends and I ate enough melted cheese and fried potatoes to regain about 10 pounds of hard lost fat but overall it was just not a satisfying experience. I realized at some point that I had been expecting a vacation and that I had had failed for the simple reason that one cannot take a much-needed vacation in one's own hometown. It is not a get-away, it is not a relaxing retreat. It is home. And even though I have been away from the place for quite a while and the people and place have changed significantly, it is still at the end of the day my hometown. And as the song says: "Nothing brings you down like your hometown."

Now perhaps I am doing it wrong. I initially chose Thanksgiving as an opportunity to see as many family members as possible at one gathering. Now, with my cousins all marrying and going everywhere, the gatherings are becoming more of a drive-through affair than an all-day affair. Certainly there is no strong motivation to see me, and I am not hurt about that. We all have our own lives now. Perhaps it is just as effective to keep in touch over Facebook and leave it at that. I had felt that there was some obligation on my part to be physically present periodically but this may not be the case. Reassessment. Now my mother is another story and as the primary reason that I return each year she should be addressed separately. She does require my physical presence and I require hers and for that reason some annual journey is required. And there are my two grandfathers, to whom every visit is a gift granted by time. But it is my current speculation that the next meeting will not be at Thanksgiving.

One problem with November in Illinois however is the weather. I saw the sun for about three hours in the week I was there. It is a cloudy depressing place in late fall when all the leaves have fallen and all you can see for miles is grey and mud. And, I hate to say it, but I have started to become sensitized to what I might describe as culture of lazy obesity and waste, TV-addicted couch potatoes complaining at the drive-up windows of the Taco Bell. I was shocked to see what would have never shocked me before I left, a huge woman in an electric wheelchair dragging a grocery cart through the "frozen-sin" section of the Shop-N-Save, too fat to reach the donuts. It would simply be impossible where I live now for that woman to exist. And I have a right to be critical, yes I do, because that was, to some extent, ME.

And I am none too happy about discovering this sense of overall dissatisfaction with the stereotypic Mid-westerner (who is, I'm sorry, obese). It is as if I woke up and didn't like who I was and decided to change and become different and, once I had, saw myself as I was before and realized that I in some way missed that person. I miss my beer-driven mediocrity. I can still appreciate the feeling of a summer breeze drying the condensation from a can of Busch pulled directly from a cooler full of ice. I chuckle to remember the calls through a creaky screen door to "light the other grill," the quintessential and uniquely Mid-western American problem: Too Much Meat. And I miss the stupefying simplicity of that life, the lack of competition (driven by an appalling and culture-wide sense of entitlement), the glacial pace, the contentment with cultural objects deemed classic merely because they were on the radio twenty years ago. All of this would seem, looking from the other side of my brain, the one I would suppose has become "urbanized" if that is an accurate diagnosis, to be disturbingly quaint at best and abjectly hopeless at worst.

So while I was at the aforementioned supermarket on my first day back I had a bit of a panic attack at the sight of everyday hometown humanity and the only word on my mind was "Escape." At that moment I actually wanted more than anything to go back to the airport. We left what few things I had gathered (I was looking for some small "American" gifts which, note, do not exist) and went back out to the grey parking lot. I can laugh about it now but there was one vivid instant where I didn't know who I was.

15 July 2010

The Most Breathtaking Country

I have been living and working here in Korea for two years now so I feel qualified to make some observations on the subject. Bear in mind reading this that I am anything but a dispassionate observer. I love this place, this culture, and these people. Also, admittedly, my experience of other cultures with which to compare it is rather limited. Nevertheless, I am a fan and I tend to beat the drum and the observation I have chosen to make is probably universal regardless. Now I know Korea isn't perfect and there are a lot of entrenched attitudes that should change. But I think that there is a lot more positive about this place than most expats I talk to give it credit for. For one thing, living in a place like Korea gives you an opportunity to learn a new way of thinking.

For instance, in talking about Korean cities, some people complain about the stink. I will admit that on a hot summer day in Busan sometimes you get a whiff of something coming out of a sewer grate that feels like a punch in the gut. But I love the other smells: the fruit and vegetable markets early in the morning when the stands are freshly rainbow stocked with produce, dried peppers and piles of pungent aromatic herbs. The pine woods along the singing brooks on Geumjangsan when the sun hits hard the west side of the mountain before setting over Gimhae. The smell of the sea spray at Igidae, ripe with brine, with hints of seaweed and barnacle. The smell (yes, smell) of child laughter on the beaches. Eyes closed and earphones squawking, I can smell them, just beyond my eyelids: sun-blocked though fully clothed, bobbing in yellow rubber tubes, screaming in the rollers. Sun block and fried chicken and dried squid and sand. And wet towel. Yeah, that's it. And how can you not love the smell of a sizzling pile of samgyeopsal, kimchi and garlic popping in the fat, sea salt and sesame oil, duenjang, lettuce leaf. A bottle or two of cold Hite. These are smells that stay with you, too. And they enable the recall, walking past a forgotten alley or sitting on a beach or by a stream sometime after, of moments spent laughing and eating and drinking and talking and walking and swimming with friends.

