Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Habits of Waste

When my grandmother stayed with us she used to drive my mom crazy. She had trouble with the stairs, so she’d sleep in the library on the ground floor, near the kitchen and powder room. In her obsession to conserve, she never closed the door when she went to the bathroom (so she wouldn’t have to turn on the light, thereby conserving electricity) and she didn’t flush after peeing (to conserve water). My mom would yell after her, “We have guests for goodness sakes! At least close the door!”

My father-in-law is not quite that bad (though he also tends to leave the door open and neglect flushing), and he drives me crazy every time he comes over, pointing out that “That light has more bulbs and uses more electricity than the other one, so don’t use it.” He cuts their trash up into small pieces so they can fit more in each garbage bag, and he will eat spoiled food rather than throw it away. He’ll park in the first spot he comes to because he doesn’t want to waste gas.

I get annoyed by all these things, but perhaps behind that annoyance is a sense of guilt. These are people who have been trained by war and poverty to save, to conserve, to prize the efficient and proper use of things. The next generation -- my mom’s generation -- prizes convenience and efficiency. My mom doesn’t recycle because she has so little to recycle, and she throws out the trash every day, even if the bag isn’t full, because she doesn’t like the smell. She parks in the same spot at the mall every time so she doesn’t forget where her car is. She’ll ask for an extra paper cup so she doesn’t burn her hand.

We are creatures of habit, our daily activities shaping small acts of waste which accumulate in the earth invisibly, like the dark matter pair of our visible accumulation of money and goods. Living in Korea has helped shaped my awareness of my wastes in small ways; living here has helped point my mind towards waste rather than just convenience.

I have been meaning to blog about recycling here for a while, and made a mental note that others beat me to it. Seoul Man and Here in Korea both have descriptions of recycling here as well as pictures of the recycling areas in their buildings. I won’t repeat what they say except to sum up that we recycle far more here than in the States. I would be curious if anyone knows of an article about what happens to everything once its gone in the truck -- I know at UCLA, for instance, my informant tells me that the building cleaners just dump the recycling into the trash and take it all out together. Here, at least, different trucks come to get the cardboard, food trash, etc. The food trash is a bit of a pain to take out, and the containers stink, but just the act of recycling food makes me realize how much I waste (that and the high cost of food here -- if I allow something to spoil I feel both a pang of guilt and an economic pang as well). When I was back in the U.S. recently I felt so strange about throwing away food in the garbage. I had to make myself do it. It was (forgive the metaphor) like peeing in the ocean or something -- you’ve been trained to do things a certain way and it is hard to get past that training.

The counterpart to recycling here is the extra charge for take-out and bags. Every time I visit the supermarket, for instance, I bring my own bags or I have to pay for bags from the market. They cost very little, perhaps 50 won (5 cents) but just the idea that you have to pay makes me more likely to bring my own, more conscious of the fact that I am wasting when I don’t reuse my own bags. The plastic bags you get (if you do purchase one) are quite sturdy and will hold up for quite few shopping trips, unlike the plastic bags they give you at Safeway which barely make it home. I assume they make the plastic bags thin in the U.S. to create less waste, but what ends of up happening is people just double-bag. Anyway, if you go to Starbucks here and ask for a mug, there’s no extra charge. If you ask for a paper cup they charge you 50 won (5 cents). But if you bring your own mug they give you a 300 won discount (about 30 cents). That’s a huge discount, and one I take advantage of, especially since coffee costs so much more here.

I was working on my “ten things” printculture post, trying to imagine a utopian kind of future where people would wake up and start taking better care of the earth. What would push people to change their habits? Economic incentives and punishments, like we have in Korea, do seem to help train us to think a little bit differently about the small choices we make each day. But how far will that shift us into a sense of the toll we each take on the earth everyday? My friend Emily suggested that what we need is some sort of counter that reminds us as we are trying to decide whether to take the bus or sleep ten more minutes and drive to work, what that costs us in energy and fuel and pollution etc. (she said there’s a book that does this for food but it’s late and I don’t remember what it is called -- anyone?). But she was not optimistic about how much impact that device would have for the sleep-deprived person wanting a little more shut-eye and not seeing any immediate cost.

Anyway. Here are some of my resolutions for the new year as I train to be more like my father-in-law and grandmother:
1. turn out the lights I’m not using, turn of the power strips, turn off the computers.
2. use heat and air conditioning sparingly (this is much easier here since our apartment is small and we’re out most of the day. Our apartment gets a lot of heat from the sun during the winter and if I leave the windows open we get a good breeze in the summer.
3. Carry my mug with me as much as I can, carry my own cloth bags to the grocery store
4. We don’t have a dryer, which saves a lot of electricity. And we wear our clothes multiple times before washing them (most Koreans have indoor clothes and outdoor clothes, so you change clothes when you come home. So even though the city is dirty, you can keep the dirt and the dirty clothes for when you leave the house). People here, as far as I can tell, have no problem with wearing the same or similar clothes for days in a row. (My husband does it all the time, even in the U.S.!). Other than underwear and socks, and unless you do a lot of sweating, there’s really no reason to wash your jeans and shirts after each wearing.
5. Also following what it seems most Koreans do, we use rags to clean rather than paper towels. Kollae for the tables and haengju for the floors.
6. take public transportation. I used to never drive. But with Max getting heavier and the weather being cold I have been driving more. I need to go back to my old habits.
7. don’t let food spoil.
8. go through our clothes and toys and give away things we don’t need.

I'd love to hear more ideas. I just found the Treehugger site, but haven't really been through it yet... anyone have some ideas to share? Or more about recycling in Seoul?

