Thursday, June 29, 2006


Thanks to all of you who have sent me e-mail and told me you're reading this... everyone needs an audience, whether the audience is your mom, your boss, God, Tim Gunn, or the Jones next door. Audiences keep us fighting entropy, keep us from sinking into midnight chocolate binges, trashy novels and overdoses of reality TV.

I'm teaching some 9-year olds these days, about which I have another post in progress. But I told their moms that my main goal is to make them producers and not just consumers -- as they read, I want them to keep asking questions, to think creatively about the world, to make cartoons and journal entries and web pages and funny pamplets. So I am trying to take my own advice here and be like a kid again, making stuff. Making stuff only my mom would hang on the refrigerator, but perhaps it'll save me from slothdom.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


I remember a few years back, after we had moved to Korea, flipping channels to find something interesting to watch and coming across a horrible episode of the Oprah Winfrey show. The episode was about a boy who had been murdered in a bathroom while on a trip with his family to some park or campground. His aunt had taken him to the bathroom, but since he was 9, he didn’t want to go in the women’s bathroom with her, so she took him to the men’s bathroom and stood outside the door while he went in. While he was in the bathroom a man stabbed him to death. Having children of my own, this was so awful to listen to that I can barely write the words even now. But perhaps worse than that was the conclusion that Oprah and the other members drew -- that we all, as parents, should never let our children go to the bathroom by themselves, even if they are 9 years old and don’t want to go to the women’s bathroom. Even if other women don’t like having older boys in the women’s bathroom. We must control all sources of risk, without sense of proportion. And it is the mothers/parents who are responsible, individually, for protecting the children.

When I hear things about the US these days, and when I visit, I feel like the U.S. is becoming a culture of fear, obsessed with prophylactics. But somehow the prophylactics start as “shoulds” and “don’ts” -- admonishments and cautions to be internalized by all responsible individuals -- and end up as laws, part of the system that holds us all into place and governs individual behaviors. Seat belt laws, smoking laws, leash laws, laws about bringing peanuts to school. Everything, it feels to me, is put upon the individual or the legal system. There’s no sense of the social body, of the whole “it takes a village” community. People are so scared to tell others how to be behave or think that every admonishment, every piece of advice, has to be prefaced by some horror story of “I know someone who died because...” or it has to be law.

I feel this so strongly every time I enter the U.S. because Korea is so different. In the winter, kids go “sledding” on a patch of ice near our apartment, but it is not downhill sledding. The kids sit on a square piece of wood and push themselves around with sticks that have nails in the end to provide a point to stick in the ice. When I first saw that -- and remember that in Seoul any place is a crowded place -- I thought, “my god, someone’s going to get an eye poked out!” This would NEVER fly in the U.S. And for good reason. But there’s lots of that stuff going on, and people watch out and tell the kids what to do. That doesn’t mean that accidents don’t occur (and perhaps this was not the best example) but the point is that the knee jerk reaction here is not to put all the onus on the individual or on the law, but rather on the group of people involved in a collective sense.

I went to a talk at an American Women’s Club meeting last year, and the speaker (Michael Breen who wrote The Koreans) said something about how Korea has very low trust. And I disagree -- I think you have to make a distinction. Koreans don’t trust the government and people in power (with good reason... hard memories of the colonial era, of Park Chung-Hee, etc.) but they trust other people in general, even strangers. On the other hand, it seems to me, Americans don’t trust strangers but they, in general, trust authority figures and the government. In Korea, people don’t drink the water even though the government says the water is drinkable, because nobody believes the government. But if a few ajumas say that doing taekwondo at an early age stunts growth, somehow a lot of people believe that. (Before you all jump all over me I do realize I’m conflating a bunch of social groups here... what and who ajumas believe is different than young people, men, educated people, etc...And I’m also ignoring the fact that almost anything on TV is taken as fact by many many people.) In the U.S., my sense is that even if we believe that President Bush is stupid, we have faith in the system that supports him, so that when he says something like “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction” we tend to believe him. (And apparently people STILL believe that, which is very scary indeed.) But if some stranger at the check-out counter told you that gymnastics stunts a kid’s growth you’d probably ask your doctor before you disenrolled your kid from Marva tots. (As I write this I’m thinking of how the system in Korea DOESN’T support itself... you couldn’t ask your doctor about the taekwondo argument because you only have 5 minutes to talk to him during your kid’s annual checkup.)

Now, my perspective is skewed for many reasons. First, because my mother is a total control freak and plans her life around minimizing risk. “Don’t drive on the beltway, Jennifer, it’s too dangerous. Always park in the same space at the mall so you don’t lose your car. Leave for the airport 3 hours ahead of time just in case. Throw it away if it’s past the expiration date.” etc. etc... Maybe she should have her own talk show. She can tell a lot of horror stories about e. coli and traffic accidents. She spends so much time minimizing her risks (and mine too) I'm not sure she has time to live her life. (Ma, hope you’re not reading this...)

And also, Korea feels a lot safer than the U.S. I don’t know if it is safer, but it feels that way. Of course, I don’t understand all of the news. And perhaps some of the bad stuff is underrported. Or perhaps it is overreported or sensationalized in the U.S. It’s funny, how differently people see danger. When I mentioned to someone in the U.S. that I live in Korea, she said, “Oh my, aren’t you afraid living so close to North Korea? I’ve been reading such scary things about that place.” And I told her that I don’t really think about it, and that to me and many people here, life in the U.S. is scarier -- all we hear about are school shootings, kidnappings, terror alerts, rapes, inner city crime.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Do one thing every day that scares you." It is one thing to be cautious, but where is the line between caution and having one's life regulated by fear?

