Monday, June 30, 2008

Updates continued...

While my dad and I were opening bank accounts and checking out preschools KC had gone to meet some Korean students at CEIBS (China European International Business School). We had scheduled a 2:00 appointment to sign on an apartment near Pinghe in JinQiao. At 1:30 or so we were wrapping things up at Okiki and KC called to say that we needed to postpone the signing to 4; all the Koreans he had talked to were urging us to look at Lianyang again.

We had really liked Lianyang when we first looked there last October or November -- it just seemed like a vibrant, livable neighborhood, with a lot of foreigners but not just a foreigner area, and close to Century Park. But once we decided to go with Pinghe (instead of JinCai) we began looking at JinQiao for apartments because we wanted Aiden to be able to walk to school, as he does now. Long story short, we met KC back at Lianyang where a few of the Korean students helped us find a Korean real estate agent (two, actually) and we madly looked at apartments there.

We spent the next 5-6 hours looking there and meeting more Koreans through the two who accompanied us. It was the birthday of the wife of one guy and yet he still stayed with us for hours, advising us on what to look for and what to be wary of and introducing us to more people. One guy we met later has a son the same age as Aiden so I got to know a little bit about what programs are available for him: swimming, taekwondo, piano, in Korean or Chinese. He also helped us a lot with visa procedures -- I’ll probably have to write another post about this but I’m having a hell of a time getting our documents authorized in the U.S. and since the kids have two passports we’ve been going back and forth between which passport we should use for their visas, which makes a difference because of visa fees and document authorization. Anyway. They told me that language classes developed for English-speaking foreigners are about three times more expensive than Chinese classes for Koreans. These guys immediately started calling KC “hyung” and “da ge”; we were incorporated into the network right away and it was both helpful and psychologically reassuring. I could picture myself in that neighborhood, working the ajuma network, finding Korean playmates for the kids and finding about all the things I needed to find out through them. Between that group and the ShanghaiMamas I felt good about my prospects for hitting the ground running.

The Korean network feels qualitatively different and in writing this quick post (no editing, sorry) I’m trying to put my finger on why. Partially I’m sure it is because I’ve spent the last 5 years learning how to traverse the social networks here in Seoul, and I know how resourceful ajumas are and how much they rely upon word-of-mouth and the rapid spread of information to get things done. Partially it is because of the inescapable status relationships that come with the network. Because I’m coming from Seoul and I am a native English speaker I kind of know where I will fall in that network (many are coming to China with the goal of having their kids learn English -- they want to escape the Korean school system but can’t go to the U.S. or Canada).

The other big difference is that many of the Koreans are their on their own dime, as we are. Reading the English language ex-pat forums yield a lot of useful information but skewed towards people who are there on a fat package, with housing allowances, moving allowances, and often drivers. We are paying for all of this out of our own pockets so what we’re looking for is pretty different. Reading the Korean forums (I leave this to KC, mostly) on schools and neighborhoods has been really helpful. In any case, I feel lucky to have a number of different networks to fall back upon, and really grateful to all of those who have helped us out so far.

Anyway, at around 6pm we decided to make an offer on one apartment. It was in a complex that seemed great for families and the family with the kid Aiden’s age lives in the same complex. The students urged us to look at Yanlord Town too, although it was out of our budget. So we went for a quick look; it was a Tower Palace kind of feel, lots of marble, security codes for the elevators, that sort of thing. Not our style, but it was fun to look at. After looking in one building we descended to the parking garage to take a golf cart (there are men waiting to shuttle people from place to place in the parking garage) to another building on the other side of the complex. They have a car wash, playground, and swimming pool underground, which is why it is very attractive to people with families.

One of the things real estate agents told us to consider is who owns the apartment. Our first agent is from Shanghai and she urged us towards one apartment and not another because the owner of one was “not a Shanghai person, but living in Shanghai” and the owner of the other was “not a Shanghai person, and not living in Shanghai.” I forgot where that owner was from, but she said in case of problems, it might be hard to get the owner to respond.

