Thursday, September 28, 2006

Cult of appearance

This is a rant. Be forewarned.

I’m sitting here in a cafe admiring the perfect skin of a dainty-faced girl sitting near me. But she, and so many other beautiful girls in Seoul, prance around acting like beauty is the purpose and meaning of her existence. The other day I took Naughty to the dentist, which, in fine GangNam fashion, has a rock climbing wall, video games, toys, books, and cartoons playing on monitors embedded in the ceiling. But one little boy was feeling possessive and screamed every time Naughty approached the toys. This little monster was clearly (to me) acting out because his mom, not 5 feet away, decked out in couture and jewels and kitten heels, was engrossed in her fashion magazine and ignoring him completely. Hey kid. I once dyed my hair purple to piss off my mom. I hear ya.

I’m torn. Because on one hand, I envy these beautiful women, striding across the city in their dainty heels, sparkling in the smoggy air, shiny hair swinging, looking just so good in this season’s skinny jeans. Funny how I don’t check out men anymore, only women and art. I can admit it: I’m as vain as the next person. I spend more time than I’d like to admit examining my pores in the mirror. I confess to saying, “Do these jeans flatter my ass?” on at least one occasion. I wear makeup and spend money on wrinkle cream and have a compulsion to buy cosmetics in pretty packaging. But in Seoul I self-consciously dress on the slovenly side to buck the trend of all these perfectly coifed fashionistas. Hey, I’m a MOMMY. I’m chasing my kids through the dirt and wiping their noses with my sleeve. I’m pulling up my shirt to nurse. Cotton and Oxyclean are my friends. I don’t wear heels because I may need to throw myself into ongoing traffic at a moment’s notice. I like clothes with pockets that can hold my transportation card, band-aids, kleenex, cars and rocks whose well-being I am entrusted with, money-just-in-case, my phone, my flash cards in case we are stuck in a long game of “watch the ants,” and Purell. I have enough to yell at my kids without adding “don’t tear your clothes” and “don’t step on mommy’s expensive white shoes” to my repertoire.

I am writing this, preparing two lessons, studying Chinese, and working the next AWC newsletter, hands shaking as I work off my caffeine high while Max is at school, and this local beauty is lollygagging through a fashion magazine, manicured toes cradled in uncomfortable-looking leather heels, barely touching her fat-free muffin.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, maybe I can be little more reflective about this whole love-hate relationship with beauty.

Although Americans produce the powerful Hollywood/supermodel images which envelop the globe in a haze of lipgloss and dewy skin, Americans seem self-righteous and in-your-face about being entitled to be... well... ugly. Or at least “casual.” Casual translating into throwing on an old pair of sweats and turning up with unwashed hair at the grocery store. As an American I retain the right to be slovenly and unwashed here, though I admit when I go back to the U.S. in a collective sense I feel as though we’ve let ourselves go. I can’t say I like the current fashion trends here, and some are downright bizarre but people make an effort. It always strikes me as humorous to go to Itaewon (where the fake bags are sold) and see overweight Americans running around wearing Easy Spirit shoes, sweats, and Louis Vuitton purses. Americans, it seems to me, are ambivalent about appearance -- they want to look good and be fashionable, but they don’t want to be judged based on appearance. Perhaps that explains why I am simultaneously fascinated by and repulsed by the cult of personal appearance here: I want to look good, but I don’t want to be judged if I don’t. Cake? Eat it too? Yes, please.

Since this is clearly a touchy subject for me, I conducted a little “research” over wine at Mom’s Night Out, envisioning myself momentarily as the Carrie Bradshaw of Seoul. “Yes, my blog... it’s like ‘Sex in the City’... but without the sex. And the Manolo Blahniks. And the size 2 heroine. And grown men. OK... never mind.”

Picture us: five moms who are usually enveloped in arms and legs and sand (we all have boys in the same class, and they play together ALL THE TIME), decked out in our lipstick and finery, a little drunk off wine and exhaustion (it is WAY past our bedtimes), talking about appearance. I should clarify that THESE moms are a pretty casual bunch; not like the mommies in the class below Silly, who were upset because the yellow plastic Sesame Street bags given as presents to the kids for Children’s Day were too “cheap looking” -- they prefer to send their kids to school carrying shopping bags from brand names like Coach. H works part time teaching English, M is actually not a mommy but an aunt, taking care of her nephew full time, C is a Korean American stay at home mom, and A works full time.

First, they say, we need to distinguish between physical appearance, clothes/dress, and 인상 (“impression” -- sort of).

Anyone who is familiar with the amount of plastic surgery done in Seoul knows how valued physical beauty is here. Throw a rock in Apgujung and you will hit a plastic surgery office. (Anyone out there know the current plastic surgery rates? Some ridiculous percentage of 20-somethings? I only do research where wine is involved.) The Yangpa is sick and twisted, but perhaps because of that manages to tap into all that is sick and twisted about life in Korea. As C points out, there is no stigma to being artificially beautiful, only the beauty matters -- the actress/singer Harisu, an open transsexual, was voted the sexiest woman in Korea.

Clothes. Clothes indicate status far more closely here than in the U.S. Not just clothes, but how you wear them. One of my many failings as a daughter-in-law is to be perpetually wrinkled. I have an ideological opposition to ironing. I remember meeting a Birkenstock, ripped jean, and old tee-shirt-clad old college friend at Jamba Juice in Redwood Shores, CA back in 97 or 98, the heyday of the internet boom. We were chatting casually and it came out that he had just made millions of dollars at @Home. Here, on the other hand, people are sending their kids to school with couture erasers and treating you differently based on your shoes. More than your house or car, your clothes parade your level of social and economic success.

Next: 인상. Hard to translate this term -- it is something like, “impression.” but different. It refers to the feeling you get from someone -- so someone can be physically unattractive, but if she smiles and appears friendly and open, she has a good 인상. 인상 is very important to Koreans; C tells me that in general, teachers and people in the service industry should have good 인상, and that moms prefer to hire a teacher who isn’t fat and who has a friendly face. (Aside: I have been hired for my 인상 before. And criticized by my in-laws for not smiling enough.) As H argued: for her, a teacher doesn’t have to have good 인상 because you can get to know the teacher over a long period of time. But for someone you meet briefly, at a restaurant or in a business meeting, you don’t have time to get to know him or her, and if she appears unfriendly or angry you won’t have a good experience and you won’t want to do business there anymore.

A just returned from the States, and she commented that while Koreans look at someone’s dress and expression and use that to judge that person’s 마음 (heat/mind), in the U.S. we would call those things a matter of taste.

One of my Chinese books, says that if a woman is very beautiful, you say hen3 piao4 liang4 (“very beautiful”). If she is modderately beautiful, you say "hen3 ke3 ai4" ("very cute"). If she is plain, you say she is "hen3 ai4 guo2" (“patriotic”). If she is ugly, you say she obeys the rules well "hen3 shou3 gui1 ju4." If she is very ugly you say, ""ta1 de5 zi4 hen3 piao4 liang4" ("her writing is very beautiful"). (source: Making Out in Chinese) Talk about a rating system: rating not just a woman's beauty but also beauty against other virtues. I guess what bothers me is that people are so quick here to comment on someone’s failings in the appearance realm, without bothering to look at other areas. But perhaps I am overly sensitive because to me, critiquing someone’s appearance is such a rude thing to do (see my post on Self-monitoring). Perhaps others don’t take it so seriously.

