Monthly Archives: September 2013

Wash, Rinse, and Repeat

The long Chuseok weekend has officially begun.  It figures that I wouldn’t be working anymore the one year that the three days actually back up to a weekend instead of straddling it.  The result is a massive five-day holiday, which is pretty excellent.  Most all of the foreigners I know are traveling within Korea (horrifying) or vacating the peninsula altogether.  Since I’m vacating permanently in about 20 days, I won’t be going anywhere this year.  Much like last year.  And the year before that.  And the year before that.

For those of you not familiar with Korea and its holidays, Chuseok is probably the second most important holiday here.  Most of my students seemed to indicate that Seollal, or Lunar New Year, was the most important.  Chuseok is the fall harvest festival, and it’s a time when Koreans get together, march up the mountain, worship their ancestors, and then eat a crap-ton of food at Grandma’s house.  It’s approximately the equivalent of American or Canadian Thanksgiving, but without the football or turkey.

Thanksgiving in the US is supposed to be the most-traveled time of year now.  You’d think it’s Christmas, but from what I understand, you’d be wrong.  Well, Chuseok and Seollal are the most-traveled times of year in Korea.  Everyone, and I do mean everyone in Korea, heads out of the city and back to their hometown, where their family is buried.  Oftentimes some family members will go the weekend before Chuseok to mow the family graveyard in preparation for the festivities.  But on the first day of Chuseok, it’s best to just stay the fuck up off the roads.  Seriously.  Everyone and their brother’s family is crammed into a car and winds up sitting for hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic in a futile effort to get somewhere.

The kids are all sitting in the back with their two-screened Gameboys, smart phones, iPods or iRivers, and quite possibly an in-vehicle or portable TV so that they don’t bother their parents.  Dad is grinding his teeth in the front seat as the morons around him attempt to cut him off during the few seconds that the line to get on the freeway actually moves, and Mom is silently contemplating how she’s going to deal with her overbearing mother-in-law this year.  According to about 80% of my students, their mothers all hate the major holidays because it involves standing in the kitchen for hours, cooking a gigantic meal that invariably gets eaten in about 20 minutes flat.  Sounds familiar…

I’ve said this before about Korean holidays, and I’ve had some dispute me, but I stand by what I say about my own experiences: there is little to no variation, overall, in what Koreans seem to do for the holidays.  If you asked any of the students I’ve had over the years what they do for Chuseok/Seollal, 98% of them would say the same thing: “Teacher, I go to Grandma house, eat seompyeon, and play with cousins.  Maybe we go to PC room.”  When I was working that weekend gig teaching literature to rich kids, some of them would actually leave and go somewhere else, like the Philippines or the US or something, but that’s maybe two or three out of 15.  The rest were all going to Grandma’s house.

After about two years of getting the same damn answer whenever I inquired about my kids’ Chuseok plans, I got exasperated and asked, “Don’t you ever do anything different?”  Occasionally you’d get a varied answer, but mostly they’d just chuckle and say no.  I think most of my students were just glad to have three days away from school and hagwon, and I can’t blame them for that.  Who doesn’t like a break from the drudgery that is public school and, in the Korean kids’ case, enslavement in after-school academies?  

I have never been to a Korean family’s Chuseok celebration, although my husband has.  His first year here, his boss invited the hubby to stay with his family, and he accepted.  He said it was terribly boring, after a point.  They ate a lot of food, hiked up the mountain to the family cemetery, started a fire, cooked some sort of fish that my husband claimed was disgusting, and then they drank some soju.  He didn’t think it was anything to get too fired up about, especially the hiking up a mountain part.

I think I’d probably feel the same way.  Holidays are enough work, with the cooking and the decorating and the stress that invariably comes along with separating the members of the family who can’t stand each other.  Fortunately, for the most part, my family maintains a very middle class, let’s-never-discuss-the-tension-present-here facade, and that suits me fine.  I’ve never been much for confrontation.

I guess my general feeling about Korean holidays, in comparison with holidays back home, is that it’d be nice if there was more variation in what Koreans do.  Maybe it’s just the Koreans around here, but honestly, it seems like they all do the same thing: Grandma’s house, cook, eat, family worship, and finish it off by walking around and shopping in the afternoon when the stores open back up.  In contrast, most families I know back home have similar but different traditions.

