Monday, December 22, 2008

Lies I tell my kids

Here's the problem with being a mom: that personal endeavors always end up falling off the radar. I will try to get back to blogging more in the new year. For now, this is an old post but a seasonally-relevant one that I wrote last year. It floated back into my consciousness when I took my son to see Santa here in Shanghai and he asked if he could speak to Santa in Korean, because I, like a complete idiot, had told him that Santa can speak all languages. If the jig isn't up now it will be soon.

Original post here.

“Dear Santa,” W wrote, “Please eat some milk and cookies. I need to check that you are here. Love, W.”

Holidays and lying go together like cookies and milk. While W hasn’t yet figured out that Santa has the same terrible penmanship as his mother, I have begun to spend a lot of time covering for mythical creatures. I do my best to explain Santa’s omniscience and his ability to break into our chimney-less apartment, and the morning after being a tooth fairy delinquent I claim, rather guiltily, that sometimes the tooth fairy has too many teeth to collect in one night so sometimes she takes two to retrieve a tooth.

I agree with Katrina Kenison that children need secret places and an atmosphere of enchantment, that fostering spaces of magic in their lives shapes their attitudes towards the world as well their sense of the possibilities of transformation. As W becomes exponentially smarter and more aware of the world I have become more and more conscious of the interpretive work that I do, not just to create these spaces of magic around him, but to make the world comprehensible and palatable, to forestall or counterbalance what I imagine to be the primary threats to the kids’ security and well-being, and to engineer them into the kind of people I want them to be.

At least, that’s what I tell myself. But my guilty conscience says, Shut Up You Big Liar.

If anyone is to blame for all this lying it is my friend Diana who has (whether she knows it or not) been my primary parenting role model. Trying to inoculate her daughters against the diseases of poor self image and body loathing she is careful to tell them that they look “fancy” rather than “pretty” during dress-up because she doesn’t want them to think beauty requires addition or modification. And really, as someone who could once use the term “discourse” with ease, shouldn’t I approach parenting this way?

Lie #1. “You can be a Jedi knight when you grow up.”

I’m pretty sure this began with a distracted, thoughtless response while making dinner or reading But my son became so enamored with the idea I felt (what a rookie mistake) I couldn’t back down until I realized one day that I had indirectly confirmed the reality of the whole Star Wars story-line.

But once I embraced the possibilities of the Jedi I found the figure to be extremely useful. A Jedi is learned but in touch with his emotions, he trains his mind and his body, he knows how to balance individual desire with social responsibility. Now I can say, “You’d better sit and concentrate on those math problems, a Jedi needs to know how to focus his mind” and “You have to go to your swim class, a good Jedi has a strong body as well as a strong mind.” For him, the Jedi is a heroic being who looks cool with a sword but for me the Jedi is a common reference point which allows me to parse the meanings of heroism and integrity. The more I think about it, the more annoyed I am by the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Is the profession as important as the kind of person you become? W’s friends spend their days going from English hakwon to piano lessons to their math tutor, without much time to play and generally few siblings. When, I wonder, do they learn how to get along with other people? Isn’t that a skill one needs to practice every day, along with the reading and the multiplication tables? The Jedi is a convenient package of profession and role model, skilled at fighting and diplomacy, and that’s all right with me.

* * *

2. “Uncle's brain is sick and that’s why he sometimes says mean things or has bad behavior. Because his brain is sick you may not open the door to him or be alone with him.” This is one of the cases when my incomplete explanation caused further anxiety, necessitating the addendum, “But it is not a disease you can catch.”

There’s a kind of architecture to my parenting. I establish for the kids, through repetition and ritual, essential truths and categories: Mommy will always come back, This is the place where you are safe, I will always love you. This is good behavior and that is bad behavior. You are good, but sometimes good kids have bad behavior. You can choose how you want to behave. If you have bad behavior you have to take a time out, but when you’re ready to have good behavior you may come and play again. Even though you didn’t mean to hurt him you still have to take responsibility for it, try to help him feel better, and say you’re sorry. Eight years of work have gone into establishing family as a place of safety and love, teaching W the difference between good and bad behavior and between essence and behavior, and helping him understand choice and responsibility.

How do I teach the kids to have a relationship with a person who is not a stranger yet can’t be trusted? How do I explain a loved one exhibiting bad, even violent behavior? How do I teach my kids to love someone but keep him at a distance? How can I explain to them the extreme unfairness of a world that renders someone with the utmost talent and intelligence unable to relate to or communicate with the people close to him? My available explanatory universe gives me the vocabulary of psychology, of disease, of religious possession or chemical alteration. My efforts at translating these terms into ones the kids understand have been limited. With effort I can find enough critical distance to say, “This is as much as I will allow you to hurt me.” But distance comes from experience, and they have none. The architecture I have built begins to wobble, and I add buttresses (you can’t catch this disease) and columns (he will not hurt you) and fire doors (let’s make some hot chocolate!). I wonder if I spend all this effort fortifying my simplified explanations because the adult ones offer little hope. I would rather spend my time in the kids’ world.

* * *

3. All I needed to know I learned from The Sound of Music.

Whenever my older son begins to express reservations about moving I refer him to the scene in The Sound of Music when Maria leaves the abbey. Maria sings, “What will this day be like? I wonder. What will the future be? It could be so exciting, to be out in the world, to be free! My heart should be wildly rejoicing. Oh what’s the matter with me?” Maria is afraid of change, as most people are, fluctuating between excitement and fear. She is nervous, she runs through scenarios in her head, then she starts to imagine great things and get more and more excited, “I have confidence in sunshine! I have confidence in rain! I have confidence that spring will come again and besides which you see I have confidence in me!” That, I tell my kids, is what we do. We are scared, yes, but we do things anyway because they’re the right things to do. And of course she falls in love with Captain von Trapp and they escape from the Nazis and my point is perfectly made (if not completely sold on my audience).

I love the physicality of this scene, the way Maria runs along the road swinging her arms with the wild confidence of someone who is deeply in denial. Suddenly she comes upon the von Trapp manse and stops in horror — surely this couldn’t be — after all those years cloistered with old women and farm animals — but yes, it is — ! Maria runs to the door and rings the bell before she can change her mind.

And if that sales pitch doesn’t work I refer W to the map of the world on our wall and ask him to compare the size of China to Korea. “Do you know how many zeros are in one billion?” He is usually impressed by that. Size matters.

* * *

4. "When you woke up in the middle of the night? Mommy and Daddy were 'stretching.'”

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Expat wives

My husband's job is about to move us to a new city (Hong Kong) and in preparation I've been doing my usual research, searching out personal blogs by people who already live there to get a feel for what it's like "on the ground."

The other day I ran across this description of the "prototypical expat wife."
"by which I mean sticking out like the Spice Girls at a Mensa convention, diamonds everywhere, body by personal trainer, a general look of disdain for everyone and a palpable sense of ennui"
Ouch. It appears we don't have the best reputation.

I don't think anything in there very accurately describes me, least of all in the "body by personal trainer" department, but it did provoke a disturbing flash of recognition. And I'm not totally sure why. As did this video (from the British sketch show "French and Saunders"), found on another Hong Kong blog written by an "expatriate wife," no less.

I'm not sure whether to be offended, or afraid. Very afraid.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Keeping up with the Kims 1

cross post with:

Part 1: The Arms Race (*metaphor stolen from Henry Em)

Before I left Seoul I had planned to write a follow-up portrait of my experience with the education system there. If first grade was about the training of protocol and relationships between people in the system, second grade, for me, was about the training of academic anxiety. In my first-grade post I was able to watch the jockeying for status and alliance as well as the expression of academic anxiety with a sense of humor and distance, but the longer I lived in Seoul the more I found myself acting and thinking in ways which betrayed an unconscious assimilation of the values of the system.

Even though I knew I would leave, five years spent breathing the air of the pressure cooker system has reshaped my sense of what a well-rounded childhood should be, has molded my sense of what a responsible parent should teach his or her children, and has provided me with an additional set of narratives to draw upon when thinking about success and failure, class difference, and global power dynamics.

It would be easy to blast the Korean education system. I could, as others have, talk about the unnecessary competitiveness, the fixation on Seoul National University and a job at Samsung, the rampant bribery, the reliance on private tutoring which impedes social mobility, the use of violence in schools, the problems with bullying, the over-reliance on testing and memorization. It is harder, I think, to describe and appreciate the difficulty of opting out.