Monday, June 26, 2006


I haven’t updated this blog for almost two weeks. I have actually been writing... just nothing of high enough quality to put up here. And my standards are pretty low. I wonder: is my schizophrenic way of writing these days a product of our media saturated, channel-flipping culture? Or just a product of the way I increasingly multi-task through my own life?

If I step back and think, I can’t believe I am suddenly thrity something with two kids. White hair count: 3. Those of you who know me as a parent know that with one kid, I was still on top of things, I could do my PhD work at night while nursing Aiden every two hours and raise Aiden during the day and almost never let him watch TV and only be minimally crazy. Of course I had many accidents melting breast pumps and putting watches through the laundry and bumping into door frames (damn those things, why do they MOVE so?) but those are the logical consequences of sleep deprivation.

But with two kids, even without a PhD committee regularly e-mailing me about how I’m a delinquent, I find myself playing whack-a-mole. You know that game, where moles pop out of holes at random times, and you have to whack them with a big puffy hammer? Well, that’s what having two kids is like. Mommy, he’s hitting me! Mommy, where is Anakin’s light saber? Mommy, Max peed on the floor! Mommy, I’m hungry!

So I finally get why people let their kids watch TV. I’m trying to make dinner and the sword fighting is producing too many casualties in the living room and I turn on the Little Einsteins and ABRACADABRA! Quiet. Peace. Dinner is served. Once you’ve gotten a taste for that magic bullet it is hard to put it aside and put on your referee pants again.

So during the day, I rarely have a complete thought. Our conversations (when KC is around) are always like this:

Me: Aiden has 2 cavities. It’s going to cost 300,000 won to...
Aiden: Mommy! Max hit me!
KC: wow, is that for just a filling or is the nerve..
Me: Aiden, did you hear how you interrupted mommy? Say sorry. It’s for the filling. He can’t tell from he X-
Ray if it’s hitting the nerve or not, it’s too close, so they..
Aiden: sorry mommy.
Max: nurt!
Me: they have to start to drill and look...
Me: Max, use your nice words.
Max: Nurt peez.
KC: OK. Oh shoot, I forgot to tell you, I ..
Aiden: Mommy, who is stronger, Anakin or Count Dooku?
Me: Aiden, did you hear how you interrupted...
Aiden: sorry Daddy.
KC: I forgot what I was going to say.

It’s hard to have a conversation... and keep track of the important things which were on my mind. It is equally hard to keep track of the single thoughts that run through my head. I find myself going into the kitchen for something... and forgetting what it was. One day I lost a carton of milk. How can you lose a carton of milk? By the time I found it it had gone bad.

When I finally have a moment to myself it’s like being a kid in the candy aisle again. When I was a kid we were only allowed to have candy once a week, on Saturday, so my brothers and I would spend a lot of time deliberating: which one will last the longest? Which one can I tear into little pieces to spread the pleasure over several hours? Now, when I have “free” time, I want it to count. I want to vegetate and watch TV, but that would be a waste. I want to write, but ideas don’t come that easily, and if I am staring at a blank screen for a few minutes, I feel I’m wasting precious time when I could be studying Chinese or making treasure hunts or doing Pilates. This is why I have a hundred incomplete files of ideas... fragments, fleeting thoughts, momentary inspirations, flirtations with serious writing.

And there’s always the threat looming in my mind... that once I get going Max will wake up to “nurt” or the North Koreans will attack or something.

So I’m sitting here on a Sunday afternoon, sweating nervously, because Max will wake up at any minute and I have 4 windows of essays open, plus my e-mail (which is already on a triage system -- my inbox is pushing 800 messages -- yikes!), plus I’m bidding on things on eBay, and googling girls I hated in junior high (note to self: stay away from google. It doesn’t tell you anything you want to know. I tried googling myself and all I learned was that there is a porn star named Jennifer Lee who is apparently much more popular than I)...

And in the back of my mind: Am I living it right?
But now Max is awake so these thoughts must be put aside again.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Go Reds

I'm sitting at home at 11pm watching the Korea v. Togo game and the Korean team just made a goal. The apartment is vibrating with people stomping and screaming, "Dae Han Min Gook!" Reminds me to the primal scream at Stanford. I can hear people screaming from other buildings too.

Stories to embarass Aiden when he's older...#4

Aiden is like a teenager sometimes. He believes his illiterate little friends and discounts what his mommy says, leading to some bizarre beliefs.

But sometimes it’s a matter of choosing which adult to believe. In these cases, he bases his beliefs on height.

One day he came home and urgently asked me, “Mommy, who is taller, you or Teacher Leo?”

His thinking goes like this: the older you are the taller you get, and the older you are the smarter you are, therefore the taller you are the smarter you are. KC likes this argument because it means he’s smarter than I.

Stories to embarass Aiden when he's older...#3

Little boys like to keep a handle on their penises at all times. I guess it is a nice thing to hold on to, much like I twirl my hair when nervous or bored. My friend Albertine always said playing with one’s hair was a form of masturbation.

Anyway. One day we were all eating breakfast, KC and I were talking about something or other, and Aiden was sitting quietly, one hand gripping his spoon and the other playing with himself through his underwear.

Suddenly, Aiden said, alarmed, “Daddy! There’s SOMETHING HERE!”

KC was cool. I would have laughed. He calmly explained that what he was feeling was completely natural, and look! Here's another one. "These are your balls. Can you say balls?"