Ah! I just posted this and I saw that oreneta has posted about switching off the electricity for five minutes on Feb 1st... I have to figure out what time that makes it here...

Thursday, January 25, 2007


I just think it is funny how condom sales keep making the news. Who keeps track of these things?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

wanted: travel songs

I keep remembering small things I wanted to post about. I have been feeling scatterbrained lately, and have to remind myself that I am still really tired and that this will pass.

When I was writing the "Art of Travel" essay I obsessively listened to the Pearl Jam song "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town." I have always loved that song, and wanted to capture the feeling of that moment when Eddie Vedder (sp?) shouts "I just want to scream hello!" It doesn't read well, you have to listen to the song. Although you can't tell from the finished product, most of the essays I've written have a song behind them. Sometimes the song's lyrics or content aren't related in any way to what I have written; rather it is the sort of emotional or cathartic topography of the song that helps me think about the way I want to structure something. Anyway, that song (and the essay) got me thinking about good travel songs. Here are my current ones:

Pearl Jam song "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town."
Simon and Garfunkel, "America"
Paul Simon, "Graceland"
Mountain Goats, "Going to Georgia"
more later...

The other random thing I wanted to ask: we're thinking of buying an espresso machine. Nothing too expensive. The one I've been using was only 30 bucks and has lasted four years, but keeps exploding grinds these days. I am willing to spend a few hundred dollars... maybe... actually I haven't decided yet. Any recommendations?

Where's the beef?

I'm catching up on the blogs I usually read. The Marmot's hole has this fascinating post on beef prices. Friends back in the U.S.: now do you understand why we go so crazy for meat? But then can't consume very much of it (without throwing up)...

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

a Top Ten list...

My top ten... Not really strong on global politics, but I got to put in "Who's your Mommy? And DON'T YOU FORGET IT."

That makes ME laugh, anyway.

The kids seem to be making it past 5am now, so I promise you all some actual KOREA-related stuff soon...

Friday, January 19, 2007


I always tell people that traveling 14 or 15 hours on a plane with two young children is not all that difficult. With some preparation, a few good bribes, several sets of spare clothes, and an adult bribe of choice (I like caffeine and black licorice but some people prefer alcohol) you can go far. Literally. The problem is not the traveling itself, but rather the jet lag.

And that is the black hole I find myself in right now: two kids who sleep and eat at different times, who make it impossible for me to sleep, who I have to keep quiet at 3 am since we live in an apartment and I don’t want the neighbors to come bearing arms.

So forgive me for not blogging that much lately. I am too grumpy to say anything nice.

On top of that, it has probably become obvious that I have become a regular contributor over at, and my turn is coming up next week. We’re doing a theme “top ten” two weeks and I have been racking my brains to think of something. But don’t worry, “Between pee and kimchee” is still my first blogging love, and I won’t ditch you guys for those guys. They don’t appreciate all my peeing stories like you guys do.

Once the kids get back on schedule and go back to school I’ll be back to my usual sarcastic self. I have lots of stuff I’ve been meaning to blog on. I swear on this latte.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Art of Travel

My printculture post on Alain de Botton's book The Art of Travel. Not so much a book review; more like a riff on the way I think about travel in my life.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Status anxiety

Returning to the U.S. I become, in the name of "stocking up," a crazed consumer. Things are so cheap here! I spend a lot of time in Target, Safeway, Starbucks, Whole Foods, the toy store, etc. And as I eavesdrop on conversations in the name of research, I hear a lot of status anxiety. No one NEEDS to talk loudly about their new car or vacation in Cabo while in line at the register. Coming from a place where status anxiety is all out in the open, displayed through designer handbags and Prada loafers, I was surprised to find status anxiety all over the place here, in every casual conversation. People don’t seem to know how to behave towards others, especially towards clerks and salespeople. My knee jerk theory is that in Korea, status is all out in the open, and interactions are guided by status designations -- titles, verb endings, gestures, even the display of emotion. But in the U.S. everybody is suppoedly equal, and we're not used to dealing with strangers, and no one gives you props for being ... whatever you are. So I go to Target and see people (especially women) fighting over the crumbs of status, trying to get some recognition, trying to subtely and perhaps subconciously one-up the poor woman at the cash register and the other standing in line.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Back in the U.S. we are

This is the first trip when I have felt more at home in Korea, and the U.S. seems strange and bizarre. Here are some things I just can't get my head around:

1. Crocs.
2. Earpiece phones. Have the Borg invaded?
3. Juicy Couture. I know this has been around for a while, but first of all, why anyone would think having stuff written across your ass is cool is beyond me, and second of all when I see a velour tracksuit I have flashbacks to my mom doing her mall-walking.
4. So many joggers!
5. a small Starbucks coffee -- only 1.50!! Wow!
6. I forgot how BIG Americans are. Not just fat, but big -- big hands, big feet, big necks. I feel so petite and skinny here.
7. U.S. suburban playgrounds -- wonderful places. Clean, well-built, not crowded. You can hear so many languages spoken. Yesterday was a cold yucky day and I heard Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), Russian, Spanish, Korean.
8. Why are people so incredibly rude?
9. There is something really relaxing about being back in the place where I grew up. It is so quiet here. The parking spaces are big. Driving is enjoyable. Spaces are not crowded. The aisles in the grocery store are large. I had forgotten how crazy Seoul made me in the beginning just because I wasn't used to the level of stress and stimulation of living in the city. I have gotten used to that background noise and busyness now, but when I come back here it is like being tucked into a warm blanket. Nice. Soft. Cozy. Plus all the streets are familiar; things look much the same. The same categories of people are here, but now that I've been out in the world for a bit they don't put me on the defensive. I can just observe that they are still there.