A few months ago W came home with the assignment to write four bars of music in 3/4 time which he, having taken no music lessons, didn’t know how to do. I hadn’t looked at a piece of music in two decades and it took a while to pry the necessary teaching out of my crusty brain. I realized with surprise that we were in the situation I had heard so much about — because hakwon (sometimes translated as “cram school”) attendance is assumed, kids who don’t go to hakwon can’t keep up at school. When I think of hakwon I usually think of English hakwon; although public schools start teaching English from at least 3rd grade, kids who actually begin at that age are already far behind. But music, art, math, and early preparation for the next year of school are also common enough to become standard. Since almost all the kids in W’s class have studied a musical instrument from first grade, the teacher expected that they would all know how to do the assignment. Although my husband and I, concerned with possible ADD and with W’s stress level, had just several weeks adjusting W’s schedule in order to give him more consistency and more playtime, I immediately began thinking of ways to squeeze in some piano lessons. My instinct was not to spend time raging at the system but to think of ways to win for W the ability he needed in order to keep up.

It is in moments like these that the unarticulated desires emerge. I have long term goals for W, driven by an ongoing wish to correct the deficiencies of my own childhood and education, which shape the small tortures I put him through now. And while language is a big part of those goals, protecting his sense of self-worth for the long term is a bigger priority. I’ve read those books that talk about how boys in particular can check out of school from an early age if they start to feel stupid or incapable of doing the work. I have to decide, in that moment, whether it is better for my son to have less free time and take more lessons in order to keep up with the standard, or if it is better to guard and guarantee for him a childhood in which he has time to follow his own interests and play. Until now I have fallen on the “play” end of the spectrum, but how many hours of daily play do I cordon off for him? The longer I am surrounded by people whose 8-year-old kids come home from hakwon at 10pm the more my concept of the number of acceptable hours diminishes.

Second grade in Korea was hard for my son. His first grade teacher was strict but caring; when W (who hadn’t studied much hangeul before) went from 20% to 80% on his dictation tests she was full of praise for his improvement. W’s second grade teacher ruled like a dictator, hitting the kids’ hands with a ruler when they misbehaved and scolding them for every small infraction. One night when I was putting him to bed he told me with despair and certainty that he must be a 멍청이 — stupid, a dullard. “I don’t understand everything the teacher says.”

Last year as part of my classroom duties I served as a volunteer teacher, teaching English conversation to 6th graders in W’s school twice a month. I spent the first class sussing out their ability and interests in order to make the syllabus and was surprised that the students suggested debating topics like euthanasia and the FTA agreement. But there was a huge gap in ability between the students who had lived abroad (perhaps a fourth of the students in that class) and the students who had not. (The numbers aren’t representative because my son went to school in a district that is wealthier than most.) There was no way for the students who had not lived abroad to compete with those who had; they were doomed to lag behind. The practice of sending kids abroad to escape the pressure-cooker Korean education system has become common enough that kids who haven’t had that privilege cannot compete, and in a system in which kids are constantly ranked against each other, the gap between rich and poor is only growing larger. Parents send their kids abroad so that their kids can learn English (seen as necessary both for college entrance as well as job prospects) and also in order to have something of a real life (playing, exercising, etc.), but many also make sure that the kids eventually return to Korea so that they gain both the academic and social skills/connections required to be successful in Korea. However difficult this may be on the kids themselves, the parents feel they have covered all their bases; the kids will have the option of living in either society. A difficult childhood is seen as a fair trade for a more certain future. But the unintended side effect of that practice is an upward spiral of academic pressure in Korea itself. In some neighborhoods, being fluent in English and Korean and having lived abroad is becoming the standard, especially among those in the upper or upper-middle classes. And for those who are just middle class, sending a kid abroad (even if it is alone) is seen as the ticket to breaking through to a higher social-economic status.

A new hakwon market now caters to kids who have spent a few years abroad. My younger son’s kindergarten now runs an after-school program which teaches the American curriculum to elementary school kids. Most of these kids have lived in the U.S. for one or more years and are now attending Korean school, but their parents don’t want the kids to lose their language ability nor their familiarity with the vocabulary and methodology of the American educational system. The kids are effectively getting schooled twice, maintaining a foothold in both Korean and American educational and cultural systems.

As familiarity with both English and Korean becomes more of standard, parents and college students soon to be on the job market are looking increasingly towards other languages as a way of getting ahead of the pack. My Chinese classes in Seoul were populated by college students who told me that because the job market was flooded with English speakers, they were relying on their ability to speak Chinese in order to stand out and get a good job. When I found a Chinese teacher for my older son I needed to recruit some other kids his age to study with him in order to defray the cost of having the teacher come to our neighborhood. I was surprised how eager his classmates’ moms were to have their kids take on another language; the class ended up being composed of kids who already spoke English quite well (although for the most part hey hadn’t lived abroad).

My neighborhood, as I noted, isn’t typical, but I think it speaks to larger interpretation of the position of Korea in the world and the ways that people respond to pressures of this historical moment. Korea has only recently been awarded “first-world” status, so on one hand I think there is a sense that Korea has arrived economically, but with the giant of China trailing close behind, Japan still looming out of reach in front, and the U.S. (to whom Korea is tied economically, militarily, and politically) teetering, this status is tenuous and ethics of self-sufficiency, intense work, and social cooperation have a make-it-or-break-it kind of urgency. The willingness to force kids to maintain educational footholds in multiple languages and cultures is evidence of distrust in Korea’s educational system, of recognition that schooling is about cultural and social indoctrination as well as facts and skills, and of a sense that success (individually and culturally) in the next few decades will depend on the ability to forge international ties and to move back and forth between countries, cultures, and languages.

The sense I get from the parents I talk to is that they consider the education they provide for their children as the primary factor in the children’s future success or failure. They tell me stories about Korea’s historical domination by China, Japan, and the U.S. and how Korea doesn’t have any natural resources, so people are its only resource. A palpable consciousness of Korea’s place in the global order and the connection between individual and national fortune structure these stories and inform the seriousness with which they are told.

We are moving in an opposite direction from most of the families I know. They are spending a few years in the U.S./Canada/Australia and returning to Korea, instead of leaving the U.S. to spend some time in Asia. I can’t say for sure how people perceive us except to say for certain that they envy the ability to move with such freedom and to have such a good grasp of English. Our motivations in the beginning were more personal than educational; my husband and I wanted to make sure the kids could speak their grandparents’ languages, both literally and figuratively. Having grown up with something of an inferiority complex about being Asian, it was important to me that my kids spend some time in a place where everybody else is Asian. But that world no longer exists; the world in which my kids are growing up is a world in which the ability to speak and move across borders is an asset. Here, the decline of the U.S. (or “the rise of everywhere else”) is just a self-evident fact; the longer I spend in this place the more I see our efforts to educate the kids on two continents as the only logical way to prepare them for adult lives and good jobs.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Election '08

I've been debating internally about writing something on the U.S. Presidential election, but what could I add to the current coverage? Apparently writing about issues isn't effective because people would rather believe lies and in any case go with their gut instinct on whether they think the candidate is like them.

So click here for another option.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

the mirror is god

After reading Carol's post I think I felt - as I am sure many who read this will also identify with - that indeed so much of our world focuses on the ageless, gorgeous super woman that those of us who - oops - just happen to fall into the category of err... 'normal' need to be reminded that we are the majority here - and hell, ageing and being obsessed with something a little more meaningful than your appearance is not only ok, but should be encouraged!

This got me thinking about my day today. In particular my lunch appointment.
I had an interesting lunchtime conversation, with a very dear woman who just happens to also be the mother of the man who I quite like. The man I quite like is Korean - yet he was born in and lives in America, so like me, we both feel a part of Korea and yet we are not completely accepted in Korea. I think this is one of the reasons we connect.
Anyway, back to lunchtime. The woman in question who I will refer to as M, is I guess the closest thing to an almost mother-in-law, almost mother, almost all knowing one on all issues of Korean and overseas importance I have, and I know she cares about me and looks out for me - this much is quite obvious - which is a great and wondrous thing when I sometimes feel my family is very far away.

