Friday, July 25, 2008


We've spent much of the week fixing glasses, checking teeth, and getting shots before moving onto a new medical system. The things I like to put off until the last possible minute. Anyway, the other day KC and I went for 종합검사, which I will translate as "comprehensive tests" for now. Many companies in Korea offer these tests at reduced rates as part of their health benefits; ours was through our life insurance company (though you can also take them independently if you're willing to pay full price, which wasn't nearly as high as it would be in the U.S.). Anyway, we fasted from the evening before, and showed up rather grumpy from lack of coffee at 7am to begin the testing. I would estimate there were several hundred people there around the same time trying to get the tests done before a day of work. Because many do the tests through their company medical benefits, there's a good deal of bowing to coworkers and a little bit of fun at the expense of Manager Park who is having trouble with the respiration test.

First we filled out forms which ask about personal and family medical history as well as personal habits: smoking, drinking, consumption of fruits and vegetables, frequency of exercise, etc. The we went into the dressing rooms and donned color-coded robes: pink for women and blue for men, naturally. There were green and purple robes too, but I'm not sure what those colors indicated. Perhaps they were for people doing "Silver" or "Gold" levels of testing. We stuck with the basic package.

KC had done this before but it was new for me. We spent the next 2-3 hours (2 for him, 3 for me because women do more female-specific tests) going from station to station. It was very well organized. The room is organized into areas. You start out in one area, take all the tests in that area, and then a white-clad nurse directs you to the next area. Most of the tests are done in small offices, though a few are more public (the aforementioned respiration test, the blood test, the eye test, the blood pressure test). Despite the number of people the process worked very smoothly; it was a production line. I wondered a bit about what it must be like for the people who work there to be doing the same test a thousand times a day. They are very good; practice makes perfect. Nice to have blood drawn by someone who really knows how to do it fast and relatively painlessly; I'm a wuss about stuff like that.

I can't remember all the tests, but the ones I do remember: 2 sets of x-rays, ultrasounds of all major organs and uterus, mammogram (my first since I've been pregnant or breastfeeding for the last 9 years, and can I just say WHO THE HELL CREATED THAT MACHINE?), pap smear, blood test, urine test, vision test, hearing test, heart test, something about the distribution of muscle/fat/bone, and my favorite, the one where they stick a tube down your throat and into your stomach.

So for that last test they give you the option of being awake or knocked out, and since my in-laws said it was no big deal, I chose to stay awake. Let's just say it was not fun, and it took longer because it turns out I had something in my throat. The doctor said it was probably nothing, but didn't really tell me much about it (or even what it is called) when I asked; she just said I would get the results in two weeks.

You can add tests if you like (MRI, CAT scan, etc.) for an extra charge, of course. Some of the tests I didn't really need; I had already had thorough hearing and other ear-related tests earlier this year. But, like many of my other experiences with Korean medical care, I found the process fascinating -- the efficiency of the production line setup and the way the facility is geared, logistically and economically, to the accommodation of large masses of people. If I had been living in the U.S. I would have to go to a great deal of personal effort to have all these tests and, in the absence of problematic symptoms, would probably be denied access to some of them. But if I had asked a doctor there to explain what that growth in my throat is called and what the chances are that it's cancer, I'm sure she would have spent more time with me (I'm not trying to alarm my relatives who are reading this -- I'm sure it is not cancer. The doctor did say that was unlikely.).

Korea Days

A friend of mine calls me every once in a while and says, “I’ve had a Bad Korea Day.” I know what she means by this. She means that she caught a taxi to go somewhere and the driver didn’t understand her. Or she was trying to roam her phone at the airport, which she’s done a hundred times, but the rules have changed and suddenly she can’t because it’s not registered under her own name. Someone was unkind. She was annoyed by the twittering of the girls walking in the streets. She needed a new pair of shoes and nothing fit right. The bathroom didn’t have toilet paper. I’ve had these days too, I know what they’re like.