Of course, to start with, not everyone celebrates Christmas.  I have known Jews who do put up Christmas trees and will do something for both Hanukah and Christmas.  Some don’t celebrate Christmas at all.  I have known a few Muslims, but I have never known them to partake in Christmas.  I’ve never known anyone who celebrates Kwanza.  As for the rest of us, I’ve heard of just about every tradition you could think of.  My family is pretty paint-by-numbers.  Growing up, we usually had Christmas Eve at Grandma and Grandpa’s house (my house), and then we went to my aunt and uncle’s for Christmas Day, since they had four kids and therefore more presents and stuff.  As time has passed, that has changed somewhat, and we started doing Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at my aunt and uncle’s, although Christmas Eve was always very informal, with just hors d’oeuvres and such.

Now that my generation is all grown up, things have changed again.  My aunt and uncle, now grandparents, go to my cousin’s house early on Christmas morning to watch the boys open their gifts.  My cousin’s wife makes (awesome) homemade cinnamon rolls, and the puts out the Christmas cookies.  Basically, we stand around the kitchen counter like cattle at a trough and eat while the boys run around, tearing open boxes with the sort of glee that only children on Christmas can exude.  Christmas cookies are gift enough for me, at this point.  My grandparents had Christmas dinner catered last year, which was a first, given that nobody came home for Christmas.  Grandpa’s birthday was Christmas Day and, while I never said so at the time, I thought then that he was thinking it might be their last Christmas, which was correct.  I think he wanted it to be a good one.  I’m just sorry I missed it.

For a lot of people, holidays can be a hard time.  It’s going to be hard this year, since Christmas was Grandpa’s birthday.  My husband’s family isn’t that keen on Christmas anymore, now that the grandparents have all passed on and it’s usually just his folks and his sister.  They often travel somewhere warm for Christmas and don’t mess with a family dinner anymore.  Many families take turns hosting.  Some families don’t travel at all because of work or familial strife or whatever.  Some families order pizza and don’t cook at all.  Others have huge, formal tables and everyone dresses up.  I guess what I’m really getting at is that I’ve seen so many ways to have Christmas, and I guess I find it somewhat odd, even after all this time, that Koreans don’t mix it up more.  Maybe they do and I’m just ignorant.  But if they do, my students never provided any clues to suggest such a thing.

Wait, I have an addendum!  I just discovered a new Chuseok tradition: moving!  Someone is either moving in or out of an apartment today.  Seriously?!  That’s like moving on Thanksgiving.  I mean, I guess it probably happens, but do American moving companies work on those major holidays?  Doubtful.

By miles, the crappiest Christmas I ever had was in Germany.  Incidentally, the best Thanksgiving I ever had was in Germany, too.  I know now that this post is meandering, because I hadn’t intended to write about my German holiday experiences.

Thanksgiving in Germany was a lot of fun.  We all – Beth, Erika, Holly, Maurice, Jonathan, and the good Irish – got together in Beth’s third floor Heim D kitchen to make a big old American Thanksgiving meal.  I made the stuffing and the apple pie, Maurice furnished two roasted chickens (we couldn’t find turkey anywhere), Holly did the mashed potatoes and something I can’t remember, and Erika made pierogis, which was a tradition in her family back in Canada, since of her grandmothers was Polish.  We stuffed our faces and drank beer and cheap wine.  It was marvelous, and even though it may not have been the most delicious Thanksgiving meal there ever was, from an objective viewpoint, it was by miles the best Thanksgiving meal I ever had, and we all ate until we were stuffed to the breaking point.  I remember sitting at the table in the kitchen for about an hour, grunting and groaning like it was Thanksgiving in America.

Probably the most entertaining part of the evening was actually cooking the food.  Heim D was never known for being at the cutting edge of anything.  The stoves were all gas-fired, which is fine, but you had to use matches to light everything, since there was no ignition.  Lighting a stovetop is alright.  Lighting an oven through a scary hole near the gas jets?  Terrifying, unless you lived in the old Soviet bloc.  Incidentally, my soon-to-be-boyfriend, who was from the old Soviet bloc, lit the stove for us that night.  That, in fact, is how we met.  We ended up hooking up at Heimbar the next week, and thus the old Marge phrase, “Do you remember the guy who lit the stove?” became infamous among the crew.

Christmas was less cheery and included no random guys lighting the stove with whom I might hook up later.  We were supposed to have Christmas as a big group again, even though Maurice and Erika had left town.  Holly’s best friend and her boyfriend were visiting from France, and they decided that they wanted nothing to do with Christmas dinner with people they didn’t know, so Beth, Jonathan, and I got cut out of the festivities.  Some bitch had stolen my wallet in Karstadt about four days prior, so all of my bank cards were shut off, and I had zero money to my name.  Everything closes in Germany for about a week between Christmas and New Year’s, and getting anything done was almost impossible.  The moral of the story was that I was broke with no money for food, and we’d been ditched by half of the people we were supposed to have Christmas with.  Bitter was the watchword of the season.