M's first comment when she saw me today was "Oh you look so pretty!" I liked this. "Wow, thank you!" I replied - really feeling that this was a genuine compliment, not just like the shop assistants who tell you everything you try on is pretty (which I am quite willing to believe until I notice they are not even looking at me when they say it...hmm...hang on a minute...) M's eyes lit up, she reached out for my hand, and the next compliment was fast on the heels on the first. "That's a nice hairstyle - it suits you!" Wow! This was just great. I remembered at this moment just how much I do enjoy meeting up with M.
It was later that I remembered that this is how we always start, and then as we get more familiar and cozy with each other again over lunch - after we have caught up on each other's lives - another dimension of conversation intimacy starts to surface. The no holds barred, honest-put-it-out-there intimacy that sometimes is not all that comfortable for me.

"Why aren't you eating?" she asked. "I am eating!" I replied. "See?" I took another mouthful. "I am eating, and mmmmm, it's delicious!" This was true. Lunch was delicious, and although I know she knows I am quite a slow eater, it seemed today that my lunch and the amount I was eating and the speed at which it was disappearing was under very close scrutiny. It was putting me off my food.
"You need to eat more." was her reply. And everytime I opened my mouth to say something, she would look concerned and repeat again "Eat!" which I think was my cue to stop talking, 'cos this was not talking time, this was serious eating time.
This is not all that unusual. I know whenever I eat with my Korean friends - especially the older generations - even by the ahjuma serving the food at restaurants - I am told to eat up, to eat more, to eat until I can barely roll myself away from the table. Constant plate to mouth contact needs to be made, with hearty mouthfuls and lots of "Mmmm, delicious!" sounds accompanying the meal. Only then can most Korean women - especially ahjuma and halmoni - feel happy. This I can understand.

What I was not sure I completely agreed with was the direction of our conversation.
I was supposed to eat and eat a lot. This was because if I ate a little bit, I would get fat, and apparently I am already on the cusp of or maybe even have tilted right over in to the world of big fat person, and this is a major concern. I can see it in her eyes, and I can read it on her face. Actually I don't even have to be that socially on to it, M usually feels quite comfortable just telling me. " You are a little bit fat. You need to lose some weight and then you will look so pretty - even more pretty!"
Ok, I do agree that being healthy is great. I am all for that. But I want to be a healthy weight to be healthy...not to look pretty or even more pretty. And to tell the truth, I don't think I am in the dangerously obsese category just yet.
So, the theory continued that eating three big meals was going to get me thinner. Thin people eat a lot. Fat people will just get fatter if they don't eat much.
I wasn't sure how to argue around this, but I did manage to interject that I was full right now, so that's why I had stopped eating. She looked worried. If this was indicative of my usual meal size, I was on the way to being a big fat mama in a very short space of time indeed.
"But you have stopped eating chocolate now, right?" This was delivered with the continuing concerned look in her eyes as M looked from my plate to my face, then back to my plate. I felt that if I couldn't say yes to this, it would be serious disaster zone. Red alert red alert, not only is she not eating big meals, but it seems she is supplementing these with the occasional(or not so occasional) piece of chocolate!
"Yes I have," I replied, and I could see the instant relief. The chocolate consumption had been a huge concern for a while, and when I said I was quitting chocolate - something that I had decided to do quite independent of the worried looks and the not so subtle hints dropped by M over the last year or so - I could tell that she felt her hand in this, and that now she could relax a little. Maybe there was hope for a thinner, even more pretty me.

The conversation continued in this vein for most of lunch. I didn't really know how to take a lot of what she said, although I am used to talking with her like this. I guess what I didn't like about it all, was that these comments are hard to ignore, and instead of leaving the restaurant feeling great after a good catchup with M, I came away feeling doubtful of myself, and convinced that there was something wrong with big fat me.

I don't want to make out that M is an evil character, she is not. Her way of looking at appearance and judging me accordingly is hard to understand. Hard for me to understand.

I find myself comparing her style with my own parents, and the way they have always reinforced that appearance was not important. What is inside you is the biggest part of you - and should be constantly worked on, developed and treasured. Being healthy is cool. Staring in the mirror for extended periods of time (as in longer than it takes to brush your teeth) is not. The outer you will shine if you are healthy on the inside...well, that's another one of these theories anyway, and one that I am more inclined to believe.

So, I just wanted to comment that although I do feel that living in Korea your appearance is placed under a ridicuously powerful microscope, I can't let it control my own feelings of fab-ness and self-worth. And if anything, hopefully this can provide an alternative for Korean women who are equally - if not more so - bombarded by the images of thinness and beauty - often unrealistic and unobtainable.

Friday, September 12, 2008

One more reason to wear heels. And a bandana.

I was recently confronted by an ugly truth: I am getting older. I’m not quite sure if this means that I am ugly, but the realization certainly was. I’ve also realized that motherhood does not make a woman more fashionable. More womanly, perhaps. Wiser, almost certainly – but not more fashionable. Fashion takes time and money and energy - things that most mothers, myself included, often experience a dearth of. I manage to brush my teeth and make sure my clothes are not stained with grape juice and sticky rice before I leave the house in the morning. For months now I’ve been experiencing some low-grade melancholy about both my dowdiness and my frugality, and worry about my looming 34th birthday. I’ve been wanting a haircut, an exercise regimen, a day at the spa, a new wardrobe, a snappy scarf and new shoes. Better skin tone and smaller pores. I’ve been worrying about what 44 is going to feel like, if 34 feels this much like a failure.

All this became part of an epiphany – or a blog post if you will – a few days ago while I waited at the elevator with my co-workers. I attempted to make cheery chitchat by complimenting one of my younger-but-born-in-the-same-decade workmates on her outfit: a billowing, gauzy frock that looked like it had just been worn on a runway, complete with perfectly tailored pants and spotless heels. Impeccable hair spun into an impossible bun - held together with a single, shining pin - and glowing makeup. It was truly impressive, and clearly required a lot of time, planning and long skinny limbs. Oh, and money. I was envious but didn’t want to show it. I tried to sound genuine when I complimented her.

At first her response was gracious. She thanked me and
told me where she had bought her clothing (a swank place popular with hip young professionals) and which I knew only by name, but not by wallet. At this stage in my life I find I am more Gmarket and less Zara, if you know what I mean. But then for some unfathomable reason she peered at me (narrow eyed and smugly) for a few seconds before settling on my shirt and said:

“Oh. Um, I like your shirt. It’s kinda … nice …”.

Kinda. And trailed off dramatically. And cleared her throat. And then pushed the elevator button again.

And that was all I needed, folks. Seriously.

You think I’m going to say I punched her in her fake nose, but I didn’t. That’s not what happened. What actually happened is that any discomfort and worry I felt about my own recycled fashion and Irish thighs vanished like a blemish on Photoshop. And I laughed. Deeply and well. You know - the kind of laughter that just *feels good*. The kind of laughter that just doesn’t happen often enough. It was liberating.

I didn’t feel bad at all because I suddenly saw how ludicrous we were. And how unimportant our fashion was. There we were, standing at the elevator in one of the most respected institutions in the country, taking a break from our work – a job I know we both worked very hard to get - and the only thing we could find to talk about was clothing? I was wasting my time by being insecure, and she was wasting my time by being catty. We should have been holding hands and gazing into each other eyes instead of eyeing each other’s trousers and bags like enemies. If there were teams then we would most certainly be on the same one.

Of course, I’m not sure if there are teams, or if there is a them vs. us. I still don’t know if I’m a radical or liberal feminist. I don’t know if I’m Paglia or Wolf, Prada or Pucci or Palin or Obama*– but I’m sure I don’t want to fight about it - and I don’t want to get distracted by pettiness and smallness. I was never that kind of person, not even as teenager, and I certainly don’t want to start now. I don’t want to be that kind of role-model for my daughter.

And here’s another point: I’m sure that she is going to need role models. Because feminism may not be dead but it is confused right now, and has been for a while. As Rebecca Walker (a few of us around here read her, I guess) said: “if Feminism was Wal-Mart, and had as many decades-old unresolved grievances against it, it would have long ago been bankrupt”. So true.

I’m not sure why we do it. Tear each other down and beat each other up, I mean. The theories are varied: genetics, evolutionary psychology, environment, effects of pop culture, lack of role models, etc … and I certainly have no revolutionary answers but I know that the last thing women need is more infighting, squabbling and jealousy. Really. Because we still have this shit to deal with, and this and, of course, this video reveals a lot too. Pun not intended.

