About Me

Originally from Rochester, NY, I packed up my life after graduating college and moved to South Korea in September 2010 to follow my heart and my ambitions. I am currently teaching English as a Second Language in a public middle school in Suwon.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

I Am An Addict

WARNING: This blog entry isn’t about Korea. It only applies to people who use the Internet. If that is not you, you may press the "back" button or close your browser to leave this page.

NOTE: If you’re stumbling upon my blog for the first time, (welcome!) please know that these thoughts are coming from a technologically savvy 20-something. These thoughts about Internet usage are often brought up by older generations who haven’t grown up as “digital natives”, but I want to note that these ideas are not limited to those older generations.

Internet Addiction. It’s not a new concept. You’ve probably heard it mentioned in the newspaper or in a psychology textbook but never gave it much thought because you think, “that could never happen to me.” There’s even skepticism among psychologists and other medical professionals of if Internet addiction is a real medical problem. However, after doing some personal evaluating of my own, I think it’s fair to say that it exists, whether it’s legitimate enough to be considered a “real” addiction or disorder by professionals or not. In fact, I think a lot of people these days suffer from it in some way or another. I will admit here and now to you all, that I am one of those people. Yes ladies and gentleman, I am. My name is Melissa and I have an Internet addiction. Guess what? You probably do too.

The information I use in this entry comes from a
New York Times piece from 2010 on Internet addiction

, which I came across initially as a base for a discussion with my advanced-level English conversation class. After reading the article about the indicators of Internet dependence, I realized that some of my behaviors fit into that category. What shocked me the most was that some of the “symptoms” listed in the article were things I were aware of, but were what I considered to be simple lifestyle changes to accommodate the existence of technology. It wasn’t until I read this article that these behavior changes could be signs of an addiction, or at least a “dependence.” Therefore, I truly believe that many of us have some version of this and probably don’t know it. As for me, I am now on a self-proclaimed road to recovery. I hope you’ll all join me.

According to the New York Times article, the signs of Internet addiction, or Internet dependence, are:
- Checking your e-mail before doing other things
- Frequently anticipating the next time you’ll be online
- You say “just a few more minutes” or “just a minute” when someone needs your attention when you’re online
- Lying or trying to hide how long you’ve been online
- Choosing to spend time online rather than going out with others
- Getting a lift from a depressed or nervous mood from going online
- Others in your life complain about how much time you spend online or using technology

At first when I read these, I didn’t think they applied to me.

OK yes, I check my e-mail first thing in the morning, and every single time I return to my computer whether or not it’s been 5 minutes or 6 hours since my last visit. But that’s all. Right? The information in this article stuck in my mind and the following week or so, I found myself comparing and evaluating my actions. After some time, I realized, damn, maybe I do have an Internet addiction. You probably don’t think you do these things either, but these signs aren’t as flat out obvious as you think. For example, I don’t whine, “one more minuuuuuuute” when someone wants my attention. I do, however, say, “hang on a sec” while I finish writing e-mail or Facebook post or watching a video on youtube. If someone is calling me or waiting for me outside, or even waiting to talk to me in person, I feel obligated to finish whatever I’m doing on the internet before I can focus on them. 98% of the time, the things I am doing are not important or time sensitive. Is this true for you? It very well might be.

I don’t blatantly lie about how much time I spend online, but I do catch myself shutting my computer and trying to look like I’m doing something else when Val or a friend suddenly enters my apartment. Also, if someone asks you how much time you spend on Facebook/e-mail/Twitter/blog-reading/surfing the net, would you give a true answer? Due to shame and fear of being judged, I probably wouldn’t. Also, do you quickly close Facebook or Twitter if someone is walking by you & your computer? One reason may be that you're at work and not supposed to be on Facebook, but if that's the case, why are you on there in the first place?

I don’t sit in excitement for my next online log-in, but I do think about the next time I’ll be online when I’m out and about. I ask myself, “how will I write about this on Facebook?” or “I wonder how people will react to this stuff on Facebook or Twitter” or “I wonder how many new e-mails I have.” Do you think about these things too?

Finally, I do feel a sense of relief once I’m online and “connected” to people. It would be easy for me to say that I like being online because I like being connected to people, but I have a phone. I have a voice. There are people all around me. I can easily connect with people without using the Internet. I even tried to make an excuse, saying that “well I use Facebook and check my e-mail so much because I’m so far away from my family that it is how I can communicate with them often.” My wise boyfriend pointed out that that is probably what everyone says. I’m sure when I’m back in the States and closer to my family and friends, my Internet usage won’t change.

It is not easy to admit these things. Not at all. (In fact, as I write this I occassionally am asking myself, "do you really want to post this for everyone to see? What will people think of you?"). For someone who values her strong will, it is very defeating to admit these weaknesses, especially for a public audience. The reason I’m doing it is for you all. Yes, I am a martyr for my cause. I’m hoping that if you see someone who you know and like (I hope?) admitting to this problem and trying to fix it, that it won’t be so scary for you to do the same. You don’t have to blog it to the whole virtual universe, but maybe it will spark some action on your part. The nice part is that probably everyone around you has an Internet addiction or dependence in some degree. Some are worse than others but still, I think it’s safe to say that everyone is in the same boat here. So let's dock and get off so we can start enjoying the real world that's not on a screen!

You might say, “How can I be addicted to the internet? It’s everywhere, it's unavoidable. It’s not like I seek it out, it’s just there. If I use the internet all the time it’s just because it’s a necessity these days.” You’re right, in a sense. In fact, only a few months before the New York Times article came out, the BBC released the results of a poll revealing that 4 in 5 people worldwide believe that internet access is a fundamental human right. Additionally, the article said that most governments regard the internet as part of basic infrastructure like roads, waste disposal, and water. Interesting, huh? It makes sense then that NYT article would liken an Internet addiction to an eating disorder, where someone has a consumption problem with a life necessity. You can’t live without food, so you can’t cut it completely from your life. In that way, it's basically impossible to completly disconnect yourself from the cyber world. Instead, the article says, someone who suffers from something like this must learn how to control and moderate usage.