We have bad days in our home countries too, but then they’re just bad days. There’s nothing and nobody in particular to pin the blame on when frustration and anger arise from a succession of unexpectedly difficult or uncomfortable situations. And those situations aren’t exacerbated by miscommunication and cultural difference.

There’s been a discussion going around the Korea-related blogs about why ex-pat bloggers complain so much. I’m not sure that they do necessarily complain more than anyone else -- the feeling that the do may arise because people tend to read and remember sound bites and emotion-inducing rants rather than not long commentary. But this reminds me of something I had been writing (and never finished) in June. I don’t have time to edit so I’ll paste my notes in here.

Notes on being a “Korea” blogger

I began blogging about two years ago. At that point I had already lived here for three years and had built up, in my mind and heart, a collection of observations, theories, stories, and feelings about living abroad. I was just starting to assemble these into categories and attach tentative causal relations. My husband kept bugging me to write down the conversations were were having and I resisted just because I don’t like being told what to do even if the advice is good. But once I started writing things down I found the process cathartic. Writing gave me a chance to sift through, collate, and analyze what I had collected and to some extent order and unload the mental and emotional baggage.

I have become, by default, a “Korea” blogger (though not a very popular or prolific one) -- someone who blogs about “Korea.” And perhaps because my dissertation was supposed to be about late 19th and early 20th century missionaries’ production of secular knowledge (on “Korea,” on the “West,” on medicine, education, hygiene, etc.), it has always been in the back of my mind as I blogged that like the missionaries I am also engaged in knowledge production about Korea, about the U.S., about George Clooney, Bunco, and various other topics. That hasn’t stopped me from writing but it has often made me hesitate and feel uncomfortable with the process and with the label of “Korea” blogger.

I tend to blog about my experiences (rather more well-defined topics such as food, history, news, politics, teaching English, etc.), but when writing as an American living in a foreign country “experience” can be a charged category -- emotionally, politically, and socially. It is often very hard find the line between individual experience and cultural/social commentary. How significant is my individual experience (and my interpretation of it) and how much does it really speak to larger cultural or social trends?

Although the comment threads in any popular blog tend to disintegrate into “You’re an asshole,” “No you’re an asshole and an idiot,” conversations, if you can wade through all that without being sincerely disturbed about the human condition you can find a debate running about this tricky category of experience.

Let’s look at a (perhaps silly) example. A few weeks ago one of the writers in the group blog Marmot’s Hole (one of the most well-read English-language Korea blogs) blasted a piece written by Gabe Hudson in the NYT Magazine. Hudson’s piece was about living in high-tech Seoul and concluded with an incident in a restaurant in which a Korean man bothered Hudson and his Korean girlfriend while they were having dinner. The Marmot blogger commented, “Frankly, if I had a chance to contribute an article about Seoul to NYT Magazine, this probably wouldn’t be the topic I’d discuss, especially if I’d only been in country for a couple of months and knew nothing about the place, but hey, to each his own.” I quickly scanned the almost 300 comments. A good chunk are about how Hudson comes off as a prick (to say it nicely) in his article. But let’s look at the others:

1. Many comments dealt with the frequency of incidents in which interracial couples are harassed by locals. Many readers offered examples from their own experience, including amount of time spent in Korea and how often the harassment occurred. I see this as a collective assessment of how representative the situation is. One could also see this as a group effort to determine and define a sense of what Korea is like for those who don’t live here. One could also see this process as an attempt to construct a set of guidelines for what kinds of experiences count and what kinds don’t count when appealing to the label “Korea.”

2. Many comments, like the original blog post, dealt with the appropriateness of discussing this incident in NYT Magazine. If you’re given the chance to write about life in Seoul, why would you choose to write about this, to propagate this particular picture of what Korea and Koreans are like? Goes back to the process of assessment in #1 -- if the incident is representative that perhaps justifies calling attention to it in such a forum.