The two apartments we ended up bidding on in Lianyang were both owned by Koreans living in Shanghai, which will good if we have any problems. Both apartments are ondol apartments -- that is, they both have heated floors. You know there are a lot of Koreans in the area when you can easily find an ondol apartment. Since we sleep on the floor this was important to us; also many people commented that because buildings are built more cheaply the wind and cold really come through the walls in the winter. Ondol apartments are more expensive but it was worth it for us.
The first apartment we bid on in Lianyang had beautiful interior decoration, including a bed built into a wall unit with night tables. This was the big issue, since we needed the bed taken out so that we could sleep on the floor. (We’re renting a furnished apartment.) The owner came and we debated about this until about 9pm, when we finally got to have dinner. It came down to the bed problem; because it was built to his specification it would be too hard to remove, he felt. We could certainly understand that.

The next day KC played golf with Dad while I went with Dad’s friend Annie to deposit 2 suitcases loaded with fall clothes, a few pans, some utensils, and books in their Marriott storage unit. It was nice to be back in Dad’s old stomping grounds, though they tell me the Marriott is losing a lot of business because of all the visa restrictions. Both suitcases were well over 15 years old and on their last legs but I hadn’t had time to repack the stuff into boxes so that I could take the suitcases back with me. We decided to go and buy 2 more cheap suitcases. We had just about finished that when KC called to tell me that the owner had talked with his interior design company and said the bed was not possible to disassemble in any easy way.

So after a quick but delicious lunch at Crystal Jade we went back to Lianyang to look at our second choice, which, upon further reflection, was probably a better choice. Different apartment complex, better floor plan, ugly furniture, but no bed in the master bedroom, just a mattress which the owner is happy to move to the guest room. Good thing again for my dad and his driver since we had to coordinate getting my dad to his 5:00 flight from Pudong while we had a 6:00 from Hongqiao. We were to leave at 4; at 4:05 the owner verbally agreed on the phone, we left the real estate agent with all the remaining cash we had and we hopped in the van and took off for the airport. We were at the gate by 5pm. I love Hongqiao airport. Since we’ve been back we’ve signed the final papers by fax. We’re set to move in on July 31. Mission accomplished; as Emily would say it was a “typical Jen and KC trip: a lot of running around, everything finished at the last minute.” Except that we usually eat a lot better -- we barely fit three meals in each day between the 12 hours of walking around and hopping into taxis. Now I just have to pack.

Friday, June 27, 2008


The past six months or so have been hectic ones as we figured out whether we’d be able to move this year or not. Although we’ve made several trips back and forth to Shanghai I was reluctant to say too much without knowing for sure whether we’d move. But as of now everything is set: we plan to relocate to Shanghai on July 31st.

KC and I took a whirwind trip last week to finalize the apartment and schools. Since I never did write a summary of our April trip, here is what happened in brief:

Aiden tested at 3 schools: SMIC, Pinghe, and JinCai. SMIC is a school originally built for SMIC employees but now open to other students. It has both Chinese and English tracks. Its location is not ideal, kind of in the middle of nowhere. Both Pinghe and JinCai are Chinese private schools with international sections. In the months preceding the testing we thought we would have Aiden try to test into the Chinese tracks of these schools, but after ordering textbooks from Shanghai (you can do many things on the internet) we decided that was crazy and we were stressing Aiden out too much trying to prepare him in 3 languages, especially since he had just begun 2nd grade with a rather difficult and scary teacher here. We shifted to English preparation, which was more difficult than I anticipated. His math ability is above his grade level (he can do long division) but he does math in Korean. I hadn’t thought clearly about how much vocabulary he would have to know just to be able to solve math problems in English: product, sum, difference, greater than, less than, etc. Not to mention having to develop a grasp of non-metric measurements and American money (since they use American textbooks).

Although Aiden’s reading, speaking, and listening levels are all good his writing is not. His spelling is atrocious and he had never written anything close to an essay in English. We did a lot of preparation for that, on top of his school homework. For several months he was doing 2-3 hours of homework a night. It was not easy. (You see why I neglected my blog...)

