Thursday, November 30, 2006

Fear... again

The reason for my recent silence: my fear rewrite, which has been kicking my ass lately. Warning: it is long. But not as long as it used to be.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Some images of painter 박생광's work.


Anyone know where I can get good prints of this work here? I'm still slow at searches in Korean. I've also only found one book so far, and it was quite expensive.

Bugs and parasites

We have been at war with the mosquitos for weeks now. We keep thinking that soon it will be too cold for them, but they keep turning up, night after night, to torture us away from sleep. Are they living in the walls of our old building, as a friend suggested? Or coming in through some crack that I can’t find? Or infiltrating the apartment through the pipes and vents? The other night KC found a cockroach in the apartment, leading to yet another search for sources of entry or contamination. Could it be the boards rotting underneath our floor? Or somehow coming over from our neighbor’s place?

The other night I woke up twice thinking I would throw up, my mouth filled with saliva, sweating and shivering. Time to take the parasite medicine again, KC said. He grew up in a Korea where you took your parasite medicine once a year and they regularly examined students’ stools in school to make sure none of them had worms. Parasites, it seems, were a big problem back then. My in-laws, through habit, still take the medicine once a year, and the pediatrician tested my son for parasites at one point, so I guess the problem hasn’t really gone away.

After writing the above, I wondered if in fact taking parasite medication was a habit of older people, leftover from older times, so I asked around and found that it is still fairly common to take the medicine twice a year, at spring and fall. I even asked my pediatrician, who suggested that the whole family should take the medicine together spring and fall. She said that parasites are still commonly transmitted in schools. Eek.

I have gotten used to the idea of infestation and parasites, though they are still disturbing. I think of my experiences with bugs back home: ants, silverfish (in MD) and ladybugs (Ann Arbor). Lice and ticks were the big parasite-ish worry when I was young. I remember coming home from playing outside and having my mom comb through my hair, checking for lice and ticks.

I can no longer write the word “parasite” without thinking of William H. McNeil’s book Plagues and Peoples, a fascinating history of disease, or rather, a re-reading of history through the lens of disease. McNeil uses the term macro-parasitism to refer to the way in which the aristocratic land-owning class lived off the labor of the lower classes. Something one could feel easily here, I think, where there is such a sense of the privilege of the rich, where getting a job or finding out where the next subway station will be constructed is such a function of who you know, where you went to school, who your parents were, and how much money you have.

Bugs and parasites: interesting images of infiltration, of the enemy within, of danger lurking under the surface, of the mystery of our own bodies working against us. I don’t know if men feel this way, but it bothers me a lot that I don’t know what’s going on in my body. A friend recently had a miscarriage; her baby had died weeks before it was detected and she was so upset that she had been walking around, happily unaware that while she was preparing and glowing at the thought of a new child that child was already dead inside her. I understand that feeling; I remember seeing that ultrasound of the baby, heart beating, growing next to my ovary and threatening to rupture. How could I not know? How could I have packed those boxes, prepared my maternity clothes, wondered idly whether it was a boy or girl and not known that this wanted being was in danger and endangering me?

Time to go take the parasite medication. At least we don’t have bedbugs, like in New York. New Yorkers: stay home. I have enough bloodsucking bugs and parasites to deal with here.

Currently listening to: Beastie Boys Whatcha Want?

Wanted: Tooth Fairy

You know I’ve been busy if I haven’t been blogging. In the case of last week, I was so distracted by other things that my delinquency extended to the improper fulfillment of my tooth fairy duties, an event which snapped me out of the fog. Perhaps it was a cry for help.

I used to live like this all the time, wrapped up in my thinking world of papers and books, mind wrapped around this problem or that, or just holding onto a deadline and trying to push away the panic. I had forgotten about that state -- both the stress and the beauty of it. I was symphony of vibrations the other day -- buzzing from a bad cold, from lack of sleep, from the hum of too much caffeine and not enough to eat (too much coffee, at my current age, makes me nauseous, so I don’t eat, not a good thing to do when you’re breastfeeding... then I notice my hands are shaking and I’m tripping over things and holy cow! better get some food down the gullet!), the vibrations of the bus I was riding, my mind thinking back to high school physics, wondering if all these vibrations could harmonize somehow (is that the correct term?) and send me bouncing into orbit. That wouldn’t do; I had already invented all sorts of excuses for the tooth fairy neglecting Aiden’s tooth; what would I tell him if I -- I mean she -- forgot AGAIN?