As a mommy this issue of appearance concerns me because of my kids too. It bothers me that people talk about my children’s looks (having double-eyelids and being Westernized in appearance) and not their behavior. A woman in an ice cream store asked me, “Was he born with those eyes?” I thought: “Do you think I would send my 5-year-old to plastic surgery?” But perhaps I misunderstood her question. I was talking with some other mommies one day, and one commented that the fat kid in her son’s class had already become a “왕따” (the kid everyone picks on -- but in a more extreme way. This is a big problem in Korea and there are suicides each year because of it. School friendships are highly valued). I heard her cluck at that and then turn around and comment on someone’s appearance. Hey lady, where do you think your kids are learning this from? Take a look in the mirror sometime. There are sure a lot of them in Seoul. People look in the mirror in the elevator, in their cellphone, in their office, etc. before stepping out, to make sure that they look presentable. Too bad the reflection doesn’t go beyond the skin.

One good thing about writing this blog has been the opportunity to articulate the way I see my own life; the way I interpret and piece this so-called ex-pat life together and generate a picture of how culture, language, parenting, walking, body language, our pasts, etc. are woven into something coherent and meaningful. The beauty of that is in the process and in the continual renewal and reweaving, accepting what happens and adjusting the picture. I have nothing against beauty, and aspire to beauty myself, but I hope that the brand of beauty that my children can embrace is a multi-faceted one -- a productive and changing one -- and one that embraces the serendipitous appearance of chocolate stains, whole milk lattes, and laugh lines.

currently watching: Shopgirl (love Clair Danes)
currently listening to: Somewhere beyond the sea - Frank Sinatra
currently reading: Mao: The Untold Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

currently wearing: AX jeans, shirt from dongdaemoon market, Onkel glasses (a bit of a glasses fetish)

Monday, September 25, 2006

an origin story

Someone recently asked me, “What brings you to Korea?” And I realized that, having started this blog with the assumption that only my close friends would suffer through reading it, I haven’t really answered that question here (other than briefly in “the Good Life”). One advantage of starting a blog 3 years after moving is that impressions and theories have built up in my head -- I can pull some preliminary shapes and patterns out of all the chaos. But the disadvantage is that you’re seeing my conclusions apart from the raw data, so there are a lot of chronological gaps, and you may be curious how I became the long-winded, caffeine-addicted, wrinkly shirt-clad person I am now.

Anyway, the short answer is: we wanted our kids to spend some part of their lives living in Asia, near their grandparents. We wanted them to grow up speaking the language(s), feeling comfortable going back and forth between the different cultures, seeing that they were not weird (though I have doubts about the success of that last one -- when a two-month-old child has already travelled to 5 countries, isn’t that weird?). I remember once leaving a dimsum restaurant in Michigan, seeing a little girl pulling her non-English speaking Grandma by the arm, saying loudly and petulantly, “You’re so stupid.” I didn’t want our kids to be like that, thinking that their grandparents were stupid and embarrassing just because they couldn’t speak English well or navigate the subtleties of American life. I wanted them to know their grandparents in a place where the grandparents were comfortable, surrounded by the friendships and accumulated knowledge of a lifetime, not rendered dumb (in both senses) by the flat American landscape.

The longer answer is that my husband and I both have somewhat liminal and ambivalent relationships to Asia and our ancestral pasts. KC is Korean and lived in Korea until he was 18 then moved with his brother to the U.S., attending two years of high school before going to college and grad school. So his childhood is rooted in Korea and his adult and professional life are in the U.S. By the time we moved here he was 36, so he had spent half his life in Korea and half in the U.S. But he hadn’t been an adult in Korea, so it was strange to be back and have to do adult things: open bank accounts, rent an apartment, find a school for our son, in addition to learning how to speak the language as an adult speaks it, talking about business, etc. Because of his long history here people (including himself) expected KC to fit right in; however, it wasn’t that easy. His long education and independent life in the U.S. had changed the way he thought about the world and he had to sort of reinvent and learn his Koreanness all over again.

Part of reconnecting with Korea has involved figuring out how to be a son again. Living apart from his parents, living in the U.S. (and marrying that American girl), and achieving a high level of education has created a huge gulf. At 18, most kids are just starting to become independent, and there is a period of time when both kid and parent have to adjust -- the kid has to learn to do things for himself and the parent has to learn to let go. During this period the rituals and language of the parent-child relationship change, adapting to the new status of the child. But KC never really went through this with his parents, and they never got to see him act as the adult he is, so they keep treating him like a child, much to his anger and frustration. When we came, not knowing how to do basic adult things (like open a bank account -- not as easy as it sounds), they all fell back into the familiar positions of parent and child and it has been hard to reconfigure these dynamics. They try to give him advice based on their experiences -- experiences of war, of backstabbing, of scraping together a living in the face of extreme situations -- situations which don’t apply to our lives. We are dismissive, thinking their knowledge of business doesn’t apply to the software industry. Their knowledge of parenting doesn’t apply to people who have enough to eat. Their knowledge of government doesn’t apply to real democracies. We patronize each other, dismissing each others experience, worlds, and teachings, leading to mutual retrenchment and anger. (Though, I have to say, after 3 years things have improved a bit.) As the oldest son, KC worries about how he will take care of his parents as they get older. As a child you never really see your parents as adults. Returning to Korea now, he sees his father as a real, adult person for the first time – a man with a rich social life and a network of friends and habits. He feels suddenly, poignantly, the loss of his father – not only for all those years when they lived apart, but also for now.

I’m the child of Chinese immigrants who both immigrated to the U.S. in their teens. My parents had intended to go back to Hong Kong after college and grad school, but in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and political instability in Asia, they decided to stay in the U.S., become citizens, have careers, and raise their children. They settled in the D.C. area and turned their eyes away from the East, giving themselves over to an American brand of living and success.

Even now, despite her belief that Asians are smarter and better workers than anyone, my mother has a deeply ingrained distaste for suspicion of Asia, and in particular China. For her, it’s unconditionally dirtier, unsanitary, more corrupt, and less efficient than the U.S. Whether that is true or not, her decision to turn away from the place where she grew up and make her way in the land of opportunity was not just a lifestyle decision but also a psychological one – she allies herself with the U.S. and the “American way,” not always believing that America is great but always believing that its better than Asia. She embraced the opportunities she found here and became successful in the emerging computer industry at a time when women and also Asians were still entering white collar jobs. She fought to open as many opportunities for her three children by raising us in English (so we wouldn’t have trouble adopting to school), sending us to summer programs and piano lessons and writing class and making us do workbooks while the other children were playing outside after school. Her gaze was always trained towards our bright futures, many doors open along a long lighted path, ready for us to take a step.

For my parents, as for many other immigrants, there was a formula for success: hard work, good education, and a significant amount of parental pushing and prodding equaled a good college, respectable career, and a better status in society. This, after all, was the American dream – the reason they came to the land of opportunity. For them, as for Hegel, history begins in the East and moves West, and never returns.