The things that have been causing me to fret: age, baby fat, laugh lines and saggy breasts are actually the things that I should be most proud of. Or, more honestly, I should be proud of the processes that brought them about. And I shouldn’t be just complimenting my younger workmates on their fashion choices and accessories, I should be engaging them in real dialogue about the things that we have in common, and the very real challenges we all face as women: glass ceilings, childcare issues and leering male workmates. And unrealistic expectations. From everyone – maybe even ourselves.

So go ahead, have a good day - and wear whatever you want.

*well, ok. I do know the answer to that one.

This is Carol’s first post on Naked in the Sauna. She’ll be back soon with new shoes and a nursing bra.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Becoming what we're called.

I stole this title from an essay by Alice Walker about being called “dude.” I don’t really have any problem with the word “dude” but it is a lovely essay. But I am only slowly getting used to be being called “ajuma.” The title makes me cringe a bit, because I don’t want to be automatically incorporated into notions of bad driving, rabid consumption, visor-wearing, etc. (no offense Queen Min).

As some of you know, we have recently moved to China. I’ve written a bit on my own blog about how we’ve leveraged the knowledge and connections in the Korean community to hit the ground running here, but last week I really experienced the power of the ajuma network in particular.

Last Friday I took my older son Aiden for his school health check. The two of us moved as one wave towards the entrance of the school with all the other new students and their parents only to halt abruptly a few feet through the door as everyone in front of us stopped to survey the surroundings and figure out where to go. I said, “jian kang jian cha” to the matron standing there and she pointed me to one of the doors to the left. I went into a small room where parents and kids were crowded around a woman with a cashbox and a roster. The mom directly in front of me was a foreigner, I could tell, since her Chinese wasn’t smooth, but I didn’t know where she was from until the two kids next to her started arguing with each other in Korean. Look, I said to Aiden, Korean kids! He watched them from a position mostly hidden behind my body.

I had to fight my way into the cashier’s attention and by that time they were gone. I paid my money for “Jang Xiong Zai” and she told me where to go but I didn’t understand the directions. I figured I’d follow the flow of people, but after stepping out of the office I realized there was no flow, people were going in all different directions. I stood there in the lobby a little lost, Aiden looking at me with utter faith that I would figure things out. I waited until the people who had been behind us came out and asked them where we were supposed to go. That mom also didn’t know and went in to question the cashier again. She came back out and said something to me that I didn’t understand but I followed her and her daughter down the long hall into the gymnasium.

The gymnasium was set up with stations all around the perimeter: one table for blood, one for urine and stool samples, one for a vision test, one for blood pressure, etc. The room was full of kids, some with their parents and some in large groups with a teacher. I took my fa piao (receipt) and showed it to the people manning the front table who checked Jang Xiong Zai’s name off the list and gave me a stack of papers. She instructed me (I think) to visit each station and then bring the paper back to her.
At this point I began to feel like I could use an ally. Not that the situation itself called for any combat, but I felt I needed a cushion from the mass of people and noise. The Korean mom and her two kids were at the blood test station close to us so I went up to her and said, “최송하지만, 저희가 따라가도되요?" I picked the right person. She was surprised and a little confused to find that I spoke Korean, but not as surprised as people usually are in Korea. Her boys are twins, the same age as Aiden, but they tested into different grades, one into 3rd grade and one into 2nd grade (but not in the same class as Aiden). It turns out they live in the apartment complex next to us. (I REALLY met the right person.) The kids immediately started joking around and punching each other; they were already friends. They watched each other with fascination and a bit of pressure during the blood draw and none of them cried.

We went as a group through all the tests, meeting other Korean moms and their kids along the way. The twins’ family have lived in Shanghai for 2.5 years already and their mom (who had her youngest child, now 2, here in Shanghai) was familiar with medical terminology and the system of health checks. If I had been by myself I could have done it (I took Max for his kindergarten tests at the local hospital by myself and survived psychologically unscathed) but meeting her, the other moms, and those two boys made the process so much more comfortable. And it made the prospect of going to this new school seem far far better for Aiden. Standing in line for the chest x-rays the Korean moms and I were working out which taekwondo class to send the kids to and explaining which homework was supposed to be done during vacation. There was one pale little girl and her mom standing in line in front of me who was sort of caught in the middle of this group of Koreans.

After the health checks they came to our place to play with Legos and the Game Cube. We ordered 자장면 and spent hours talking about different schools, about language acquisition, about siblings and birth order, about raising boys, and other typical ajuma topics.

On Sunday we reported to the school for orientation. I met the twins’ mom in the room to pay for taekwondo and bus service. She had gotten there earlier and was waiting for me to sign up for taekwondo too. I went to pay for the bus first and found that Aiden’s name wasn’t on the list. The woman there told me that if he wasn’t on the list I must not have registered properly and he would be put on the waiting list. I started to get upset; I had told them we needed bus service, how could I possible take him to school every day and send Max on time too? The twins’ mom saw I was in trouble and came over to help me argue, and a few other moms followed. Them stepping in to do the talking for a little bit gave me some time to collect myself and recover my Chinese a bit; being upset doesn’t do anything for my language ability. Eventually I went to talk to the admissions director who knows me and she sent her assistant who told the bus people to let Aiden on the bus and that was that. More rigid here than in Korea and you have to know the right person to talk to; I have a lot to learn about negotiation.

But I was impressed by these Korean moms. They seem to speak Korean really well, they know how to finesse a situation, they know when to raise their voices and argue and they know when to sit back, smile, and pal around with the person. KC calls his “전투" Chinese (“combat” Chinese), not because it is necessarily confrontational but because it’s language learned in the trenches, necessary for negotiation but also ready to dig in until one side gets what it needs. Having just spent the last week relying on KC’s tutor to help us resolve issues with our shipment and our broken air conditioning, I was impressed.

We met Aiden’s teacher and received his uniform. It turns out that the pale girl who had been in the x-ray line in front of us is in Aiden’s class and I got to meet her parents who are Taiwanese but spent years living in Boston. I liked them very much and reflected that being in that bubble of Korean speakers had prevented me from making friends with anyone else -- we had spent all that time standing in line next to each other but didn’t actually meet until I was without my new entourage.

Tuesday was the second day of school, and after hammering out further bus problems on Monday we reported to our new bus stop at 7:20 sharp. The bus arrived and Aiden stepped on, then a mom and boy came running up from behind. What have we here? Another Korean! I spent about 20 minutes talking to that mom after the bus left; she had just moved to this side of town from Puxi and has lived in Shanghai for about a year, but was full of worries after switching her son’s school. I told her I had to go take a level test at Marine University where I had enrolled to take Chinese classes and somehow (did I convince her?) she decided to enroll too, so we met a third woman (also Korean, but young and relatively newly married, no kids) and went together. Then we had lunch and ended up talking for 5 hours afterwards. I introduced her to KC’s tutor, who came over to the apartment to teach KC, and she promptly hired KC’s tutor to hire her own children.

Next day. I had to pay the twins’ mom back some money I had borrowed to pay for bus service (yes, I was unprepared, despite finding nearly every day that I need to carry more cash because China is such a cash society) and I thought I should introduce the twins’ mom to the mom I had just met; their sons are in the same class. The three of us enrolled at Marine University were planning to meet and go and buy books together anyway so I asked the twins’ mom if she wanted to come to the meeting place and 인사 to the others. She ended up coming along for the ride and again we spent about five hours talking, adding another mom (whose son is also in the same 3rd grade class) around 11am. The group was snowballing, picking up new members here and there, and I was playing an active part in making that happen, hooking up the people I know and actively incorporating them. I felt empowered by the process; in less than a week I had found a community to fall back upon. After the bus problems I hadn’t had any big problems but the 3rd grade moms were having issues with uniforms, schedules, and classes and they set about pooling their resources to solve them.

This is the information gathering power of the ajuma network. It was a network I benefited from while I was living in Korea, without working very hard to create and sustain it. The neighborhood ajumas had already done all the footwork to figure out the best soccer programs, swimming lessons, teachers, the way to get certain homework assignments done, etc., and I just leeched the knowledge from then, offering my English expertise in return. Now I find myself here in China actively hooking up moms I know from different places who have similar anxieties or interests, building layers of a support system that help me deal with the largely unknown Chinese aspects of living here but also buffer me from those aspects. It is both a blessing and a source of danger, as it allows me to get a lot of things done in a short time (we’ve only been here a month) but decreases my need to interact with locals.

