Monday, August 21, 2006

the Good Life

I’ve been holding onto this post for a while, because it is not exactly the way I want to say it... but there are things I want to say... but I can’t work on it anymore. Got to work on some other things. So here it is.

It started with the Thomas trains. Somehow, even at the tender age of 2, those were much cooler than the Brio ones. After that, brief flirtations with Yu-Gi-Oh, bug fighters, and Potris (this one was interesting because he came home from school asking for some mispronunciation of the toy’s name, and we didn’t know what it was, and nobody at the toy and shoes stores knew what he was talking about either... finally I had to ask his teacher. It’s hard to be the cool kid when you don’t have any older siblings and you’re not allowed to watch TV...). Now of course, Star Wars. (aside... just have to pipe in here that Aiden, like his father, tends towards the obsessive...sometimes I wonder if other than his eyes if my genes had anything to contribute to that kid)

The character obsessions didn’t disturb me much. I just tried to make sure he had a variety of stuff that wasn’t branded (though it is hard to find things that AREN’T branded these days) and for some things, like his Thomas underwear, which really helped him potty train, I didn’t mind the character branding at all. But the other day we were playing Uno and he stopped me short by asking for a pair of Nike shoes.

Aiden’s always been picky about his shoes (see my post on Walking in Seoul), but Nike? We’ve branched into the abstract branding now -- the idea that some brand, some symbol, is innately cooler than the other. That somehow because most of his soccer team is wearing Nike soccer shoes (which cost about 50 bucks!) he needs them to fit in.

Peer Pressure has taken residence. He is renting ad space on his fort in the corner of the playroom.

I love to lay down with Aiden until he falls asleep at night. I hold his hand, or cuddle him, and the kid who answers “I don’t know” to all my probing questions about school and so forth during the day suddenly begins to talk about all sorts of strawberry fields and whatnot. His legs are resting, finally, but his brain is running helter skelter, and his words follow. The other day, he told me sleepily, “Mommy, I called you ‘Jennifer’ today at school [when I’m teaching the kids call me ‘Teacher Jennifer’] not because I don’t love you but because I thought they might make fun of me.... but now it’s just you and me and Max and I love you, Mommy.”

Anyway, I am a mommy who believes in the power of habit. So rather than lecturing him about peer pressure, or making his own decisions, or the importance of saving, or the value of money, or evil corporate empires, I instituted a new bedtime ritual. I told him, “Aiden, sometimes it is easy to focus on the things we don’t have, and forget all the wonderful things we have. So from now on, every night let’s talk about five things we’re thankful for.”

This first discussion was held in the bathroom while he was brushing his teeth, so his five things were:

1. Mommy
2. Daddy
3. the toilet
4. the bathtub
5. his World Cup soccer ball

After we’d been doing this for a few days, Max started to chime in, repeating whatever Aiden said. “I dakpul Mommy, I dakpul Daddy, I dakpul Episode” (that’s the Star Wars lego computer game... ).

Being thankful is often a fleeting thing, a feeling that occurs at odd times during the day, usually in response to some close call or perceived threat: “thank goodness he didn’t fall off that chair! Thank goodness I remembered to pay that bill! Thank goodness I found the Obi-Wan and Yoda mini-figs!” But it is rare to have a pure moment of thankfulness for the people in your life or the shape your life has taken. I think that most of us, not so different from children, are caught up in our own desires: I like those shoes she’s wearing. I would like to live in a bigger house with a white picket fence and Corian sinks. I want that job. I would like a different nose. I would like to make more money. I wish I could speak 5 languages. I want that person to envy me. We’re not so different from kids, thinking about the next step, the next line on our resume, the next purchase, the time in the hazy future when people who were popular in high school will look upon us with the awe and respect we deserve.

Although it adds more time to our bedtime ritual (by this time of night mommy is usually quite cranky) (you may think, hey, it adds, what, 5 minutes? But actually it goes on quite a bit longer. NOTHING Aiden does takes 5 minutes), carving out this space, separate from the daily ups and downs of ego and social acceptance, to say thanks has been really been good for us -- not just Aiden, but for me too. Just taking a moment to acknowledge all the good things in my life helps me, a little, during the day, to avoid getting caught up in the petty details and desires. It has been a nightly equivalent of leaving the U.S. to live in another country, a stepping out of the mainstream track that allows me to look back upon my life and reflect.

We’ve been living in Korea for three years now. I think no matter where you move, it takes about 2 years to settle in. And three years to become thankful for the way in which this new place has reshaped your life.

