Sunday, June 29, 2008

The supermarket remainder

Cleaning supplies (we got new gloves b/c I am a wuss and my hands dry out so quickly from dishwashing barehanded).


I don't even know what this is, just a row of products, one of maaaany.

And the infamous plastic food displays. The visual aids especially help if you can't read Korean.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

My body? What body?

Today was a down time at home day, no dates. Whew. Except going to the huge huge supermarket w/my aunt - I needed a notebook and she was shopping for tomorrow's big family gathering. Every year on the same day, our family comes together to remember my grandmother, who passed away when I was 13ish. It's a Korean tradition to do this for elders on the date of their death. I've only been to one, for her, years ago in Korea. We did our own tiny one in NY years ago, too, just w/my immediate family b/c we couldn't go to Korea that year. It will be good to be able to participate again and ALSO to see ALL of my family in one place. I can finally unload my gifts!!

[Note image of naked baby on the rice bag. The woman who brought it to us explained why he was there but I didn't catch it.] I spent the rest of the day napping and then doing my Korean homework. What a trial! It's really hard for me. I have all these emotional blocks when doing this kind of stuff and it makes it almost impossible for me to actually absorb anything. Also, I realized that learning vocab is really hard b/c it's just memorizing meanings to character. But what I need is to understand where the meanings and origins come from. But I can't know those things b/c I don't know this language that way, OR Chinese. Man. It's just like how knowing Latin helps learning English. My aunt says I should study Chinese while I'm here, too. Yikes.

This was one of many curious things at the enormous supermarket: the carts all go thru this UV light scanner thing that sterilizes them (the blue frame - and, of course, it's all automated). So that you don't get the last person's germs that were hanging out on the handle. The pic is bad b/c I was zooming from too far (the car) since I wanted to be inconspicuous. I'll save the rest of the pics for later.

I realize I'm doing NOTHING for my body - it's like I forgot that I have to take care of it. So now my back is killing me from dragging textbooks around all day yesterday. My aunt thinks that if I exercised really hard, that I'd stop grinding my teeth, since that comes from stress and exercise releases it. Good theory. Too bad I am not really up for the challenge right now!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Back to words words words

Too tired to do camera to mac to flash to pc to blog.

I'm staying in level 2 and bored but it means that I don't have to kill myself doing homework (even though I may lose lots of energy trying to not be bored to tears during conversation). Lots of people switched in and out. Our new students include two US hapas. The textbooks are SO HEAVY. That part of school I really don't miss. Also, almost everyone is about 10 years younger than me. One woman said, "I know, I'm old," when she told us that she was 22. HAHAHAAAA. I'm the 2nd oldest but no one believes me. They all think I'm 10 years younger.

Someday, I would LOVE to be in a place where everyone made the right assumptions about me. Not to say that assumptions are good things to participate in, but all my life I have had to deal w/people assuming things like: I can't speak English, I can't speak Korean, I must be younger, I must be blahblahblah. I feel like people are so spot OFF when they meet me.

Then I met Bo Kyung Kim and Beau Kim, sisters, who run a business called FIDES International that provides hanji (Korean handmade paper) to western conservators. They took me to lunch at a neighborhood place where we had iced noodles and one of my favorite Korean dishes, a kind of fried pancake. They were really generous w/info and ideas for how to handle my research, and also have a lot of experience living in the US. Both are fluent in English so that made my conversing easier since I could stick in more English words. They even took me to the Fulbright office afterwards, where I got my health insurance card.

HEALTH INSURANCE!!!! Amazing. I've been covered since the day I arrived in Korea. After two years without in the worst country in the world to NOT have health insurance (though it's also the worst country in the world to HAVE health insurance), I'm now on the other side! Whew.

Then I ran badly-needed errands: sunblock, some lighter long-sleeved garments, etc. I then met Beau and her daughter for some Friday night art openings at alternative art spaces. One was a gallery space, one was a used book store, and one was a design firm (where I saw MACS, and mighty fine ones at that). We walked by tons and tons and tons and tons and tons and tons and tons of police and buses that carry police - riot guards preparing for the demos that have been shaking Korea for a while now. All the U.S. beef business and growing unpopularity of the new Korean president. It's pretty amazing. Streets are blocked, police are sitting on top of riot shields that are balanced on their riot helmets. They're hanging out, smoking, laying in the streets, etc.

Beau talked about how politics in Korea is really interesting and how it's a very emotional democracy, and one of the few in the world that came about through the PEOPLE demanding it, rather than through war or having it imposed upon them. Reminds me of how Mi-Kyoung talked about politicians having heated debates where they yell and cry and throw chairs (you'd never see that in any American chambers), and that even though it can seem embarrassing at the time, it's also reassuring to see people so passionate and willing to put it all out there. That was when we were explaining to Anna from Iceland that Americans will NOT talk politics w/each other if they know that they are talking to people who oppose their views - that out of "courtesy," we often withhold our true feelings about issues b/c we don't want to hurt other people's feelings or get into fights. Anna was shocked to hear that. It's a major problem b/c it means that no one speaks their mind.