I guess I am an ajuma after all.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

So yeah, I need to get out more

This post isn't exactly one for the ages, but I was out and about in central Seoul today for the first time in a while and noticed some things.

First, is it me, or has Starbucks negotiated some kind of deal where they open a location every 50 feet or so? I blinked and like five more stores have opened since the last time I was in the area. (In this case, I am referring specifically to two locations in Seoraemaeul and one around Bogwang-dong near Yongsan. There are already two in Itaewon.) It's getting so you can't throw a rock without hitting a chain coffee shop. Maybe that's while there's so much tension on public transportation. Folks are consuming entirely too much caffeine. Time to chill out with some traditional 보리차, babes.

Also, what's going on with all that construction on the lower level of the Banpo Bridge? A few years ago, another friend of mine said she heard the city was planning to make it pedestrian-only. Any chance this is true?

And what is the giant thing under construction near Itaewon where the giant pay parking lot was? I was passing through in a cab and all I could make out was the big Hyundai Construction logo and some artist's rendering of a building. What gives?

Sorry. Yes, I have been under a rock for the last six or seven months. Why do you ask?

Monday, August 25, 2008

There can be only one

I read Lollybat's bus bump post with great interest, and was tempted to concoct my own rap in homage, but as I have not nearly her talent I thought it best to confine my thoughts to a slightly different subject: the subway.

I've spent a lot of time riding the Seoul subway: first as a Young Thing, later as a Older Married Thing, also as a species of the Pregnant, Uncomfortable, and Moody Don't-Mess-With-Me type, and even later as Herding Mom.

Now, I have an active imagination and a tendancy toward the dramatic so you may take this with a dash of 깨소금if you wish, but I think of riding the subway as having a front row seat at the Spectacles of Unspoken Resentment. And perhaps the latest front in the gender wars as well.

You got your old people, pissed if any young thing DARE sit in the old people seats. You got the men, who used to resign themselves to standing the whole time, who have in the last ten years decided they've had enough and will sit with their legs spread JUST to make it that much harder to sit next to them. They'll even use your shoulder as a spare pillow. You women! They say to me with their spread legs. You think you can do better than us at school and at golf too! Well I'm going to take your seat then. See how you like it. Maybe it'll make your calves EVEN STRONGER to stand a little.

And then the young women. Sick, perhaps, of being all cute and smily in their jobs as the ones who stand in the 백화점 parking lot wearing gloves and saying cheerfully for the 10,000th time to put your blinkers on if you're parking. Or sick of being told what to do by their older bosses. Sick of covering their mouths with their hands when they laugh. I've glared at many a young woman, thrust my 8 month pregnant belly meaningfully in her face as she pretended to sleep or send her important text message.

If you want to know where all the anger and rage goes, look at the suicide rate, the drinking, the depression rates, yes. But look also, my friends, at the Subway Spectacle. Subtlely, surrepticiously, stealthily, and a little bit snottily, people are using the subway to express disenchantment and to take revenge, one ride at a time.

That is why, my friends (although I admire Lollybat's rap), I only think one thing as I approach those doors. There can be only one. Yes, in fact, there are many people sitting in the seats. But admitting that fact is distracting and overly logical. There can be only one. I ignore the signs to stand to the side so that other people may exit. Instead I stand right in front of the doors so that I can be the first person on. THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE. C'mon, say it with me now, you know you think it too. THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!

Friday, August 22, 2008

On invisibility and other things

One of the reasons I moved to Korea, was to challenge myself to learn. Learn more about the world and the huge variety of people who live in it.
This is what I know now, but when I first arrived here, I don't think I had any idea what I was doing here, or for that matter, why I was here.

I left NZ feeling like I was clever. Wow, I am off to Korea with no information (past what I had managed to pick up from the four books I had found in the library) , no real understanding and no real idea of what I was letting myself in for. I should have realized this was not clever. Writing this down right now, it smacks of not clever. But in the interests of not knowing then what I know now, I am opting for naive. I was clueless. But luckily, like the ambassador of love and humanity that I am, I wanted to learn and know more. So like a little sponge, I started to absorb Korea.

This absorption process has been quite fascinating. As a sponge I have been willing to take in as much as I can, but there has had to be necessary rejections too as I reach saturation point.

Korean style, fashion, use of accessories - what I like to call the cutesy-fun stuff - I am somewhat embarrassed to report, has been well and truly absorbed and continues to capture my attention. I am trying to put limits on my on-going interest in this aspect of Korea. Shopping should not be something that I refer to as either a hobby or one of my favourite interests. Efforts are being made to re-channel this lusty appetite for sparkly cute items with no real value.

Crowd operation mentality. The ability to imagine you are the only one in a world where there are quite clearly, many. The astounding capacity to render every other human being around you invisible - which may indeed mean people actually walk into other people like they are not there. To be single-minded in your goal or destination, with dis-regard (what I marvel at) for any other, creating a world where, charmingly, only you exist.
This, I have yet to be completely sponge-ok on.
I have tried - and yes, there has been remarkable improvement. I now push (a little) when I need to get to the exit on the bus. (I didn't do this at first, and consequently had a lot of bus rides where I was stuck on the bus, forlornly watching the stop I needed to get off at through the back window as we drove away...) I also hold my ground in the public bathrooms, sometimes parking myself so close to my chosen cubicle door it makes things a little uncomfortable when the surprised occupant exits. I also don't mind so much all the touching and bumping and pushing of my body and my personal space. I have spongefied and adjusted to these things.
What I am still having some difficulties with, is being invisible.
I believe I exist, yet to the general population of Seoul, I don't.
This still causes me to have to stop sometimes, take a deep breath, steadying myself from wanting to kick, or even shove very hard, the person who has just walked right into me and continued on their way like I was - gasp - not even there.
This is not just about being shoved and pushed - difficult to understand, but I am improving in this area - no, this is about a deeper issue. The issue of my own existence - which I feel is constantly undermined! I exist!! I do!! It can be exhausting work though, when you constantly have to re-affirm this fact.

Gorgeous Korean men. Check. Have totally sponged up this idea. This one was not hard at all. Got off the plane, saw one of the security guards (now I know he wasn't even a great specimen of fantastic man-candy) and was in love. I was not aware I had arrived in a kind of beautiful people paradise. And yet, yes - everywhere I went, beautiful men and women abounded. Amazing! I could totally adapt and soak up this idea.
Unfortunately, as time has gone on, and (if you read my earlier post re. the marriage question) I am still finding the same err...younger men attractive (and lets just clarify, these are still men - they just may still be in their, say 20s as opposed to my slightly more mature...30s) whereas I seem to attract attention from the more debonaire (or should I say dodgey) ahjosshi crowd.
I have not sponged up this attention very enthusiastically. For the most part though, it's pretty innocent. The odd leering gaze, drunken staring or attempts to strike up conversation. The next level seems to be the staring coupled with the question many women of European descent seem to get "Are you from Russia? Russian girl?" which at first I just took to mean, he was interested in my place of birth, and just happened to place it at the opposite end of the earth from where I really had come into existence (see I do exist!!). After hearing this a few times, I came to understand - through various sources - that nooooo, the ahjosshi was not so much interested in my lovely homeland, as enquiring whether I was part of the sex industry (which many Russian women, often not so willingly, are involved in) and he was propositioning me. Shock, horror!!

Everyday I am learning. This is just some of it. And what I love about being here, is whether I agree or not, feel threatened or comfortable, wonder or ignore, interact or withdraw - Korea offers me something new and challenges my world view - the view that up until I came here was all I knew. I like having to accomodate, to absorb, to sponge up the idea that I am very much a part of a huge crowd of human beings who live on this earth.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Maybe it's the whirring blades?

Hyejin Kim at Global Voices Online has posted a roundup of Korean bloggers discussing the persistent belief in fan death.

As in, why do so many people admit that they think the idea is ridiculous but still make sure they've at least got a window open? Or, as one blogger put it:

Sometimes what we believe without any questioning might not be true. Therefore, we should check at least one time whether what we believe so naturally is really true or not.

