Thursday, August 28, 2008

moving headaches

One thing I remember about those first months in Seoul is how tired I was. All the stimulation of city life, the new smells and the constant push and pull of bodies, plus the fatigue from listening and speaking Korean all day long made me exhausted by 8pm every night.

The last month (has it been a month? geez) here has been like that. Been catching up on some rest. (Hear that, Ma? I really DO know how to sleep even when you don't remind me every day.)

But writing/blogging is a habit and once you fall out of it it is difficult to start up again. I owe some posts over at my other blogs but I figured I should write some updates.

Things have gone surprisingly smoothly... until this week. First our air conditioning broke, and fixing it has been less than straightforward, involving several different sets of repair personnel, negotiating with the real estate company and landlord about how the payments will be made, and relying on KC's fudao (tutor) to do a lot of translating. Going back and forth between Chinese, English, and Korean (with the real estate company) is taxing on my poor brain. It kind of short circuits. Luckily the heat has dropped off somewhat in the last week or so. Before that it was almost 100 (F) every day.

The big drama right now is with receiving our shipment of 745k of books, clothes, etc. It's been really hard to get a straight answer about where the stuff is and why it is not arriving. We were told that because of the Olympics it might take up to 2 months to arrive, so we weren't impatient, but suddenly the other day we got a phone call that because we had some candles and one bottle of children's paint (put in accidentally) in the shipment it had to be taken around the country and couldn't enter Shanghai, or something like that. They clearly inspected the boxes very carefully. Anyway, luckily the fudao was with me when they called because I didn't understand what was going on. They were asking us to come and pick the stuff up, but we understood that it would be delivered to us. Then they told us they would reimburse us for the cost of having a company pick it up but that we would have to arrange it. It was good to listen to her negotiate with them, to try to learn the style of negotiation. She argued that since we're foreigners we don't know anybody, we also don't know the details of where and when the shipment will arrive, and it doesn't make any sense that they should ask us to arrange it if they are going to pay for it anyway. They argued that they are not a Shanghai company, that we just have to ask the neighborhood people for a good company, etc. etc. Back and forth like that. The fudao said she didn't know how much to believe was true or whether they were trying to get more money. Anyway, we called the Korean company to pull some strings and get things moving, and they somehow got the company on this end to arrange shipment. I was expecting it yesterday. I waited all day. Then they called in the morning to say, "When are you going to pick it up?" So we went around again. Then they said, "Oh, ok, this company will deliver it, but I don't know when, will call you in 30 minutes." But didn't call. So we called them back. She said she called but we didn't answer. (bullshit) She gave us the number of a different company who would deliver it. We call them. They said they've had the stuff for DAYS. (WHAT? The other company said it just arrived. Who to believe?) They said, how about 10:00pm? We said, how about tomorrow morning? A price negotiation followed.

OK, so now I'm expecting it today, and the driver calls to say he couldn't cross the large road behind our apartment without a permit so he has to turn back. WHAT? Shouldn't they have thought about that ahead of time? They blame us for not telling them, we blame them, shouldn't they know these things, how would we know? We call Korea again, they advise us to get the stuff ASAP no matter what and we can work out being reimbursed later. So now they're supposed to deliver at 10pm tonight (you can enter the city without a permit at night) but they're going to charge double. Whatever. I just want my stuff now. We've been living with only 2 bowls for a month. Rice and soup have to go in the same bowl.

Max has been in preschool for about 2 weeks and is doing great. His teacher has sent me several detailed updates by email which I love; the updates were really thoughtful and observant. He's asked me a lot of interesting questions. He asked, "Are we Chinese now?" He's been inviting his teacher and friends over for brownies and sleepovers (we have an oven so we've made several batches of brownies, much to Max's delight). He asked me who is taking care of our apartment in Korea. He asked when we are going back to Korea.

Max has been doing an interesting thing lately. He will make up some nonsense phrase (like "moomamooma") and tell me it is Chinese for something (like "come over here"). He tells me this very authoritatively and seriously, makes me repeat it, and instructs me to study it. My Chinese is not great but it is good enough to know that he is not really speaking Chinese. I think it is a sign that he's engaged in listening to the language and interested in being able to speak it even if he cannot yet. It is also very very funny.

That's enough updates for now... need to call the moving company again. More on Aiden later.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Living language

I'm rediscovering the difference between learning a language while living in the country where it is spoken versus learning it somewhere else. Put me in a social situation with someone who speaks putonghua with a clear accent and I can have something like a conversation: I can talk about where I'm from, why I'm here, what I did during the day, and give my (simple) opinions on various topics. I like talking to KC's Chinese tutor because she speaks so clearly and it is a boost to my confidence that we can actually TALK. But put me in a situation where I need to get something specific done and I'm not so great.