That makes a whole lot of sense to me. With most people carrying around smart phones or tablets, internet access is all around us, especially here in Korea. It might seem like its unavoidable, but the truth is that you have a choice. There are ways to moderate your usage. Unfortunately, these days it takes an active effort to do so.

So, how do you do it? I’m no expert, but here are some things that I’ve been doing to reduce my dependence. You should try it! It’s very liberating.

1.) I set a number of times per day that I check my e-mail, Facebook, blog replies, etc.(when I’m not at work sitting in front of computer). For example, on Saturday and Sundays I try to check my e-mail and Facebook only twice; once in the morning and once in the evening. After work on weekdays, I try to make it just one time. When I do log on, I try not to spend more than 10-15 minutes surfing. This has proven to be a lot more difficult than I expected. Last weekend I went an entire day without turning on my computer, but I found myself thinking about and wanting to go online, even while I was out and about with Val. Yikes!

2.) If you have a smart phone (which I don’t but Val does and this is his suggestion), turn off your notifications so your phone doesn’t beep every time you get an e-mail, Facebook response, or new tweet for someone you’re following. Your inbox and Facebook page are still at your disposable, you just have to make the effort to go there to look. You can easily do tip #1 with this method because you’re not being beckoned by your phone every 5 minutes.

3.) (numbers 1 & 2 will be much easier if you…) Post less on the internet. The less you post or comment on, the less notifications you have, the less you have to look at, thus the less time you will spend online. As much as you desire to tweet about the delicious sandwich you just ate or post on your Facebook status about how you’re at the grocery store with this person and this person at this location and OMG they have cabbage in stock!, hold your tongue and make the active choice not to. Chances are people don’t give a crap about that stuff anyway.

4.) If you’re home alone and/or bored, have something else within easy reach to do instead of surfing the net. Recently I’ve pulled out the few books I have with me from the back of the TV stand and put them on my bedside table. When I’m home from work and want to relax, after my allotted 10-15 minutes on the computer, I SHUT IT OFF and PUT IT AWAY and pick up my book instead. It’s much easier to not be temped with “oh wait there’s one more thing I want to check on FB/search on Google, etc” when you have to move from the spot you’re sitting, take out your computer, turn it on, and open your browser. By the time you’ve done that you’ve probably forgotten about that super important thing was you just HAD to do before moving on with your life was anyway. This happens to me a lot….

5.) This suggestion comes from the article. If you have a smart phone, leave it at home occasionally. My thoughts: easier said than done! A lot of people feel an emotional attachment to their phone, so I recommend starting small. Forgot something at the grocery store and gotta make a quick run back? Leave your phone at home. If there’s an emergency, there will be other people around with a cell phone who can help you. If that’s too much, leave your phone in your car while you go into the store. Meeting a friend for coffee? Leave your phone at home or, again, in the car. Eating dinner with your family? Turn it OFF and leave it in the other room. The world will not end if you do not answer that e-mail from work or respond to that Facebook status RIGHT NOW. Believe me, it won’t. Remember back in the day when we couldn’t check e-mail on our phones? The world didn’t end. You didn’t get fired. So relax.

6.) If these seem too daunting for you, if anything, simply make the polite effort to keep your phone away when you’re with friends. One of the things I hate the most is when friends have their cell phone on the table in front of them while we are at dinner, coffee, or just hanging out. If conversation lulls for more than 10 seconds, my friends’ heads are down, looking at their phone. Unless you’re waiting for an important phone call, this is downright rude. This rule does not change if you’re with your best friend or your brother or at a job interview or at a party. It’s rude, no matter the situation. It really surprises me how many people don’t seem to realize that.

On that note, when the moment comes that your phone does ring or beep or vibrate or set off fireworks or whatever they do these days, excuse yourself before answering. Same thing applies if you suddenly have the urge to check something on the Internet from your phone. Basic manners, people!! Don’t forget them.

Mrs. Peacock would be ashamed.

My journey of disconnecting from the Internet has been a short one so far (only a few weeks) but it has proven to be difficult. This proves all the more to me that an Internet dependence exists in my life. These days, people may believe that Internet addiction is just a part of life and it's not a problem because everyone has it. If everyone has a problem, is it a problem, or a social behavior? Oh the philosophical and sociological questions that be. Either way, if Internet dependence is just a fact of life today, then that is very, very sad life we are living. If people don't start to recognize this problem, humans will live out the rest of our existence with our heads down, eyes on our phones and computers. So look up! Enjoy the beautiful world that is around you. Observe the faces, the architecture, the fly on the wall, the rice paddies flying by you on the train (OK maybe that just applies to me in Korea). Have a short conversation with the stranger sitting next to you on the bus. Read a book. Read a magazine. Close your eyes and really listen to that music that's playing in your headphones or from your laptop speakers. There aren't hard things to do. It's what people did before smart phones and computers. Heck, its probably what YOU did about 6 years ago. The Internet will always be there, so join me in my effort to take the precious time we have and enjoy the world and the company around us right now. Here, I'll start. I'm ending this entry now. I will read it over, edit it, and then I will then press the "Publish Post" button and enter these thoughts into the cyber universe, open to any and all comments. I PROMISE not to incessently check for comments on this blog entry, or on the Facebook post I will make to share this blog. In fact, I will wait until I get home to post it, so I'm not tempted while I'm sitting in front of my work computer for the rest of the day. It will be really, really hard. But I promise I will do it. And when I promise you, Almighty Internet, I can't go on back it.