I had forgotten this feeling of being so absorbed in something, working on something so obsessively for a prolonged period of time, and not getting enough sleep. You enter a weird place, everything seems a little unreal but also somehow ripe for interpretation and possibility. I found myself coming up with all sorts of new ideas but of course I was too tired to actually write them out. I had also forgotten how hard it is to be really productive for more than three hours a day. After three hours of writing I find myself lying on the floor giving one word answers to Aiden’s complicated questions. “Did the emperor lie to Anakin to make him become bad?” “Yes.”

In this state I found this post on all-nighters really moving, and was reminiscing about the days of student and consultant all-nighters.

All this writing (and, in the end, I couldn’t even make my deadline after 14 drafts of rewriting “Fear”) made me really miss the community aspects of being in school or at work. Even though much of grad school was spent alone in front of the computer, playing with my hair, resisting the call of minesweeper, and looking enviously at my cat nestled in the bed out and sleeping, there was always someone else I could call and talk to, or chat with, or send drafts to. I find myself trying to write stuff now and getting to that point where you start to hate the topic you’re writing about, no longer sure which way is up, and needing a sanity check. But... who can I ask? Poor Emily has borne the brunt of this neediness. But I can’t always rely on her, and I can’t always rely on myself. But who?

Entering the blogging world has restored my faith in people while also making me hungry to be a part of a community again. I never read blogs until I started my own; then naturally I had to check what else was out there (tangentially, I really appreciate Seoul Man’s research on the Korean blogs (1, 2, 3)out there. It takes a lot of effort to go through all those blogs and he’s done a great job). Being a bit isolated by language, culture, and just the fact of moving, it is easy to get to know people around you in anything but a superficial way. But reading people’s blogs sometimes you can cut through the weather and where are you from crap and see how others think, what is really on their minds and hearts.

And on top of that I have found that I, struggling with being a mom and thinking about whether to work, struggling with all this cultural stuff, figuring out how to think about what responsibility I have to use my education, am not so unusual. There are many women out there who like me are taking care of kids, living around the world, and trying to articulate the meaning and experience of it all. I often feel like I am a community of One, giving equal weight to problems of Identity and Potty Training, but I am not. It just feels that way at 3am when I am cleaning the pee off the floor and answer the call for more water, knowing I won’t be able to fall asleep again for 2 hours and by that time they’ll be waking up and demanding food.

Though in some sense, seeing all the great stuff that is out there has awakened an ambitious and competitive side of me that I had forgotten existed. I shouldn’t compare myself with those who have continued to work and think and be intellectually productive; I have taken myself out of that race. And yet I do compare myself and find myself coming up short. I don’t regret leaving the academic world but I still covet some part of that life, that part of myself. Writing my own blog is one thing; writing for others brings out the kind of anxiety of wanting to again be an insider but knowing I never will be. I have chosen a life outside of the U.S. (for now) and a life outside of the hierarchical ladder of _______(academia, consultancy, whatever). There are no clear steps or evaluations in doing what I’m doing, so I just have to make do by patting myself on the back every so often and over-interpreting whatever feedback I get.

Maybe I can get a job as a tooth fairy, but I’m going to need to work on my consistency first.

Currently listening to: Dream on (edit) by Depeche Mode

Friday, November 03, 2006


I was caught up for about five minutes in this whole National Blog Posting Month thing. I need deadlines and someone to kick me in the pants every once in a while or else you might find me watching Alias re-runs and dreaming of Cheetos. Then I realized if I truly posted about everyday sorts of things -- the things I keep track of from day to day, like how many mosquitos were killed, how many poops were done in the potty and how many on the sofa, whether I wore something clean or fished something out of the dirty clothes pile, and how many times I had to say, "hold your penis when you pee!" I would scare all my readers away. Especially all the ones without children. So don't worry folks, no daily posting for me.

And besides, who picked NOVEMBER of all months? Why not, say, February? There's NOTHING in February. The weather is not good. There aren't any big holidays. The novelty of wearing your winter clothes has worn off and you are ready to put them away again. No elections in February. And it's only 28 days long! Come on, people, work with me here. Nobody has anything to do in February except read and write blog posts.