All we ended up having was apples that I’d intended to use for pie.  We threw cinnamon and sugar on them and ate them like that.  We had several bottles of cheap wine, which we drank and then wandered into the scary woods behind Heim D.  We ended up scaring ourselves shitless, running back to the dorm, and then telling ghost stories the rest of the night.  Jonathan told a particularly interesting one about the pink dolphins in the Amazon River and how people in the jungle villages have a superstition about them turning into beautiful humans.  We all went to bed freaked out and scared.  The next day, we went to town and ate Döner kebabs because that was all we could afford, and the Turks were the only ones with their businesses open.

It was the saddest, most depressing Christmas ever.  But looking back on it, it’s kind of entertaining, and we made out pretty well, considering we were broke and alone.  Sometimes the most downer experiences make for the best memories.  Ah, the rose-colored glasses of memory.

As for Chuseok however, well, I hope the foreigners enjoy their time away and the Koreans enjoy their seompyeon and whatever else it is that they eat for Chuseok.  I can hear my neighbors hauling stuff out to the car in preparation to vacate their apartments for a few days.  The movers appear to have done their duty and are backing out of the parking lot, and my husband has managed to sleep through the whole thing.  Another day in paradise.  Happy Chuseok, all!  Enjoy the five-day weekend!

Life Goes On

Well, it’s official: we are leaving Korea.  October 7th.  We will board a plane at Gimhae Airport that is bound for Tokyo, and from there, Chicago.  From Chicago, we’ll practically be in spitting distance of the homestead.  Well, spitting distance, assuming you can spit like an ajoesshi.  After three and a half long years in Korea, we are going home.  Well, I’m going home.  My husband is coming with me, unless we decide after a month or two to head on to the UK.  Stay tuned for that one.

Am I sad to be leaving Korea?  Eh.  There are things I will miss, for sure.  The ocean.  I never lived near the ocean until I came here.  I grew up in a sea of corn and soybeans, like most kids in the fly-by states of the Midwest.  Sure, I’d seen the ocean on trips to California and the East Coast, but I’d never spent any appreciable time there.  I like being around water, although I don’t care to be in it all that much.  Something about the sound and even the smell, in spite of the fact that it often smells like fish and salt, neither of which I’m especially fond of.  There’s just something about it.

I will miss the mountains.  Illinois, contrary to popular belief, is the flattest state in the Union, not Kansas.  Kansas has a surprising number of rolling hills.  I guarantee that the drive from my hometown to the Wisconsin border is the most boring three and a half hour drive you could ever make.  Ever.  It’s like watching snow on a TV screen.  Corn, corn, beans, corn, silo, farm, corn, and an occasional town.

I’ll miss the cheaper healthcare costs – that can’t be denied.  The US healthcare system is fucked.  The UK is cheap in the sense that you don’t pay up front, but it does come out of taxes.  Nevertheless, their taxes aren’t all that much higher than ours, and they get more for it, so there’s that.  I won’t miss waving my arms around to describe any ailments I might have.  Humiliation at the doctor’s office is a given, but Korea has taken it to a whole new level for me.

The speed with which repairmen, deliverymen and others show up is also something I’ll miss.  It takes ages to get the Internet guy out in the US, and you have to be home at exactly the time your expensive new appliance will come.  Problem is that they’ll give you a four-hour time frame and not arrive until the end of that four hours.  Korea is much better for those things.  They generally always come on time.

I will miss the nicely prepackaged, individually sold ice cream at the convenience store.  I appreciate the Korean love of ice cream.  I will miss having my ass kissed at the store.  I will miss full service gas stations.  I will miss our awesome Musso.   I will miss steady employment.  (Hopefully that last one won’t last too long.)

But.  But.  There are more things I will not miss.  The traffic.  Holy fuck, the traffic.  Today alone, in less than 30 minutes of driving, three people ran out in front of me, the bus in front of me came within inches of squishing two idiot middle school boys who ran out in front of it, a Matiz almost slammed into a fish truck, and a fish truck nearly slammed into me.  I hate the roads in Korea.  Nothing anyone could do or say will ever convince me that the average Korean is a good driver.