For example. I need my coffee fix every day, but I left my grinder in Seoul. It was made for 110 volts and I didn't want to buy adaptors for every little household appliance; figured it would be easier to buy a new one when we arrived. But I couldn't immediately find a grinder so I went to purchase some already-ground coffee, not knowing the word for "grind" but figuring I could wing it at the Coffee Bean. The woman understood "grind," then asked me in Chinese what kind of coffee maker I had. I understood the question but didn't know how to answer it; we usually use an Aeropress which was still arriving via airmail and in the meantime had borrowed a Bialletti from my father (one of those you put on the stove). The Bialetti doesn't use a filter so the grind can't be too small. In any case I had no idea how to describe either machine so I just gestured and tried to explain it was not like the machine they had there. I didn't know the words for "coarse" or "fine." (I do now.) I ended up agreeing to something I didn't quite understand and got my coffee a little too fine, but the Aeropress arrived and it's all good.

Or the other day: I took Max for his health check. He's required to have one before entering kindergarten, and it took place at a local women and children's hospital. If I hadn't lived in Korea the system would have been seemed weird and chaotic, but because I was familiar with it in theory I could figure most things out through observation. I went in and told the woman at the information desk that I needed a youeryuan jiancha. She handed me a ticket, told me to pay the cashier and then go through a set of doors and wait. I did as I was told and entered a large waiting area with dozens of people and a small indoor playground. I had a number but wasn't sure if I was supposed to check in. From Seoul I'm used to butting in to get a nurse's attention; the nurse was very kind and told me to sit and wait. We didn't wait long before entering a room where Max was weighed and had his height, head circumference and chest measurements taken (not much privacy, the kid before and after us were also in the open room). We were then told to go to room 125, but after fighting for the nurse's attention in that room (because there didn't seem to be a line) she told me I need to go and do something which I didn't understand. Some body gestures and a few words of English later I got it: blood test. But where? She gave me directions I thought I understood but I ended up somewhere random and another nurse helped escort me to the blood drawing area. But then the blood guy (I know there's a name but I can't be bothered to look it up -- language centers already overloaded) told me I have to pay for the test first. So back to the cashier where I paid; then back to the blood station where I figured out (through observation and pathetic hanzi skills) that one line is for children. Max got his finger pricked and it was over faster than I expected. (I like having blood drawn by people whose job it is to draw blood all day. They are fast and inflict relatively little pain. Max did very well.) We then went back to room 125 where the nurse told me something that I didn't understand, referring to one of the papers I was carrying. The kindergarten had told me that the a urine test would be involved, so I deduced that it was that test we were missing, (and confirmed using my dictionary and some scrutinizing of the test sheet) which was perfect because Max was doing his "I need to pee" dance. But where is THAT test done? Asked the nice original nurse, who escorted me back to the blood area. Realized that the urine test windows were right next door. Oops. Took a plastic cup, did the pee thing in a cramped bathroom, went back to now-familiar room 125. Now a different nurse was there, one who spoke some English, and asked me where the results are. Oh, you mean I have to wait for the results? Since I'm already there, she feels Max's stomach and organs and looks him over. OK. Back to urine. Find the results. Take it back. Where are the blood test results, she asks me. Oh, I have to wait for those too? (I'm used to those blood tests where you get the results in 2 weeks). Go BACK to the blood and urine area, where sure enough Max's results have already come out and are sitting on the table waiting for us. Go back to room 125. Hand over the results. The nurse finishes off the paperwork and tells me to give it to the teacher. The people next in line are already nudging us over. I take Max home. This, my friends, is how I learned the words for "blood test" and "urine test."

(I also know the names of many infectious diseases in Korean because Max had all his vaccinations there.)

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

My wish come true

So a while back I complained that there should be a Korea blog written by a group of women, and abracadabra, now there is.

I've been glancing now and then at the conversations about why ex-pats complain and why Koreans take the complaining badly, and starting to feel like part of the problem is the constant positioning of the "ex-pat/foreigner" against "the Koreans." Grouping people into categories can be useful to some extent, but there comes a point when the categories elide more careful analysis rather than encourage it. Anyway, that's part of the reason why we hope (we're still putting together the roster) our new blog will include a variety of people from different kinds of backgrounds: various Western ex-pats living in Korea, people in mixed marriages, Korean-Americans or other 교포, Korean-Japanese and adoptees, Koreans, etc. I don't know who will really write yet, this is just our tentative plan. Anyone who is interested in joining (and is female, since we do our blogging from the 목욕탕), let me know! (yunmay at

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Korean connection

I have temporarily abandoned my old style of writing in favor of recounting events, as I guess is appropriate when a lot of things are going on and I don’t have much time to process them. In any case, I write all these details because I think the whole process of moving from one foreign country to another is pretty interesting. At least I find it interesting.

