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.

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