Tuesday, February 10, 2009

First time back to Seoul since the move

Rather rambling, unedited description of our first trip back to Korea.

So we’re just back from three weeks back in Korea. This was our first trip back (and the kids’ first trip out of China) since moving 6 months ago. I had imagined leaving the kids with the in-laws and having oodles of time to catch up on reading and studying while there but that didn’t happen. We were running around like crazy people pretty much the whole trip, seeing as many friends as we could and having the kids return to their old schools, piano lessons, swimming lessons, and taekwondo. It was great.

We landed at Incheon on a Saturday evening. Pretty much from the moment we landed there was this sense of lightness and relief. The signs, the language -- everything was familiar. We all stopped in the bathroom and I was tickled to be back in a place where you can reliably (in the airport, at least) find toilet paper in the bathrooms. There were no people yelling at each other. And then there was -- a mother yelling at her daughter for wanting to get divorced. That was weird. They were both clearly from the countryside. Later as we were leaving she was crying and holding onto her mother’s leg, begging for forgiveness. [It reminded me to the begger children around People’s Park here in Shanghai -- some of them only 3 or 4 years old -- who grab onto your legs when you walk by and beg for money.] But that’s the thing -- I knew this particular incident was odd. I have enough sense of Seoul to be able to interpret whether something is normal or an exception. In China (because people kept asking me to describe China) I just have no clue. All I can really see is my own reactions to China, with no reliable sense of what lies underneath.

On the airport bus I wanted KC to stop talking to me so I could take in the landscape. “It looks so peaceful and organized, doesn’t it?” he asked me. It did, but I think that’s as much a function of expectation than some sort of reality. Parking on the sidewalk, small stores with contents spilling out into the sidewalk -- my perceptual habits are used to accommodating scenes like that. Our neighborhood in China is relatively new and nice but China in general is still an assault on my senses, because so many parts are still puzzling or unfamiliar. Coming into our neighborhood in Gangnam things seem even more orderly because Gangnam-gu has spent so much money in recent years straightening sidewalks and repaving. The newer buildings also have fewer signs on the outside. The effect of this is a rather restrained, and organized atmosphere. It reminded me of going to Tokyo some years back. Although cities in general tend towards a sense of crowdedness and chaos, the precision of the small details in Tokyo made it feel much more orderly than Seoul at the time.

There was snow on the ground, so after we got off the bus the boys started a snowball fight. Max still has the idea that snow and Christmas belong together, and was quite puzzled when presents arrived without snow. When we got to Seoul he asked, “Is it Christmas again?”

Sunday morning the first thing I did after a nice meal (courtesy of my mother-in-law) of 떡국 and Seoul Coffee Milk was get a much needed haircut and 두피 treatment. As my friend Ming once said, when you move you can always make new friends but it is really hard to find someone to cut your hair. I’ve only cut my hair once in Shanghai (out of desperation) and my hair guy in Seoul spent a good deal of time holding up various parts of my hair going, “Wha....? What happened here? Why is it cut like this? Who cut your hair? Why didn’t you go to a nice Korean salon?” Ha. For the record, I wanted to do it on the cheap in a neighborhood place, and the job they did wasn’t bad, but they did hack one side oddly short. Anyway, I was chatting with the woman who washes my hair and she commented that I seemed to have forgotten a lot of Korean. The words were just coming... rather... slowly. I kept thinking in Chinese first. It was a weird feeling.

Max had a little trouble with Korean too. KC and I decided not to move around much for those first 6 months because we wanted to give the kids a chance to settle down. By the end of 6 months, though, we had all made incredible improvement in Chinese and gotten out of the habit of speaking Korean. We debated about going back to the U.S. for the Chinese New Year holiday (I’d really like to see my friends and family there, especially my new niece) but we decided that on top of the distance, cost, and time difference, having the kids speak Korean and renew all their social and familial ties to Korea would be more important. Watching Max and myself stumble with Korean those first few days made me glad we made the choice to come back to Seoul.

Aiden and KC didn’t have any trouble with the language. Aiden’s at the right age, I think -- I’ve heard (or read? can’t remember) that 8 is the magical age for languages. Aiden jumped right back in with no noticeable difficulty. It took Max and me a few days and then we were fine. And Max surprised me by having whole conversations with me in Chinese during this time. Since we mostly speak English and Korean at home I hadn’t realized just quite how good his Chinese is. He uses conjunctions and will pick up on any word I use and use it back to me, correctly. Blew me away. I knew he had improved a lot, but I had underestimated him.