I mentioned before that on our last trip to Shanghai, the other Koreans in the program that KC will be attending were of great help to us when we were searching for an apartment and trying to figure out health insurance, visas, etc. So on the day after we arrived we met with Ethan (one of the Koreans we had met on our last trip), who has a son the same age as Aiden. We went to their apartment (located in the complex next to ours) and played for a few hours, and ended up staying for dinner. The kids hit it off right away, and we liked Ethan and his wife very much. From then we went on to meet a number of other Korean families at the swimming pool a day or so later (I’ve lost track, so much has happened).

As I mentioned before, we were immediately fit into the existing network. Because these people are all related through their program, there’s an automatic 선배, 후배 relationship there, but because KC is older than the people who came before, he’s a “hyung” or “da ge.” These people come from all sorts of different backgrounds, but someone like Ethan, who worked for a chaebol, is used to the kind of give and take that we’re benefiting from now: when he and his family arrived a year ago they were taken under the wings of the people who were here before and taught the ropes. Now they do the same for us. It’s been incredibly useful and because of that network we’ve hit the ground running.

Carrefour, where I’ve spent a great deal of time lately, is wonderful but doesn’t deliver. So to buy water for the water dispenser or large amounts of rice I learned where to call and how to order it by interrogating Ethan and his wife. KC was pretty sick yesterday, some sort of 24-hour stomach virus (perhaps 水土不服?) and we were wishing we had brought 위청수. I called Ethan’s wife to find out if she had any. She suggested calling the Korean grocery store. I called them and ordered the 위청수, rice, kim, and cider and it arrived via delivery 10 minutes later for 97RMB total.

There’s also a Korean hakwon in the area, that teachers math, English and Chinese. We enrolled Aiden in Chinese classes for the next three weeks, 2 hours a day. A shuttle comes and picks him up and drops him off. Although he’s been playing with his new friend daily I hope he’ll make some more friends at hakwon.

I can’t imagine making a move like this without the internet. Whatever I need to know I can find out through the people I know, through the English-language message boards, or for the Korean boards, where people post pretty much everything. It’s no substitute for going and seeing it yourself, and our situations differ because our kids have different languages under their belt. (Many Koreans come here so that their kids can learn English and attend international school. Ethan’s son goes to one of the American schools.) Max’s preschool (bilingual Chinese and English) is tough for kids who only speak Korean, so they tend to go elsewhere.

The danger here, as with all ex-pat communities, I suppose, is that it would be easy to slide into this network and not get out of it. I could take Chinese classes at a hakwon for Koreans, lunch with the ajumas afterwards, and shop with them until it was time to get my kids. That’s not what I plan to do -- I want to be a part of the Korean community but not exclusively that community. We may only be here for 18 months and I hope to actually learn something about the local people and ways of living -- as much as I can. But for now, I’m grateful to have all this help at my fingertips, and surprised at the high level of colonization of this area by the Korean community.
And geez, it feels good to speak Korean. It just rolls off my tongue, I don’t even have to think about it. The mandarin comes OK, considering I took a break from classes for the last 3 months. Taxi drivers seem to understand me. But tonight I ordered 오므라이스 and 수재비 for dinner (we still have no kitchen supplies) and it was like I had never left Seoul. Except the plates were plastic. More on recycling another time.

I should say that despite all the advantages gained from being a Korean speaker, English is the most useful language here. The bank, the grocery store, the hospitals -- all have people who speak English. I can see why Western ex-pats find Shanghai an easier place to live than Seoul. I opened a bank account and a credit card yesterday with nothing but a passport. The manager had to help me fill out the forms, but it was pretty easy.

Monday, August 04, 2008

And then it was moving day.

I thought I would be more emotional when the day finally came, but by that point we had all driven ourselves to the point of exhaustion. When considering how I would write about it I could only come up with labor and delivery metaphors. I was more emotional about leaving Seoul before I had started to pack; once I became engrossed in the sheer labor of packing, changing addresses, making the rounds to say goodbye, and working on the logistics (insurance, banking, transportation, schools, etc.) of our arrival, I couldn't even think about the day after we arrived. I really was like being in labor again. I had prepared myself for labor like I prepared for athletic events and at some point I really lost track of the fact that a BABY would come out of it.

So here we are in our new home and my stomach is almost disbelievingly beginning to unclench. I’m still bracing for impact and now quite ready to let go, although everything has gone surprisingly smoothly.