Since the Korean school year starts in March but the Chinese school year, like the American one, goes September - June, we had to decide whether to put Aiden in 3rd grade (like his peers in the U.S.) or put him into 2nd grade. He will finish out the first half of 2nd grade here before we move. We decided pretty easily to put him into 2nd grade. I'm not in a hurry to advance him and especially with all the languages he's learning I'd rather he have some extra time to get familiar with the material.

Anyway, the tests went really well: he had 1.5 hour tests at SMIC and Pinghe and a long interview at JinCai. I have to say that I was very frustrated by the process because SMIC in particular was so unresponsive: they didn’t respond to emails, didn’t answer phone calls, and didn’t answer my questions, plus they were incredibly rigid about test dates. Since we had to fly from Korea to test I was quite unhappy about that. Micah Sittig, a teacher there and China-blogger, was very generous with help and advice about SMIC. Aiden passed the test there but was wait-listed because they don’t have room for him. While he was testing we looked at apartments in the area. The apartments were fine but we didn’t love the area, and there wasn’t any space in SMIC kindergarten for Max.

Next was Pinghe. I scheduled Aiden’s test for 9am on Friday morning, which was, in retrospect, a lucky thing. Pinghe had been quite responsive via email but told me several times they only had 1-2 spaces available so it was unlikely he would be admitted. Anyway, while Aiden tested we chatted up the Admissions Director who seems quite friendly, efficient, and well-organized, but doesn’t speak any English. My Chinese was put to the test. When she left the room at one point KC said, “Make sure you put on the application form that we both went to Stanford. This is Asia, those things matter.” I did add that information, but I also got to put that information into the conversation since the director mentioned that they had students attending Princeton and Stanford. Who knows if that’s what got him in, but he got in. I must have lived in Asia a long time to be pulling out my Stanford degree as leverage. But by 10:00 there was a line of people out the door waiting to talk to the director and get their kids in the school (the non-international section). In general we were impressed with Pinghe -- the school itself, with its lines of students and atmosphere felt like a Korean school. For someone coming from the States it probably would have felt very foreign but we liked it. We also liked that the international and regular students all take classes on the same campus. We felt that with a small international class Aiden would have a good chance to bond with his classmates but because they are housed in the same location he would also have more opportunity to speak Chinese while playing soccer or swimming (they have a swimming pool, another plus). Plus we liked the location. We looked at a lot of apartments in the area too, and found one we liked.
That afternoon we went to JinCai. The facility is nice and Ellen Huang, the principal, was the most helpful and personable during the whole process. Aiden really took a shine to her. I had been worried that he wouldn’t interview well because he tends to be shy, but he talked to her so much we had to tell him to stop talking so that we could ask her questions. JinCai’s location is the best -- in Lianyang area, which we love, but we didn’t like that the international and regular schools are located on separate campuses, and international program seems like it’s still finding its legs.

In short, we decided to go with Pinghe. Aiden got a great deal of praise and a few presents for his excellent performance during the whole process, which was not just stressful for him but for us as well. We had to have a few Mommy-Daddy conferences in which we rearranged his schedule and tried to find ways to balance out his responsibilities and make enough time for him to play and relax. After testing we have scaled back on a lot of the extra studying -- he’s doing almost no Chinese right now, and very little English. Right now he needs to focus on Korean; the other two he will pick up when we move. That probably sounds a little chaotic and crazy but it is more well thought out then I am capturing here. At least I hope so.

One interesting thing about China is that it seems like it is still primarily a cash society. At least, I had to pay Pinghe in person, in cash, which required another trip -- they don’t accept wire transfer. They were flexible with the dates, which was nice, but carrying a thick wad of RMB across the ocean was a little weird. We took the chance to look at apartments too. After the first day we were ready to sign on a place near Pinghe (5 minute walk) but we were thrown into a panic because we couldn’t find a place for Max. I had had trouble getting ahold of schools by phone and email and by the time we arrived in person most schools were closed for the summer and all the spots were filled. We tried to visit local schools but were informed that not all local schools can take international students -- only the ones given a special fee schedule for foreigners by the government. If we couldn’t find a place for Max we’d have to rethink the move. My dad had come back to help us on this trip, allowing us to use his old driver and his language skills, and that was invaluable. But by Thursday evening we (especially me, since I had dropped the ball on preschools) were feeling awful, wondering if we’d be able to move at all. It was a sleepless night.