Monday, September 19, 2011


T-minus 20 days until my Korean adventure is over, and only 2 weeks of teaching left. I’m starting to clean out my work desk and getting ready to pull out my suitcases and start packing. It’s really the end. I’m already contemplating in my head my response to the question I will inevitably encounter: “How was Korea?” It’s a really funny question because Korea became my home, my life. After a while, Korea just became the place I was living. Of course, it presented more challenges than a city in my home country, but those challenges just became a part of everyday life. I expect my answer to the question to be, “it was an experience.” Did I enjoy every minute of it? No. Was it challenging? You bet. Were there things I enjoyed? Of course. It will say this: It was a challenging year during which I faced a lot of questions, hardships, and tough situations. But when you think about it, so does everyone and that is what makes you the person you are. Good or bad, Korea has definitely helped shape the person I am. To quote my wise boyfriend, “life is full of things that make one strong even if they don’t want to.”

Valery and I recently reflected on the past year. It began with me asking him if he thought he had changed since he came to Korea back in December ’09. He said he definitely had, and he knows I have too. I totally agree. The most noticeable change I’ve seen in myself is that I’m surer of myself now. After having lived in a place where you stick out like a sore thumb (in appearance and behavior) and are thus judged and stared at regularly, you simply cannot spend your energy worrying about what other people think of you. As a waygookin, no matter how much you try to fit in and please the people around you, they will still stare and judge. To be happy here, you really have to be OK with who you are and accept the differences. Val & I discussed this weekend how being the minority (in any sense) is an experience that everyone should have at least once in their life, even if it’s for a few days, because that is where true self assuredness comes from. If you can still be OK with who you are when you are judged, watched, excused from norm expectations because “that’s just how you are”, refused service, etc, that is an achievement. I’m not saying that I don’t care at all what other people think, because unless you’re a complete psychopath, you are aware of and tend to the emotions of other people. However, being OK with who you are even when the people around you judge you for it is not an easy feat. The only way you can have that experience, I think, is an in-your-face reality check.

Also, I believe I am more tolerant now. Not to say that I was intolerant before, but I have such a deeper understanding of people who are different than me. I mean, WOW. If I had to choose which place was the most unlike America, I would choose Korea (or perhaps another Asian country…hard to say since I’ve only been here). I was never a fan of East and West categorizations (“in the Western world, people do/say/think _____”), but it is so clear to me know how different an Eastern (aka Asian) viewpoint is. I understand life and the world in such a different way now, and I appreciate my new perspective, because it is an important one.

I’m not an expert at this. While my Anthropology degree gives me a slight academic lens to this whole thing, to me it’s the climate of the social interactions that determines how “different” I consider that country to be. You can use anthropological, economic, psychological, or sociological jargon to describe to someone why/how things are different, but any human being, educated or not, can sense the dynamic of a social situation. That is what I try to convey to my readers and my friends. I hope I have succeeded in doing that.

My life here has exposed me to two different cultural perspectives: Korean and Cameroonian. I recently said to a friend how 75% of the time I feel like I’m in Korea, and the other 25% I feel like I’m in Cameroon. I feel like I understand the social dynamics of Cameroonian situations due to the significant time I’ve spent with many different Cameroonians in small groups, large gatherings, and one-on-one. Just like when Americans get together in Korea, we act like Americans and do things the American way and expect American social norms to be followed. So when Cameroonians get together, we might as well be in Cameroon. We are eating Cameroonian food, listening to Cameroonian music, discussing Cameroonian issues in a Cameroonian matter. There are expectations for how people are supposed to act in these settings, and I’ve learned them in an almost classroom-like manner. I come home from these events and have a discussion about it with my “teacher”, Val. I express my confusions and questions, and he gives me an explanation which I apply the next time around. I truly believe that when eventually make it to Cameroon, there won’t be much that will surprise me in terms of social interaction. In fact, one of Val’s friends said to him this weekend at a Cameroonian party (which I helped host with some of the Cameroonian girls) that he really likes and appreciates how comfortable I am around Cameroonians and how it truly feels like I am one of them. That comment means so, so much to me, especially since I am still “myself” when I’m around them. It’s proof that I’ve found a way to make changes in order to make our interactions natural for them, but still comfortable for me.

I feel very enriched by everything I’ve encountered this year. I'll be interested to hear your observations about the changes you see in me when I get home.

On a COMPLETELY unrelated note, I have some reflections about divorce and children’s movies. A recent “victim” of a parental divorce, I am newly sensitive to this issue. Yesterday Val & I went to the movies to see “Mr. Popper’s Penguins”. (It was, by the way, our first movie-in-the-theater date ever!) If you don’t know about this movie, it features Jim Carrey as a divorced workaholic who ends up receiving penguins as a gift from his deceased father. His young children who live with their Mom don’t like him because he is boring and works too much, yada yada yada. Long story short, the penguins teach him about love and family (go figure?) and SPOILER ALERT he and his wife get back together at the end of the movie. The moment the divorced parents and young children situation was presented in the film, I knew that the parents would end up together again at the end. Then it occurred to me that all the children’s movies I could think of that have divorced parents (The Parent Trap and Mrs. Doubtfire, to name a few) all end with every child’s secret wish: their separated parents falling in love with each other again. I wonder… is this a positive message for kids? Not that divorce is a good thing, but you can’t ignore the fact that it’s becoming more and more prevalent in American society. Many kids are growing up with divorced parents. Can you think of a movie for children that present divorce in a less negative light? I can’t. These movies give false hope to kids about their parents falling for each other once again, and teach them that that the only way they can have a happy ending themselves is if their parents are together. Now, false hope is a theme for many adult movie-goers (because yeah, in real life that the smokin’ hot, sweet, flirtatious musician barista (baristo?) at your local Starbucks is going to be single/straight/not a huge player…NOT), but children can’t separate fact from fiction as easily as adults. The way we envy (but understand the fantasy of) the Hollywood romantic chance encounters with impossibly perfect people, children envy the kids in these movies. I really wonder if this is the right way to present divorce to kids. Then again, Hollywood sends lots of bad messages. This one was particularly interesting to me because it’s a children’s movie that deals with an issue that many children are dealing with currently. Kids don’t go to movies for the same reason we do. Adults often see movies to escape our messed up, problem-laden lives and enter into someone else’s perfect one where there is a guaranteed happy ending. Kids go to see movies to learn about life. It’s one thing to let a kid fantasize about their dog being able to talk or discovering they have superpowers, but another to let them believe that they can’t have a happy ending if their parents remain divorced.