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Body Language: adventures in learning Korean

I’ve been wanting to write something about the irony that when I began learning Korean, I had to rely on body language to communicate, but now that my Korean is good, my body language is a liability. My facial expressions and the way I gesture gets me into trouble by adding strange and unintended nuance to what I’m saying. And because my Korean is good, people react unconsciously to the gestures and think I’m angry or disturbed or acting very mannish. It doesn’t happen all the time, but enough to burst my little bubble of Korean-speaking confidence. This is another essay (actually just one version of it-- I’ve written about 20 drafts and this is somewhere in the middle) that I’ve been trying to work on, but it seems to be going in a bunch of different directions so I haven’t finished it. Some drafts end up talking more about power, some about anger and frustration, some about the way that language is taught, some about how our bodies do communications duty for us, consciously or unconsciously, every day. I’d appreciate any comments, here or by e-mail...

The noisy garrulousness of my two boys has become supplemented by the noisiness of body language. I’m teaching 10-month old Max some baby signs to help him communicate as he delivers his first misshapen words and Aiden is learning a little sign language in school. “Mommy,” he informed me with perfect seriousness, “Some people can’t talk, so they use their hands.” To my little boy, who speaks perfect English and Korean, as well as a “little bit of Shanghai and Tokyo,” and who is almost never quiet, even in his sleep, silence must be the most frustrating and confusing state of being.

Aiden, highly vocal, struggles to make meaning out of gesture as he practices his sign language. Max, on the other hand, substitutes his ever-handy chubby pointer finger and a universal “guh” for pretty much any request: point and “guh”: I want that. I want to go there. Feed me that. I want to be held. I watch the boys as I’m studying my Korean vocabulary, and suddenly I see myself now, and at the beginning of my journey learning Korean.

On my first trip to Seoul, when I met my future in-laws, I communicated so much with smiling and bowing that my face and back were almost always sore. Not having the means to understand the conversations around me, I focused on sitting up straight and keeping my knees together. Out on the street and away from the in-laws’ gaze, I quickly became fluent in pointing, nodding, and raising my eyebrows. Luckily I had more than my pointer finger at my disposal; calculators, maps, dictionaries, and drawings become new appendages, as indispensable as my right thumb. The crux of a conversation became distilled into one momentary gesture – the wave of a hand, a sudden smile of recognition, the shake of a head, a look of confusion. So much of my emotion, experience, and consciousness became unsayable, inexpressible. My education, the subtle nuances of my personality, were erased. I had no choice but to communicate with my body, but because I had no language, all was forgiven. Like a baby, I could only communicate crudely with the tools I had.

Now the situation is different. The other day I was striding around the city, realizing I had been studying Korean off and on for almost 10 years and feeling finally smug and confident in my life here in Seoul. I stopped to buy fruit from a man on the street near my apartment. But between his dialect and my head cold I couldn’t figure out exactly what he was saying. I furrowed my brow to show my confusion and said, “네?" He responded, but again I couldn’t understand. I furrowed my brow and frowned and said “네?" again. To my surprise, he became agitated, defensive and angry, and yelled something at me. Baffled by this whole exchange, I ran home to call my husband.

“Oh yeah, that’s really offensive,” he said.
“What is?” I asked, exasperated.
“When you scrunch up your face and say ‘네?’ like that,” he said, like it was obvious. “To a Korean you look like you’re angry or in a bad mood or something.”
“What???? Why didn’t you tell me before?” I said, thinking, geez, how long have I been walking around offending people without knowing?
“Well before, people couldn’t understand what you were saying. Now your Korean is good and you have problems with nuance.”

The problem, I realize now, is with body language. When studying Korean in the States all those years, I was focused on grammar and vocabulary, sentence structure and levels of politeness -- I learned to speak and forgot that communication is about more than language. Now, like Aiden, I need to learn how to speak with word and gesture.

When I think about it, I learned Korean in two distinct cultural milieus: with Korean Americans, and with my husband’s geeky Korean friends.

When I returned to the States after my first trip to Korea, I was very ambitious and decided to add a Korean class to my already-full class schedule. Little did I know that the class would be all Korean-Americans, who for the most part spoke Korean pretty well -- well enough to amuse the class with pull-my-finger jokes, drinking anecdotes, and bilingual jokes (why is Korean tissue bigger than American tissue? Because it’s 휴지(hugee)!). Although we were speaking a different language, we were all firmly planted in the same American college culture, with a mostly common sense of humor and common body of knowledge.

My other source of Korean knowledge came from hanging out with my husband’s mostly male friends -- Koreans (from Korea) getting graduate degrees in computer science. Their conversations were always of the formula: “blah blah blah compiler blah blah blah java [drag on cigarette] blah blah [shot of soju] C++ blah blah…” so even though I knew next to no Korean I could still follow what they said. In this setting, even knowing the somewhat tedious subject of their conversation (at that time, the hot topic was C++ vs. Java and which courses to take) I felt I had entered into a mysterious society of bows and gestures -- friendships were cemented over the proper positioning of one’s glass relative to another’s, turning one’s head to take a shot, all sorts of titles and names, and careful attention to filling someone else’s cup.

Korean, as a language, has a great deal of subtle expressions of formality and emotion built into it. KC’s officemates used to think that he never said goodbye, because his conversations always came to an abrupt halt. There was none of the “ok... long pause...well... sounds good... talk to you later... bye... bye” that you often hear signal the end of an English conversation. Korean intonation, which sounds mostly flat at first, is also very subtle and gives me problems. When I’m trying to sound definite and confident I end up sounding aggressive and defiant, especially for a woman, but that’s what happens when your formative language years are spent with a bunch of drunken guys who firmly believe in the merits of Java.