KC had suspended my cellphone account so I could keep the number while gone and I had to wait until a weekday to reactivate it. So Monday morning I sent out a spate of text messages announcing that we were back and asking if we could make playdates. It was so nice to have my old number and phone intact, and the messages started coming back immediately. I spent so much time on the phone that day that I ran out of batteries and began to think Aiden needed his own secretary.

It was wonderful to re-enter our old communities; it was as if we never left. I felt, again, grateful for doing all those classroom cleanings and lunch duties with the first grade moms because we have a bond now that was slow to build but is now strong. We’re depending on the kids having strong relationships with their friends in different countries in order to maintain both language and cultural knowledge, plus the desire to maintain those. But I’m starting to realize how dependent I am on the mothers of his friends to keep those friendships up. They need to value the relationship as much as I do or it doesn’t really work. I’ve started to notice myself scrutinizing Aiden’s friends’ parents; not because I care so much what their socio-economic backgrounds are but because their values do really matter. Aiden has a new friend in Shanghai that we invited over a few times and each time his mom said no. It didn’t matter to me what reputation his friend had as long as they liked to play together, but after meeting and talking with his mom I began to realize the friendship probably wouldn’t go very far. She’s a very ambitious mom, and pushes her son in all sorts of areas, but just doesn’t seem to place much value on his social relationships.

I really appreciate this about the Seoul moms I’ve gotten close to: that they make an effort to sustain those relationships. And because so many of them, like us, have either lived abroad or are planning to expose their kids to multiple educational systems, they are good to talk to about the experience of moving back and forth. I hear from friends who have repatriated that because the experience of living abroad is relatively rare in the U.S., friends back home often don’t really want to listen to stories of the time spent away; the experience is too incomprehensible, or maybe they feel threatened or something. My friends back home have been pretty supportive but it was good to talk to these moms nonetheless. They know how much effort it takes to try to keep a foot in each culture. It took me a long time to break into the social group here, but those ties, once made, seem pretty strong.

This time back I was really glad we had sent Aiden to a neighborhood school. Walking around the place we kept bumping into people we knew. The first day back (after my haircut) we went to lunch at a neighborhood udon place located next to a large complex where one of Aiden’s friends lives, and while we waited for a table I jokingly said to Aiden, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we ran into Dylan here?” Not five minutes later a pack of boys runs around the corner -- not just Dylan, but Dylan and three more of Aiden’s friends. They immediately begin jumping up and down and shouting, “장웅재! 장웅재! 장웅재!" I had told Aiden that the first day would be a family day, but so much for that. He ate a quick lunch and joined his friends to play. If he had gone to international school (or even local school with an international section, like he does now) we wouldn’t be able to depend on seeing familiar faces upon returning; the turnover rate is too high.

Between running around seeing friends and sending the kids back to their own schools we were continuously busy. The kids in Korea were on vacation too but I assumed that they would be pretty busy with hakwon and other activities so I had planned, with the help of my father-in-law, to send the kids to piano, taekwondo, and swimming nearly every day, having them resume the lessons they left off when we moved. We’ve found lessons surprisingly expensive in China -- perhaps because they are more geared towards the well-off than they are in Korea, where each neighborhood has its own small piano, taekwondo, etc. studios, keeping the prices competitive. The kids come home from school late in Shanghai and with the overwhelming task of adjusting to a new language we decided not to enroll them in anything extra (though Aiden has swimming once a week at school and Max takes piano in his kindergarten). Max started taekwondo this time. It was nice to see him willing to go as long as he could follow his brother. Aiden held his hand and showed him what to do.

Our insurance is in Korea so we also had to do all the uncomfortable medical and dental check-ups. Aiden’s eyes have gotten a lot worse so the first Monday morning we were at the eye doctor, and then later in the day I took him to the Coex to get him new glasses. KC and I have been going to the same store in the Coex for the last ten years or more, always to the same guy there, who knows us well. I left Max with my in-laws and Aiden was positively jubilant the whole way there -- riding the subway, walking down the street. His face was beaming and he was jumping up and down with glee. Not just because he got to have some mommy time but because, I realized, he was so ecstatic to be back in Korea. He’s usually a happy kid, but he was bouncing with happiness to be back. I could, in that moment, really get a sense of how hard the move has been on him. I felt that sense of lightness too, being back in Korea, back in our old stomping grounds, full of random knowledge about where to go for this and that and how to phrase things with tact. It was how I felt going back to the U.S. during those first few years of living in Korea.