There are so many things I miss about the U.S.: our friends and families, really good reuben sandwiches, big playgrounds that aren’t crowded, Halloween and the Fourth of July. But looking at my boys and our life here, I am so thankful for the decision that brought us here, and changed our lives.

It all started over a cup of coffee at our local Ann Arbor Starbucks. I had been there to work on a paper -- fueled to boldness by caffeine, grand theories and sweeping, compelling narratives were pouring from my fingertips. Taking advantage of Aiden’s temporary absence at preschool, KC and I were trying to fit our lives into those few precious moments without a child around. KC stopped by to talk and share a latte, so we could have some adult conversation. As always, we began talking about Aiden, and the child we hoped to have in the next year or so, and the kind of lives we wanted them to have. We had always talked about having our children live part of their lives in Asia, and how important it was to us that they spoked several languages, knew their grandparents, and knew their parents’ cultures from personal experience. And suddenly we both realized -- the future is now. We have the opportunity now, we have the time, and our parents aren’t getting any younger. The kids will be the right age to pick up a new language. What’s stopping us?

It was like the moment after he proposed. What had been theoretical, something for the future, suddenly appeared right in front of our noses, demanding details and decisions. When? Soon. How long would we be this free? Me in school, about to do a dissertation, him with his own company, able to make his own decisions. His parents aging but healthy in Seoul. Our kids -- one in preschool, one non-existent. .We jumped off the cliff and decided to leave in June, 6 months later.

It was so hard to leave Ann Arbor; it was such a difficult time in my life. We had such good friends there, Aiden went to a wonderful school, we loved our house and neighborhood, and KC got to play a lot of cheap golf. We had a wonderful, relaxed lifestyle. I was doing my PhD, he was working on his company. We were on track to get all the things we wanted: professional success, a comfortable life. As one of our friends asked, “Why go there and throw all that away? Why take that risk, for less money and less security?”

Michigan was full of open spaces, wide skies, long expanses of green grass. But we wanted to open something in our and our kids’ lives. To provide them with more languages, more cultural familiarity, so that they would have more freedom, more choices available to them in their lives. Our parents opened doors for us by raising us totally or partially in the States; we wanted to open doors for our kids by returning to Asia.

But those first months were suffocating. I had never lived in the city, was exhausted and irritated by the small spaces, the constant crowds always bumping and rubbing against me, our claustrophobic apartment, the oppressive heat. The constant noise, the signs everywhere, the pressure of people’s gazes studying me, the effort to speak and listen to Korean all day long exhausted me. Nothing was straightforward and I found myself going back and forth to the Immigration Office (way out in another part of the city, requiring 2 subway rides and a labyrinthine 20 minute walk in the heat) to the straighten out visa problems. I had to figure out how to the work the hospital system to make sure my body was healing from surgery and to take care of all the viruses Aiden kept getting (guess the viruses in Seoul are different that those in the U.S... and 14 million people are spreading them around... his little body was a hot target). Banking required special stamps and books and straightening out our family registry, since everything here references your family tree.

Although we moved to open up opportunities, those first few months were claustrophobic, oppressive, suffocating. Sometime I will write more about that, but not now.

But the hard part passed, and we have settled in. I cried the first time our saw our tiny apartment, but I have grown to like it here, not to be weighed down by so many things that I never use. I have grown to like the feeling of having something close to what we really need, and of throwing things away periodically, like a snake shedding its skin.

I’m thankful for every day that our kids get to spend with their aging grandparents. Even though they drive me nuts sometimes, I’m so grateful that they get to see these kids grow up for a little while, and in a place where they are comfortable and respected. I remember, growing up in the U.S., being so embarrassed by my grandparents, because they didn’t know how to behave or talk like everyone else, they chewed loudly, and they farted loudly. I never got to see them in the context of their own world, with their friends, where they knew more than me. KC’s father loves to take Aiden to the mountain with him and introduce his grandson to his buddies, who go hiking every week. He loves to show off his knowledge of Korea and of Seoul.

I’m thankful that I can stay home with Max. I haven’t written much about Max yet... from this blog it may seem to all of you that I only think about Aiden. Actually, Max has been a real challenge -- he’s a really sensitive kid. One of the reasons I get so frustrated with Aiden is because I’m actually frustrated with Max but I end up lashing out at Aiden. Anyway, more on Max at another time. But Max is growing up really well now, he’s becoming a very funny little character with quite a personality, and he’s so happy and secure. He still has his crazy moments, but he’s come a long way. I think he really needed to be raised with his mommy always around, always ready to hold him close or nurse him or comfort him. I think the last two years I’ve basically spent just holding him. And it was worth it.