But gesture is equally subtle. My friends always complain that my mother-in-law never smiles or changes expression, and I think that most Americans’ initial impression of Koreans is that they’re emotionally stiff and hard to read. After two years here I’ve gotten used to this and was surprised, upon returning to the U.S., at how much people’s facial contortions irked me. Watching Julia Roberts, or even my mother, tell a story made my own face hurt.

The other day my father-in-law offers to help me carry something and I tell him, with serious expression, quinchanayo (it’s ok) firmly, with a rising second syllable, to indicate that I’m sure, but to him this intonation sounds aggressive and annoyed. Even though my accent is good my American inflection and facial expression imbues the sentence with an unintended meaning. Or, another time, upon finding out that my son’s taekwondo instructor had been changed, I directly translate, “Why didn’t you tell me?” to “왜 얘기 하지않으셨어요?" which, unfortunately, is a very rude way to phrase the question in Korean, although it’s OK in English. Even though my father-in-law is well aware that I am not Korean, he reacts unconsciously with a burst of anger, “What am I, your errand boy?” It’s at moments like these that I despair of ever being able to speak Korean truly well.

And the the frustration turns to anger. Defiantly, I think, “how Korean do you want me to be?” I’m not Korean. I’m doing my best. I’m American, and I’m a smart, strong woman, and I don’t need to conform to your stereotypes. I’ve come here to live in another culture, spent years studying the language, am raising my boys straddled across a cultural divide. Don’t push me. I don’t HAVE to speak Korean. I don’t HAVE to try to assimilate. I can easily be a loud, pushy American. Don’t. Piss. Me. Off.

Speaking Korean gives me power -- power to move freely in this place, power to win the respect of strangers. If I could master Korean nuance perfectly I could have more power. I could speak like a Korean woman, sounding submissive and plaintive at the right times in order to get what I want, but to get this power I would have to give up some long-standing sense of American feminist behavior.

All these adventures in learning Korean has made me realize that learning a language not just about learning words and grammar or even culture, but it’s about learning to conform to certain available roles and expectations. We all have a certain freedom within those roles and rules, but at some point, you hit unconscious habits and walls. Our bodies do communications duty for us every day, with or without our consent.

Stories to embarrass Aiden... 2: fewer pain sensors

I had been talking up our trip to California for months, getting the boys all excited about going to the beach, going to Legoland, playing outside in the sunshine. The weather in Seoul was still bordering on winter and the kids where itching to hit the playground.

So they suffered through the long flight from Seoul to Tokyo and then Tokyo to LA. We rested in LA for a few hours then commenced our 6 hour drive to the Bay Area. We arrived to: RAIN.

Then we had a few hectic days of greeting friends and getting the kids measured for tuxes and other wedding preparations. All this time I kept promising them: “The sun will come out soon and we’ll go to the playground! This is California, after all.” Still more RAIN.

By this time, the kids were going nuts, dragged from one “let’s meet mommy and daddy’s old friends” meal to another. Finally, the sun came out for a few hours and we sprinted to the playground.

Aiden was like the tazmanian devil, throwing himself down slides and leaping off jungle gyms. He’s usually a pretty mellow kid, as 5-year-olds go, but he was on fire. It was like he had spent the last month in solitary confinement. One father of a toddler asked me, “uhh... is he always like this?”

One serious (and, I think, frightened) mommy’s comment: “I think that perhaps he has fewer pain sensors than most people.”

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Mysteries of Korea #1

KC and I recently joined a health club. We thought about joining the same health club about two years ago, but balked at the price. Then about a month ago we looked into it again, and thought, “Hey, that’s cheap!” The price hasn’t changed (except maybe to go up), but our conception of the price has.

We’ve been living in Seoul for almost 3 years now and the Korean economy is still a mystery to me. Food is outrageously expensive, and local produce is more expensive than imported produce. How is that possible? I used to spend 100 dollars a week on groceries in the US, to feed the three of us (KC, me, Aiden) three meals a day. Now, KC eats out two meals a day and Aiden eats out one meal a day, but I spend close to 100 dollars a week just on fruit. FRUIT!!! And I rarely buy meat or fish because it is too expensive. How is it that a country that is surrounded by water on three sides can have such expensive seafood?

And yet, if you order food (other than pizza -- pizza has cheese which is very expensive), this food is quite cheap, delicious, and is delivered free in a short time. Chinese food or kimpap, will arrive in 10-20 minutes and be cheaper than cooking yourself. Not only do these restaurants have to pay for real estate and ingredients, but they also have to employ delivery men. How do they stay afloat?

Same thing at the salon. Here I go to one of the nicer places to get a haircut, and it costs me 18 bucks. They have someone to wait on me and bring me tea while I wait, someone to wash my hair, someone to stand on the side while the guy is cutting my hair and hand him stuff (much like a nurse would for a surgeon), someone to dry my hair so the main guy doesn’t have to do it. And you don’t even tip!

Starbucks is the most expensive in Korea. A tall latte here is almost 4 dollars -- more expensive than in Tokyo. This is why whenever I go back to the US I always want to go have coffee.

People here make a smaller salary than in the US. Housing is ridiculously expensive (to buy or tiny apartment would cost you about $600,000 US), gas is 3 times higher than the US, and educational expenses are quite high. Hakwon (the tutoring institutions) which almost all kids attend are outrageously expensive -- and in competitive areas like where we live, many people spend $3,000 US a month on the kid’s education. How is this possible? And people are carrying around Louis Vuitton bags.

Well, I may be skulking around Seoul wearing my cheap Gap tee-shirt and sending my kid to taekwondo (only $80 a month), but on the other hand we travel to the US twice a year and China and other places as well... you can buy a lot of designer handbags for that cost. So I guess my own spending habits are as mysterious as everyone else’s.

