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!