I’m thankful that I left the PhD program. I feel like most of us live our lives on invisible tracks -- you keep going, doing what you think you’re supposed to do, not thinking about whether you want to do it or not. Especially if, like me, your parents kept pushing you forward when you were young, filling any hesitation or boredom with educational workbooks, writing summer school, and piano lessons. It is easy to keep taking the next logical step: high school to college, college to grad school, this award or that, to a professional career and a white picket fence. That is not a bad life -- a life of social and professional respect, of enough money, of comfortable possessions. It was the path of least resistance to stay, to keep on going on those invisible tracks that we all follow without thinking... once you get started, and it beckons with the promise of respect and security, it’s hard to think seriously about other options. But I left, and rather than feel like some sort of failure it has been a liberation. I’ve enjoyed being able to spend the time with my kids without the additional stress, and I have really enjoyed being able to spend time on things I always wanted to do but felt I couldn’t: learning Chinese, reading non-academic things, and writing. I still feel, in some sense, that I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but for now I’m comfortable with not knowing and enjoying the adventure. My life has not been the linear, progressive, positivistic narrative I once imagined... perhaps I embraced postmodernism first theoretically and then later in my personal life... ;-)

I’m thankful for all the good people we have met here: Aiden’s friends and their parents, my Chinese teacher, other ex-pat friends, our Kindermusik teacher, KC’s business and golf friends. Each of these people come with their own stories, which I don’t have room for (hey, I met my Chinese teacher in the public bath...) but I am thankful every day for their presence in our lives.

Leaving the U.S. and taking a bit of a bizarre track has made KC and I see the world a little bit differently than most others, I think, and perhaps made us a little... idiosyncratic. Weird, perhaps. But having this shared experience, this shared adventure, this common perspective from which we study those around us has made us even closer in a way that we weren’t before. Somehow this coming and going, this crossing of borders, and the encountering and re-encountering of the same people, has given us strong ideas about the way we want to raise our kids and also the things we want in our own lives. So we're weird together, and I'm thankful for the way that our meanderings have cemented in us such a strong sense of the rightness of what we're doing, how we're living, and how we're raising our kids.

Putting aside for a moment the long philosophical questions about living the “good life,” the trick, it seems to me, is to somehow be able to live in the moment, appreciating the beauty and splendor and gifts as they occur, and yet also somehow place these in some sort of framework which provides meaning to the overall direction and expanse of your life. No mean trick, if you ask me. I’m a high-level person, not good with details. Give me a history book and I can tell you about the themes, the ideas, the significance -- but not the dates, the people, the microcosmic aspects. And I like aesthetic things, I like things to be beautiful, not messy. In mah jhong I almost never win because I go for the big hands, all the same suit, not wanting to settle for a mishmash of ugly things.

But somehow in these past three years, leaving the US and leaving the PhD has given me, temporarily at least, a sense of that micro and macro good life. The details of this life are still wonderfully strange enough to lend a glint of fascination to the everyday, and the freedom of embarking on this strange journey has opened, even in this crowded land, a sense of wide number of roads available in this world. Who knows which one we’ll travel next.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Ex-pat stories

One of the most convenient aspects of life in Seoul is its delivery system. Almost everything can be delivered, and delivered quickly. I go to buy groceries at the grocery store a few minutes’ walk from our apartment, but rather than hauling the heavy purchases back, I have them delivered to my apartment. I order everything from books to cosmetics on the internet and usually these are delivered, free of charge, within one or two days. If you really want something quickly, you can order “quick” delivery, and your things will arrive an hour or two. KC does this when he orders computers, so he can enjoy the ecstasy of instant gratification. When I needed to pick up an album from the photographer and was too tired to trek across town to get it, I asked him to send it to me that way. It only cost a few dollars and arrived in an hour. When I arrived at the Immigration Office (90 min journey from my apartment) to renew my visa missing one of the documents, the officer said, no problem. I left my passport and foreigner’s card there, faxed the missing document, and she sent my passport and foreigner’s card through a delivery service. Even the American Embassy sent Max’s new passport that way, saving us a painful trip to the Embassy.

And, of course, there’s the food. OH, the food. Chinese food is the fastest, arriving sometimes only 5 minutes after I ordered it, leading me to wonder how they cook it so fast. Pizza takes a little longer, maybe a half an hour. You can order beer and friend chicken, or kimpap and soup. For many months after Max’s birth, I had soup delivered daily to the apartment at 6am so I wouldn’t have to cook breakfast. All these services are either free or dirt cheap. Although food is expensive here, labor is cheap, and service important. With so many people and so many stores, competition is fierce, and consumers like me take advantage.