I’m sure much has been written about the particular psychology of being the child of an immigrant. I haven’t really read anything in that department so I’ll just write my impressions here (some of this echoes “Our Daily Rice”).

When I was young, I resented being in writing “camp” while others went swimming. My parents were silent about the past, never explaining their own cultural background, leaving me to fill in the blanks. Thus I understood them to be weird and embarrassing because they took off their shoes before entering the house, make rice and fish instead of mac and cheese, chewed loudly, and mispronounced words. I was caught between worlds physically as well – somehow, through a joke of genetics or perhaps diet, I can pass for a non-Asian, leaving me sometimes in the awkward situation of hearing people disparage my family, not realizing I was one of them.

In my teenage and college years, I was critical and regretful of my parents’ decision to raise me in English, to so carelessly discard the baggage of Asia, to produce children who can’t communicate with their own grandparents. I felt an impostor, stuck somewhere between a familiar but awkwardly fitting society, and a largely unknown society that rejected me as culturally empty.

And yet, in many ways, the formula worked. I stepped through the doors my parents opened and did just as my parents hoped, attending a top-tier university, completing graduate school, have a successful (though short) professional career, and beginning doctoral work.

My parents were well-educated and had good careers, but the divide is even stronger, I think, for the many Asian Americans whose parents worked in labor-intensive or lower status jobs to make a better life for their kids. They teach their kids that education and success in the professional world is the most important thing, not realizing or not fully appreciating how in doing so they elide their own experiences and status.

So for me, and I think for many Asian Americans, trying to get to know your parents’ past is a difficult, ambivalent project. People expect you to know things you don’t know, and you feel guilty and ashamed for not knowing them, and perhaps angry and false too. Not looking Chinese (I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me if I’m French) I grew up enduring milkman jokes and doubting that I really am who I say I am. Getting to know my hubby’s culture and language was safer; I am not Korean so I felt free to stumble and fail and claim impunity. I needed to take the step of learning Korea and Korean before feeling confident enough to take on China and Chinese. I am only reaching that point now, and I’m doing it without my parents.

Anyway, having grown up in a perpetual state of embarrassment over my parents’ idiosyncrasies, and thinking that their refusal to acknowledge the past or explain their differences was a mistake, I wanted -- for myself as well as my kids -- to have the opportunity to get to know Asia on my own terms. The world has changed, the Long Duck Dongs of the media are disappearing, and (I hope) being Asian in the U.S. is no longer to be exotic, or strangely sexualized, or associated with Laundromats and calculus. (Aside: one of the traumas of my young life was when the kid who lived across the street told me that the name for the female anatomy was “china.” I guess it does sound similar. I think I was maybe seven.) I wanted my kids to grow up armed with the knowledge and experience of being in China and Korea so that if nothing else, they would know what real places and people lay behind those terms.

As usual, in answering a simple question I have run at the mouth -- or fingers, actually. But I feel like there is something I still need to say about the act of returning to Asia.

In the immigrant success stories, the immigrants never return – they make it big in the land of opportunity, and they live happily ever after in the bright open spaces of America. (Aside: I have been meaning to write a post about 사대주의: a term that refers to the admiration and almost worship of stronger powers that Koreans have for China, Japan, and the U.S. -- but haven’t had the time.) In returning to Korea, KC has thrown the dream back in his father’s face, and neither of them quite know what to make of it. Until now, the act of returning has been read as a failure -- the West is the endpoint, not just a pit stop. KC and I, for our own reasons, felt we needed to go back to and wrestle with our messy pasts, to confront them head on. But, watching the growing number of kirogi families and other education immigrants traveling this path from East to West, and also keeping an eye on our many unhappy Korean friends who went to the U.S. for college or grad school and have stayed for careers, I wonder how long this narrative will last, and what hold it will have on the next generation. Hegel, are you listening? I live here for now, but only I will determine my history’s teleology.

Friday, September 22, 2006

scattered thoughts on losing language, multimedia fantasies

It is fall here -- and that means that everyone is sick. Beautiful weather, beautiful foliage, miserable people. I wonder if germs here have evolved a way to travel along cell phone lines, because they are certainly hardy and mobile.

Both my boys have the sniffles, and I was tempting fate by neglecting my sleep. Mr. Max has been getting up every night to nurse for a few hours straight. I’m pretty sure this has something to do with him starting preschool, so I’m trying to wait it out. But I’m drained -- literally! Of milk and of energy. So now I’m sick too.

Of course, being sick, even when you can’t take medicine because you’re nursing, makes everything feel a little less real, and your mind and body don’t work as they should. So it shouldn’t have surprised me that when I went to the bank this morning that I would find myself stumbling over the language.

I haven’t carried a dictionary with me for two years now. Not because I know everything -- I certainly don’t -- but because my receptive vocabulary is good enough to recognize what I need and I can explain everything else well enough. But every once in a while -- when I’m particularly nervous, or sick, or in pain -- I lose the language. It is a strange feeling.

It happened when I was in labor with Max. For that pregnancy I had gone through the regular clinic (rather than the more expensive International Clinic). Once we got the hang of the system it wasn’t bad. I studied all the vocabulary: amniotic fluid, uterus, ectopic pregnancy, contractions, etc. But after 6 cm I couldn’t understand a thing. I remember them telling me all sorts of stuff and me yelling, “What?! I don’t know what you’re talking about! I can’t understand you!”

Language is unreliable. And what we choose -- or are able -- to say represents only a small sliver of what we think or experience.

One of the blogs I read regularly is printculture. I like how the contributers often include something about what they are reading, listening to, or watching. I think I will start doing something like that here. When I’m writing something, I often listen to the same song over and over, and something of the atmosphere, the “느낌" of that song seeps into the writing and my take on the world at that moment. When I was in grad school and attempting to produce a great quantity of decent writing while sleeping only a few hours a night, and only clumsy, ugly prose was coming from my fingertips, I would read something written beautifully and with feeling and let it seep into my subconscious and from there into my writing.

We live multimedia lives. We walk around plugged into our MP3 players, we download music with the push of a button, and in Seoul we are surrounded by TV screens: TV screens in restaurants, in elevators (because who wants to suffer through an elevator ride with nothing to look at?), on the subway, in the fitness center, and even TV screens in the ceiling of the dentist’s office so we can watch TV to take our minds off the pain of drilling. Our ringtones and playlists are part of our identities. (In 동갑 내기 가외 하기 the soon-to-be lovers have the same ringtone -- oooh, that’s romance for ya. I think it was Sheena Easton's "Morning Train").

I always thought that TV show Aly McBeal was genius for embracing the multi-media narratives that guide and inform our everyday lives. Aly had a “theme song” which played in her head and set the rhythm and mood of her day, and affected the way she interacted with people.

The other brilliant aspect of this show was that it made the characters’ inner landscapes visible by showing their fantasies. I love the premise that fantasy guides and clothes our actions and reactions in everyday life. Perhaps this is just me, but I’m only living a small percentage of my life in the moment (which is maybe the reason why I get so easily distracted); a good portion of my mind is being lived in my head, thinking about things perhaps completely different from what I am doing. Part of that is to fight off the tedium that often comes from hanging out with a toddler (or a 6-year-old who only wants to talk about Star Wars all day long), but I suspect that we all, no matter how exciting our daily lives, are always imagining and reimagining ourselves into different futures, entertaining scenarios that we will never live out, or trying on different scenarios to see if we like them.