Moving out of an apartment in Korea is pretty interesting in itself because of the jeonsae system and the way apartments rentals work. For those who don’t know, we pay a rather large amount of money here, called jeonsae (almost $200,000 for our apartment) when we enter the apartment. We then pay no monthly rent. When we leave, the owner returns this sum of money to us. (You can probably understand why many young couples or families depend on their parents for coming up with jeonsae -- the people who moved into our apartment when we left used their parents money, as did we.) Each resident has to acquire or bring his or her own appliances, which creates a lot of waste. We were mostly using my in-laws' old appliances and furniture, but we did have a nice newish refrigerator (3 years old), gas range, microwave, and air conditioner. Except for the refrigerator we wanted to give everything away, but even giving things away are difficult -- the air conditioner, for instance, requires someone to uninstall it and take care of the freon gas. The gas range requires calling someone from the gas company to come and disconnect the gas line which costs 15,000 won and is really silly, if you think about it, because the next tenant is just going to hook it up again as soon as they move in. We gave away a good amount of stuff and threw away just as much. That ended up taking as much time as the packing. We ended up having to airmail (at the last minute) another 75kg of clothes, books, and kitchen stuff because we were limited to carrying only 20kg per person on the plane and our two yo (beds, kind of) and bedding was already 40kg.

I wrote about customer service before, but the 빨리빨리mentality here can be very convenient for the consumer but hard when you're on the service end. We called the gas company to come and disconnect the gas around 9am and they said, "Well, it may take some time..." "시간 조금 걸리겠어요." I was thinking 2 days. They said 10 and the guy came before that. We realized, on the day we were vacating, that there was no way we would be able to meet the weight requirements with the amount of stuff we had left to bring with us so we called the shipping company to see if we could airmail a few more boxes. They came within a few hours, packed 3 more boxes of stuff, and took it away. (As a side note, the first of our airmail boxes arrived today. They stagger the shipments to avoid a lot of customs tax. The whole shipping process has been very pleasant.) All that was great. But during the time we were packing we had to show the apartment to possible tenants. The real estate agent would call and ask to show it right away, and I’d have to tell her I was out and wouldn’t be able to be back for another hour or two. They also had people wanting to come in and measure things so that as soon as we vacated they could start redoing the interior. (Another side note: I’m pretty sure this is why you’re not expected to clean the apartment when you leave. Most people will redo at least the wallpaper, if not the wallpaper and the floors. The next tenant in our place was redoing the floors and the kitchen sink area as well as the wallpaper. The interior company deposited bags of cement with an hour of us taking the last of our belongings out of the place.)

Our apartment transfer was at 8pm and we left the next morning. Despite having packed repeatedly and airmailed a second set of boxes on the last day, we still found ourselves with too much baggage to meet the weight restrictions. We usually ride the airport bus which stops very close to our apartment, but with this much luggage and our jeonsae money burning a hole in our pockets (the banks were closed when we received it so we couldn’t deposit it until they opened again at 9:30am) we checked in at the City Air Terminal. KC’s parents took the kids in a taxi KC and I drove our car loaded to the brim with bags. Since we were flying Asiana, we were able to check in all our bags at the Terminal before going through the immigration process there. We were lucky to get a very nice agent who let us get away some about 30 kg of extra luggage and we only ended up paying about 25,000 won. We then went to the bank at 9:30am and deposited the jeonsae (in 수표, kind of like a cashier’s check). Many people would do the transfer electronically but the new tenant’s parents are older and wanted to do things the old fashioned way. Then we rode the airport bus to Incheon airport.

KC’s parents were very sad. KC’s father has been pretty moody and 날카롭다 lately. They ended up watching the kids for most of the last few weeks while we were running around and packing. I think they were as exhausted as we were and feeling more sad about the move than we were. After 5 years of weeks filled with sword-fighting and feeding the kids their lives must seem suddenly very empty. They will visit in September while their apartment is being renovated, but we worry about how they will handle our leaving.

In the back of my mind I was worried that carrying so much luggage would get us into trouble with Chinese customs. But there too we had no problems. My dad met us at the airport, we met a driver he had arranged for us, and we headed to our new place. (Even though my dad no longer lives in Shanghai his knowledge of the place has been a great help.)

We rented our place through a Korean real estate agent. They had the keys and everything ready for us when we arrived. It’s a furnished apartment with ondol, and the phone, internet, etc. were already installed and working when we arrived. The agent took us to register at the local police station, which is required of all foreigners entering China (within 24 hours). (If you stay at a hotel they do it for you.) We made the first of many trips to Carrefour to get water, paper plates, cups, toilet paper, soap, etc. We’ve been here for about 5 days as I write this and I am already sick of Carrefour -- I’ve been there too many times -- but that first day I was so impressed. It’s like a cross between Target and Safeway, with a lot of foods I hadn’t had easy access to in Korea (oatmeal, blueberries, macaroni and cheese). The only drawback is that it doesn’t deliver, and for someone accustomed to Korean delivery systems, this is tricky indeed. We live very close by, but when you’re buying basic appliances (toaster, fan, large containers for toys, etc.) you can only carry so much. Plus the weather is really really hot.

That’s enough of an update for now, I suppose. More later on working the Korean network in Shanghai.