I suspect that some of the anger at Hudson himself has to do with the fact that he hadn’t built up any street cred in the ex-pat community. There are a good number of Korea bloggers out there, and many of them spend a lot of time and effort (as I do) picking and choosing which aspects of our lives here to discuss and not to discuss. To write for such a large audience and to do so with so little knowledge and through must seem like a slap in the face to those who have spent years developing a reputation of authority and knowledge in the blogging world.

3. Another set of comments have to do with whether these incidents are really one-sided or how much the incidents are somehow provoked by the couple in questions. These comments complicate the story and the possible conclusions. Hudson, as far as I can gather, doesn’t speak Korean and has only a recent and casual acquaintance with Korean culture and history. We don’t get the other party’s point of view, so we only assume (as Hudson did) that the other guy was mad because the relationship crossed racial lines, not because of something the couple did or said. But how trustworthy is Hudson’s account? How can we, the audience, be sure that the person describing the incident has captured all the relevant information?

4. There is a possible comparative stance that I didn’t see in my quick read but could have been easily made. Hudson alludes to it when he says that, “I should say that if I were in New York City and I saw a fellow American accosting a Korean man and his date this way, I’d want to break the American man’s face too.” These incidents happen in the U.S. too; my husband (before we met) dated a Belgian woman for several years and got harassed for it. Racism still exists in the U.S. too (isn’t that what Borat was about?) although as a society we have spent more time consciously combating it and we have more people of different colors and backgrounds to interact with on a daily basis.

This would naturally lead to the counter-argument: this is a post/blog on Korea, it doesn’t need to be comparative.

And the counter-counter-argument: that as an outsider commenting on Korea, the comparative stance is implied. Insert relevant arguments about differential power relations here.

5. That discussion may lead to the argument (made by at least one commentor) that this is racism which should always be noticed and censored. No matter what the context, shouldn’t we be vigilant and call attention to any incident, no matter how small or uncommon?

6. A reference to history: lingering anger at servicemen knocking up Korean women and abandoning them, attempting to explain the anger not as pure racism but as historically motivated. There’s a “don’t get on your high horse so quickly” kind of reminder here, which also serves to complicate any kind of emotion and make it not just rooted in the present but subject to the influences of historical consciousness. This move complicates emotion and actions in general, and also notions of responsibility on both sides. Is someone less accountable for their anger because of this history?

7. The contextualization of emotions such as anger, as well the knowledge that I blog partially to purge myself of emotional build-up, makes me think that an argument could be made about Hudson’s right to deal with this emotionally. I didn’t really see this but I can imagine the comment, “Why shouldn’t he write about something that clearly bothers him and that he has experienced?” Why should any experience be invalidated? He doesn’t claim this is universal or that Korea is a racist place, though by referring to the incident is not uncommon, as an example of a set of similar incidents, there is that sense of larger cultural criticism. The brute and angry quality of “break his face” in comparison with the rest of the piece marks the emotional significance of the incident for Hudson. He’s angry. As I would be. Does that mean it was ok for him to post in NYT Magazine, though? Which brings us back to point #2.

The vitriolic comment sections of this and any major blog underscore the emotionality of blogging. To take a more complicated example, in the discussions over the recent protests against President Lee Myung-bak and American beef (I would argue they are more about the former and not the latter), many commentors have blasted the protesters as illogical and too easily swayed by emotion. But what I found interesting is the emotion of the bloggers/commentors themselves -- the anger at the protesters, the furor at “Korean” systems and ways of thinking.

At this point the post starts to go in a different direction, but mainly I want to say this:
1. Blogging fulfills psychological needs. Hell, WRITING fills those needs. Analyze anyone's blog long enough and you can see their insecurities (as people quickly jumped on Hudson for presumed issues with his manliness or attractiveness) -- how often does the blogger assert his/her intelligence, education, knowledge, the validity of his/her experience? We write (OK, I write) to get a handle on the world around us/me, to gain a sense of control. I spend a lot of time doing it. I spend that time because I enjoy it and I need that catharsis.
2. There's a labeling issue. A "bad day" becomes a "bad Korea day." To steal a quote from my friend Emily (a psychologist, who uses examples like this all the time): "If you're getting a divorce and your mother is dying from cancer and you encounter someone who is mean, you feel furious at the mean person even though what you're really upset about is that you're getting divorced and your mom is dying." I'm not sure how she stays sane while doing that job. Being an ex-pat is much easier. But it's not easy, and it is easier to give that discomfort the name "Korea" rather than investigate more thoroughly.