So I’m sick. My throat hurts, so I’m trying not to talk. And my head is too fuzzy to remember the words I need to say anyway. I’m listening to Zero 7’s song “In the Waiting Line.” I don’t really know what this song is about. But. It somehow captures the listlessness and detachment of being a little bit sick, maybe a little bit restless, mind wandering and imagining, filling in the silent spaces.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere...

Many things divide the childless from those with children. One of them, undoubtedly, has to be ideas about the cleanliness of excrement. You all are probably sick of my peeing stories, but I can tell you that pee doesn’t faze me -- as long as it is my kid’s pee. When Emily was here in July she happened to witness Aiden spraying me in the eye during one of his midnight bathroom runs. This disturbed her because it was gross and disturbed me because I was wearing glasses and couldn’t understand how such a thing could occur given the laws of physics.

Exhibit A: average childless person. Avoids other people’s excrement.
Exhibit B: parent of baby or toddler. Swims in excrement all day with little or no perturbation. “It’s not pee, it’s my baby’s pee!”

I bring this up to make the point that cleanliness is not all that straightforward. In colonial, missionary, imperialist rhetoric the promotion of ideas of cleanliness and hygiene reinforced categories of civilized and barbarian, conqueror and conquered. Even these days, cleanliness provides a way of ordering the stages of development within the 2nd world -- those who have been to China are surprised how clean Korea is and people who have been to Japan are surprised how dirty it is. There is little garbage on the ground (especially compared to many large American cities) but the pollution is pretty bad.

But to really discuss contemporary “cleanliness” in Korea, we have to go beyond the amount of garbage on the street and the quality of the air. We have to recognize another paradigm shift -- another divide -- between Korean senses of cleanliness and American ones (not to lump the spic and span among us with those who have dried up pieces of bread under our beds -- I know the category of “American” is problematic, but hear me out).

Let’s begin with the shoes. Most Koreans would have a heart attack if you entered their house with your shoes on and lay on the bed without taking them off. Shoes belong to a very specific geography -- namely, the floor outside. On the subway, people will take off their shoes if they wish to put their feet up on the seat. At the park, they take off their shoes to sit on the mat/picnic blanket, or on the wooden raised platforms where people rest. In a restaurant, you take your shoes off to sit on the floor.

The rules surrounding the proper placement of footwear are just a symptom of a larger, foreign system of categories of inside and outside. Let’s look at clothes, for instance. In high school, I was notorious for not wanting to sacrifice precious moments of sleep in order to get dressed, so I would occasionally go to sleep wearing some or all of the clothes I had intended to wear to school the next morning. Here, however, you have inside clothes and outside clothes. You come home and change into your inside clothes. When it’s time to leave you put on your outside clothes. Outside clothes, by virtue of being worn outside, are dirty. Inside clothes are clean (unless you are Christina Aguilera, then they may just be dirrty). My Chinese teacher lives with her grandma, who won’t even let her past the shoe cabinet -- she has to take off all her outside clothes and shake them out before entering the apartment proper. Coming home has all sorts of new procedures here -- shaking out your clothes, changing them, washing your hands, and sometimes also washing your feet. Because feet (since you have to take off your shoes so often, or because you may have been wearing sandals) have come in contact with the dirty world, they need to be washed.

Categories are indicated not just by what you wear, when, but also by what you wash together or separately. Underwear? Washed separately. Baby clothes? Also washed separately. Cleaning rags are also separated into two categories: “haengju” (행주 ) are rags used to wipe tables and dry dishes, and “kollae” (걸레 ) are rags used to wash the floor (generally no carpets here, so people wipe the dust off the floor periodically -- much more often than you would in the States -- much more dust here). These rags are also often sterilized by boiling them in a mixture of water and bleach on the stove. But separately, of course, so you don’t mix the floor dirtiness with the table/dishes dirtiness.

No one has expressed this directly, but there seems to be some idea of cross-contamination underlying all these categories, handed down from elders to the younger generation. Just as it is my Chinese teacher’s grandma who makes her disrobe at the entrance of the apartment, it is my mother-in-law who insists on having all the cleaning rags boiled and washed separately. Now a habit, I can’t even think of washing them with the rest of the laundry. And I wonder how much of these cleaning ideas come from older notions of the spread of disease. My in-laws, for instance, seem to have very weird ideas about disease transmission. They don’t seem to understand about germs, but they have all sorts of ideas about the harmful effects of wind and sun on babies and weak people. Women who have given birth, for instance, are supposed to stay indoors and rest for 3 weeks, being careful not to touch anything cold. Somehow a weak body’s sudden exposure to coldness is supposed to to take a toll on one’s system. This is why babies are not supposed to be in the wind; the wind will sap the heat from the baby’s body. When my kids get sick, my in-laws assume that they have eaten something bad or done something wrong. My explanation that it is just a virus going around, nothing much we can do about it, falls on deaf ears. When Max was young, it drove me crazy that strangers on the street would come up to him and touch his hands, and then tell me I didn’t dress him warmly enough. In my vision of the world, they were making him sick by spreading their viruses to him through his hands (which he would immediately put in his mouth) and in their vision of the world I was making him sick by not keeping him inside and warm.

These alternate inside/outside/clean/dirty categories apply to food as well. Food you make yourself (or rather, food your wife or mother makes for you) is “clean.” Food from restaurants is “dirty.” So feeding Max kimpap from a restaurant was considered “dirty” even though it is healthier than some of the junk food I see small children eating here sometimes (chips, sweet drinks, etc.) I can understand that where this understanding comes from, however: until recently, the health and cleanliness standards at various restaurants and shops were pretty uneven. Even now I wouldn’t feed my kids kimpap from the people who sell them at small stands near the subway.

Any anthropologists out there wanting to do a field study? You are welcome to come to my place and clean for a while. Just be prepared for all the pee.

Monday, September 11, 2006

My "blog persona"

I had all sorts of plans for today's post. I had a recap going on my "blog persona." I had thoughts on being American for 9/11. I was working on something about cleanliness.

I was walking along, thinking about an article on Susan Sontag’s journals that I had read this morning, and about Diane Middlebrook’s excellent book on Plath and Ted Hughes, and thinking of the “self” that one constructs through a journal or blog. Even though I started this blog without a clear sense of what I would write (hence the changing titles), using it more as a receptacle for ideas which were neither developed nor edited enough to become articles, I have been, in a sense, creating my “blog persona” -- a long-winded character, simultaneously insider and outsider in both the U.S. and Korea, always a parent, attempting to be funny. (In real life I am not funny.)

But then I got run over by a car.

More specifically, I was walking on the edge of a typical narrow street , a maze of pedestrians, cars parked haphazardly, construction, and cars going opposite directions slowly trying to pass each other. I was edging my way around a parked car while cars were coming from both directions, and the ajuma driving the car on my side of the road was only watching the other car and didn't notice that there was a person standing in front of her. So she casually ran over my feet and trapped me between her car and the parked car while I screamed HEEEYYYYY ARGHHHHHHHH.