Stories to embarass Aiden when he's older...#1

Aiden used to be such a bad sleeper -- at 16 months he was still getting up every 2 hours to nurse. He used to hold his eyes open with his fingers because he hated to sleep so much. So I’m very thankful that at 5 is has become a very good sleeper. Too good, in fact. He conks out by 7:30 or 8 every night and is dead to the world until 5 or 6am. But that is the problem. He consumes a lot of liquid before he goes to bed, and after going through many months of waking up to soggy sheets and blankets when he was younger, we’ve developed a ritual of making Aiden pee once before we go to bed. We carry him to the bathroom and hold his penis for him so that his pee doesn’t spray all over the place.

The problem is that sometimes he needs to go before we take him to the bathroom, or once again afterwards. He wakes up and stumbles around, too discombobulated to figure out where he is. Sometimes I’m sitting in the living room watching TV and I hear a loud THUMP. THUMP. THUMP sound from the bedroom. Is it a poltergeist? Is someone hammering? No. It is Aiden repeatedly running into the door, since in his sleep-addled state he is unable to figure out how to turn the knob.

Sometimes in this state he makes it out of the room but gets confused during the five foot walk to the bathroom, pulls down his pants and pees in some random corner of the living room. Sometimes he makes it to the bathroom but mistakes some other appliance (or the floor) for the toilet and lets loose.

One day I was getting ready for bed and sat down on the toilet to do my own business when in stumbled Aiden, eyes half closed, pants already down. Without registering that the bathroom was already occupied, he let loose a stream of warm pee -- on me. I started screaming, which startled him awake, but he couldn’t stop. And then I realized: I live with three Penises. And: golden showers are really not worth the hype.

Monday, June 05, 2006


Behold, one of the wonders of life in Seoul. Parking.
This is the lot in front of our apartment. These apartments were built in the 1980s when not many people had cars and this area was in the far outskirts of the city. Seoul has expanded incredibly since then, and we're now surrounded by newer apartment buildings with underground garage parking. Our little lot, forced to accomodate so many cars, wtinesses amazing engineering feats every days as people try to pack the maximum number of cars into the small space...

The parking lot provided endless entertainment when we first moved here. The cars parked bumper-to-bumper are all in neutral, so you can push them around if you need to get out of a space. If the parking lot has any incline, there are rocks and bricks available to keep the cars from rolling away. The other picture here is KC and Aiden pushing one of the cars so we can get our car out (actually, my in-laws' car -- we don't have a car).

Anyway, I avoid all this parking by taking public transportation... though these days many places (including Starbucks and our doctor) have valet parking so normal people don't have to deal with the headache of parking.


me. trying to figure out how to upload a picture.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Silly and Naughty

Silly and Naughty in the sun.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Playground Politics

I was digging around in my writing file and realized that this has been sitting around, waiting for editing and attention for TWO YEARS. Yikes. Anyone have ideas about how to pull it together? It is all over the place right now.

Playground Politics

I spent a month back in the U.S. recently, and a good part of that month was spent soaking up the culture hovered over the train table in the Barnes and Noble children’s section. We have approximately a million trains and tracks and home, and devote our mornings to making cooler tracks than the day before, complete with tunnels and bridges and construction dangers, but somehow our homemade creations are never as fascinating as the beaten down tracks they have at the bookstore. Anyhow, one day when we arrived another little boy had already staked his claim to all the trains and was absorbed in a multicar collision. Aiden sidled up to me and complained that there were no trains for him to play with, so I suggested to him that he go up to the boy and say, “Hi, I’m Aiden, I’m 4 years old. May I have some trains to play with?” Before he could make his move, however the other boy’s mother intervened and, taking some trains from him, said, “Billy, this is Aiden, let’s give him some trains to play with too.”

So Aiden was happy, but I was not. I wanted Aiden to actually have to do the work of going up to the boy and saying the words himself – of working out the problem on his own. Instead, the whole scene played out between us mothers like a couple of ventriloquists. Although we didn’t speak to each other at all, we managed to manipulate the situation into something textbook-worthy.

This whole incident made me think about playground politics. In the U.S. – at least in the mostly affluent suburbs that I have parented in – a trip to the park will bring you face to face with a gaggle of little children, parents in tow. The children are playing and the parents (mostly mothers) are performing complex “interventions and facilitations” (in Judith Warner’s words: "What that lady is saying is, she would really prefer you not empty your bucket of sand over her little boy's head. Is that okay with you, honey?").

In Seoul, a trip to the playground will reveal many children and few adults. And the adults who are around are usually not intervening much. Instead, the kids are managing themselves quite well. When we first arrived here I spent a lot of time wondering at the ways in which the older children would manage the younger ones here. The older ones, climbing over the top of a jungle gym in a way clearly not intended by the creators, turn away a younger child, telling him that it’s too dangerous. Older kids settle disputes, retrieve balls, and in the shallow swimming areas near the river where we live, take Aiden by the hand and help him overcome his fear of the water. I see kids as young as 3 in the playground without a responsible adult, playing happily in the sand.

Without adults in the picture, the kids manage quite well. But this is more than a matter of the absence of adults – these kids take directions from each other because they’re used to taking directions from older people in general, and giving directions to younger ones.

Perhaps the angriest I’ve ever been was on the playground in Saline, Michigan when an older boy pushed Aiden forcefully down the slide because he was in the way. I dried Aiden’s tears but didn’t say anything to the boy. The boy’s mother showed up 5 minutes too late and asked, “Did my son do that?” I answered somewhat stiffly in the affirmative, thinking “Now she’ll watch him better.” 10 minutes later the same scene played out, down to the mother arriving 5 minutes too late. Still I said nothing to the boy.