So maybe, if I'm really ambitious (and if Max keeps saying he wants to go to school every day) I will do my own Idiosyncratic Seoul Blog Posting Month in February. Who is with me?

Don't all jump at once.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


I got some comments that in IE the font size I was using came out too small so I'm making this bigger... but it looks good in firefox the other way!

One thing I found really bizarre about speaking Korean in Korea was all the language of effort: 수고했다. 흠드렀지? I do the dishes and my mother-in-law says, “ 수고했다” which you could translate as “You worked” or something similar. I am not a good translator, but that’s not the only problem -- we don’t say stuff like that in English. In English I feel uncomfortable, somehow, talking about effort. Every time my mother-in-law would say something like that, which was frequently, I would feel uncomfortable. Did she really think that doing the dishes was such a big deal? Was she making fun of me and the fact that I’m so bad at household chores? Was she being patronizing?

But as my ears became accustomed to Korean, I began to hear the phrase everywhere. Leaving a store, it is customary to say “수고하셨어요" (“you worked well” or you could say it in the future tense: “work well”) to the salespeople, even if they didn’t actually help you with anything. Getting my hair cut, the women says “수고하셨어요" after she washes my hair, like it is so hard for me to lie back and let someone else wash my hair and massage my scalp. I began to use the phrase back to my mother-in-law with good results, acknowledging her work making a meal, watching the kids, going on a long outing, etc. Similarly, “흠드렀지” (“it was difficult, wasn’t it?”) and variations of that function to acknowledge someone’s effort and possible discomfort.

I have lived here long enough that I have, for the most part, melded into this system where you are constantly acknowledging and making visible other people’s effort. Now when I exit a store in the U.S. I feel like I’ve missed something -- there’s nothing to shout at the clerk! You can say “thank you” but not many people actually do. I feel rude leaving the store without saying anything, but most of the time the people who work there have barely acknowledged my existence and seem glad to see me leave, or just bored, or just onto the next person. “수고하셨어요" is kind of a thanks, but also more: it is a way of making visible the way in which the little things we do affect and aid others. And it is a way of cementing the understanding that we had some sort of relationship, no matter how brief -- some moment in which we were dependent upon each other, or expected something of each other.

I’m sitting here trying to figure out why this made me so uncomfortable long ago. Americans don’t like to complain, they don’t like to hear about complaining, and somehow remarking on something so little like doing the dishes or carrying something heavy for you seems... I don’t know. Like an insult to that person’s ability? There’s a difference between this and “thank you.” Thank you means: you did something for me and I’m grateful. “수고하셨어요" focuses not on you’re own feeling but on the other person’s side: the effort that went into the doing. It is a subtle difference but somehow important. And more importantly, the commonality of this language of effort serves to somehow create a world in which you are constantly doing things for others and having things done for you by others. It is a word of a greater sense of the importance of little interactions and little dependencies on others. Perhaps that is why it made me uncomfortable in the beginning -- it changes me from an independent agent to one who is always serving or being served. I can’t think of myself as removed or standing alone. I am, whether I like it or not, always surrounded by responsibilities and debts, opportunities to impact someone else.

Korean is full of these kind of scripted interactions. When you wake up you bow to your parents and say, “안녕히주무셨어요?" (“Did you sleep well?”) When you leave the house you say, “안녕히단녀오겠습니다." (“I will return.”) And all the kids should go and bow and say “안녕히단녀오세요." (Please return.”) When you return you say, “안녕히단녀왔습니다." (“I have returned.”) and your kids say “안녕히단녀오셨어요?" (“Have you returned?”) When people come over, you have to go to the door and greet them. Before eating, you say, “잘먹겠습니다." (“I will eat well”) and after eating you say “잘먹었습니다." (“I have eaten well.”) I found these phrases stiff and formal and awkward at first but I have assimilated and now I like them. I like them because, like the language of effort, they make simple events like eating and coming and going into daily rituals. The kids are not hiding out in their rooms (well, to be truthful, they don’t have rooms so they couldn’t if they wanted to) downloading porn and penning manifestos, they are forced to come out and engage in some nice words and social behavior, whether they like it or not.