From now on I will think about my usual walking subjects: how to fund my next latte fix and what I will do if I have to give it up again to have another baby and whether it is crazy to think about having THREE kids and if I will ever be able to have a career with so many children afoot.

Anyway. Feet are amazing things, remarkably able to handle being rolled over by a 2,000 pound car. Either than or I am endowed with some heroic indestructable power that I am not aware of (have never broken a bone... never know...) So I am perfectly fine. I yelled at her for a while and continued on my way.

What I had been planning to write about, before being mashed, was what the heck this blog is all about. After four months, I think it might be about “parenting and living in Seoul.” In the beginning I was trying to write about life in Seoul but so much of my life is my parenting, and I purposely would balance the posts to have some of both. But looking back I realize that almost all the posts have something of both in them. I am first and foremost a mom, my kids structure my day (and night), my children are always riding around with me in my head (strange Zeus/Athena image there) and color the way I see the world. No Hephestus around to split my head and get the kids out. So this is a blog about living here in Seoul but living is inseparable from parenting.

Perhaps it is the back-to-school smell of fall in the air, but I was feeling a hankering to look back at what I have written and take stock.

Some posts are just snapshots of a moment or impression: Stop and smell the ramen, Go reds, and Time warp. Some are sort of meta-blog posts -- posts on the blog (including this one): Surprise, surprise, Thanks, and Delusions of grandeur.

Some posts are truely just about my kids or family: Stories to embarrass Aiden, KCisms, Penis Envy, and Whack-a-mole.

But most of the posts are on the meatier subject of living in Korea.

now. I feel like, in a sense, living here is learning a new set of grammers. In body language and on boys I talked about the sort of grammer of physical and emotional expression. Walking in Seoul and to some extent Independence Day and the Good Life were all about the battle between living in the moment and seeing things in the more spontaneous way that kids do, and living in our quick, well planned adult jaded eyes (a little like being hit by a car while thinking about your blog).

Self-monitoring and ex-pat stories were about the kind of sensibility that develops when you are an ex-pat.

playground politics and fear and to some extent self-monitoring, are more directly about the different sense of boundaries here and how that manifests in what you say and fear.

Flashes of anger and Our Daily Rice have more of a generational sense to them, I think -- more of a feel of what it is like to be taken into a family and the expectations and negotiations that go with that.

So I was going to be really eloquent and write something about that, but now I feel like I need to say something about driving.

Many smarter and more eloquent people have talked about how driving and the invention of fast travel (via airplane, train, or car) have changed notions of time and space. But driving in Seoul is a further distortion of time and space. Hey! Maybe those looking for black holes and wormholes and anti-matter should look here! The existance of distortions in the space-time continuum would explain how deliverymen can travel faster than the speed of light and why one ages so quickly on KangNamDaeRo.

Seoul's traffic as improved a lot since I was first here. Now people actually seem to pay attention to those lines painted on the road, or at least take them as a suggestion. Now people usually follow the traffic lights. And the addition of many traffic cameras have cut down on speeding and other excesses.

But on the road, it's a whole new ball game. Although the number of lanes painted now more or less corresponds to the number of lines of cars on the road, there is a lot of switching back and forth in the name of efficiency. If there isn't room to switch, you force your way in. Centuries of repression and kowtowing to elders has resulted in alternative hierarchy of ruthlessness on the roadway. Forget the old farts, this is the law of the jungle. Now look out, we're coming to an intersection. Just like the real estate laws and the policy on North Korea, LOOK OUT! the lanes on the other side of the intersection don't line up. It's a free for all!

And parking. PARKING! Someone should write a dissertation on the social construction of parking. Because here, it literally is socially constructed! As in: you pick a blank spot of real estate, and you park there. It happens to be on the sidewalk? No problem. Oh, it's in a no parking zone, you say? Who cares, park there anyway. So it disrupts the flow of traffic. That's ok, just think about yourself. So what if the street is not wide enough for two cars to pass now, they other cars will work it out. And parking lots... see my post of Parking/Engineering.

But after a year or so living here I got my driver's license and cautiously, nervously took to the roads. Now I, too, join the pissing contest that is driving in Seoul. I bully my way into my lanes, I honk and yell, I expect people to cut me off, I expect sudden stopping, cars randomly parked in the road, people running red lights, bus drivers trying out for a part in Speed 3.

All the people privy to the system can function fine within in. The problem is that not everyone has the crackerjack timing and the delicate sense of space to function like this. I haven't had any bad incidents other than a scratched bumper, but it takes all my concentration, the partnership of a good book on CD for the kids, and a good dose of courage from caffeine, and I hit the road. But driving here has subtly shifted my sense of the driving space and the flow of driving time.

When I return to the U.S. I'm a nervous, hesistant driver. I want to push my way in, but have to force myself to hold back -- too much -- to the point that I become a bad driver again. I don't have a sense of the appropriate window of time or space that I need to leave before moving in.

There is a kind of grammer to driving, or if you prefer, a sense of decorum and etiquette. You develop this sense through practice, but some people never get it. And it's a delicate sense, easily thrown by mood or lack of confidence or a competing sense of decorum.

Don't need someone to run over my foot to tell me that.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Archaeology of Language

I used to want to become an archaeologist. In high school I was part of the archaeological triumverate/troika (with Sanjay and Larry) of Mr. Hines’ minions and we’d go on digs almost every weekend, chanting “dig it, don’t doze it!”
Now I haven’t held a trowel in years. But I’ve been looking for an excuse (for about 10 years) to use the word “edaphic” in polite conversation, so as an adjunct to our little language experiment I propose an archaeology of language...

Oh. What language experiment, you say? Sorry, forgot to fill you in. Each night after our little ones have gone to sleep, KC and I hook up the lighting rod and channel electricity in their little brains, hoping to stimulate language development. I play them Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, my beloved, so that they will gain a richer vocabulary than that which comes forth from my mouth. And we move them all over the globe in their formative years, keeping them learning a new language every few years. Mwah ha ha ha.

Now, this is a skewed perspective, as I live in the Educationally Obsessed Mommy Capital of the World, but I’d say I’m not a pushy parent. My kid is only taking taekwondo and soccer (and golf, taught by KC). I have him do math workbooks and ask him to read to me, yes. I bribe him with Lego mini-figs, I admit it. But other kids his age are enrolled in after-school art, math, piano, violin, Orda, English, etc. and studying until 8 at night. When’s a kid allowed to be a kid on that schedule?

But when it comes to language we are pushy. One of the main reasons for moving here was so that the kids could acquire a good grasp of Korean at a young age. And one of the main reasons we plan to move to China is so that they can do the same with Chinese. This is my gift to them -- the acquisition of these languages at a young age so they don’t have to suffer too much when they are older. With those three languages (Korean, Chinese, English) they should be able to pick up a bunch of others with ease if they want (thinking Japanese, Spanish, German, French, etc.).
But because we’re always moving back and forth between different countries, and exposing them to all these different linguistic influences, I can see the different linguistic strata accumulating inside their little brains.