ANYHOW. After all that, I managed to find a bus station I haven't used yet and drag myself on home. I found out that the online catalog is up for the passport show that I'm in that's traveling all over the world. See my page here, and browse around to see more artists! It's fun.

I had lots of Deep Thoughts but I am so tired I will have to just stop rambling and deal with it all later. It's almost 11:30pm my time! That's the LATEST I've stayed up in Korea since I arrived.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The wonders of images

OMG! I finally figured out how to do this! Kind of. For some reason, I couldn't find my flash drive on this PC yesterday. But today I did. So here is a picture of part of my breakfast after I washed it out. Garbage is tricky here: for food waste, you dump it into the food waste bin. Recyclables go out on certain days and you sort them all - there are bags w/labels like "paper" and "PET" (I'm making that up - it's for the plastics w/the right numbers on the bottom) and "yogurt containers" and so on. True trash is something that you have to PAY to have removed, and you pay by quantity of trash. This explains the tiny trash bins you see in Korean homes. And it explains why there are so few of them! I believe there are also designated times when you are allowed to take your trash out, or else you get fined. This is how it works in a tiny country with ridiculous amounts of people and even more ridiculous amounts of disposables.

I had my first language class today. The schedule is 9-1, but broken into four 50-min periods with breaks of 10, 20, and 10 minutes respectively. I was shocked by the number of Chinese and Japanese students - not only in my class of 13, but the entire language institute. It's like 40-40-20 Chinese-Japanese-Other. Well, that's my very rough estimate based on today. My class also has one guy from Nepal and a woman from Thailand, plus two Americans (who are trying to switch to a higher level - one is a rabbinical student in NYC and the other is a Korean adoptee from the Pacific northwest). I'm in the same quandary that I was in 11 years ago when I came to Yonsei to take a language class: my speaking skills are good, but my written (and reading) skills suck ass. So, I placed low, which means that I get good rote exercise in reading and writing, but am bored to tears during conversation, esp since the other students almost all struggle with basic conversation skills and pronounciation.

My teacher said she would let me know tomorrow after seeing my written exam (which I really wish she didn't have to see, b/c it's a total mess) if I should move up a level. My concern is that if I move up, I'll be in over my head and will shut down. I reaaaaaaaally wish that these places had special classes for people w/really uneven skills, which is a classic case for heritage speakers. You'd think that a Korean language institute would figure that out, with such a huge Korean diaspora. So tomorrow morning I'll know if I have to stay in a class learning very rudimentary skills or move to another class that has already had four hours of training. Yeeee. I think I'm dreading either decision.

On the bright side: my jet lag seems to be abating (go, melatonin!! I even dreamed about pushing melatonin on friends last night), and I FINALLY opened a bank account today! I had been told by Fulbright that due to some Chinese frauds, banks changed their policies as of 2008 for foreigners opening Korean accounts. It used to be super easy, just a passport and you were set. But now they require that you come in with a Korean national who will vouch for you and agree to pay your debt if you screw up or try to screw the bank. I was waiting for a good time for a family member to come with me, but after reading the Yonsei handbook and seeing that it was revised in 2008 and said it was easy to open an account, I headed for the closest branch on campus in the Alumni Hall. They said I had to come w/a Korean national. So I started to hike back to the bus stop, and then figured I might as well try the other branch located in the Student Union Center, closer to the bus stop. I fully expected the guy to tell me that I couldn't open it alone, but he said that I could, w/a passport and driver's license! Wohooo!!

AND, the settling-in allowance that had been denied by Fulbright on Monday has now been approved, so they will deposit that money into my shiny new account now. It's a checking account but Koreans don't use checks, so all I have is a bank book and a debit card. My second piece of Korean plastic (after my T-money card - used for bus/subway)! Now I can buy sunblock (it's scorching here, really brutal, and it's not even full-swing summer!) and the other random things that I need to feel less crazy.

[Oooh! Now that I have figured out my flash drive momentarily, I can also send my picture to eyes everywhere: I'm joining this women's photoblog collective as of Friday! Pictures from women all around the world, with a monthly theme that you surmise from the images - it's not spelled out in words.]

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Jet lag is funny

I keep thinking that I'm fine but yesterday I was all sleepy at 5pm and today I got up at 5am. But I'm still functioning. Classes start today and I have to get there early b/c I skipped buying textbooks yesterday; I just didn't want to carry them home. I'm going to try to open a bank account after classes, and then see if I want to stay in Seoul for the afternoon or just head home. Tomorrow, I meet w/a woman who runs a Korean paper business (as in, selling handmade paper to people like Western conservators)! That will be nice, esp since she is fluent in English.