I’ll leave you with those unrelated reflections. I’m curious about your thoughts on these, readers.

Keep your eyes out for a final entry or two in the next few weeks!


Sunday, September 4, 2011

"You want to go eat WHAT?"


The reality of me leaving Korea and going back home has gotten me thinking. My past few posts could make you think that I've resisted every aspect of Korean culture. I haven't. There are many sayings, gestures, etc. that have become so natural to me that it's hard to define them anymore. Just to prove to you, here's a list things that are so second nature that you might catch me doing or saying them when I return stateside next month. A lot of these became apparant to me during my vacation to Malaysia and Thailand, especially the restaurant-related things. Actually, you'll see that a lot of these are food related.

  • Speaking Konglish (Korean + English). I tend to incorporate the very little Korean I do know into my normal conversations. For example: "Lunch was so mashisoyo [delicious] today!" "Pali pali [hurry], we don't want to be late." "Hey chingus! [friends]" "Milk opseyo [there is no milk]". OR, you might even catch me speaking English like Koreans do. Example: "That shirt costs much money." or, "Ugh, octopus is not delicious!

  • Making an "X" with my arms (or sometimes index fingers) to indicate that I don't want something. For example, if I'm ordering food, I might say "I'll have the salad, but no olives." [*makes "X" with arms*]

  • Slurping my food

  • Instead of sucking noodles up from the plate, I might place them on a spoon by picking some up with my chopsticks and swirling them in a circulur motion (like preparing a soft-serve ice cream cone) while slowly lowering them towards the spoon so the noodles are in a neat pile. This is how Koreans eat noodles, especially if they are in soup. It's actually a good system because it gives the noodles a chance to cool off before you eat them. This is good when Koreans like their food piping hot and I would like to keep my taste buds THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

  • Eating with chopsticks like a champion.

  • Waving goodbye or hello with two hands, especially to friends.

  • Happily eating shrimp or clams. These are the "safest", most normal, and most familiar seafood to me in a sea (pun intended) of octopus, prawn, squid, and jellyfish-laden food in Korea, so I am relieved if I can find a dish with only those in it.

  • Really enjoying (and often craving) eating dried seaweed. Still can't stand it when it's wet and slimy in soup or vegetable salad, but it's really quite good when it's dry and seasoned with salt and olive oil. It comes in packages like this, and I sometimes eat it straight from the package as a snack.

  • Wishing everyone a good meal before we eat. Koreans always say Jalmukesumneda before people start eating. It translates directly into "eat a lot", but the meaning is the same as bon apetit. I actually really enjoy this becuase it makes the meal more special, more ceremonial. Saying "enjoy your meal" turns people sitting at a table together into a community of people eating a meal together. This is probably something I'll make an active effort to continue even if I never return to Korea.

  • Taking off my shoes whenever I go inside a home or restaurant.

  • Becoming complacent with mediocre Italian food (though I am determined to change this the minute my feet touch American soil!)

  • Giving and taking things with both hands, or with one hand touching the elbow of the outstretched arm. This is the polite way to give or recieve something in Korea, especially money or a gift.

  • Pouring everybody else's drinks at the table. In Korea, you're never supposed to fill your own glass (especially with alcohol). Or, if you are pouring my drink, I will pick up the cup from the table and hold it with both hands (or with one as I described above) as you pour.

  • Looking for a button on the table at a restaurant to press for attention from the waiter or waiter. My friends & I call it the "yo-gi-oh button" because yo-gi-oh means "over here" in Korean. It's what you shout when you're ready to order at a restaurant. Most places have buttons, though, which you can press for immediate attention from the staff.

  • Forgetting to ask for the check at a restaurant. Here, as soon as order the waiter or waitress will bring you the bill and set it on the corner of the table. Then you bring the check up to the cashier and on your way out. In Thailand and Malaysia we all found ourselves puzzled that we got up to leave and realized we didn't have the check. We were all used to not having to ask for it!

  • Bowing my head and upper body when saying hello, goodbye, or thank you.

I'm sure there are more, but that's a good list to start with I think. I wonder what American tendencies I'm no longer doing...

See you all very soon!
Love, Mel

Friday, September 2, 2011

Malaysia & Thailand Vacation

Time really flies. I can’t believe it’s September. I can’t believe I’m going home in five weeks. I can’t believe that in 2 weeks I will have been in Korea for an entire year.

I promised a blog entry about my vacation to Malaysia and Thailand, so here it is. Oddly, I f

eel it was not Southeast Asia that I learned the most about. For me, this trip ended up being about Korea- what it means to me, what I appreciate about it, what I hate about it, what it has given me as a person and a traveler.

Firstly, here’s a map for reference.

Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok are marked. Here's another map so you can see where Phuket is.

Our first stop was Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. KL is considered a Muslim city, and it dawned on me on the airport shuttle-tran ride that that would actually influence our stay there because at the time, it was Ramadan. As we made our way to the airport exit, I worried about that we wouldn’t be able to find anything to eat during the day. We arrived really late at night so as soon as we made it to our hostel we crashed. We ended up being fine.

I could tell you about all the things we did when we were in KL- saw the Patronus Towers, went shopping, went to the top of the KL tower, but what I took away the most from KL was a sentiment.

It wasn’t until the next morning that I discovered how diverse KL is. I think it came as a shock after having lived in Korea for nearly a year. Every face that passed you on the street was different. Every tongue you heard from the conversations of passer-bys was different. I was in heaven!! Such a feast for the eyes, the ears, and the soul. As we walked around I learned that the population of KL consists of three main groups: native Malays, Indians, and Mandarin Chinese. The cuisine reflected those three ethnicities which mix and match in this beautiful city. (That was why we didn’t have any trouble finding food during the day). Eating in KL and Thailand was a re-introduction to flavors. As you now know from previous posts, Korean food consists of one flavor- hot chili pepper. Malay food, aside from being so diverse, was so flavorful. Garlic, ginger, basil, savory meat- where have you been?!?