You can spend a lot of energy feeling bad about something. I have a well-known propensity to get in a funk and stay there. But I have found that there is cheer and beauty available when you actively look for it. It is simply a matter of perception. I am perfectly capable of perceiving the stink of the world... but I can choose to call it something else. Juliet pointed this out when realizing that she had managed to fall in love with someone who had the wrong last name. She said: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet." Shakespeare is shaking the very epistemological foundations of his own art with these words by calling into question the link between language and meaning. And it is something to reflect on in the present discussion. What is flower? Red? Sweet? How much to the adjectives and nouns we choose to describe the phenomena around us affect our perceptions? It has been proposed that the act of naming may constitute nearly the whole of our conscious experience.

So what is the point of all this babble and what does it have to do with life in Korea? There are a lot of people who walk around frustrated because this place doesn't conform to their image of how things should look, or work, or smell. And if it is different it is by definition bad. This is a myopic and self-centered world view from which the inevitable outcome is discontent and anguish. I have learned, while here, that there is another way of thinking, and naming, that is outside of myself. When I am presented with an experience, say a smell, it is essentially a choice. And whether it is a bad smell or a good smell is largely irrelevant. It is a smell. And I am in control with what I do with it. Is it a stink or a "pungent aroma"? No, it is neither. It is merely another color in the rich palette of life. And neither am I saying to live a life of pure reason divorced from emotion. I am only pointing out that emotion is also a choice, and a powerful force which can and should be channeled positively. This applies to interpersonal situations as well. Like when one of my children removes the paper from the brand new crayons I just brought to class. Those are (were) crayons. This is a child. I name which one is more important and let that knowledge further inform my reaction.

I guess what I am saying amounts to the old adage that life is what you make it. And the little things that make up our daily life are all less things acting upon us than opportunities for us to act on the world. And in doing so, we can take control of our attitudes and possibly even our actions. I am very grateful for the chance I have had to live in a culture and landscape so foreign from my own. It has taught me a new way of seeing. And smelling.

06 July 2010

Some Thoughts on Turning Forty

First: I am not old. I thought I would be by this point, but I am not. I am in better shape physically now than I have been since my early twenties: my blood pressure at my last annual check-up was 120/80, my vision is still 20/20, and I have never yet had a cavity. I am fine.

Second: I am not wise. I still make the same mistakes over and over, the same ones I have been making my entire life. I talk too much and rarely say anything. I love the wrong way. Yet I have at least, I think, come to the point where I realize how much I have to learn. And I have an inkling now of the difference between knowledge and wisdom. And I have begun to assemble a mental archive of the potential sources of wisdom (none of which are books, by the way). So there is a chance that in after another forty years of my life I might approach something like wisdom but I doubt it.

Third: I am lucky. I should probably be dead. When I think about some of the stunts I have pulled I can only shake my head. If not deceased in some way that would have placed me in the Darwin Awards Hall of Fame at the very least I should be severely brain damaged. I also managed to somehow avoid prison, a mortgage, drug addiction, reproduction, and marriage. I have a level of financial and personal freedom of which many employable men my age can only dream.

Fourth: I am both more and less attractive than I think. How this is possible: I am more appealing (according to my sources) for reasons I can neither comprehend nor appreciate, as I am not a woman, and I am more unappealing for the same reasons that it is impossible to see certain parts of my anatomy without the aid of reflective devices. We simply don't see ourselves the same way other's see us and for the most part this is good, although it can make us, or me, unjustifiably vain. And (oh no don't do it) on the subject of the fairer sex: I enjoy, from time to time, listening to them talk, trying to concoct theories about how and why women think the way they do and although you couldn't pay me to publish them here I will say that they are full of all the necromancy and convolutions you might expect of a man unschooled in physics attempting the description of a black hole based solely on observation. Yet I have come to understand that this mystery is the finest thing about a woman, the thing that makes them unceasingly fascinating and beautiful like a car wreck in slow-mo. It's like Willie sang about the cowboy, or cowgirl in this case: "[She] ain't wrong / [She's] jist differnt..." But never let it be said that they were wrong in their assessment of us as men. Women are natural born observers. If you have ever overheard two of them sit and dissect another woman who has made the unfortunate mistake of being physically absent... heard them shred personalities, point out deformities, clinically analyse and dismiss wardrobe and hairstyles, and frankly recall critical and often unavoidable lapses in personal hygiene... then you are well aware that nothing gets past them. So your back/nose/ear hair, your balding psoriasis, your hemorrhoids, your bilious gases, skin and tooth decay, moles, spots and warts...she has marked each and every one. Knowing this... and noting her unabashed pleasure at not only seeing you but on occasion stooping to touch you... the only possible conclusion is that you, with all your obvious imperfections, must be, in her eyes at least, beautiful. And that, boys, is a fine, fine thing.

I could go on but I think this hole is deep enough. I thank all of those who made this life possible. I would also like to thank the many individuals who have helped make it enjoyable. I am in your collective debt. More at 50, j.