Added later:
I may regret posting this and pull it down in a few hours (I have not slept much lately and am not firing on all cylinders, or whatever the metaphor is -- sleep deprivation messes up my language centers). The Korean has made the point that Korea, despite its futuristic look, has changed a great deal in the past few decades. My husband, who isn't THAT old, grew up with strict curfews, being tear gassed by riot police (accidentally, since he and his friends happened to be in the area at the time), with his mother being kidnapped and interrogated by the KIA for no good reason. I have met people who didn't realize that foreigners had the same blood types as Koreans and who really don't have much concept of what the rest of the world is like. And living in the U.S., a place which has been developed for a lot longer, I also meet people who don't know what the rest of the world is like. I've met college educated people who don't understand that Koreans and Chinese speak different languages. I would hope that we bloggers would be better ambassadors and producers of knowledge to bridge the gaps in language and experience (but as gord selller amoung others points out, most ex-pats aren't really aware of what Koreans themselves discuss).

Monday, July 21, 2008

Packing Notes

I shipped 714 kg to Shanghai yesterday. It should take 4-6 weeks to arrive; shipments are being delayed because of the Olympics and stricter controls.

I also threw out a great deal of paper. I went through the two remaining boxes of my PhD stuff and saved some of the articles but I am going to dump a bunch of articles I had collected on early Korean history, on archives and the historical record in Korea, and some other random stuff that I don't think I'll read again. If there's anyone (in Korea) who wants these I will send them to you -- I spent many hours copying these articles in libraries and in the National Archives and I can't quite bring myself to just dump them even though I no longer have any use for them.

This is my last week of teaching and it is also "health week": we all have to have our final doctor and dentist appointments, vaccinations, etc. Have to stock up on medication before we leave. Aiden's now on vacation (he ended up with pretty good marks for his first semester of second grade, despite the drama) so I'm also juggling his rather full social schedule. It's his last chance to play with all his Seoul friends before we leave so I'm not going to deny him anything at this point...

I wrote this when I couldn't sleep one night. I still owe a post on gender but I need a few hours to really write it well so please wait for that.


1. A rock climbing move last used in the college Quad came in handy: one foot on the microwave and the other wedged into the handle of the refrigerator door allowed me to open a cabinet whose contents, untouched for the last three years, were a mystery. What I found: six large stoneware plates and bowls, six heavy stainless steel napkin holders, a special device for storing and pouring cooking oil, and a set of wine charms. Apparently when I moved here I thought I would be doing a lot of entertaining.

I had uncovered artifacts of the expectations I had when I moved to Korea. Or perhaps these are remnants of a previous life in which we threw parties, collected wine, and had an expandable kitchen table. My instinct (itself bred by five years of a more streamlined, humble lifestyle) was to donate these to charity. But then I thought: maybe my life in Shanghai won’t be like it is here. We will, after all, have an actual table with chairs. How can I know in advance the shape of the next stage?

2. I tend to obsess about categories of things — books, clothes, and toys mostly — but when I dig into the job at hand I realize (again) that half of what we own isn’t categorizable. The bits and pieces are what take the most time — the random pieces of fabric or paper I’ve collected, the electronic gadgets, the drawer of stickers, the lost puzzle pieces. Packing makes me believe I can put my life into a better, more efficient order, and then quickly makes me desperate for the less efficient but serviceable order I left behind by dumping everything out.