Friday morning I had some gotten some responses from the ShanghaiMamas mailing list, giving me some great leads on preschools. I went to pay Pinghe in cash and my Dad again helped a lot with translations about visas, which is going to be a problem because of the recent visa issues with the government. They asked us to open a bank account through which to pay school fees, and again my dad was a big help.

I had heard from one school, a little farther than I had wanted to look, but they had one opening. So after going to Pinghe again to give them my new bank account information I went directly to the school with no appointment. The school, Okiki, has a surprisingly nice facility with indoor and outdoor playgrounds, and I like the bilingual structure of the classes. Like at FYKO, each class has two teachers, one English-speaking and one Chinese. The school day is a little longer than I would like (the kids take a nap there), Max would have to take a bus to school (which he does now, but I was hoping for a walkable distance), and it is not cheap. But I liked the teacher and the administrators and they were very accommodating so I took the spot.

To be continued...

Just Breathe

Also at:

I’m starting to really panic about moving. I wake up in the middle of the night, remembering the toughest moments of the adjustment to life in Seoul and blowing them up into imaginary future catastrophes.

Anyway, my husband has been studying a kind of breathing technique called “Seokmun Breathing Meditation” (석문호흡) for about eighteen months now. He started, not because of some deep interest in breathing or in the idea of storing and moving his qi, but because he noticed that after a heavy night of drinking the only person who could get up for a early round of golf (besides him) was a guy who does SeokMoon breathing. K is already a pretty strong, healthy person, but we both noticed a difference within six months or so: he seemed to have a healthy glow, his skin looks great, he sleeps really well, he’s able to handle stress better, and he feels healthier. Despite all that the party pooper in me resisted joining. But with less than two months left and the insomnia becoming increasingly debilitating I thought, What the hell.

I don’t have time (or the inclination at this moment) to write anything long, serious, or detailed about this school of breathing; what follows are just my notes and impressions from the first week.

There are fifteen stages to Seokmun Breathing Meditation. The first stage is called Wa-sik Su-ryeon (와식 수련) and involves learning how to breathe in a prone posture in order to create a Dan-jeon (단전), which, the book explains, is like a pitcher that holds qi. The Dan-jeon created in this stage is located about two finger widths below one’s belly button (but inside the body). After a series of warm-up exercises (stretching and kicking) we go through a series of eleven positions, called Haeng-gong (행공), for two minutes each. Some are easy; the first involves lying on the floor, arms at a 45-degree angle and palms up, legs no more than a shoulder width apart. Some are hard. The hardest one for me is number 8, pictured above. I can hold it for about a minute now and that’s taken a week or so. After Haeng-gong we lie in the first position for quite a long time and breathe. Many people fall asleep (though I have not yet). After than we do Hoe-geon-sul (회건술) which are sort of recovery exercises.

While doing each Haeng-gong position we’re supposed to focus on that spot below the belly button and imagine qi flowing like water towards that spot. We’re also supposed to focus on the breathing. The master says to relax the body and the consciousness; the body I can deal with but the consciousness part I find very difficult.

The first day the master evaluated my qi and put a small patch on the area where the Dan-jeon is supposed to be. He told me my qi is strong but very disorganized, which sounds about right. When I’m lying there trying to relax my thoughts are running a mile a minute, helter skelter, in all directions. I’m thinking about things I need to do, people I need to call or email. I’m calculating how much more time I need to hold the position. I’m timing the rest of my day, wondering if I should take the bus or a tax to my next destination. I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to write in this post and the other posts I’ve been working on. I’m thinking about what to have for lunch. I’m wondering how long it will take for my skin to look better. I also catch myself wanting to outperform the others in the class and impress the instructor. Every few seconds I try to place my focus back on the Dan-jeon but then I start thinking about how weird it is to try to focus on a part of the body that I can’t feel. When I do focus on that spot, it feels like I’m sensing the body from the outside, not the inside. I have a mental picture of where it is but it doesn’t really correspond to the physical reality. Even my legs — a part of the body I’m more familiar with — are hard to feel when they are completely relaxed and not in pain. Without the sensory stimulation they become invisible to my consciousness.