But, alas, if you don’t speak Korean it is hard to enjoy this aspect of Seoul life. Some, like my Chinese friend Helen, memorize one key sentence of Korean: “This is apartment 1407. Please send me one large pepperoni pizza.” She calls the number, says her one sentence, and hangs up, because after all, she can’t understand anything the other person says.

Helen’s friend, let’s call her Mary, does the same thing. Every week, when she needs her cheese fix (funny, those cravings for cheese), she calls the number, says her one sentence, hangs up, and a little while later the pizza arrives. One day Mary’s Korean friend comes to visit and Mary says, “Oh good! YOU can order the pizza this time.” So Mary’s friend calls the number, and the person on the phone says, “FIANLLY, someone who can speak Korean! Will you tell that American that this is NOT a pizza place?!?!” Turns out that all this time, Mary had been calling someone’s house, and that person had ordered the pizza for her...

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Part 1: different systems

My friend Emily was here this last month, visiting Asia for the first time. She got to experience, for a time, what it is to live here -- staying with us, going to Aiden’s school to help me teach, sightseeing, eating Korean food, throwing away food garbage, paying outrageous prices for fruit, and being the only white person in the vicinity.

She was at the gym on her last day here, running the treadmill and lifting weights, and an older man approached her. “You’re exercising too fast,” he chastized her. “Slow down!”

I had warned her about this. One of the hardest things to learn in another culture is what is OK to say and what is rude. In Korea, it is completely fine and normal to comment on other people’s appearance: “You have gained weight,” “Do you know you have a pimple on your forehead?” or sometimes women will just come over and brush lint or dandruff off my shirt. It is also OK for an older person to give constructive advice based on his or her wealth of knowledge derived from age: “Your baby should be wearing more clothes.” “Don’t use your MP3 player near your belly when you are pregnant.” “Eating kimchee prevents cancer.” Or: “Don’t exercise so fast.”

Even though I warned her, she was unable to follow through with the standard response: a “yes” followed by a bow of the head as acknowledgment, promptly followed by incident amnesia. Instead, she gave him that kind of smile/grimace which is technically a smile but communicates, “Fuck off.” As she said later, still filled with anger, “It took all my control not to scream, ‘I was a varsity athlete in college and am the only one in this gym breaking a sweat you #W$%#$%^%’!”

That’s the hard part of this whole cultural intermingling: if they receive you, its on their own terms, and if you respond, it is on your own terms. It is hard to break out of these, even when you know what’s happening. I’m sure that man was trying to break the ice, trying to be friendly and welcoming. And Emily wanted to me civil and kind and friendly as well, but her upbringing and personality made it almost impossible to provide the kind of response that he would have expected.

I run into this almost everyday. I’m pretty good now at feigning the smile and nod, except when it comes to my own father-in-law. I remember a conversation with my friend Nicole, who has been living here for 2 years, complaining about how people comment on appearance. “How is that not rude??” she asked. The only way I could think to explain it is that in the U.S., if you were talking with your boss, exchanging ideas about something, and your boss said something that you thought was ridiculous, you could say, strongly, “I completely disagree and think your approach is wrong,” though depending on your work and your boss your response could range from “That’s complete bullshit” to a more placating, “Perhaps we should consider different options.”

But in Korea, disagreeing with someone of higher status is trickier, and a strong response would most likely be taken as impolite. But here, commenting on some factual part of a person’s appearance -- “you look tired,” “you’ve gained weight” “you’re breaking out” -- is not considered rude. Whereas in the U.S., even if someone gained 100 pounds, you most likely wouldn’t comment. Different systems.

Part 2: living in a fishbowl

When we first moved here, I always felt that I stuck out, that people were watching me, remarking on my foreignness. I don’t know if that was the case or if my psychological paranoia was just a manifestation of the social awkwardness I felt (as my friend Ezra used to say, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you”). On the one hand, being an American (because other nationalities don’t have the same power) here can give you a sense of privilege, of power, of uniqueness that you don’t have when you’re just another person at the mall California. You’ve become exotic. It is my impression that many Americans, especially English teachers (I’m sorry in advance if I piss people off) come here to escape something in the U.S., and sometimes that something is just a feeling of mediocrity. Here, you are Someone. Often an Enviable Someone.