To escape the clutter I obsess about other things. I felt compelled to separate the Lego pieces by color before packing them. This took over a day and I ended up with in a nervous tic, but it was awfully satisfying to see order prevail in that microcosm of my life. The last time my friend Emily was faced with a move her form of denial took the form of the search for a perfect runner for her hall. She’d wake up in the middle of the night to look at candidates online. If I can just get this runner, everything will be fine. If I can just put these Lego pieces in order the rest of it will all follow.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

"stupid" and other clarifications

I started to write a reply to Alex's comment on my last post, but it got long and convoluted and I thought I should clarify what I said about Aiden feeling "stupid" more publicly. I'm in the midst of packing and I haven't slept much and don't have time to edit this properly so my apologies in advance. (Alex: Welcome to my blog! )

Aiden's teacher never told him that he's stupid. He said that of himself because he has noticed that his Korean isn't as good as the other kids' Korean. I don't think the teacher would ever say that about him. I'm not all that happy with her as a teacher because I think she's more of a "bad cop" type teacher and that doesn't fit my parenting philosophy, but she's not really mean, just strict and not all that empathetic. My main beef with her is that she hits the kids on the hand with a ruler when they misbehave and that she doesn't give them much break time. If we were going to be around longer I might think about what recourse I have but the hitting, at least, is not that uncommon. For 2nd grade it is pretty rare, but not THAT rare, and so I don't know how effective protest would be. Some of the parents in another class have been unhappy with their teacher and they do complain to the school or to the teacher and sometimes the teacher will be fired or transfered to a different school or grade, so it is not like parents are completely powerless here.

Aiden saying that he feels stupid is complicated in ways I didn't really go into in the last post. First, he's a self conscious kid. He stands out in school because he is mixed and looks mixed. The attention he gets because of this is not negative attention -- mostly the other kids are fascinated with him and envious of his ability to speak English and opt out of hakwon. But he doesn't like to stick out so he gets flustered by that. He is also (and this is not to be underestimated) stressed out by the fact that we're moving to another country and he knows he must learn yet another language, when he feels that he is still mastering the 2 he knows now. Earlier in the year we were preparing him for school tests (to test into schools in Shanghai) and we started out preparing him for the Chinese test, which made all of us crazy so we gave it up and decided to put him in the English track. But just preparing for the English tests at the same time he was beginning a new grade, with a new teacher and a more rigorous set of expectations, was very stressful for him. It was a learning experience for all of us. In retrospect we made a lot of mistakes as parents during that time. We realized that Aiden needed to have a more consistent schedule and that we needed to spend more time with him on his Korean homework, instead of pushing English and Chinese so much so early. He's doing very well in Korean (he reads much faster than I do and his vocabulary is probably better because he is a good reader) and his English is also very good -- not as good as his peers in the U.S., but still very good. He can read Captain Underpants and some of the Magic Treehouse, but he prefers to read in Korean. His first grade teacher was the type that noted and praised him for going form 20% to 80% on his dictation test; the second grade teacher is the type that calls him to the front of the classroom during the first week of school and tells him his dictation score was not high enough so he needs to do extra homework every night (writing 10 difficult words) indefinitely. But to be fair to his 2nd grade teacher, after his dictation scores improved (which they did, dramatically, because of that extra homework), she praised him in front of the whole class. But he's the type (or perhaps it is the circumstance which renders him more thin-skinned) that is more scared and scarred by the failure than bolstered by the praise. Also, preparing him for the tests in Shanghai made him more conscious of his linguistic weaknesses (I was too much of a hard-ass in preparing him).
If I had to stay here long term, I'm not sure what kind of education I would choose for my kids. I don't like international school for many reasons: too expensive, not enough Korean, the kids tend to be priveledged and live in a bubble, etc. We moved to Korea so that the kids would be a part of this culture, not separate. But the stress of hakwon and the very competitive educational environment is really hard for the kids and it is difficult to opt out. I have been working on a follow-up to my description of first grade for several months now, but keep putting it aside because it is so hard for me to try and capture the ways in which the system is easy to criticize but also difficult to get out of. The values of the system begin to seep into your consciousness and affect the way you see the world and more than that, the way your children see themselves. Because I'm both a parent and a teacher I see it from both sides and that can be schizophrenic sometimes, but also highlights how complicated the issues are and how difficult it is to extrapolate from any individual experience. We had a great teacher in 1st grade, and perhaps because of that we were unprepared for this one, who isn't terrible, but whose particular brand of non-greatness manages to push on all the anxieties created by circumstance and personality and parenting failures and make them into something larger and scarier.