Regardless of it, I would like to recommend opening the windows when you sleep with the fan in summer. As a matter of fact, sleeping while drunk in the hot summer is such a dangerous behavior (maybe the drunken people even don’t have sense to open the window). It doesn’t matter whether you have a fan or not. Even when you use the fan, place it near your feet, and so your face is not going to be swollen the next day ...

I have to admit, since my daughter was born, I fall into the 'I think it's bunk, but hedging the bets anyway' category. When I moved here almost three years ago, I thought belief in fan death was one of the most absurd things I'd ever heard. I mean, it's not like it's some superstition left over from the murky mists of time. We're talking about a fear of electric fans.

But now that the weather is so hot that we need a fan in my infant daughter's room, I just can not bring myself to completely shut the door when it's on. I leave it open, you know, just in case there's something to it.

I had some half-baked, pseudo-intellectual argument worked up about the power of culture and socialization versus the individual, and how the surrounding culture inherently shapes the way you think---sometimes against your will, sometimes without you even knowing it. But, this is probably a lame example, so I'm not even going to try to explain it.

All I know is, although I'm glad to have it, I totally don't trust that fan.

Friday, August 15, 2008

bus bump follow up

I have a confession to make. This is something I have not come out and said publicly very often, but here goes.
I am the worst driver.
I thought I would be a great driver(I think we all think this don't we?), but as it turned out, nope, I'm not even an average driver, I think I might be bordering on...terrible. I'm fairly co-ordinated and aware. I thought driving would just come completely naturally. It didn't. I scared people with my swerving corners, my sudden change of lanes or direction, my speed and the feeling that this driver was out of control. And, yes, they were quite right. I was - out of control.
Luckily, as fate would have it, I have been blessed with the rather quaint ability to fall asleep at any given moment. A charming flaw which seems to make people smile at dinner parties, staff meetings, standing in line at the bank...apparently quite a neat 'party-trick' and without sounding like I am bragging about it, quite a few people have told me I am a pretty cute sleeper. Which is just as well - because with the amount of control I have over this thing - it would be a real bummer if I was the drooling snoring kind of public snoozer...

So, you may wonder how being a cute little napper has anything to do with my terrible driving. In fact, I can almost hear your brains ticking over then starting to grow alarmed as the two concepts come together as one ugly nasty idea. Noooooo, don't let the sleepy terrible driver at the wheel!! No, no, no!!! And you would be right. It's a very bad idea. Unfortunately, it was one of those things, a bit like your mother saying to you that joining the very scary looking gang at the end of the street, piercing your eyebrow and getting that tattoo that yells anarchy and insults from your lily white arm, wasn't really great life tactics - yet you had to try it all out only to find out that err, yes, she might have been right about that too(not to mention the expensive laser surgery to try and remove the hate from your skin). Sometimes you just have to do the thing, to find out how very wrong it is.

I knew I was a bad driver. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, I wasn't really that good at acknowledging my lack of ability - at anything - and driving, it seems, was a tough one for me to woman-up and just say you know what, I suck at this, and I really should leave it to the people who have more skills in this area. Yes. That would have been the mature and sensible approach to all of this. But that's not how it goes. Admittedly, the small complication of the fact I had a known condition where I could fall asleep at any given moment, you would hope - pray - that this might have alerted me to the dangers of driving. But no. Again, apparently I was a superstar and these tiny details were unlikely to affect me or others on the road. I was a terrible driver, but dammit, I intended to get better!

Luckily, and yes, this may sound strange, but it was lucky - for me and the rest of the public at large - I had a completely non-serious driving accident (well, there was no person damage, however trees, shrubs, a fence, the power supply to three houses in the street and an elderly couple's recently planted rhododendron collection were all wiped out in the course of my 10 seconds where I was trying to do the impossible - sleep and drive at the same time).
I say luckily because it stopped me from ever getting behind the wheel again. The police who arrived at the scene of my little skirmish with the road (and the abovementioned flora and fauna) told me that no charges would be pressed if I willingly surrendered my drivers license. It was a moment of complete clarity where suddenly I knew, I was never meant to drive again. The people of the world audibly sighed knowing there was one less crazy driver on the roads.

Then I came to Korea. I was shocked. It seemed the entire driving population was made up of very very crazy drivers. It was a rather scary moment when I realised my driving actually looked pretty good compared to some of the wild traffic tangos I was seeing around me every day.
Needless to say, as time has steadily ticked by here in the land of morning calm, as I love to refer to Korea (and you know what, I think I have only seen Korea calm about three times) I have become completely cool and non-plussed by the driving which at first had me swallowing the fear looking everywhere for a seatbelt (was it tucked in here? in here? ooh yes, I have the belt in my hot little hands, but no sign of anything to lock it into - the cigarette lighter perhaps? open the door and slam it in there?). Frustrated, my eyes would water with self-control (which is different from crying I just need to add), my knuckles white as I clutched whatever was closest at hand - although preferably not the driver - in the event that there was any kind of traffic emergency.
Even better than the experience of being driven in a car or a taxi, the Korean bus - back to that bum bumping - is the ultimate experience of traffic madness in Korea. Whereas the taxi drivers exude a kind of macho-cool, darting in and out of commuter traffic with a renegade cowboy swagger (which comes from doing this often and knowing they can get away with it), the bus drivers are King Kong on the road. Biggest and most important, sometimes with a huge horn (which I swear the individual bus driver has had installed for his personal pleasure) it's a "coming through and too bad if you are in my way" kind of mentality. This bus-driver thinking -which although yes, does get the bus to it's destination fairly efficiently - seems to have some conflict with the fact that there are in fact people aboard this speeding tank. By moving and manipulating this people truck at high speed, swerving and braking, accelerating and jerking through traffic, the g-forces and r-forces and z-forces of bus movement are killing the passengers. Old ladies flung through the air - making a good meter or so of distance from standing point to landing point. Men stumbling and grabbing onto anything infront of them - sometimes faceplanting into a pole - although alcohol has also been known to be a factor...It's dangerous out there in the world of bus travel. You need to have all senses alert and not only mentally healthy, but you need to be strong and in good shape, to hang on and keep your balance during the trip from the grocery store back home.
This of course is the story of the passenger who has to stand.

I have spent a lot of time working out the best place to get on the bus, the best time to take a bus and the best bus to take if I want to optimize my chances of getting a seat. Understand, this is necessary research because it's an ugly fight - age (well, sometimes this comes into play, there are still the polite people who give their seats to the older passengers)gender, number of packages you are carrying - none of this holds precedence when it's just you and another faceless person with the same vacant seat set in your sights. Once you learn how to move, elbow and shove in just the right way, that seat can be yours. And believe you me, there is nothing sweeter than the comparative comfort of a vinyl, squishy, broken springs kinda seat when you are watching the dis-comfort and physical acrobatics going on with the standers.

And so, through the joys of bus travel I have come to the conclusion that Korea is the perfect place for this*cute* little sleeper to live. With all this traffic activity and excellent public transportation - why would I even want to contribute to it by driving my own car. I have the bumping bus, a semi-comfy seat, and I am at liberty - along with most Korean passengers too, to just blend in and fall asleep. Bliss.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Women in the community

Although the American Women's Club of Korea (AWC) has been around for a while, people may not realize how much work the organization does in the community (we're not just about getting together to drink coffee). You can check the AWC Philanthropy site for a full list, but here are some charities we're helping or have helped in the past (I cribbed the descriptions from the AWC site).

Archdiocesan Pastoral Center for Filipino workers: A full service center which caters to the needs of migrant workers. This center provides food, shelter, medical assistance and government (Korean paperwork, Visa, job search) assistance. Many local organizations look to the APCFMW for guidance and training with their needs.

Friends without Borders Consulting Office: Counseling services for foreign laborers and women married to Koreans who need assistance for a variety of issues including domestic abuse, medical challenges, and psychological problems.

Nanoom House Child Care Facility: Daycare for children in single-parent homes or children being raised by elderly relatives.