But there are a bunch of other power issues. Being a foreigner gives me power because Koreans are very sensitive to how other nations see them. One day I came upon some middle school boys writing graffiti on the side of our building and I scolded them, first in Korean, and then in English, partly because I was upset and fumbling for words and therefore not being my most articulate self in Korean, but also because I knew if I made clear that I was a foreigner my words (and the experience as a whole) would probably have more weight. I even told them that a foreigner seeing what they were doing would consider them ignorant and this country as an ignorant one (though inside myself I was thinking of all the graffiti in places like New York, and how the US is home to the art of graffiti and knowing I was grossly exaggerating....) Bad person. But hopefully they won't do it again.

But you are also representative -- not just an American but sometimes The American, somehow standing in for all that is good or bad about the U.S. in general. For the many Koreans who have never been to the U.S. and have had limited access to foreigners, your small habits and idiosyncrasies will fill in the largely absent pieces of a larger picture of what Americans Are Like. (And remember that a large part of the ex-pat community is made up of the military.)
Sometimes, after the excitement of being unique wears off, people get sick of being remarked upon. I am reminded of a story of a woman who was tired of people pointing at her and saying “외국사람" (“foreigner”) so she began pointing back and shouting, “한국사람" (“Korean”).

And the Korean Americans who come have a tough time -- they are not marked much by their appearance (especially now that fashion and facial features have changed so much here), often are just as lost and confused as other foreigners, and yet people expect them to act like Koreans and fit in socially and linguistically.

How does all this affect an ex-pat’s ego? Or my kids’ ego? After a while you get used to being the odd one, but you can also become addicted to that feeling of being special -- the one trusted as an expert on the English language (although you can’t spell worth a damn, and know nothing about grammar), the one given superstar status by virtue of having attended a Name University. After living in a place where you are the Special One, it can be hard to leave. Now, I walk around without much self-consciousness, but I still get more attention by virtue of being different. Shopkeepers remember me, awakening from their dazed reverie to ask me how long I’ve been here and compliment my Korean, and my students’ mothers stop me in the street to talk to me and thank me. After such attention, how can you go back to being an average Jane who has to bag her own groceries and pump her own gas just like everyone else?

Part 3: opting out

But there’s another side to being an American in Seoul: being able to opt out of the perpetual sizing-up that goes on in every social situation.

You know what I mean. You enter a store, and secretly, furtively, you are sizing up everyone around you. Are these people better than I? Are they better looking, cooler, are their children better behaved? We all do it. Maybe women do it more than men?? Even in a place of absolute self-confidence and pride, isn’t there a little part of you that listens to the woman behind you in line, talking loudly about her vacation in Cabo, that thinks, “She’s SO showing off for everyone else. Does she think we care? I’m so glad I don’t feel that insecure.”

Although I stand out, it’s nice to enter a building and check out the Sizing-Up process from a position a bit removed. I can enter a nice cafe in wrinkled clothes and sneakers and not feel too awkwardly underdressed, because, hey, I’m American. I can study the women with their strappy high heels and Bling, preening and fawning over each other and be amused in my private little world. Or just interested, because in some ways the preening and fawning is the same here, and in some ways it isn’t. With women of a certain age and class, there’s a lot of “Oh, I’m so tired, the kids have been so hard, and I should exercise but it’s too hot and my mother-in-law has been working me so hard...” complaining, followed by the requisite, “Wow, you poor thing, you’ve had it really bad, you need to rest...” type sympathy. This type of conversation makes me realize how socially unacceptable it is to complain in the U.S.

Part 4: sometimes a cigar is just a cigar

I went to school here with an Irish guy named Eamon who lived in Korea for 4 years, teaching English. He liked to mess around with people sometimes, especially after he shaved his head -- he’d tell them he was a Buddhist monk or some other concoction. He grew tired of the same questions, over and over again: “Where are you from? Are you an English teacher? Do you like Korea? Do you like kimchee? Do you like Korean girls? Are you married? Are you a Christian?”

One day he was standing around, thinking his own thoughts, waiting for a bus when he caught a Korean guy staring at him, not too far away. Inwardly he sighed and prepared himself for the onslaught of the same questions. But he was annoyed, and wanted to be left alone, to be just an anonymous person waiting for a bus. So he put on his headphones and scowled a bit, and turned away.

Then the guy began to approach, trying to catch Eamon’s eye. Eamon’s scowl deepened, until it was a “fuck off” kind of face, and the guy hesistated, but then kept approaching.

As he neared Eamon, he leaned in close and whispered, “Your fly is open.”

Lest we lose sight of the fact... sometimes a person is just a person. The people are not all out to get you.