The thing that struck me the most about KL was how similar it felt to Cape Town. I kept saying how similar they were but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. I don’t think it was anything tangible- the two cities do not look the same in terms of architecture or anything. “This place reminds me of Cape Town” was one of the first comments I made about KL. I don’t know…there was something about flying down the highway in the airport taxi (on the other side of the road) staring at the palm-treed lined highway and feeling invincible and vulnerable at the same time. KL was the first stop on our trip, the beginning of a trip to foreign places. Beyond accommodation, we hadn’t made any solid itineraries, so anything could happen. The last time I felt that paradox of emotions was on the bus from the Cape Town airport when I first arrived. I felt so excited—a beginning of something unknown and exciting—yet also vulnerability. I didn’t know much about life in Cape Town, and now I didn’t know anything about life in KL.

Besides that, I think the striking diversity of KL made me think of Cape Town. Cape Town was the most diverse place I’d ever been to, and that was one of the things I loved about it. I think being in such a diverse place again reminded of that feeling again. Not to mention, when I calmed myself down enough to order a Savannah Dry (a South African hard cider that was my drink of choice in CT) at a nearby bar, that familiar subtle apple flavor mixed with the bitterness of beer brought back so many memories and emotions. People always talk about how smells can bring back memories and emotions. They never say anything about taste. Whenever I have the occasional craving to recreate my favorite childhood meal—acini de pepi pasta with butter and parmesan cheese accompanied by a glass of chocolate milk— memories and “feelings” of my childhood come flooding back. It’s really incredible, that brain of ours.

Another part I loved about KL was the pleasantness of the population. Folks were smiling, or at least looked content, as they went about their daily lives. You have to understand that this is NOT how it is at all in Korea, which is probably why it felt so refreshing to me. In KL, when I met a stranger’s eyes on the street, they gave me a smile or a polite nod. In Korea, I receive an open-mouthed gape then a quick, embarrassed look away once I stare back at them long enough. In general, Koreans aren’t happy people (not a shocker if you examine their lives, cultural mentalities and expectations). I had forgotten what a difference it makes when people are actually content with their lives. They carry themselves differently-with more ease and a lightness of character. They do not have their faces glued to their Smartphone or Galaxy Tab or iPad. The woman working behind the desk at 7-11—certainly not the most exciting or glamorous job—smiles at you and giggles when you make a face or joke to your friend. She says hello and smiles again when you go in a half-hour later, seemingly happy to see you again. When children see you they do not point; instead, they wave. AAAHHHHHHHHH (sign of relief). What a nice reminder.

After a short 2.5 days in KL, we traveled to our second destination- Phuket, Thailand (pronounced poo-ket…don’t get any ideas). Despite the name, Phuket is, simply put, paradise. It’s where people go for an exotic tropical vacation. I don’t blame them. Never have I seen water so blue. Phuket is definitely a tourist town. Normally, that would bother me, but this was the actually “vacation” part of our trip, so I didn’t mind. Everyone spoke English very well and there were tons of other tourists around (especially German and French). One of my favorite parts of Phuket (and one of the top experiences of the whole trip) was snorkeling. Our hostel helped book us a ferry trip to Ko Phi Phi Island, a famous group of islands about an hour boat ride away from main land Phuket. The ferry ride included snorkeling, views of all the gorgeous islands of Ko Phi Phi (including Maya Bay where the famous Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach” was filmed) and time to explore and shop on the main island. Shopping on the main island was fun, but the snorkeling was definitely the highlight of the day. I mentioned the color of the water before- it was uninhibited, full out, no B.S. turquoise. I seriously didn’t know it was possible for water to look like that. It was in every sense of the word bright blue, as if there was a flood light under the surface shining light on it. I never expected to be surrounded by a turquoise oasis when I put my head into the water to snorkel. Purple and yellow-striped fish swam all around me. Beneath the fish was coral of every shape. If I was to paint what I saw on a canvas, I would use all bright and pastel colors.

I was surprised the fish never touched me because there were so many that seemed to inches from my flailing limbs trying to simultaneously balance in the life jacket and avoid other passengers snorkeling around me. (Funny side note about that. Sending a ferry-full of passengers into the same small section for snorkeling is a recipe for swimming-traffic disaster. I had several head-on collisions into other snorkelers, who were, like me, swimming forward face and eyes down watching fish instead of paying attention to the legs and arms coming towards them at the surface. Everyone was in such wonder that we didn’t even apologize to one another, just turned our bodies and went on our ways. Thinking about it now it was probably very comical for the crew and passengers onboard to watch us all swim into each other.)

Besides the congested traffic situation, it was really a wonderful experience. No really, wonderful. Full of wonder. I don’t think I’ve ever been in such awe of anything before. I was just as fascinated with the fish and coral as I was with the color of the water. At one point I turned around and swam away from the fish and instead into the clear, uninterrupted turquoise. If there was ever a time for music to accompany my life, this was probably it. In my head, Arial the Little Mermaid’s voice ahhh-ing to “Part of Your World” was in my head: “ahh ahh ahhh, ahh ahh ahh, ahh ah ah ah ah ahh ahh ahh AAAHHHHHH!” (You know what I’m talking about right?). I was in such awe of the blue and so deep into my musical daydream that I didn’t even realize that someone from the ferry crew was blowing his whistle at me because I was swimming out of bounds. Oops.

The nightlife in Phuket was really something else-“wonderful” in a completely different way. Thailand has quite an active sex industry, and it’s not tucked away and hidden from tourists. In fact, I think a lot of people, men especially, come to Thailand for that reason. Both nights at Patong Beach we found ourselves at the strip of bars and clubs down the road from our hostel, where advertisers where constantly asking us if we wanted to attend a “Ping Pong Show” which has NOTHING to do with playing ping pong, I’ll tell you that. We also encountered many “ladyboys” – men who (very convincingly) dress like women or have had sex-change procedures. These “ladyboys” (the Thai word for them translates into English as that term) are considered a third gender in Thailand, which I find fascinating. There were everywhere.