02 May 2010


I meant to write every day while I was here but last night when I logged on I found that both Facebook or Blogger are being blocked by the Chinese government. I actually found out they didn't work on my own and then did a little research and found out why and then found out how to bypass the IP address (which I already knew how to do from getting baseball and "The Office" in Korea which isn't supposed to work either but anyway) and by the time I figgert all of that out I was too tired to write.

The flight over here was uneventful. The Beijing airport was quite a piece of work architecturally and one of the most intriguing spaces I have ever seen. It is huge and seems to hover over the air above you. This (size) soon became a theme and may be the biggest impression I have of China. Everything is giant-size. We got out of the airport and caught a cab to our hotel, the Minzu. This is an old historic hotel which recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. It is historic because it is one of ten buildings commissioned by the government when the communists took power back in the early fifties. There are two kinds of old in China. The Minzu kind, the new old, and the Great Wall kind, the old old. They often coexist side by side, as in the case of the famous portrait of Mao affixed to the front of the main gate to the Forbidden City.

After getting checked into the hotel, which is strange in a way but nice, we met a friend of my co-traveller Matt: Ma Huidi. She is so funny. She took us to the National Center for the Performing Arts. This building is surreal. It looks kind of like a partially submerged egg floating in the middle of a lake. It is huge (it actually contains several performance spaces and I believe the one that we were in was one of the smaller ones and it probably seated around 500) and is interesting in that it has no visible entrance. To enter you take a tunnel under the lake which has a glass ceiling: it was amazing to look out through the water of the lake from below. The concert itself was thrilling. The Chinese National Symphony performed with an aging pianist who I gathered from the reception he got was something of a national treasure. Matt told me that the program, which was a mixture of old classics (Grieg and Rachmaninoff) and pieces made famous by the aforementioned pianist during the cultural revolution, was controversial. I wasn't so interested in the politics as the music and enjoyed it thoroughly. After this we walked near Tienanmen Square and then back to the hotel for a late dinner (salted duck and shredded pork).

We woke early and went for a walk. We had booked a tour of the Great Wall through the hotel but we weren't scheduled to leave until ten so we had a leisurely breakfast (bacon, eggs, and Stilton on wheat toast for me) and hiked around for a while. The city was beautiful in the early morning and it was fun to watch the people getting out and about. By the time we were picked up for our tour it was already getting hot and it would eventually reach ninety F. The man who took us on our tour was quite an efficient driver but I don't believe he spoke to us three times throughout the day. He wasn't unfriendly per say, just incredibly quiet. The traffic was horrible the whole day but I was able to catch up on some sleep and it was nice to see the countryside anyway. A few miles north of Beijing the mountains begin and they are very beautiful, rocky sharp ridged, just like the ones you remember seeing from old Chinese ink paintings.

This part of China must have skipped spring because the cherry blossoms were just starting to bloom and only the crazy birches had leaves on. That is another one of the surprising things I found about China. I would have thought that a country of six billions would have had every square inch of arable land under cultivation to produce food (as it is indeed in Korea) but they have apparently had a big drive in the last few years to plant trees to offset their carbon emissions I think and plant they have done. The whole place is covered with newly planted and fast growing trees like poplars, willows, and birches. Everywhere we went it was like one giant tree farm.

Once in the mountains we climbed till we got to our destination, the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. This is not the most popular (the tourist frenzy what puts the bad in Badaling) or the most picturesque (probably Jinshanling) but strikes a nice balance between the two. We took the cable car up but it was still quite a but of work for both of is to get there and we had to rest in the shade a few times. Once we got to the top the view was of course incredible, the wall rising and falling huge distances as it rode the ridge of the mountain from horizon to horizon, reappearing far off in in places before finally disappearing for good in the distance. The mountains looked a bit naked without their greenery but the puffs of cherry blossom everywhere was a nice accent against the dark of the hills.

After running the gauntlet of the souvenir stands (which is a story all in itself), we got back down and found our driver and headed for the Ming Tombs. We didn't have the time or the energy to really explore them but what we did see was spectacular. I especially loved the Hall of Souls, a thick-walled hall built to look like a wooden structure but constructed of stone so as to last for eternity. Inside was a giant granite obelisk with an ancient inscription. It was amazing to think that these things were built long before the first Europeans set foot on North America. There is a juniper tree there that has been found to be several thousand years old. It was most likely transplanted there during the construction of the tomb complex.

On the way back we stopped at a dumpling house that I found in one of my guidebooks (Matt lived in China for several years and loves dumplings, as do I). They were hand made after we ordered and I made a movie of the lady stuffing and forming them. We had duck, pork, mutton, veggie, and just for fun I ordered donkey. I liked the mutton the best and second probably the donkey, which had a lot of tooth and a beefy texture with a little bit of a whang at the end. All of that was washed down with cold Xingtao. When we got back to the hotel tonight Matt wrote his wife an email and promptly passed out. We are both exhausted. It was a lot of driving in a hot car today and quite a bit of walking. And I have a bit of a cold. One of the funny things that happened today was that I sneezed and had a big string of snot hanging out of my nose. While I was trying to find a tissue or something in my bag the driver turned around and caught a look at me. He turned back around to face the road and silently rolled down his window. That was the end of our air conditioning for the day.

Bed now. Up early tomorrow. More soon and pictures.

23 March 2010