So let’s take out a trowel, scrape away some dirt and worms and take a look at these edaphic zones.

The kids first. So far they speak fluently in both languages, but the fluency is of a different type. Aiden, for instance, knows a lot of adult vocabulary in English -- words like “compassionate” and “considerate.” In Korean he’s much better at kid’s slang. I learned words like “cutting in line,” (“엄마, 그 여자가 쌔지기 했어") “attack,” ("발사! 덤벼!") “bad guy,” ("나쁜 놈") “graffiti” ("낙서") from him. And he’s mastered exclamations in Korean: “Ya” or “Asa! Asabio!” rather than “Hey” or “cool/awesome.” And because their exposure to English speakers is limited, I hear my own phrases parroted back to me: “OK, here’s the deal,” “hold your horses,” “understand, rubber band?” And then, echos of the mass media influence, “I cannot believe it!” (from the Little Einsteins). And have to handle questions about different types of English, because his teacher at school is British, but teacher Leo’s British accent is different from David Bowie’s accent on the Peter and the Wolf CD (“Mommy, what’s a brahnch? what is “ahgued?”). I chuckle to myself every time I hear myself explain, “He’s from Great Britain, like Harry Potter.”

Now for me. My lowest and most primary strata would include an underlying uncertainty about certain grammatical forms and pronunciation, especially when nervous, which comes from being raised by two non-native English speakers who thought they were doing me a favor by speaking English at home. (Hmm, by that logic, I should avoid speaking Korean to my kids lest they pick up some of my non-native speaker idiosyncrasies. mental note.) The occasional jaw-dropping appearance of the word “pod” or “podded out” comes from spending sophomore year as Marina Lang’s roomate (along with the desire to use the delicious line, “you got a man? how long you had that problem?” though up to this point the occasion has not arisen). And then the main influence of my adult life has to be KC’s anti-article stance along with his various inventions (“hairlist” and “slow like dirt” come to mind which have managed to get past my alert sensors. “Hairlist” has spread beyond myself, in fact...) and his skepticism about certain words I use (he thinks I made up the word “rubbernecker.” Give a little credit to the native speaker, huh?)

Then there’s my Korean. I try to avoid driving in Seoul, but when I do I find myself uttering all sorts of things like, “야, 봐줘야지, 아줌마. 뭐 하냐? 이 자식 이게..." and other worse insults which have come from KC’s driving repertoire as well as from various taxi drivers.

My English parenting vocabulary is heavily influenced by my friend Diana: “You may not hit him. You may hit the pillow, you may hit the blanket, you may hit the floor, but you may not hit him. OH! That is not an inside voice. You may talk or you may whisper. Will you show me how your whisper?...”

As I wrote in Body Language I initially learned Korean from men, so I had a decidedly masculine way of speaking, which I haven’t quite conquered. I have also, like many English teachers living here, picked up quite a bit of vocabulary and intonation from my own children. (It is quite funny to hear Aiden’s teacher Leo speak Korean, as he sounds EXACTLY like the kids he teaches.)

If this little archaelogical experiment is any indication, it is a good thing I never became an archaeologist. I’m surrounded by dirt with no clear idea of whether a civilization exists.

Some detritus...

Language is such a funny, fascinating thing. There are words in Korean which are so perfect that I can’t help wanting to adopt them (like so many Korean children) in the U.S. Words like “씽씽카" (shing shing ca) which is what you call a kid’s scooter with 3 wheels. It somehow captures the feeling of the wind flowing past your ears as you propel yourself down the sidewalk to the consternation of your mother. And then there are all the English terms, or perhaps I should call them “Konglish” terms, which, like Korean Americans who come back to Korea to visit, are given much more weight than they should be. The Englishish advertising terms used so frequently here used to provide a constant and much needed element of humor to my life here (I remember gathering in the local convenience store outside Sogang Univ to snicker at the yellow Coolpis soda.) They used to sound so weird to my ears, but now I’ve been worn down by the advertising and I don’t even blink at “digital exciting” or “bravo your life” or “well-being” (as in well-being yoga, well-being ice cream, well-being rice, etc.). The Yangpa (Korean for Onion), has a great spoof on these advertising campaigns as well as all those bizarre tee-shirts

Korean has adopted a lot of foreign words: sofa, radio, television, engine, leadership, internet, etc. But many other adopted words have taken on mew meanings here which don’t correspond to their use in American English. Well-being (pronounced wellbing) is one of these; it’s a very fashionable word right now that has about the spread of “green” in American English (“green” referring to anything environmentally-friendly; well-bing referring to anything healthy). Both are mainly marketing terms whose job it is to add a luster of vibrancy and social responsibility to something entirely banal. “Cider” is another mutant; it refers to a clear soda like Sprite or 7-Up here, not what we American’s think of as cider. “Rouge” here refers to lipstick, not rouge (though I suspect that may have come by way of France; if I were a better scholar I would track these words’ entry points). “Orae” is commonly used when someone’s trying to help you park your car. I think it is supposed to be “all right.” “Condition” is most commonly used like this: “His condition is not good” (“컨디션이 안좋아") which means “he’s feeling a little under the weather.”

These mutant words caused me a lot of confusion, as did some Korean words which seem like they can directly translate into English, but in reality have different categorical associations. For instance, “friend,” in English is, well... anyone who you are friendly with. But “친구" in Korean only can refer to someone who is the same age. I can’t tell you how many weird conversations I had because of that. (“Are they friends?” “No, she’s a year older.” “But are they friends?” “No, she’s a year older!”) Similarly, “school” only refers to elementary school and above, and not kindergarten. People ask me, “Is your son in school?” I say, “Yes, he goes to FYKO kindergarten.” Insert weird look here. “OH, he’s in kindergarten.”

As I move back and forth between the two countries, I can feel how quickly the languages are changing. Young Seoul people are famous for their slang, and new words are constantly falling in and out of favor. My chinese teacher just taught me “된장녀" (“bean paste girl”) which refers to young women who spend too much money on clothes, purses, and drinking coffee in expensive cafes. I can’t even begin to guess what that has to do with bean paste. The written language has changed quite a bit since the early 1900s, and even since KC left Korea in 1985. I remember him correcting the spelling of my Korean essays while I was at Michigan, and having them returned to me full of red ink, since there was a language reform after he left and his spelling was out of date. Intonation is also changing a lot: when a young woman (I cringe to write that, as it admits that I am no longer in that category) takes my order at some restaurant or cafe and ends with and rising and really elongated “다...." or "요...."

It’s the same feeling I get when I watch an old movie or listen to an old speech (President Kennedy comes to mind) and hear the different speech patterns. I already feel somewhat alienated from English since as the child of non-native speakers I always feel that my grammar and pronunciation are on shaky ground (I learned most vocabulary from reading, but reading doesn’t teach you the correct pronunciation as I learned in various embarrassing moments), and now I’ve been living out of the U.S. for long enough that I can no longer recall English words that well. Trying to speak English now is a bit like trying to write with a full bladder -- there’s a point where the particular point you wish to make gets sacrificed to the limits of physicality (bladder or lazy brain). But when I go back to the States and listen to the young people (there it is again, my former category... ) they sound so loopy and ditsy. I’ve become one of those geezers who sits around and talks about the good old days of English without the word “like?” I’m almost tempted to keep Aiden away from U.S. English so he doesn’t learn to talk like that.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Stop and smell the ramen

I had to teach at 9 this morning, and of course I had last minute things to prepare. So I planned to get up at 6, go for my sauna fix, go to KC’s office and print some stuff, have a cup of coffee to brace myself for the onslaught, and teach. Of course that’s not how things worked out.