The strip of bars also featured girls dancing on ables in outdoor bars. Not drunk party girls dancing on tables, I mean hired scantily clad Thai girls dancing on tables (some of whom didn’t tlook like they could have been much older than my students). I wasn’t shocked to see hired girls dancing on tables, but I was shocked to see it outside for all to see. If I was shocked I can’t imagine how the other family tourists felt. While I was surprised to see the sex industry so blatantly open in a tourist area, I was previously aware of the sex industry in Thailand and how vital it is to their economy because of my HIV/AIDS research papers in college. I knew I was going to be exposed to it in some fashion when I was there. The vacationing families who were there with their 10-year old children clearly were not prepared for that. Parents walked a few paces in front of their children, wide-eyed and terrified while their children looked in awe and confusion all around them. I was disappointed in these people- they should have done their research before they brought their children there. That is, unless they did do their research and had prepared an appropriate discussion to have with their children.

In amongst all of this craziness we managed to find a really awesome bar where there was an awesome live band playing. There, we met a couple Australian guys who were in Phuket for their buddy’s bachelor party. Apparently, they were the only single ones out of the whole group of guys, so they were out. We jammed to the live band for a while and then we all went to a pool hall and played pool. They were genuinely nice guys so it was fun to hang out with them. We played a couple games of pool then went dancing at a club, where we found LOTS of tourist men with Thai women whom they had clearly bought for the night. Although the music and company were really great, I was really uncomfortable with all of that going on, so we left.

The next day, we left for our fancy beach resort at a different beach. The pictures speak for themselves there. It was AWESOME, especially the pool. We enjoyed our evening there a lot, especially watching the sunset from our private balcony.

The pool, from the pool (yes I brought my camera in)

Before I go on, a word about Thai food. Every Thai dish (done well) is said to have all 4 flavors in one- sweet, spicy, sour, and salty. Sadly, a lot of Thai food did not agree with my stomach (I was actually out of commission for one day in Bangkok due to a bout of food poisoning. Mleh), however what I did eat I enjoyed a lot. As I mentioned earlier, it was so nice to well…. not eat Korean food. I can’t say I ever got used to Korean food or enjoy it at all. I certainly won’t miss it when I come home. Someone get me an actually delicious pasta dish please!! Despite my, erm, traveler’s problems, the food was one of the highlights of the entire trip. I looked forward to every meal.

After our relaxing stay at the Karon beach resort, we were off to the airport again for Bangkok. My feelings about Bangkok are like my feelings for NYC- it was fun for a few days, but I could never live there. I honestly didn’t have a fantastic time in Bangkok. By the time we got there I was starting to feel ready to go back to Korea, where I know my way around and how things go, and to see Val. Our first day wasn’t great- we got lost and ended up doing a lot of walking on a very hot day. We did get to see the flower market, though, which I was happy about. The vendors for tuk-tuks (those little open three-tire cars), taxis, restaurants, souvenirs, EVERYTHING, were so aggressive. We were constantly declining offers for everything imaginable, and it got old quick. Not to mention, at the beginning of the day we (almost) got scammed by this guy who at first was being helpful and showing us things to do near our hostel, but then we realized it was a scam later on- the tuk tuk he got for us would supposedly take us to a few places then back to the area our hostel was in, but instead it would take us to a store where we are expected to buy things. We had read about scams like these in our guide book, so once we realized it we got out of it. That was not a pleasant experience, and not a positive introduction to Bangkok.

The next day I was sick in bed the whole day. Our last day there, though, was definitely the best one. We went to Wat Pho, which houses an enormous gold reclining Buddha in addition to many other temples and Buddhist structures. It was really beautiful and I had a field day with my camera. At Wat Pho alone I took almost 200 pictures. Then we went to the Museum of Siam which was one of the coolest museums I’ve ever been to. If I ever go back to Bangkok again, I would want to go with someone who speaks Thai and knows their way around.

Despite those negative experiences, I still really did enjoy my trip. I got to do and see so much and check off yet another region of the world that I’ve been to. I also really liked spending time with my friends Blythe and Michelle. I think one of the best parts of the trip were all of the inside jokes we came out of it with. Those are sometimes the best part of vacations!

When we finally arrived back in Korea, Valery was at the airport with a sign that said “I miss you baby.” So sweet :)

I sort of missed Korea, which surprised me. Although as soon as I was back on Korean soil it was back to being stared at and being surrounded by grumpy people, it felt familiar. Huh. Who’da thought?

If you haven’t heard already, my flight back to the states is booked. October 10th I will be back on American soil. Here goes my last month of teaching…



Tuesday, July 5, 2011

There's Good Stuff Too!

After reading my post about cultural frustrations, it would be rather safe for you to assume that I hate Korea. In fact, in that moment I was posting (OK, ranting), I probably did hate Korea. However, it is important for you to remember that those moments of, as I said, "full-throttle frustration", are not my only emotions. I want to tell you (and I want to remind myself) of the things that make living in Korea pretty great. Bare with me, as posts of this nature are as much for me as they are for you. As I struggle with the decision of whether or not to re-sign my contract for another year in Korea, writing blog posts in lieu of pro-and-con lists seems to be the most sensible way for me to work out my feelings. Also, they are interesting for you (I hope).

Keeping with the format of the other post, let's do this in list form.

1) Money. When you are earning as much as I am (or any other other foreign English teacher in this country), it is really easy to have fun and to also save money. In other words, life is comfortable, at least financially. Firstly, I get paid pretty big bucks and have great 'perks'. In addition to receiving a steady and decent salary, my apartment rent is paid for my by school, as is half of my medical insurance. That's right. My apartment is free.