I will miss being able to wake up at 5am; it's so nice and quiet and I can get so much done, like pack snacks for class and prepare and eat huge breakfasts. I tried yesterday to get online wirelessly at home w/my mac, but it's not happening here. If I'm really motivated, I'll take it to school and get online there, but I think realistically, I'll take it once to upload my bookmarks to, and then from there just figure out how to use my flash drive on the Korean computers. Then I can finally give you eye candy from Korea. They even have dedicated cell phone chargers at school where you can charge your phone for free! It only takes 20 min. I just have to get a phone first...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

100% exhaustion

Whoa, kids. I can't even fathom how people raise children on their own. It's nice to see that b/c there's so little land and people are all squashed together, people here can more easily stop by each other's homes and help out. But even then! Yesterday, another cousin's daughter came to be babysat, and she made all the other children look totally tame. I've been eating too much food, too.

My one big errand was getting myself to Hongik University and meeting the professor who is supposed to be my supervisor/affiliation. That was a trip. I was confused in the cab (though the driver was SUPER nice), and asked the guard in the front of the school for directions. After wandering around a little (and two more calls from the prof saying, "where are you??"), I just asked a random student for help and she got me to the right place. Then there was a huge rigmarole of who are you and what are you doing and what does this letter say and let me get this other guy to translate it and now we have to change it so that the university isn't liable and let's go edit it and print it out and NOW he'll sign and goodbye! WHEW. I don't actually need the letter, but figured it wouldn't help my case if I said that it was for my files and not Fulbright's files. I didn't know how to say, "it's just a formality."

But once that was over, I felt much better and also much worse (just b/c the hierarchy and bureaucracy in academia was so icky to be surrounded by, even if it was just for half an hour). So I called my cousin and her very sweet friend came to pick me up outside the oilbank (aka gass station) on the corner near the subway station. So I stayed another night, though I really just wanted to get back to the empty house far from Seoul where all my vitamins and floss and peace and quiet were. Plus, I feel guilty for taking over my niece's (very comfortable) bed again! She still offered me chocolate in the morning (at 6:45am) so I'm hoping she didn't mind.

Today: orientation for language classes. Then, FINALLY, I'll try to make my way back to the place I'm supposed to be staying. I've been totally shocked by how nice strangers have been: all the guards at the universities, the cab drivers, the randoms that I ask for help. I had been warned never to ask for help, but so far, no major issues. Whew.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Long, full days

My camera is still in the bag far away. I haven't figured out yet if I can do stuff online w/my macbook, and haven't even turned it on since I've gotten here. I'm just surfing in various PCs in my family's homes.

Yesterday felt like the longest day. But the day before, too! And this is only my THIRD day here but I feel like it's been forever. It's partly the whole fighting jet lag thing, and partly waking up really early, and partly all the things I have to do. I'm trying to avoid some responsibility today b/c it's my ONE day w/no obligations (tomorrow I have orientation for language classes, and the day after, classes start). Yesterday I got up super early and said goodbye to my aunt and uncle, who left for Japan for a few days on vacation. Then I made breakfast (but couldn't find any eggs...) and ran to catch the bus. I was REALLY lucky and got a seat a few stops in once someone got up to leave. I got off at the main entrance for Yonsei University, which I knew was NOT where I had to be since the language institute is like another bus stop away, but I asked the guard and he was reaaaaaally nice and even drew on a map all the instructions, both for walking or for taking the bus, and then I walked thru campus (which I had never done when I took classes here 11 years ago) to take my placement exam.

Then I took a cab to the Fulbright office, where I met the woman who has been on the receiving end of my crazy pre-departure emails, and found out that I'm not officially on Fulbright yet, just on CLEA, so it's all confusing. I won't even explain here b/c it's boring. I had lunch w/a researcher and two staffers, and then navigated the subway system to meet my cousin. I ended up spending the whole rest of the day w/her and her family and stayed the night and here I am, still! She's my closest female cousin, and the oldest in our family. I had only met her daughter when she was like 1 or 2 yo back in 2000, the last time I had been in Korea. She's now SO TALL and has an almost 5 yo brother. We did lots of picking up and dropping the kids off for various things (in Korea, school-type things are on ALL the time, including extra-curricular things like English, martial arts, music, etcetcetc.) and had an amazing Korean dinner at a really sweet neighborhood place that would make a killing in the States, and then dessert at a bread place. Her husband got home (early) at 9pm from work and we stayed up to catch up. This all nearly killed me, starting from the moment my cousin picked me up outside of the subway, b/c of jet lag.

It seems so far that my nieces adore me and that my nephews hate me. Seriously, I don't think I would ever, ever, ever be capable of raising or even helping raise boys. They're like aliens to me.