Anyway, we got to the glasses store and I was talking with the guy (I can never remember his name, because he looks like an Asian John Cusack, and that’s all I can think about when I see him) about our move and stuff and I had a flashback to the first time I was in that store. It was before we were married, so that must have been over 11 years ago. He gave me an eye exam and I couldn’t understand a word; KC had to translate for me and I felt very uncomfortable and embarrassed because I couldn’t understand. It was a measure of how far I’ve come, to be able to bring my son back here and go through the process of getting him glasses and conversing about a range of topics without a dictionary, without preparation, without even thinking. It felt really good, and reminded me that the feeling of ease and lightness could be had in China too, if I gave it some time.

Both kids went back to their old schools. Max’s kindergarten principal told me just to send him for the whole trip, which was unexpected and very nice of her. I had already scheduled all the other classes so I ended up sending him less than half the time. It’s still the same school year (since they go March to March and we left after their first semester) so his old classmates and teacher mobbed him upon return. Aiden’s teacher also told me to send him, since our last week there overlapped with their first week of school after the lunar new year break. The Korean school schedule is a bit weird. They pretty much finish the curriculum by the end of December, then have a month off. Then they go back after the lunar new year for exams, but in the lower grades there are no exams. So Aiden went to school for a day and watched movies, played games, and made things with paper. No real studying. It was nice to see his classmates though.

I was going to write more but I see this post is already really long. By the end of the trip my Korean was back, Max’s Korean had improved a great deal, and so did Aiden’s. Aiden’s become quite a bookworm. I caught myself scolding him a few times for going over to friends houses and reading their books instead of playing with them. I bought him a new manhwa book on Obama’s life, which he read in something like 30 minutes. I couldn’t quite believe he read it so quickly, so I started quizzing him, and then he accused me of being like Obama’s mother, because I’m always getting after him about studying. Ha. Our luggage was quite heavy with books for the kids and for myself. I picked up TOPIK and KLPT books while there, but I don’t know which one to take. Anyone want to give me some advice?

Several of Aiden’s friends’ moms commented that he’s matured a lot since we left. One called me to tell me that he had told her, “옛날에 할아버지가 잔소리 하시는것 되게 싫어했는데, 이제는 얼마나 사랑하시는지 느꼈어요." (Something like: I used to hate it when Grandpa would nag me, but now I understand that’s how much he loves me.”) He’s been less shy. Neither kid wanted to return to Shanghai, but Aiden said he was still glad we moved because he could appreciate the differences. Max announced, as soon as we arrived, that he loved staying in Grandma and Grandpa’s house and that we should stay there and not go back. I said, “What about Julia?” He said, “She can get on an airplane and move to Korea!”

One of my main accomplishments during the trip: I finally got around to making and printing about half of our Seoul Life book. Long time readers will recall that we make a travel book for each of our trips (I’m almost caught up on those too -- the last trip before the move and the one trip to Shenzhen hadn’t been made yet, but have been now) but I wanted to make a book about our life in Seoul. Aiden and I spent some time brainstorming what it would include: people we know, places we go, schools we’ve attended, food we eat, holidays, seasons, etc. I’m not really sure where to get things printed yet in Shanghai, but I have a guy who did all my printing in Seoul and I wanted to use him so that was good incentive to knock out a bunch of the book. Cost me about 100,000 won in printing, I got a lot of it done, and it was great to be back and look through the pages with the kids and my in-laws. Not only did it give us the chance to look back at all the fun things we did in our five years in Seoul, but it also let us watch the kids grow up again. I had forgotten how little Aiden was when we first moved. And since Max was born in Seoul, looking at his baby pictures again was great fun. I wish there was some way I could post parts of the books online for people to see, but the files are huge.

Anyway, we’re back in Shanghai now. Although it’s great to be back in our own place, and the warm weather has triggered a kind of biological excitement at the approach of spring, there’s a feeling of reluctance to return, a kind of dread at being back in a place where I’m too nervous to even get my hair cut at regular intervals. Aiden’s been complaining about going back to school. I have to remind myself that this feeling will pass, and that it is not the fault of China, but rather a natural shrinking away from the unfamiliar and challenging. I have to remember to be patient, and to appreciate the battles we already won, and know that this feeling, in time, will pass.