Secondly, living expenses are pretty low here. Utility bills are (almost) always under $30. If you're eating out, food is cheap. Eating Korean or Chinese food is rarely over $8 per meal. This includes a large portion of whatever you've ordered (which comes in a jiffy), and unlimited side dishes like kimchi and sweet yellow radishes. Most of the time, it's cheaper to eat out than to buy groceries for a weeks' worth of dinner ingredients. If you go out to a "nice" restaurant -- meaning Western style food-- your meal will never be over $25. Granted, the Western food isn't very good. Well, scratch that. It's not good at all. But still, when you have a craving, it's nice to know that you can still "enjoy" it without having to splurge.

Looking good also doesn't hurt your wallet either. I got my hair done at the "expensive" salon in town and my haircut cost $15. When the ladies at work asked how much my new 'do costs, they were shocked that I had to pay 15 bucks for it. "Ohh, too expensive!" I just laughed and explained to them that in America, most haircuts at nice salons cost around $40. The salon at the American airbase in Songtan that we frequent has pedicures for $25, mani's for $10, and brow waxing for...wait for it.... $6. That is really the only beauty service that I can compare to the U.S. because it's the only one I do. If you've never seen salon prices in the U.S., allow me to explain. Take those numbers, mulitply them by 2 (or 3 for brow waxing). There you have average prices for those services. RIGHT?! Moreover, there are tons of markets around where you can buy cheap clothes, shoes, and accesories.

Medical care is mad cheap too. You're only out 2 or 3 bucks if you need Ibuprofen, or any other medication at the pharmacy. I spoke with someone who had to stay the night at the hospital after a car accident while in Korea. The price for his entire ordeal? 100 USD. Geez, I was in the emergency room for 3 hours a few years ago and had to shell out $700. Now I know we're getting jipped!

That being said, there are some things that are not cheap here. The must frustraing examples are: cocktails, bread, cheese or any other "Western" food product at the grocery store (Friggen' cream cheese costs $6 for a tiny tub), wireless internet, and sandwiches or any other baked good.

2) I cannot list the awesome things about Kore without a mention of the thriving metropolis of Seoul. Just one short bus or subway ride will get me to one of the world's largest, most fascinating, and modern cities. There are so many cool things to do in Seoul. Whether or not you want a little piece of home or an experience that is completly new and cool, you can find it in Seoul. Often, the challenge is finding out what and where those experiences are--you gotta make a bit of an effort to find English sources. There are tons of English news sources and even expat magazines that provide that info, you just gotta know where to look to find them.

I also gotta give a shout-out to my own city, Suwon. Despite living in the shadow of its bigger, cooler, more famous neighbor, Suwon does pretty well for itself. There are lots of cool experiences, especially when it comes to intenational food, to do in Suwon. Even more so than in Seoul, you need to know where to look because there isn't really any good English language sources for Suwon. Your best resource is other expats who have been in Suwon for a while. If you're living in Suwon, you'll likely learn about great places through Suwon vetrans, friends of friends, or a friend's co-worker's ex-colleague's boyfriend's Korean language class classmate's orienation roommate's co-teacher. Or something like that. As for me, I have been able to find some pretty great restaurants thanks to round-about suggestions like those. My friends and I frequent a tucked-away Indian restaurant that a friend of a friend discovered. Delicious, delicious food there. Apparantly there's also a great burger joint around my neighborhood that's been recommended to me by several people. A friend also recommended that Vietnamese shabu shabu I wrote about in a previous entry.

3) An international community. Thanks to the plummeting economies of the West, there is a bustling foreigner community in Korea of people who are to teach, study, or even work (usually at Samsung). In Suwon, the foreigner community is strong but few. As with finding stuff to do, finding people to do stuff with also requires a little bit of digging. I dug a bit and struck gold around December and have been rolling in it ever since. Thanks to many-an-outing to foreigner bars (there are a few in Suwon), chance encounters, friends of friends, and GEPIK orientation (which I blogged about here), etc, I'm meeting people from every corner the world. I have met people from South Africa,Germany, El Salvador, Sweden, Italy, Ethiopia, Guinea Bissau, Cameroon, England, Russia, Jordan, Canada, China, Columbia, Kazakhstan, Thailand, Nigeria, Guatemala, Australia, New Zealand... I could go on forever. I've always loved meeting and befriending people from all over the world, and I was surprised how well I could do that here. Since we're all in the same shoes-- being foreigners in a place that is not always foreigner-friendly-- we stick together and always welcome newcomers.

4) My job. If you factor in how much I paid, my hours, and what is expected of me, this job is a dream come true. I know a lot of recent college graduates who would kill for a job like this. I try to remember that. In truth, I enjoy this job sometimes. I can't say that I love it. It has its moments, though. Some days are great. Most days are O.K. Some days are downright terrible. I don't want to do this job forever-- I know that. In this stage in my life, being able to live comfortably and save money at the same time is really great.

I realize that this is a conflict a lot of people encounter in their lives: stay at a job that you don't enjoy but pays well, or leave it in hopes of finding something better. Which will usually mean not getting paid what you would like to be paid. Readers: have you been in a situation like this? What did you do? What was your decision-making process like?

5) My friends. I don't need to explain much here. I have a number of really great friends here, and am always meeting new people. We have a great time together. It's our dinner dates, cocktail hours, weekend get-togethers, or extravagant weekend plans that get me through particularly frustrating days or weeks. I feel like I have a mini-family here, and they make life pretty great. Like I said, we're all in the same boat. It's comforting.

6) The boif. For those of you who aren't hip and 'with-it', or who are not a 14-year old girl, 'boif' is a cute, juvenile abbreviation for boyfriend. Just trying to lighten the mood before I go all mushy-gushy on you.