Perhaps I am on the extreme side of nonconfrontational, but I think to a great extent people in the U.S. are hesitant to direct others’ kids, and even more hesitant to suggest to another parent that he or she is doing something wrong.

On the other hand, here, people are full of advice. The small act of boarding a bus or subway is to invite comments – on the same day, people will tell me that my child is not wearing enough clothes, is wearing too many clothes, should attend church more, shouldn’t do taekwondo at such a young age, and shouldn’t cry when he falls down. (the same day will see people fixing my hair, brushing lint off my clothes, and pointing out that I have gained weight or have a pimple on my face.) My American self feels invaded and offended by such comments – who are these people to say such things to me, to presume to know better than I? Do they think I’m stupid? In the U.S., even if you thought someone was stupid you wouldn’t tell a complete stranger how to dress her kid.

Just as in the playground I’m often the only mother I see accompanying her child to school. From the age of 5 or 6, it seems, kids walk with their friends to school, taekwondo, hakwon, etc. Their parents trust that others will keep an eye on them, and these others do. Delivery men warn them to stop fooling around on the bridge. Old men tell a young boy to stop picking his nose. A middle aged woman tells a high school kid not to throw away his trash on the ground. And the kids, at least for the moment, listen. There are many eyes on the street here, and many mouths too. There is a sense of social responsibility, which produces the comments I find annoying and offensive but also provides a greater sense of safety.

As much as I hate being told what to do, I appreciate the feeling of safety that is produced by the free advice. And more than that, I appreciate how these small interactions with different people shape Aiden’s sense of community and responsibility. On our walks each day, the 수위아저씨들 all say hello, and Aiden’s favorite one gives him candy, and we bring him sweet potatoes. The delivery men on their scooters bow and wave, we run into Aiden’s school friends on their way to different places with their parents, grandparents, brothers or sisters. The river that we cross each day is a gathering place for people of all ages, some exercising, some talking, some going one place or another, some working, some rude, some kind. Some recognize us as Americans and stop us to tell us about their children in New York or their trip to the U.S. Sometimes Aiden is crying about something and others stop to ask him what’s the matter, to help him. We notice how people help each other out, make room for each other on the path, or sometimes how people are mean and discourteous. For my little boy who watches everything and learns from every interaction, it’s a time to see the variety of people out in the world, all the different kinds of work and play they partake in, and a time to learn how to respect and treat all those people.

Growing up in the U.S. I think I took orders from my parents (whom I lost respect for at the developmentally appropriate age of 13 or so) and my teachers, and pretty much nobody else. I wasn’t accountable, in any tangible way, to anybody else. As a child, I was very shy and particularly fearful of interacting with strangers. Shuttled from place to place my by parents, I was largely sheltered from talking to or interacting with others until I started to drive. And the interactions I did have were mostly consumer interactions, divided spatially by a cash register or checkout surface and speeded along by the lines of customers and largely scripted process of buying.

Although in many ways Korean society has larger class differences than American society I interact here with people from all social classes far more that I do in the U.S. The nature of the apartment complex-centered life here creates a kind of small village where people know each other. People like the “security guard/all purpose man” who work at each apartment complex don’t have great jobs – two guards alternate 24-hour shifts so there’s always someone on duty, and I’m sure the pay is low and they get limited social respect. But those two guards interact with the residents here in so many important ways, from directing traffic and helping people with parking, to taking care of garbage and recycling, keeping the grounds around the apartment, handling packages and deliveries and arranging for repairs. We treat these guards with respect because of these everyday small intimacies and dependencies. In the same way, the deliverymen who work for the fruit sellers, the woman at the video store on the corner, the convenience store clerk and city repair men recognize us and say hi.

Kids here get used to interacting with adults of all varieties from a much younger age and develop, I think, a better sense than I did that they live in a society of all kinds of people and that they are accountable to those others, strangers or not, and that little interactions matter.

Because little interactions do matter. Seoul has changed a lot in the last decade since I’ve been coming here. People are still friendly but not as friendly as they used to be, they give up seats in the bus and the subway for the elderly or the pregnant, but not as regularly as the used to. People are focused on their busy lives and are as often as not inconsiderate. Generational differences in particular create all sorts of strange assumptions and behaviors.

But throughout our day we get a chance to define and model the kinds of behaviors we want to practice, the ways in which we think we should interact with people. It’s not in school but out in the world that children learn how to talk to others, how to respect others, how to be considerate and observant, how to watch people, how to speak for themselves and ask for what they want.

Our Daily Rice

Another essay from Arirang...

Our Daily Rice

My husband KC tells me that, as a young boy in Seoul, he ran around in the streets playing soccer with his friends, blissfully ignorant of time and responsibility. But at dinner time, the smell of cooking rice from all the houses along the street would call him home.

But in my childhood, rice was fodder for small daily rebellion against my parents' careful control. Inherited from my parents, rice has always been in my life. My parents immigrated from China in their teens. Although Americanized in many ways, in other aspects, such as their rabid thirst for educational achievement and their culinary habits, they remained very Chinese. As a teenager whose friends ate only Wonder bread, pasta, and Uncle Ben's, the rice was just one in a long line of idiosyncrasies that marked my parents' difference.

My brothers and I were required to have a minimum number of daily fruit and vegetable servings. The best method I devised for avoiding greens was hiding them underneath my rice. Of course, I was supposed to eat the rice too, but as the meal wore on and my mother's patience grew thin she was willing to compromise -- not on the veggies, but on the rice. Infinitely stubborn, I always won this game of attrition. Eventually she got up to wash dishes or pull out the educational workbooks. I seized that moment to bury my veggies beneath the leftover rice.