I realized at one point that even though I’m not a particularly verbal person my thoughts are very verbal. I talk to myself a lot, automatically evaluating and analyzing things as if I’m going to write a blog post about them. I wonder if I was like that before blogging. It was too hard to replace the worded thoughts with a focus on some physical area which I cannot really perceive so I started repeating nonsense syllables (“om”) to shut out the mental chatter. That has helped.

So far all I can really say is this: I have been sleeping better. I still sometimes wake up in the middle of the night but it is easier for me to push the panicky thoughts away. Perhaps somewhere down the line I’ll have more insight into the ways in which this practice affects my sense of the body, of consciousness, and of the relationships between mental and physical health, but for now being able to get a little more sleep is enough.

Goodbye, Seoul. And thank you.

I've decided to cross-post my printculture blogs, since some people don't click through. You can click here for the printculture version (the same for now, but sometimes I do after-post editing).

For a few years now we’ve had this bedtime ritual: we take turns saying five things we’re thankful for. As I sat down to write this I couldn’t remember why we began the practice; but looking back at my old blogs I see that it was a response to W’s increasing desire for the things (and brands) his friends had. I wanted to take some time each day to acknowledge and appreciate what we already had. His first list (made while in the bathroom brushing our teeth):

1. Mommy
2. Daddy
3. the toilet
4. the bathtub
5. his World Cup soccer ball

It is interesting to compare his lists from then and now. While I try to mix mine up every day he has developed a long litany that always includes God, Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, Earth, Star Wars, and his Nintendo Game Cube — got to cover all the bases, I suppose.

I wrote in my blog at the time about how hard it was to hold onto a feeling of thankfulness. Gratitude is often fleeting; the day seems to revolve not around appreciation but desire — what I want to do, to have, to eat, to feel. Even when we take time to name the things for which we are grateful it is hard to summon a deep emotional tribute to that which has become a normal, and thus largely invisible, part of life.

However, this ritual began at a moment in time in which the feeling of thankfulness was palpable and strong. We had been living in Seoul for about three years and I was just reaching the point of comfort. Around the year or two-year mark anxiety had been replaced with a feeling of relief whenever I could get through the day without serious misunderstanding or frustration, but by three years I had begun to really enjoy my life here. The glee that I felt being able to navigate certain procedures and social situations was accompanied by a feeling of pride in myself and a dawning comprehension of the way things worked. I had developed an instinct for Seoul, and in its early, fetal stages I wanted to hold onto and savor it, even show it off. (This explains why I began blogging at around the same time.) The bedtime ritual was as much for me as it was for W — a way of consciously inhabiting and extending a moment in time in which I could truly feel gratitude.

And now I’m getting ready to leave, and although I have barely begun to pack, feelings of thankfulness have emerged again, much sharper this time because of the accompanying sense of loss. From the mindset of planning, another move seemed like a good, logical idea, a way of opening more doors. But as the countdown has hit the one month mark I think not about what we will gain but about all that we will give up by leaving.

Although they have been the source of a great deal of hand-wringing and hair-pulling (as I’m sure I have been the source of the same for them), I’m thankful for my in-laws who have helped us enormously since we’ve been here. I’m thankful to have had a place to drop the kids on Sunday afternoon so that my husband and I could catch up on Battlestar Galactica, knowing they would be well-loved, well-fed, and possibly well-spoiled. It’s taken five years to learn how to avoid fighting with them but the bond that has developed between them and the kids is irreplaceable and could not have developed in several decades of living in different countries or cities. They have been a part of our daily life here, permanently woven into the children’s early memories.

I’m thankful for our apartment and neighborhood. Our apartment looks rather humble and small, but it has heated floors and lots of sunlight. I like being able to hear kids playing in the playground out front and walking to school past the back windows. I like the open halls in which I run into our neighbors. I appreciate the proximity to my in-laws’ place, the airport bus stop, the subway, restaurants, cafes, grocery stores, and banks. I like not living in a fortress and yet feeling safe — a part of the neighborhood rather than separate from it.