New Light Community Shelter: A home for women living with HIV/AIDS.

doin' the bus bump

It's not often that you have as stronger conviction as I have about my call to be a rapper.
Ok, so I may not look exactly how the "stereotypical" rapper looks. But who wants stereotypes? I know I bring fresh, exciting, new, dynamic lyrics and style to the world of rap, and that's much better than just looking a certain way. And also I think that when a passion burns inside you, the way I have a rapping fire burning inside me, I think that's when you just have to go for your dream!
I want to share with you some lyrics I have been working on. I get a lot of my inspiration from things around me (like a lot of great artists). For example, I wrote a very moving rap just last week about the price of fruit and veges at the market, because I had just seen that everything was looking a little more expensive, and as a rapper, I felt it was my responsibility to make a social comment. That's what rappers do. So here is my latest thing. It just came to me, that's right, you guessed it, on the bus. For those of you who don't know anything about Korea ( like me, before I came here to get discovered as a rapper), this is really what the bus is like. It's not made-up. I try to be as authentic as possible in my work. (Oh, and before you start reading the lyrics, it's probably better if you get yourself into my vibe. Feel that funky smooth beat and then start reading. If you don't feel the beat, you are probably not ready to read. Just a warning.)

get on the bus, and you're
bum bumping, bus bumping
hip rubbing, rump shaking

driver hits the gas, and you're
arm sliding, knee whacking
toe stubbing, face planting

slam on the brakes, and you're
hand grabbing, shoulder barging
feet stomping, balance righting

take off again, and you're
bum bumping, bus bumping

that's right
bum bumping, bus bumping

I said
bum bumping, bus bumping

uh huh
bum bumping, bus bumping

say it again
Ladies: bum bumping(for the ladies in the house)
Fellas: bus bumping (for the fellas who left the house and went outside)

Yeeeeeeeeeaaaaaah (this part has to be said really mellow and cool, oh, and slowly...that's why I wrote it like that)

You might just hear this coming atcha when I get discovered (which I am guessing is not long off now).

MY* intro: Name says it all

Some of you intimately familiar with the Korean blogosphere will undoubtedly figure out who I am in "real life," but I 've decided it's safer to post here using this rather bland and obvious pseudonym.

Like it says, I am an "American woman." Also the wife of a U.S. businessman in Seoul, mother of a young daughter, and ambivalent student of Korean culture and language.

Vital stats:

Likes: hot steam baths; icy 물냉면, 신속배달, and 감 우성.
Dislikes: Getting poked in the butt by impatient ajummas in the checkout line at Homever; my husband's late "customer drinking nights;" the smell of soju in the morning.
Greatest shame: The dust on my floors.

*That's an acronym. I'm not yelling.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

does marriage maketh an 아줌마?

When I first arrived in Korea, an innocent babe in the land of morning calm, I was quickly and directly told (no holds barred - it might have even been a taxi driver who was the first to burst my bubble of youth) that at 28 years old , I was no babe, and if I didn't hop to it, secure myself a man and get married, all chances of happiness would clearly be off the menu for this...err...babe.

So yes, although innocent (I knew next to nothing about Korea, Korean food, people, thinking, culture, get the idea...innocent to the point of blissfully completely unaware...some might also call this stupid, but I prefer the slightly loftier term of ignorant) I became quickly educated - in a slammed in your face kind of way - that marriage needed to be seriously considered, because this was a time game (which up until my arrival in Korea, I had no idea there even WAS a game) and I needed to start rolling dice, picking my players and preferably coming out a winner all within the year.

Needless to say, I just thought (remember, I still really did consider myself an innocent babe at this point) that it was kinda cute that so many people - taxi drivers (my biggest advocates for marriage - and occasionally, bless them, even shyly - or was that slyly - hinting that they were not married either...making eye contact via that post-box slot of a rear view mirror), my team of ladies at the supermarket I shopped at (fresh vegetables and the 떡 makers in particular), the local 노래방 proprieter (but that might have just been because I would frequently turn up, the foreigner, all alone, single, just me, 혼자... to belt out my best George Michael and sometimes a mean Carpenters - and I just think he was deathly concerned) but I digress...what I am trying to say, and seem to be straying from saying, is that I quite enjoyed all this attention...and thought it was exceptionally nice that so many people were taking such an interest in my marriageable-ness.

Six and a half years later, I am not so sure about any of this. I am now the ripe old age of 35(한국나이로) and it somewhat concerns me that now people don't even ask me if I am married. It's like this fabulous fountain of interest in my marriage well-being, which to be honest, has been flowing strong and steady for the last 4 or 5 years, suddenly seems to have dried up. Like I said, this does concern me because it raises the question, why? Why has the interest not just peetered out, still trickling and even surging occasionally but instead, completely disappeared?

Do people now just look at me, and assume I MUST be married (the silver hairs that have sneakily elbowed in on my babe-a-licious youthful brown being the dead giveaway) or is it that they just...know? They know I am in this wasteland of my mid-thirties, and unmarried. It's possibly something the experienced taxi 아저씨 can just instinctively smell on me. Or do I just quite simply give off the 아줌마 vibe with my 'I take no crap mr. taxi driver' stare that fills up the post-box slot mirror discouraging everything from polite conversation to even a tentative smile.
This is the mystery I am trying to unravel.

I remember post-complete dry up, I was taking a bus from 천안 to 서울, and as we were gathering up our things to get off the bus, the bus 아저씨 called out to me (traveling with my (male) friend, which in his mind may instantly have equaled boyfriend/husband/lover/good time gigilo boy - well, that last one was more my own made up idea) and said "아줌마! 빨리빨리!" Well, I quite indignantly looked at him and said "아줌마 아니라 아가시 인데요!" to which he giggled - that's right giggled, and from that day on, whenever he saw me he would make a pointed show of yelling out - from wherever he might be in the bus terminal - "안녕하세요 아가시"

So here I am, in Korea, not really an 아가시 yet not really qualifying for the heavier responsibility of the married 아줌마 either. I float, lost and confused as I ponder what it is exactly that I am. I miss the conversations about my future marriage (that I had never even thought about before and had to make stuff up to keep the conversation going) , the fascination with my age - which is a classic indication I need to 빨리빨리, but at the same time - "oh how surprising that you are that age when you look barely older than a babe in the woods!" And last of all, the feeling that what a catch I must be if everyone wants to say something to me about my prospects of marriage.
I miss it. I miss it all. And although personally, it doesn't really worry me whether I am married or not, it worries me that no one else seems to care anymore.

~want to quickly apologise for any typos - in English or Korean...especially in Korean...oops!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Mass Games

I am writing from China where it is all Olympics all the time (though I'm in Shanghai, not Beijing). The opening ceremony was spectacular, and, for its use of highly coordinated groups of people, brought to mind North Korea's Mass Games. If you haven't seen Daniel Gordon's documentary A State of Mind I highly recommend it, but here are some thoughts about the Mass Games, much better than my scattered impressions.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

큰일났다 똥이마려워 continued

Click here for the first part.

During class one day 진우 finds himself having to pee, and he holds it as long as he can but in the end he wets himself. The pee trickles down his leg and onto the floor where 민영 discovers it. The teacher treats him kindly, washing out his pants for him, but 진우 feels humiliated. He resolves to be even more careful about what he eats.
One day his mother is late picking him up from school. He watches a mouse cautiously inch its way out of its mousehole. As he waits for his mother he realizes that he needs to go to the bathroom -- but this time it is diarrhea. He evaluates his options -- go in his pants? go on the ground? go in one of the pants? He finally decides he will, like the mouse, inch his way to the bathroom using his arms to move his legs forward. He backs up the stairs, one at a time. As he nears the bathroom he is suddenly afraid, thinking of ghosts and the story he heard about a boy who fell into the toilet and died. 진우 has always had someone help him to the bathroom but this time he must do it alone. The bathroom (this is, I gather, a rural school, and in any case this description could fit some modern city bathrooms as well) is dark and smelly, and many of the stalls are dirty. 진우 is concerned about keeping his shoes clean because his mother has to carry him on her back and he doesn’t want her clothes to get dirty.

He finally makes it to a stall and releases the diarrhea. Then he realizes that there is no paper (or in this case, torn up newspaper) to wipe himself. The bell rings, sounding the end of 5th period, and other children enter the bathroom and 진우 waits quietly, keeping the door closed. Then he emerges and tries to find some toilet paper.
After this (I’m realizing I meant to summarize this more succinctly) as he is inching his way back down the steps some older kids make fun of him. 진우 realizes that he was brave and strong enough to make it to the bathroom and back and he doesn’t need to be afraid of some teasing.

He then runs into 민영, who gives him a pencil as a gift and confides that she is not from a rich family after all. She lives only with her mother who sells goods (illegally) from the American military (PX, I believe). 진우 then tells her his secret -- that he went to the bathroom by himself.