As years passed and my teenage self-consciousness waned, I learned that rice took on new meaning. In the process of dating and marrying a Korean man, rice became, not an instrument of rebellion, but a symbol of compromise and adaptation.

I was shocked to find out how particular my husband KC was about rice. I slowly learned about the many varieties of rice. Most Koreans don't like the long grained rice that the Chinese eat but rather prefer the shorter, stickier rice that is eaten here and in Japan. Koreans add to their rice -- beans, peas, sweet rice, barley and other grains-- in order to increase the rice’s nutritional content. Particular combinations of these ingredients are eaten at certain times (for instance, at the first full moon of the lunar year). The texture and smell of the rice is very important; any restaurant that doesn't serve good rice will not do well in Korea.

And then, there are the elaborate principles governing how one politely and appropriately cooks and eats rice. First, what is the best method of cooking: rice or pressure cooker? Some rice requires a bit more water to achieve the desired stickiness. When the rice is done, let it sit for 5 minutes, then stir it up to separate it from the walls of the cooker. Chinese people eat rice with chopsticks, lifting up the bowl and "shoveling it into the mouth" (as my mom says). Koreans, in contrast, eat rice with a spoon and leave the bowl on the table. It is considered rude to lift the bowl or to leave random grains of rice behind when you are through. Chopsticks should never be stuck upright into the rice, as that is only done for the dead.

I learned all this by trial and error as KC and I negotiated our cultural differences. I took to eating the short grained Japanese rice that he preferred because it was so important to him. But it was only after moving to Korea that I began to understand that rice is not simply about brand and preparation and consumption. In Korea I came to understand that rice is about home and the love of family.

I come from a family where the men do the cooking. So it was a shock, upon moving to Korea, to be relegated to the kitchen with my identity as a wife and mother suddenly tied to cooking. Luckily, my in-laws are wonderfully but hypocritically liberal -- they lecture me on my role, but they let me get away with only the gesture of food preparation. At my in-law's house, I hover around my mother-in-law as she prepares the food, carry the finished dishes to the table, and diligently do the dishes afterward. I am more ornament than sous-chef. Even so, my mother-in-law offers running commentaries on rice in an effort to transfuse me with lessons on the role of wife and mother in Korea.

My mother-in-law always tells me that when we throw away rice, "God gets angry." Although perhaps the cheapest part of the meal (especially considering the cost of meat and produce here), rice somehow represents the preciousness of food and of life itself.

Rice also represents the emotional relationships between family members. When serving rice you're always supposed to serve at least two scoops or you have no chong (affection, emotion, love). I suppose the serving of rice--not a stingy amount, but a plentiful one-- demonstrates a plentiful amount of affection. Mothers and wives must cook fresh rice for each meal to serve to their husbands and children and should eat the leftover rice themselves. My mother-in-law would never serve leftover rice to her grandkids or to me when I was pregnant.

While people in the States may reminisce about the smells of bread and cookies in their childhood homes, here people grow nostalgic for the smell of cooking rice in the morning. In both worlds these are the smells of comfort, home, love, safety and warmth. There are so many ways to lose oneself, especially in a different country. But it is the little things, the daily routines, foods, and textures, that cement relationships, make us feel at home and allow us to adapt.

My kids have now inherited rice as well; more than hamburgers, more than pizza or apples, they love rice. At their first birthdays, when Korean tradition has them pick something from a table of objects, they both picked rice. How rice will run through their lives and what significance they will attach to it I don't know. But for my in-laws, surrounded by a a rapidly changing Korea and left almost without family members since the Korean War, seeing their only grandchildren wolf down a bowl of rice brings them some measure of satisfaction and reassurance. Despite their Chinese-American mother and globe-hopping lifestyle, these boys will retain a connection to their father's country and culture and past. We may move across the world, put down new roots surrounded by confusion and misunderstanding, but some things will go on, some things will last, some things will call us home.

Walking in Seoul

This is an essay I published in Arirang, the American Women's Club of Korea magazine.

My son Aiden is very picky about his shoes. From a young age he cultivated a fine and mysterious sense of what shoes are fit to adorn his feet and which ones he won't wear. Soon after we arrived in Seoul he chose white leather sneakers, which amused my in-laws to no end, a cross between the traditional white-colored백구두 that people in the countryside wear, and 70s throwback sneakers with flat bottoms.

He has a right to be picky about his shoes, I suppose (though he outgrows them quickly); we spend so much time walking around the city that the shoes seem part of his body. Unlike the car-obsessed U.S., Seoul is a walking city, and it is through walking that we have discovered and explored Korea. We moved here from Michigan – a Midwestern state filled with open spaces where a little boy can "run really fast! OK? OK!" and wide, clear skies empty of buildings. But in America the price of space is time spent behind the wheel. And though I loved to drive – loved to have time to think and listen to music, knowing Aiden was safe and secured in the back– in the car Aiden watched his world go by from his climate controlled cage.

Americans walk an average of less than 75 miles a year – which works out to around 350 yards a day – literally the distance between bed and bathroom, couch and refrigerator, door and car. In Ann Arbor we used to take Aiden to the zoo and see 7-year olds pushed around in strollers, unable to walk for a few hours on their own. We hear of 2-year olds showing signs of heart disease, and see adults who start exercise programs plagued by the years of childhood immobility and little muscle base. My husband and I vowed that our children would grow up walking, and decided not to take the stroller when we moved to Korea.