First, Aiden slept late but Max got up at 6 and wanted to nurse for a half an hour. Aiden is usually up by 6, except for the days when I WANT him to get up early, then he sleeps until 7. I wanted to see him wake up before I left because he lost his first tooth last night and I wanted to see him discover the treasures the tooth fairy left under his pillow (Darth Vader mini-fig -- hey, its the first tooth, it’s a big deal). Anyway, naughtiness by the king of naughty ensued, who then refused to go to KC and kept asking for “Mommy nurt just one more minute” (how do they learn to negotiate so well at that age?) which woke up Aiden, leading to a battle over who gets to play with Darth Vader. By the time I got out of the house it was 7:20, no time for the sauna. Headed over to KC’s office, had issues with his security badge, couldn’t get any of the printers to work (though KC was kindly guiding me through each step over MSN messenger and phone (with echos of “Max, finish your milk” in the background). Finally gave up in favor of more time drinking coffee and thinking through my lesson.

I don’t like to wake up in the morning but I love the morning, especially fall mornings like these. The air smells different, the streets are somehow quieter, and today the air was the kind of clear, crisp blue that I associated with California -- even buildings at a distance had such sharp edges they looked a bit unreal. Fall in Seoul is the most beautiful season, lasting far longer than Michigan and, for the space of a few months, banishing the haze and fog that usually clothes the city.

My mornings are usually spent around the apartment, at the river, or across the street by the gym. Although KC’s office is less than a 10 minute walk from our apartment it is in an area of offices and restaurants, so as I left his office the air was heavy with the smell of cooking ramen. Having lived here long enough that I don’t walk around consciously thinking about how I am living in a foreign country, now and than something like the smell of ramen, the sight of an ajoshi wearing his pants high on his waist, or a street vendor selling cocoons as a snack will serve to remind me that I’m here, in Seoul, and no where else. These are the details particular to this city, that make it unique in spite of Starbucks, McDonalds, Gwynth Paltrow ads, and the new Paris Hilton song on TV. Sometimes you have to stop and smell the ramen.

But I am, after all, sitting here in Starbucks now. It is a few days after I wrote the above, and I’m celebrating another milestone in my kids’ lives: today is Max’s first day of preschool. I dropped him off and walked two blocks (that doesn’t seem very far, but Seoul blocks are quite long -- it took me a good 10 minutes, and I walk incredibly fast) so I can sit here for 3 hours and read, write, and study. So... apologies for the dearth of blog posts lately but now (at least until some other activity fills my time) I have some time to write. Can’t promise that it will improve the quality of writing, however!

It is good to stop reflect every once in a while, but I’m feeling a little empty and lost without Max around.

On Boys

Boys. They drive me crazy. Can’t say I really understand them. I remember being a wiggly, active thing as a child, but I can’t say I was ever quite as illogical and obsessive about guns and swords as my two -- oh make that three -- boys. And what’s with the bathroom always smelling of urine? Really, how hard is it to aim?

I’m sure it’s not easy to be a boy. Here you have to deal with military duty, corporal punishment in schools, and low tolerance for crying. I can’t tell you how relieved I am to have a boy who is good at sports and incredibly social. I’m starting to see how hard it is for boys who aren’t athletically or socially inclined, and I’m not sure how I would handle that as a parent. Even social little Aiden, who has so many friends, seems to be having trouble with teasing and peer pressure these days, and we’re not even in elementary school yet.

But right now, I’m very glad to be raising my boys here rather than in the U.S. Sure, the education system is messed up. And despite the social pressure not to cry, and the tendency toward adult alcoholism, there is an emotional freedom of expression here that I don’t see in the States. Boys and men can hold hands, hug each other, and be affectionate to each other. The older boys in Aiden’s taekwondo class hug him, hold him, pat him, hold his hand, even kiss and comfort him when he’s upset. His taekwondo and soccer instructors, men from their 20s on, pick the kids up and throw them in the air, hug them, give them high fives. There’s a kind of natural physical affection expressed between men, and between men and children here, that you rarely see in the U.S. because in the U.S. any touching between a man and man or man and child has become sexualized.

Aiden has reached that age when he’s no longer cuddly. His body has become, in KC’s words, “a weapon”: all angles and hard edges, no trace of baby fat. He’s at the age where people don’t try to cuddle him anymore, rather they approach him with a high five and a challenge: how fast can you run? want to play catch? Even though he looks grown up, though, he still needs a lot of physical attention. He needs to be cuddled and kissed, patted and soothed. He’s at the age, though, where he’s vaguely aware that these are babyish things to do, and doesn’t like to ask for them.

I tutored a couple of kids around this age -- a boy and a girl -- and I noticed that they really liked activities what gave them permission to interact with me physically. Doctor, murder (someone had to be the corpse and the coroner -- yes, these were morbid kids), reporter (along the same lines), police (ditto), sports, etc. I suspect that starting around the age of 5 kids don’t get much physical comforting and cuddling, but they still really need it and crave it.

Here Aiden gets a lot of that kind of physical contact, and it comes naturally, from all sources, not just me but also from men he looks up to -- the older kids, his teachers, his grandpa and his father. There is no shame to this kind of touching, no point at which expressing friendly affection through touch becomes problematic.
I wonder about the boys growing up in the U.S. today -- I wonder what they’re learning about what it means to be male, about how men are supposed to behave and feel.

I see my primary job as a parent as making my kids feel safe and loved in this world. That means acknowledging fears but teaching them not constrain their lives based on fear. It means giving and sharing affection as a healthy and normal part of interaction, not relegating affection to the realm of deviant behavior. I want my boys to grow up feeling comfortable with hugs and kisses, able to sit right next to another man in the movie theater, ready to reach out and comfort or congratulate a friend.

I was going to say something here about all the books and articles that have been coming out on raising boys lately. But I’m making a concerted effort to make my posts shorter and more concise. I’d be interested in hearing what anyone out there thinks, though. Any comments?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

surprise, surprise

I'm starting regret this last post on the public bath. I just added a site meter to this blog and added it to the blogger listings, and thought I'd do a quick check to see how many people were reading. Imagine my surprise to find many views from all over the world. Temporarily delighted, I started looking at the entry pages... people came to this blog from searches on various (and disturbing) sex-related searches. So I'm taking it off the blogger listing. Most of these visits lasted only long enough to determine that this is no sex site, but seeing the results was like waking up to find a hairy spider in your ear. You'll still be able to access this blog through the address, just not through internet search. So friends, read on... and don't expect any naked pictures of the boys.