I will not miss the utterly outlandish prices for any and all baby goods.  I will not miss the hacking, spitting, and various other rude noises that I routinely hear in public.  I will not miss the garbage all over the sidewalks and in the lake at the park.  I will not miss being stared, pointed, and giggled at.  I will not miss kids getting up in my face, yelling “HELLO!” and waving like assholes.  I will not miss the effort that goes into simple daily  tasks, like going to the bank or talking to someone at a government office.  I will not miss not being able to find shoes in my size.  I will not miss the lack of gluten-free items that my husband needs.  (He’s developed coeliac disease.)  I will not miss drunk people trying to take my daughter out of her stroller so that they can slobber on her.  I will not miss the general public rudeness that is pervasive throughout the country.  There are a lot of things that I won’t miss.  Things that make it hard to enjoy living here.

But there is one thing, perhaps more than all others, that I will miss, and that’s the feeling of the possibility of my next great adventure being right around the corner.  The only way that might change is if we decide we’re going to England, which is still a very real possibility.  But going to places like Cambodia, Thailand, or Japan?  Let’s be honest: those days are behind me now, in all likelihood, at least for the foreseeable future.  It makes me wish I’d done more when I had the chance and infinitely glad that I did as much as I did when I could.

Alas, it is time to go home.  My grandparents – my parents, really – are both gone now.  There are family things to attend to, and I need to go home and spend time with the family.  I miss them.  I didn’t when I was younger, but now that I’ve got a few more years on me, I appreciate them a lot more than before.  And I appreciate the US more, in a lot of ways.  I see it very clearly for what it is, with its myriad problems and annoyances, but it’s still home, and no matter how far I’ve traveled, how many languages I’ve picked up, or how many other cultures I’ve enjoyed, I will always be American.  I’m not sorry for that at all.

I will admit that I’m scared to leave.  I’m scared of finding work, and I’m scared of a lot of other things.  It’s always daunting to make a big change like this.  There are going to be bumps in the road.  It would be foolish to think that there won’t be.  But at the end of the day, you can’t stay put forever.  Time has to move you forward, and there comes a time when you have to close certain chapters of your life and start writing the next.  Korea has been overdue for closure for a long time.  Unless you’re one of the lucky few who makes it by owning a hagwon, a bar, or some other business here, chances are pretty good that you’re going to hit a plateau and stagnate, and I don’t want to be 36 years old and still teaching in a hagwon.  I want a career that’s going places and a house that doesn’t look like a Soviet-style concrete block.  (Got my eye on a nice little brick house in the hometown…)

It’s going to be strange going home, in any case.  My folks were both there when I left, and walking into the house without them there is going to be a shock.  It’s still their house, and evidence of the life they built there for sixty-some years will be at every turn.  But life goes on, and you have to accept that things will change – must change.  For my part, I’m ready for it, nervous though I may be.  2013 has been a shitty year for me, for more reasons than just my grandparents passing on, but that’s certainly been a contributing factor.  I’ll be glad to put this one in the rearview mirror and not look back.

I’ll look back in that mirror on Korea and have a lot of mixed emotions.  I met my husband here, had a lot of good times here, and made good money here.  We saved like whoa, and we’ve come out ahead in the Korea game.  Thank my husband for that.  He taught me the value of a dollar, which was a lesson I sorely needed.  But we’ve had some crap times here too, and I won’t be sorry to see those go.  I won’t be sorry to put hagwon jobs and the daily annoyances behind me.  I’ve had my fill.

I’m ready.  Yeah.  I’m okay to go, in the words of Ellie Arroway in Contact.  I’m ready to airports that smell like air freshener.  (Think I’m joking?  The first time I left Korea for my dad’s funeral, I landed in Detroit, of all places, and couldn’t believe how good that damn airport smelled.)  I’m ready for decent Mexican food and 24-hour Wal-Mart superstores, complete with sisters outside arguing over the same man.  (My friend at home watched this very thing two days ago.)  I’m ready for real Halloween, a variety of Christmas carols, and old men who sit next to me while I’m getting an oil change and talk about how Barack Obama is from Kenya.  America, fuck yeah.  Take me home, country roads.  I’m ready for you, with all your problems, potholes, politically ignorant morons, 400-pound women in booty shorts, people who demand political correctness at all times, raving lunatics on public transport, and deep fried candy bars at state fairs and fall festivals.  Oh, and apple cider.  We’ll be back just in time for it.  I’m there.  I’m so there.  Home.  Home.