A few months ago there was a little stink in the blog world when Brian in Jeollado made some criticisms of the Marmot (criticisms I mostly agreed with) and I had intended to write something about my take on the Korea blogging world. Actually I've been working on that post for several months already. I'm not very fast, am I? But part of what I wanted to say is this: that for some reason or another the popular Korea bloggers are all men. Why that is I don't know. Sometimes I get really disgusted with the Marmot and many other blogs (not to name names) because they go from talking about the sorry state of gender relations in this country to verbally salivating over the bodies of this or that singer or model. A few other female Korea bloggers and I have lamented over this over coffee and discussed creating a group blog written only by women, but none of us really have the time it takes to make a good daily blog.

The other point I wanted to make is that the most popular blogs tend to be the daily blogs, the news blogs, the blogs which have the most definitive takes on events that are occuring. I understand the impulse to want immediate commentary and gratification, but in the main parts and in the comments there's a tendency towards quick conclusions and often quick hostility unmediated by a sense that maybe we don't know the whole story or that the solutions are not always that simple. I believe in criticism, and I read blogs to take the temperature of various social groups, but I truly admire the blogs that at least attempt to account for complexity and uncertaintly.

I will finish these posts (they will probably go up on printculture) sometime, but moving to another country is taking up all my psychological and physical energy right now.

For Alex (and anyone else in a cross-cultural marriage thinking about moving to Korea): it's not simple or easy. You have to have your goals in mind and be prepared to be flexible. But these last 5 years have been the most interesting and rewarding of my life. I do not regret any minute, and I think that this was the best risk I ever took. If you ever want to talk more specifically, send me an email: yunmay (at)

Saturday, July 05, 2008


I am supposed to be packing. Therefore it must be a good time to update my blog!

This morning we were skyping with my mom and talking about her 4th of July plans. I asked her if she was going to eat hot dogs. Max said, "What's a hot dog?"

Aiden has not been having an easy time in 2nd grade. His teacher is scary, very strict, and not very kind. He listed the reasons he doesn't like school to me:
1. He has to sit for 4 hours.
2. His current teacher only lets them go to the bathroom once an hour. Aiden tends to go frequently and its hard for him to hold it.
3. When there's a conflict between two kids, she scolds them both instead of trying to figure out who really had bad behavior.
4. I forgot what #4 was, but there was another reason.

Then the other night he told me that he sometimes doesn't understand what the teacher says, even though everybody else seems to. He said he must be a 멍청이 -- stupid, a dullard. He said "I'm an American who can't write in English well and a Chinese person who can't speak Chinese." I tried to reassure him that he is in fact very smart and that he will have gaps in his language because he's trying to learn more than one at a time, but that he's doing fine. But I felt horrible.

On that note, I'd better get packing again.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

must read

H Saussy over at printculture has posted this on the erosion of civil liberties in the U.S. since 9/11, and about concepts of freedom. Please click through and read it.

I am packing and not sleeping very well again. My SeokMun master tells me perhaps I don't understand some of the Korean concepts as well as I would like and that is preventing me from relaxing. I think moving probably has more to do with it. I do find it easier to try to focus on my body but it is still hard for me to maintain focus on breathing and on creating a "dan-jeon" -- rather like trying to concentrate on my gall bladder for a half an hour. I don't even know where my gall bladder is, come to think of it.

Trying to put together some thoughts on being a "Korea" blogger, as reluctant as I am to accept the label even in a post. More sometime this week. Writing is procrastination, I suppose. In the meantime I'll update my essay list on the sidebar.