Oh, but here's the GREAT news I heard about the Fulbright housing I'm supposed to move into in the fall: there has been a bed bug infestation. Yeesh. I'm now really not excited about moving there. They say that exterminators don't know exactly how to treat them b/c bed bugs were eradicated in Korea years ago w/DDT and no one here knows what they look like/how they behave/etcetc. So they have one professor who studies them who has to check it out...ewww.

Okay. Back to family. Which has been really, really wonderful. I am SO THANKFUL for that huge cushion, and history, and friendship.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The adventure has begun

No pics b/c I'm still figuring out computer stuff (I just found the home desktop unit now) but just wanted to say that I'm in Korea!

The flight was hellish: loud children, loud baby, loud non-Korean Americans (who thought that being in yellow shirts gave them permission to yell across seats to each other and make lots of noise when everyone else was trying to sleep, and to take pics of each other sleeping w/flash right in their faces, which meant that anyone else in the vicinity would be trauamatized as well), and sciatica. I watched 2.5 movies ("Step it up 2 the Streets" was hilariously bad, but entertaining, and even more hilarious as I watched it w/o sound for the 1st half just for fun).

The crazy thing was that no one weighed or searched a single bag of mine. So leaving and getting into each country was a breeze. I did have many bouts of crying as we got closer to Korea and also when I was going to get my bags. It was probably a mix of not having been here for 8 years and extreme exhaustion. We arrived at 3:17am, which was an hour EARLY but my uncle was nice enough and on the ball enough to get there early.

We drove past the most ridiculous outdoor lighted sculpture on the way home, near the airport, that was huge and disturbingly phallic. I had a huge bout of unpacking and then my aunt and uncle made me lay down and try to sleep b/c - guess what? surprise, surprise - I had to go to church w/them at 10. AAAAGH. I laid down but couldn't sleep. And then heard the voice of a small child, realizing that my niece (I call her that out of convenience - she's actually the daughter of my first cousin) had spent the night w/her grandparents. So then I went through the Madeline book I got her and once she warmed up to me, she recited lots of English that she's already learned, played a piece on the piano, and then got into my art supplies. Whoooo-eee! Why I thought it was a good idea to let an 8-yo play w/waterproof ink and pen nibs after not sleeping for about 24 hours, I can't tell you. She also told me that my drawings of people (stick figures) were all wrong and fleshed them out. That was SO funny. I kept saying, "your mother is going to be so mad at me b/c your hands are going to be inky," and she kept saying, "my mother doesn't care about my hands getting dirty; besides, your hands get dirty if you use them and then they eventually get clean again, it's no big deal." Her vocab is WAY better than mine and she rated my Korean at a so-so.

Once we finally got off to church, I had to also play games w/her in the backseat and let her try to put my hair up, all while having uncharacteristic motion sickness. Church was a blast. HA. It was actually a good way to force some speed Korean reading b/c of the singing, but the sermon was waaaay too long. The good thing was that I just pretended to be praying as an excuse to close my eyes for long periods of time. I also didn't realize that a ton of the rest of my family was coming, so I come out to be greeted by two more tiny children, two cousins and their wives, and another aunt and uncle. We all went out to lunch and I was again treated to a what-kids-are-like lesson. The oldest, who was w/me in the morning, now loves me and wants to come back next weekend and do more pen and ink drawings.

Once we got home, my aunt took me out on foot to show me the bus stops, subway, and department store for all needs (like food). Then I finished unpacking and went DOWN for heavy napping. After dinner, I finally bathed the gross traveling skin off of me and went to bed. Go melatonin! Now it's 7am and I have to run - today I take my language placement exam (if I can get there! I have no idea where to go after I get OFF the bus), hit the Fulbright office, and hopefully see another cousin and meet her kids.

I keep telling myself the whole one tiny step at a time thing. So far, it's okay. The climate is not my favorite, but such is summer in Korea. I'm just hoping it make it thru the next few days w/o crippling jet lag.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Trying to get it all together

[That would be how NOT to waterproof your shoes.]

My Last Day In America:

Wake up in a panic, sick to my stomach.
Half-ass qigong, jacks, pranayama and meditation.
Mail two packages.
Rush into town to get gifts for children; panic at dept store b/c I don't know anything about children.
Realize at ATM that I already emptied my wallet of all US plastic, including my debit card.
Fight w/manager at CVS to get marked price on last-minute things for myself (while stoked about finding my favorite nail files after several years of going w/o them).
Find much better gifts at bookstore for children (and MUCH lighter).
Meet sister for thai lunch and frozen yogurt.
Nap on train home.
Talk to Ching-In.
Back up computer.
Jump into shower. ***
Finish packing.
Ride to JFK.
Airport/int'l flying antics courtesy of TSA.
Sit on plane for 15 hours, after taking melatonin.

*** This is where I actually am in the list.