24 December 2008

Six Months In Country

Christmas Day marks six months since I set foot in Korea on June 25th. I can't believe it. Time has certainly flown. Before I came I read, and I believe wrote about since, the stages of culture shock. I am glad I did although it didn't help much. There were times when I thought: "Ok, I have moved on to the next stage." Looking back over the time now I realize that I was always behind a little. The honeymoon lasted longer, the low period was longer and deeper, and the comfortable, homey phase is still kicking in. Going through that, somewhat thoughtfully, has been one of the best things about this. It is amazing to come fresh to a new place and make a home there. Not a literal home but a heart home.

My poor blog has been whimpering in the shadows of neglect for a couple of months. I write when I want and I haven't felt like writing down the day-to-day of the life into which I have now, officially, settled. The holiday calendar in Korea is lumpy: there are no official holidays on the calendar for over three months and so we are in the last weeks of a long slog toward Christmas vacation. This has meant little travel outside of regular trips to Daegu, and I have written about that. So subject matter has been lacking a bit.This should change as a week's vacation and a lot of three day weekends are around the corner.

When I first got here someone told me to treasure my first weeks here. The wonderful terror of that first transition is fast fleeting. I am very happy that I wrote as much as I did during that time. I didn't have to go farther than my own street for material at that point. Every trip to the corner for water seemed like an incredible adventure. Although every day still seems magical and I am constantly aware of being an alien here, my main preoccupations now have returned to what they were before I came here: friends, work, and my Sig other.

Each of these things are of course completely different from before for a variety of noteworthy reasons. Friendships here are intense and brief. You meet people and, because of the surroundings and the relative anonymity of an expat community in a city this size, feel both more willing to open up to them and at the same time free of certain social responsibilities (like a keeping in touch afterwards). And people are always coming and going. There is a sizable group of foreigners here who aren't going anywhere any time soon, but the majority of the people (especially the youngest set) are only here for a year, so close friendships bloom and fade. I have been blessed with some very wonderful friends while I have been here. I have no reason to believe this will not continue. My gregarious nature has been a great asset to me here, perhaps the greatest. People are always shocked that I will literally talk to anyone. It's a hobby.

Work here is also an utterly foreign experience. Prior to coming to Korea I was a dabbler, holding down two or three part-time jobs and playing a lot in between. There was a period when I was very unhappy with my job here and I think this was partly due to the adjustment to full-time employment. There were also times when I felt that they expected too much for what they were paying me and that they took for granted all of the extras I felt I was already putting in. All of this led me to feel dissatisfied with my position and unhappy in general. But I have now come to believe that life is a matter of perception.

The Buddhist texts that I have been reading say "You are what you think." I was obsessed with the thought that I was being exploited, ridiculed, and overworked. In addition, I reached the point of paranoia that I felt my employers were looking for a reason to get rid of me. Maybe they were, because I wouldn't have blamed them. My attitude was horrible. Then, one day, after reading about Right Livelihood, I realized that this job wasn't about me. At all. I had become a captive of my own negativity. By realizing that my own perceptions of my position were the only thing that mattered I made a choice to make this about what I could offer to others, not what they could offer to me. What they owed me and whether or not I was getting it ceased to matter at that point and my job became a source of joy to me, not an anchor. I work for the kids. And they need me. And, more importantly, I need them.

And then there is 손유진 (Yujin), the real bedrock source of joy in my life now. Being around her is like hooking myself up to a battery charger. Her laughter is a like a song that gets stuck in your head. Her smile is like the clouds parting. We have a lot of challenges to face, but I believe that in the end it will all work out. I look forward to sharing many wonderful experiences with her in the future.

There is one sad thing to report. It was with great regret that I bid farewell to my friend Tom this last week. His shipping company had invited him to work in an exchange program and his six months here were up. We met in September and enjoyed many great adventures together, including one memorable trip to Japan. I, and others here, feel his absence. He is a fine individual.

Six months! Merry Solstice everyone!

19 December 2008

The Christmas Show

A great time was had by all at the Christmas Program hosted by KidsClub on Thursday evening. I have posted pictures and they are available in the Photo section. Some of them are from rehearsals on days leading up to the performance. I will relate more of the story behind them soon. Merry Solstice!

11 December 2008


I get most of my news from the New York Times and it was nice to see today on the front page of the online edition that South Korea's central bank has announced yet another massive cut in its prime rate. I am not an economist and I know very little about monetary policy and I am not going to sit here and bitch about how this downturn is affecting poor little me, but from reading the article it has become apparent to me that things are worse than even I thought.

The whole premise of the American bailout is that they can get money from Asia and Europe to plug up the holes. But according to the Times, the double-digit growth period enjoyed by the Chinese economy is a thing of the past. The growth rate in China is expected to drop to as little as 8% next year. This credit crunch will eventually affect the dollar as foreign funds become more and more pricey. That is one side of the Won/Dollar coin. The other is this: for two thousand years South Korea has been the ground meat of a cultural and economic sandwich between Japan and China and that has never been more true than today. Korea also needs capital as an emerging economy and far worse. To compound things, the Korean export economy is far more dependent on Asian demand that of the US.

My complaints about income erosion led my boss to tell me what has become a mantra in South Korea: now is the time to save money. It will bounce back. Wait it out. But what if you have no choice? What if you have to turn your hard won Won into dollars? You want to see grown men cry? Go sit in the waiting room at a Korean exchange bank. As of today the exchange rate is $1/1393. It was sitting at $1/950 when I signed in June. That is a drop of something like a rather large number in front of one of these: %.

So ok. I lied. I am complaining a little. Sorry. But I have a readership (and I really appreciate both of you) and I ultimately have to say how I really feel. People email and ask if coming to Korea is a good idea and I am responding with a resounding "IF." If you don't have to send it home right now. If you are good at saving money and can live frugally. If you enjoy working really, really hard and like teaching for teaching's sake, then by all means get your butt over here. If not, go work at Walmart. You can save a lot of money with your employee discount.

The real problem, of course, isn't the world's economy, but my own personal lack of fiscal discipline. I put off sending anything home as long as I could but I can wait no longer. And IF I would have save more this wouldn't have been as painful but... The economy, the paraphrase the poet who wrote it, is a big shit pie and everyone gets a bite.

So if it is time for dinner, lets look at the entire meal and not just desserts. I have said before and I will say it again: I love this place. The food, the city life, the people. And if you have to live on the cheap somewhere, this is a pretty good place. I could be getting paid in pesos or godforbid American dollars. The inflation rate in Korea is so low that it is actually too low. This is a two-edged sword as well: while the local buying power of your income is steady there is little justification for employers to increase salaries. I am wondering how this currency situation is going to effect salary offerings for foreign teachers. We could, after all, go teach elsewhere. But I predict that as the unemployment rate continues to climb in the US many young people might see this as a great option regardless of the economics and thus serve to hold down demand over here. Or maybe blogs like this one will influence people to take a good hard look at the realities of thier finances before making the jump. This, of course, would have done me little good in June. And I did look at the exchange rate and show it to my friends and go: "Look, it's a goldmine." A goldmine with some serious structural issues maybe, but how was I to know?

The other way to look at it is that there is probably no where to go but up. And the action by the ROK central bank yesterday bears out that they are going to do everything they can to stop the skid. Short of a worldwide economic collapse there has to be a light at the end of the tunnel so coming over here now really wouldn't be all that bad of an idea. If....