In the end his teacher and then his mother come and 진우 resolves not to be ashamed and to pee in a bottle during class.

* * *
I was really impressed by this book. I was a little skeptical upon reading the title; there are an awful lot of picture books about poo in Korea and, quite frankly, we have enough household conversations involving farting, pooping, and other bodily functions. I don't feel the need to add the topic to my reading list. But I think the book made the topic of a disability very real and comprehensible to my son. 진우's polio wasn't something abstract, but described in terms of everyday problems that my son could relate to.

My son's 2nd grade teacher had very strict rules about going to the bathroom and since he likes to go rather frequently this made his adjustment to classroom life really difficult. Reading this book, with its very good descriptions of 진우's thought process as he tries to deal with his problems in the ways he (as a child) can think of, made me remember how big things like going to the bathroom are at that age. (I think I'm probably not the only one to go through a stage of holding it all day long because I felt embarassed to ask the teacher to go to the bathroom.) We think of toilet training as something that happens in very early childhood, but even in the early elementary years children are learning to control and understand their bodies and that's often a source of shame, discomfort, and confusion. We know that toddlers are often afraid of the flush, but elementary school children also have fears of the bathroom which I think reflect that fear of shame or loss of control. (My husband scared the bejezus out of me by telling me the stories he heard as a young kid of a bloody hand reaching out of the toilet. Since he lived in a hanok and had to go to the bathroom outside in the middle of the night, I can imagine how very scary that story must have been.) The book is about having accidents pooping and peeing, but it's also about how 진우 learns to accept that he's not like the other kids, and learns how to step back and let the pooing and peeing become less of a problem in his mind.

So, to respond to Cat's comment, it is a rather heavy topic, but really well done. Maybe I should start rating these books? 5 고추s!

And perhaps I should also add a reading level indicator for those of you who read kids' books for Korean practice. (I'm making this up as I go along, comments are welcome.) My second-grader read this pretty easily. The vocabulary (aside from polio) was not, I think, that difficult, especially if you have some familiarity with the Korean school system. But it is 109 pages so it's not beginner level. It's easier than the Magic Treehouse because there isn't much specialized vocabulary. Hmm, I will have to think more about how to describe reading level.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Queen Min's intro

Hi everyone. Thought I'd start with a quick introduction while my 된장찌개 is cooking. 'Cause I'm THAT kind of 된장녀.

My vital stats:
Preferred language: the 4-letter kind. Just kidding!
Profession: Professional golfer, of course. Second job: making kimbab at 김밥전국
Hobbies: shopping, driving while talking on the phone, wearing large visors, worrying about my kids' education, complaining about my mother-in-law, watching dramas on TV
Reason for joining the blog: As you can see from the above I'm a typical ajuma. A sterotypical ajuma. And even though there's a grain of truth to the claims made about me by others, I'm getting a little annoyed by everyone talking about me behind my back and making me into a thinner version of myself (because I'm not really that thin. I'm still working on my S-line you know). I'm sick of all the men out there clucking their tongues (that's my job). I can speak for myself. Rather loudly.

Korean kid's books: 큰일났다 똥이마려워 by 고정욱

My parents’ first language was not English, and although they raised my brothers and me in English I think that it was through reading that I really gained a rich sense of English vocabulary and nuance.

Now I’m trying give my bilingual kids a rich sense of both English and Korean as they live elsewhere, and for that I rely on introducing them to books in both languages. When it comes to English-language books I retain a special nostalgic fondness for the authors that I grew up with: Ursula LeGuin, Lois Lowry, Gordon Kormon, Roald Dahl, Judy Blume. And when it comes to newer books I have enough of an ear to the ground to pick and choose for my son (until the day when he wants to make his own selections).

But when it comes to Korean books I have trouble. Anyone who has been to the children’s section of any large Korean bookstore lately knows how overwhelming the choices can be. Most of the books didn’t exist when my husband was young, so he has very little to say about what our kids should read. I am still too slow a reader in Korean to be able to sift through dozens of books in a sitting the way I could if I was looking at English-language books.

So I rely, for the most part, on school lists and on recommendations from my son’s friends’ moms. As a departing gift they gave us a stack of short novels comparable to the chapter books read by early elementary school kids in the U.S. My son is already a devotee of comic books(LINK) but I’ve been wanting him to read non-comic books too and this seems like a good opportunity to really start, since most of his comic books have been shipped and won’t arrive for at least a month.

[This is the first in a series of posts I’ll write on books I’m reading with my son (or after my son... since he likes to read on his own as well). I’m imagining this as a kind of Cliff’s Notes for Korean kid’s books. ]

We picked up the first one on the plane. It is called, “큰일났다 똥이마려워" by 고정욱, illustrated with what looks like paper mache dolls by 이철희. My son read the first page and told me it was too hard for him; I think he got stuck because the story takes place in 1970 and the main character, 진우, has been disabled by polio. (The only reason I know the vocabulary of infectious diseases is because of the kids’ vaccinations; I was glad for the effort I made translating their hospital records.) Once I explained that he understood and the rest of the book was pretty easy for both of us to read.

To summarize the story: 진우 is a 3rd grader at his local elementary school. In second grade he only attended school for 4 classes and by being careful about what he ate and drank in the morning he could wait until his mom came to get him to go to the bathroom. (My son is in 2nd grade so the different hours that different grades attend is familiar to me. He gets out at 12:40, which I think is shockingly early, but then again most kids spend the rest of the day in hakwon.) But once he started third grade the problem became trickier since the school day became longer. He was careful not to drink and soup with his rice in the morning and not to drink any water. His mother asked him if he wanted to carry a bottle to pee into during the day but he was too ashamed to take his penis out and pee in front of everyone. Plus his desk partner (짝) is a girl he likes, a rich, pretty girl named 민영.

to be continued...

Monday, August 4, 2008

New U.S. ambassador named

Thought it interesting that the new U.S. ambassador to South Korea lived in the country as a Peace Corps volunteer and taught English in a middle school in the 1970s. According to the Chosun Ilbo, she speaks fluent Korean and was married to a Korean man, with whom she shares a son.

Besides being glad to see the first female U.S. ambassador to the country, I'm wondering whether her previous experience here, as well as what I am assuming is a better familiarity with its culture and customs, will affect U.S.-Korea relations.

(This isn't a dig at the previous ambassadors, as I really don't know much about them. I'm just curious. It's not every day that an ambassador appointed by the U.S. to serve in a particular country actually has much previous experience living there.)

Also, according to Wikipedia, this isn't her first time serving in a Foreign Service post to Korea, either. She was chief of the internal political unit at the U.S. embassy here from 1984-1987 and the principal officer at the consulate in Busan from 1987-1989.

Sunday, August 3, 2008


Tammy Chu is a documentary filmmaker and adoptee who is currently working on the film "Resilience." You can see a clip on the website; my favorite part is when Myung-ja Noh asks her son, "Do you know how much I love you?" and he responds, "I can sort of guess by the amount she gives me to eat."

Check out the film and support it!

Friday, August 1, 2008

Thoughts on being "Naked"

The process for searching for the perfect name for our blog was extremely scientific and rigorous. First we invented a computer program that went through each word in both English and Korean and put them together in two- to three- word combinations. We then invented an AI that went through and ranked the potential titles based on the following considerations:
  1. appropriateness
  2. cleverness
  3. how many hits would be generated off the title alone
And then we scrapped all that and just looked at number 3.

And that's how we came up with "Naked in the Sauna." It relates to Korea, it's kind of kicky, and it has the added advantage of ensuring that we get a lot of hits. But on top of that, blogging is that kind of "warts and all" activity in which you let it all hang out. We probably think of "naked women" as objects of desire and interest, but we're here to be subjects, to be verbal and active, and to speak for ourselves. I think you'll find some beauty in these women's lives, but not, perhaps, the straightforward titillation that the google searchers are expecting. Plus we write all our posts from our public bath headquarters and therefore the contributors are all women.

We (and I use the collective noun somewhat ironically, because who can speak for all women, or even all the women of this blog?) hope that by writing this blog we'll be able to create a space in which the perspectives of a variety of women can be expressed and heard. Warts and all. Women from the "West" living in Korea, women from Korea living in Korea, and women whose national and cultural identities are not as clear-cut. We'll write in both languages, depending on the mood and inclination of the authors.

Let's get naked!