Monday, September 04, 2006

the Public Bath

Ten reasons why I love the public bath:
10. Good for your skin
9. Relaxing
8. Good for muscle ache
7. Good for exhaustion
6. Nobody saying “Mommy! He peed on the floor again!”
5. Can get exfoliated.
4. Makes you feel warm all day long.
3. Good for circulation.
2. Sauna social life.
1. Check out what real women really look like.
I’m no David Letterman, huh?

In the beginning, I was not thrilled about the prospect of being nekked in front of strangers. That’s not what we Americans do. Unless you grew up in a Naked House (not me) or lived in Synergy (ditto). Especially since my future mother-in-law was the one who kept telling me how great it was, and how she wanted to take me there. Ah, hello? Being nude in front of your future mother-in-law? I don’t think so.

First time: We were staying in a resort on the east coast of Korea, in the off-season. I went down to the public bath by myself. It was empty, so that was good, but because it was empty I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. The worker tried to explain it to me, but my Korean wasn’t very good at the time. Verdict: no glasses + naked + clueless = BAD

That put me off for quite a while. I don’t think I went back until after we moved here, that’s what, 8 years later?

Second time. I think we were at a water park with a big public bath. Went with my mother-in-law. She totally checked me out. Said, “You don’t look so bad for having had a kid.” AWKWARD. But I started to appreciate the experience more. Maybe it was because I was not so self-conscious about being naked? I guess after childbirth in a University hospital -- after having your nether regions exposed to any visiting EMT who happens to wander into the delivery room -- you don’t really get rattled by that stuff anymore.

Anyway, I’ve been going to the public bath regularly for a while now. You may be picturing something like the Roman baths, or thinking that people just stroll in off the street, but it’s not quite like that. It’s more like a cafe -- there are neighborhood public baths, which are more crowded, not as nice, and cheaper, and there are more upscale ones. Public baths seem to be analogous to cafes in the U.S. You pay 4 bucks or so and you can hang out there for quite a while, chatting with your (same sex) friends and relaxing, or you can breeze in and out every morning or evening. The public bath is a part of everyday life, a place to congregate and relax, to see and be seen, to connect with others or sit and think.

I guess the term “public bath” is misleading. Here, they are often called “saunas,” but that’s also misleading because they include more than a sauna. A basic, neighborhood public bath includes a locker room/dressing area, shower area (usually sitting down and standing up showers), a place for massages and exfoliation, two big pools of water (one hot, one cold), one sauna, and an area for lying down/sleeping. The fancier places have more pools of water of different temperature, made from different materials (jade, wood, marble, etc.) and with different additives (ginseng, charcoal, honey, green tea, etc.). The different materials and additives are supposed to have different healthful effects. The fancier places can also have multiple saunas, also made from different materials (wood, jade, etc.), different humidity levels (dry or moist), and different aromas for an added aromatherapy effect.

Here’s a primer, in case any of you are interested in going and don’t know what you’re supposed to do. Usually, you pay first (about 4 dollars is a good price, though the nicer the bath, the more expensive it will be. Hotel baths are really nice and often open 24 hours. Sometimes people will, instead of getting a hotel room, just sleep in the bath all night long). The cashier will give you either a ticket or a key. You go into the correct entrance (men and women have separate entrances) and take off your shoes before entering. Many places have shoe lockers at the entrance; if you have a key, usually you put your shoes in the locker with the same number as your key. If you have a ticket, upon entering you’ll give your ticket to a worker who will give you your locker key. Find your assigned locker, take off all your clothes and stow them away, and head towards the shower area, picking up an exfoliating towel along the way.

Then you should take a shower to make sure you are clean, rubbing yourself with the exfoliating towel if you want to. After you shower, head into the pools of water or sauna. People usually alternative hot and cold, staying in for as long as they want, sometimes immersing themselves but most often only going in halfway. This “반좌욕" (“half sitz bath”) is supposed to be really good for your circulation. At first you won’t feel too hot, but if you sit there for 20 minutes or so you will be sweating like crazy.

After you’ve dunked and steamed to your heart’s content, you back to the shower area and wash yourself again, this time scrubbing with the exfoliation towel. Lots of dead skin will come off, leaving your skin nice and smooth. BUT often, after going through the bathing and sauna process, you will feel so tired and relaxed that it’s hard to gather enough energy for the scrubbing. That’s why you can also be scrubbed down by someone else (it costs extra, about $15). These exfoliation people (they also do massages and facials) are really strong. The process may be a bit painful but it is worth it.

After that, you dry off and get dressed. Most places have lotion, hair dryers, curling irons, Q-tips, etc. so you will see all sorts of people going through the process of beautification. Then you leave, giving your key back to the person who gave it to you, and feeling... very... relaxed.

Now, I go to the sauna to be by myself and have some time away from Silly and Naughty. I get a little bored sitting there for a long time so I bring things to read. Usually I copy the vocabulary I need to memorize onto a piece of paper and put it into a Ziplock bag. The bath I go to also has laminated articles to read.

But many people are there for social interaction. Friends and families go to the sauna together and sit and chat and gossip. They scrub each other’s backs, talk about their problems, catch up on news.

I think if I ever have a daughter that I will make sure she goes to the sauna periodically. It scares me to see so many young girls having a warped idea of what human bodies are supposed to ideally look like, and I think there’s something healthy about being exposed to naked bodies from a young age. Old wrinkly bodies, fat bodies, thin bodies, young girls starting to sprout hair and breasts -- you can see them all on a given day in the public bath, walking around without self-consciousness. This is what women look like in the non air-brushed world, and they all are, in their own unique ways, beautiful.

But one type of body you don’t often see in the sauna is the foreigner’s body. I can’t see much without my glasses and I’ve mostly lost my sense of self-consciousness so I don’t notice it much, but people often are curious about me and my presence there. That’s how I met my Chinese teacher -- she had seen me in the public bath several times (we used to both go on Sunday afternoon) and one day she said, “I thought foreigners hated places like this!” On top of being a foreigner, I have a very non-Korean body; KC’s opinion is that if people stare, it’s because they’ve never seen such a muscular woman before. I don’t know about that, but I do have a nice six pack under my stretch marks. They also stare because they are curious what I’m studying in those Ziplock bags. “What is that girl studying so diligently?” “Is it Korean?” “No, it doesn’t look like Korean.” “How can she see such small writing?” “It looks like Chinese.” “Why would she study that?” An enigma, indeed.

A last word on baths... baths are part of Seoul’s neighborhood culture. Even though Seoul is a huge city of 14 million, there is a strong sense of belonging to one’s neighborhood -- not because of some sort of neighborhood patriotism, but just because daily interaction is centered around your neighborhood. Since most people walk, and because Seoul is a good mixture of residence and business, almost every need can be met in a 10 or 20 minute walk from your apartment. I tend to see the same people at the grocery store, the public bath, waiting at the bus stop, at the video store, the dentist, the river, the bank, and walking on the side walk. So often, I’ll be at the bath talking with some stranger who will say, “Oh, I know you, you live in HanShin, right? And you have two boys? I see you walking around with them.” Which sometimes disturbs me in a big brother type of way, but in general makes me feel like part of a community. Mental note: don’t do anything embarrassing in public. And tell Aiden to stop picking his nose. You can see where the social pressure comes from... but that’s another topic.