At first the transition to walking was hard. Aiden's three-year-old legs were unaccustomed to serving as his primary means of transportation and I had just come off several weeks of rest after surgery. Jet-lagged, awed and open-mouthed, on occasion lost, and busy with the tasks of moving to a foreign country, we strolled and skipped and strided around Seoul so that by spring, walking defined the rhythm of our new lives.

Everyday we walked to Aiden's grandparents' apartment in the morning, and then he walked with his Grandpa to school. In the afternoon I picked him up to walk home, or sometimes to the grocery store, or the doctor, or the subway, or wherever it is we had to go. Our 10-minute walk from school to home usually took us an hour. Aiden figured out all the various permutations through the apartments to the river, and insisted on taking only the "back secret ways" winding behind apartment blocks, finding quiet and secluded spaces, discovering dark scary tunnels and secret gardens. There are rules in these spaces: “Shh, mommy, you have to be quiet and whisper here! You have to talk really loudly here! You have to jump over this hole. You can only walk on the red tiles!” Aiden found a fantasy world in the city terrain, a labyrinth of spaces to explore, control, conquer, be master of, be concealed in, be small and afraid in – all while holding my hand.

I remember that first spring – the smell of it in the air, how we optimistically replaced his winter coat with spring coat and several layers of fleece, how we stopped to breathe in the air and inspect the buds forming on the trees. Aiden triumphantly declared, "mommy, this one is an evergreen" – in truth, by summer I didn’t know the difference between an evergreen and not, but spring makes naturalists of us all. He rubbed his jacket along the rough texture of a brick wall as we stealthily rounded a building. He delighted in telling me what things are made of – brick, cement, barbed wire, dirt. We pee-yooed! at the smell of car exhaust, and turned our noses to the smell of the river. We stopped to listen to the water gurgling and tricking (in my effort to endow him with a rich English vocabulary, I repeated "listen to the water gurgle and babble!" over and over) until the sound was drowned out by two big military helicopters. We talked about littering, stopped to examine a praying mantis and help it get unstuck from the rubber path. Walking across the bridge one day the sight of two men replacing a streetlamp with a cherry-picker captured our attention and we spent a good 20 minutes watching them. We peered in open manholes and saw the workers cozy in their nests of wires and pipes underneath the earth. Summer came and Aiden stripped to his underwear and to play with the other children in the small rock pools by the river, next to retired men who soaking their feet after a day of hiking. A good sturdy branch provided a powerful tool for warding off enemies, for tapping on manholes and cracks, a souvenir worth keeping in our collection by the apartment door along with cool rocks. The uncool rocks were thrown into the river to make satisfyingly big splashes. We stopped to watch people exercise, then precariously walked the balance beam made by the edge of the sidewalk, and climbed the embankment to become the king of the world and examine our shadows. Seoul became a world of senses, where we both controlled the pace, where we could stop and examine a small ladybug or the crane constructing a skyscraper for a second or for an hour.

Now we’re approaching our second spring in Seoul, baby Max has joined us on our walks, and Aiden no longer holds my hand, instead running ahead of me to brave the crosswalks by himself or to seek out playmates. The weather has suddenly turned cold again, so as we set out this morning I thought only about hurrying Aiden to school and getting back in time for Max’s nap. Walking by the river Aiden suddenly pulled me aside to examine the trees: “Look, Mommy! Buds!” So immersed in our now routine life I had not noticed winter slipping away, nor realized that I had stopped savoring the rhythm of our secret world. Rummaging through our closet to pull out the spring clothes I come upon Aiden’s old white shoes, still in pristine condition – he outgrew them so fast – and I realized suddenly how quickly we have grown into our lives here. For that one stolen season the smug and jaded adult strode around the city like a child, openmouthed in wonder, overwhelmed by new sights, smells, and sounds. For one spring I was able to walk in Aiden’s shoes, and now we’ve both grown up.

Penis Envy?

Yesterday Naughty (Max) and I were playing with play-doh. He rolled the doh into a long blue strip. I asked him, "what is it?" thinking that he would say, "a snake." But he said, "코추" (penis). "It's a big penis! Loooong!" He pointed to his own penis to make sure I understood. Then he cut it into small pieces with his plah-doh scissors. Hmmm... Need to start saving for some therapy.

Time Warp

I was in an office supply store the other day (문방구, for those of you who can see Korean fonts...) with Max, doing some laminating. Laminating is called "coating" in Korean. Sometimes those Korean words make a lot of sense. It was around 11am on a weekday, so there weren't many people there -- the man and woman who run the store, a typical 20-something skinny Korean woman wearing a frilly skirt and heels, a teenage kid wearing his military-style school uniform, and Max and I. Anyway, I was waiting for my things to be laminated and trying to prevent Max from eating tacks, and suddenly the radio program that was being broadcasted in the store started playing the song "Time Warp" from the "Rocky Horror Picture Show." It was very strange and surreal to be in an office supply store in Korea listening to music from the Rocky Horror Picture show... I danced a little bit with Max, but he was more interested in the tacks.

Delusions of Grandeur

This is it -- my first blog. I am a blog virgin, so to speak. I don't even keep a diary, so this feels very weird. But I suppose we've moved from one-on-one personal communication (personal letters) towards and less and less personal communication -- e-mail, then mass e-mails and mass holiday letters, all carefully xeroxed... scrapbooks meant to be displayed to the world, photos in one central website...

So what pushed me over the edge? KC has been bothering me to write a blog for a long time. And, I guess, I keep having surreal moments here in Korea and need to have some incentive to write them down. So here we go. There's no central vortex to this blog, just the sleep deprived ramblings of a mommy, ex-pat, ex-academic with delusions of grandeur.