I’m thankful for my kids’ schools and teachers.. W counts his piano teacher as the adult he is the closest to after Mommy and Daddy. I will really miss M’s bilingual preschool (which W also attended), where the teachers spent a great deal of time holding M as he developed comfort with the place, allowing him to emerge as an loquacious, cake-loving charmer.

I’m thankful for the network of busy moms who have patiently explained to me that oil paper is tracing paper and sent me scanned copies of textbook pages when W has left his book at school.

I’m thankful for store workers that answer all my questions about what ingredients I need to buy for japchae and what size origami paper a 2nd grader needs to carry, who bow and smile to me when I encounter them on the sidewalk or the bus stop, and who ask me where I’ve been if they haven’t seen me in a while.

I’m thankful for my friends, American and Korean, who have put in the time and effort to build a friendship despite my continuing proclamations that we would leave “soon.”

I’m thankful for the city of Seoul (despite its often unpleasant smells), for its neighborhoods, safe atmosphere, and great public transportation. I’m thankful for an economic system that depends on volume, in which anything and everything can be delivered and goods ordered on the internet arrive within a day or two.

Despite being stared at I’m thankful that being an English-speaking foreigner mostly triggers envy and not disgust or anger.

I’m thankful for public baths.

I’m thankful for kimbab, bibimnaengmyeon, and galbitang. I’m thankful for neighborhood cafes, where I wrote most of my posts and spent a lot of money on coffee.

Goodbye Seoul. I’m glad I made a home here. I’m coming away with an expanded sense of what the good life might look like, and I won’t forget it. While I finalize details for our new apartment and schools, that sense of thankfulness becomes desire again as I try to find ways to fill the next stage of the journey with that which I appreciate in my life now.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Travel books

Couldn't finish my post in time so posted a piece on travel books written last year.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

TWK 3, a quick note on customer service.

The third in the Traveling with Kids series.

And... a note on customer service here in Seoul.
Tuesday morning I dropped my phone, which isn’t an uncommon occurrence, but this time when I picked it up it was dead. It was a bad, hurried morning. I transfered the number to my old phone which has an unfortunate tendency to reboot over and over again, and considered my options. We’ll move in two months, no reason to buy a new phone. I could keep using the old one, but the rebooting is a pain and I would have to reenter all my phone numbers, which weren’t backed up.

Long story short, I took the phone to the Samsung customer service center, which turned out not to be very far from my apartment -- maybe a 10 minute taxi ride. They took my phone and maybe a half an hour later an engineer sadly informed me that I had destroyed two components, one of which they had in stock and one of which they would have to get from another service center. It wouldn’t be ready until late that day or the next morning. (It was about noon at that point.) I almost laughed -- I hadn’t expected to get it back so soon. Anyway, I picked up the phone the next morning, good as new.

Late last year I ordered an LG humidifier from a auction site. It arrived the next day, it worked for about 5 minutes and then quit. I thought, Shit, I don’t know how to return things bought via auction -- this had never happened before. KC called LG and a technician came out to my apartment about 40 minutes later. He tried to fix the humidifier but the board was broken, so he apologized, took the board, and told me he’d come back the next day with a new one. The next day he tried yet another one, but it also didn’t work. He apologized again and told me they would refund the money if I gave them a copy of the receipt and my bank account. Within two days the amount I had paid in the auction was refunded to my bank account.

After that I thought, “Well, I still need a humidifier and the LG one is the most popular, so I’ll order it again.” I ordered the same humidifier, again from an auction site, and this one worked for about 2 weeks before breaking. I called LG customer service again, and again a technician came about 40 minutes later. This time he took part of the humidifier and returned it the next day and it was worked fine since.

This is why people buy things from chaebols like LG and Samsung. Who can compete with that kind of service? You go to the Samsung customer service center and the people who work there are so polite and so proud of themselves for working for Samsung. The place is bursting with pride. It is a part of life here that is hard to imagine from living in the States.

I'll miss that customer service when we move to China.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


Traveling with Kids 2 is up. Still jet-lagged.