These days manners seem to be out of fashion. When I go back to the U.S. I’m shocked at how rude people are. Manners are important to me, and I’m strict about my kids’ manners. I tell Aiden, “saying hello and goodbye and thank you are important, because it makes people feel special.” I think that manners are not just about empty phrases or outdated senses of courtesy, but a way of teaching kids empathy and other points of view. “Hello” and “goodbye” are ways of noticing someone and, in a sense, respecting his presence. “Thank you” acknowledges effort. And talking nicely is part of showing respect. When Aiden says something like, “This is yucky,” or “Is this all there is?” at the table, I ask him to think about how that makes me, the person who put all the effort into making the food, feel. Figuring out how to phrase something in a kind way is about seeing yourself from another’s perspective and acting accordingly. It is not, to me, about being dishonest, or hiding one’s true feelings under some cover of politeness, but rather thinking about how the way we treat people affects those people.

You can see this, I think, when kids show up at kindergarten with poor manners. They are usually deficient in other areas of social interaction as well. They haven’t been taught to pay attention to how what they say affects others and so they often focus on what they want and can’t engage in any productive give-and-take, leading to fighting and lack of self-control. Teaching manners teaches kids that they are not in fact the center of the universe, that they live, whether they like it or not, in a larger society and that meaningful engagement in that society means figuring out how to deal with other people who have different desires and interests.

Manners have been on my mind for a while because it upsets me to see kids, both here and in the U.S., who don’t have any. A little boy Aiden’s age lives down the hall from us and used to come over all the time, but this boy was one with no manners and was very verbally mean. Not because, I think, he’s a bad kid or had bad intentions, but just because his parents never taught him how words can hurt other people, and verbally lashing out had become such a habit that he wasn’t able to control or change it easily. This kid was also verbally gifted and could talk like an adult -- a rude adult -- at the age of 5. I was shocked at the things he said to his own mother, and that she only gave mild protest and didn’t try, in any meaningful way, to make him understand how much those things hurt her. He was better behaved in my house because I would ask him, “How do you think that makes so-and-so feel?” And “If you say that, your brother is going to learn to say that too. Do you want him to talk to you like that? You are your brother’s best teacher.” Eventually, despite being the closest playmate around, Aiden decided not to play with him anymore, because he was “not nice.” Especially here, where friendships are so important, that kid is, I worry, handicapped by his lack of ability to engage, not in talking, but in conversation.

Manners are also on my mind because of the discussion following my printculture article, E. Hayot's post on the "Ugly American Abroad", and S. L. Kim’s follow up on wearing the veil. Following S. L., I do think that rather than talking about subjectivity, talking about manners and social interchange is an interesting and useful turn to the conversation. Perhaps this is just another debate about working within the system vs. tearing the system down, but if we think of manners as a kind of grammar guiding social interaction, than something like wearing the veil, or being disagreeable can really break down that interaction. If social interaction depends on gaze and visual communication of emotion and attention, then the full-face veil makes that kind of social interaction difficult or problematic. If being an ex-pat or being in a cross-cultural relationship depends on dealing with people of different social grammars, how far can you dismiss the other grammar in favor of your own? Where there is consciousness of difference and education of what that difference is, maybe we can learn something from each other or at least “agree to disagree.” But I get nervous at the instinct to dismiss.

That piece went through about 20 drafts, because I myself wasn’t sure what I was trying to say about identity and subjectivity. Writing it was a process of figuring out what my own, deeply entrenched ideas about identity were and I’m still trying to figure that out.

I’m still thinking this through, but ... just as the Korean “language of effort” makes visible and cements a certain kind of worldview and a certain kind of emphasis on mutual dependance, the debate over the veil seems to make visible a dependence on visual acknowledgment and communication in Western cultures. When one person’s custom impedes meaningful social interaction or social participation, whose responsibility is it to change, to bear the burden of discomfort? And how do we weigh those discomforts? In the Slate article, the author compares wearing the veil to donning a sarong to visit temples in Indonesia. It is not really a valid comparison, since it cost the author very little relative discomfort to don the sarong, but it would cause some Muslims much more discomfort to shed the veil. On the other hand, I think the points made in both articles about the importance of visual contact in Western societies are important. Veiled women can interact with people in a non-veiled society, but that interaction will be uncomfortable and limited, just as, perhaps, foreigners can interact in Korean culture without attending to Korean social grammar of bowing or gesturing. This interaction is limited by the degree to which each party can “read” the other.

Currently listening to: Pearl Jam: Elderly Woman Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town