The main reason why Korea is pretty great to me is because Valery is here. He is the reason I came here in the first place, and it was one of the best decisions I've ever made. These 10 months we've spent FINALLY in the same place-- living together, traveling, trying new things, attending social events, becoming part of each other's friend groups-- has proved to me more than ever that he's "the-one" and that we have a real shot of doing this, like, forever. [Cue aaawwww's.] You know all that stuff I raved about how frustrating living in Korea can be? Well I forget all about that when he walks through the door and hugs me like he hasn't seen me in a year. (And remember I actually know what that feels like. It's like that every time, I swear.) If I've had an extra bad day, he's always a patient, supportive, and rational sounding board to my emotional rants. People search their whole lives for what we have, and we got it. And it is life's most wonderful gift. This time, I have a choice- I can stay if I want to. How can I even consider walking away, doing long distance for who knows how long?! So, you see my dilemma.

Oh, and August will be 2.5 years that we've been together. Holy crap.

Lastly, and probably most importantly: Experience. In these 10 months alone, I have felt myself becoming a stronger, more independent, more knowlegable, confident and well-rounded person. The experience of living abroad, teaching students, and navigating cultural barriers is the opportunity of a lifetime. I'm learning so much about myself here. I'm trying new things. I'm discovering new things in this country every day. I'm discovering what is and what is not important to me. I know this job is a stepping-stone to my bigger goals. The question is-- how long do you stay on a stepping stone?

I hope now you can see both sides of life in Korea. As with any foreign country, you have to take the good with the bad. The question is, can the good balance out the bad? I'd like to think so.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

La Vie, l'Amour, et l'Apprentissage en la Corée


My blog is now bilingual! I recently decided to start a new project, just for fun. I will now be translating some of my blog entries into French and posting them on another blog. I actually set up this new blog last during my senior year of college for a French class which required me to blog in French as homework. The blog has been sitting untouched since my last homework assignment, but it will soon receive a makeover and some new content!

Though I've been in Korea for 10 months, my love for French remains strong. My French skill, unfortunately, does not. Valery and I practice speaking occasionally, but in an attempt to keep up my (almost) fluency and ease, I thought it would be fun to practice this way. Translating my own work into French will not only allow me to practice my writing and improve my mastery of the language, but will also (hopefully) expand my writing and insight on this experience to a new audience.

So, if you read/understand French, check out my translations at http://filleamericaneamefrancophone.blogspot.com/ (An American woman, a Francophone Soul).



Friday, May 27, 2011

Can I get an 'Oy Vey'?!

As a traveler, no matter where you are or how much you love where you are, you are bound to go through the I HATE THIS PLACE phase. Whether that phase lasts an hour, a day, a week, a month, a few months depends on the person and the place. When I was in Cape Town, that phase lasted for about 5 minutes. I recently entered this phase in Korea and have been raging with full-throttle frustration since. I can't exactly say when it started, or whether or not there was an occurance that set it off, but I just know that I suddenly felt the little frustrating things about being a foreigner in Korea being not so little anymore. I started to become uncharactaristically cynical, judgemental and short-tempered. My co-workers, whom I typically enjoy spending time with, suddenly became objects of my mental judgements and annoyed reactions that I'd mutter under my breath. (One nice thing about living in Korea is that you can easily vocalize those little mean or rude things you are thinking because no one will understand you.) It took me a while to actually realize that I was in this phase, and unfortunately I still am. Don't worry, I'm OK. I'm lucky to have many, many friends here who know exactly what I'm going through and with whom I can rant and rave with complete confidence that they understand. For all of you out there who aren't waygookins (foreigners), allow me to explain why I often think (and sometimes say), "KOREA WHY ARE YOU SO ANNOYINGGGG?!?!?! *%$#* $#^% @!$# *%#@"

1) As a foreigner in Korea, it's safe to say that you are almost constantly on display. Living in one of the most homogenous countries in the world, Koreans are surprised and fascinated when they see foreigners-- especially people at the two extremes of the age spectrum. Children will often point at you and shout, "waygookin!", as if you were an animal at the zoo. Of course it's hard to get angry at children (especially since I'm convinced Korean kids have an extra 'cute' gene in them--they are SO ridiculously adorable). Adults, however, are not adorable. They have a similar habit as their children to make a point of noticing foreigners, but instead they "point" with their eyes. Their expressions often have a hint of accusation, as if to say, "what are you doing here? you don't belong here...this place is for Koreans." The worst is the older folks. I will say on their behalf, however, that the Korea they grew up in was virtually foreigner-less. Only in the past 3-5 years, the number of foreigners living in Korea has sky-rocketed. So, now in their old age, they sort of have a legit excuse to be a little surprised and curious. That being said, I wonder if back in those days they were taught manners. I'm tired of getting 'elevator eyes' (looking someone up and down, head-to-toe and up again) from, like, EVERY person who sees me. The vertical shifty eyes are quick, often not lingering, but they're there. (I mean, have you ever had someone look you up and down and NOT notice?) I can sense the process of thoughts in their heads: 'Huh? Oh! She's a foreigner. Wow, look at her. How interesting. Let me look at her outfit and make judgements about it. MY EYES!!! She's not wearing stockings under her knee-length skirt. Oh, and her neckline goes below her collarbone. SLUT. Oh, look at how she walks. She can walk pretty well for a foreigner. That's amazing.'

Ok ok, maybe I'm taking this a little too far. But with the level of utter dumbfoundedness (is that even a word? My web browser is telling me it's not, but I can't think of another word to use...) with which people look at me, I wouldn't be surprised if that's what they're thinking. I can feel their eyes every moment they're watching. People literally stop walking in order to watch me go by. Didn't they learn that it's rude to stare? I'm not a circus animal for them to gawk at. I'm a human being. Don't they understand that? I mean, I understand the curiosity, but it's one think to look, another to gawk. Now that its summertime, I have found some solace in my sunglasses. Without my eyes visible, I am often mistaken for a Korean at first since my dark hair and short height match most Korean women (though the size of my chest or backside do not). I notice when I'm riding my bike or walking down the street while wearing my sunglasses, I don't receive lingering stares. It's so very nice.

When Valery and I are together especially, we receive many stares. Hardcore stares. People will stare at us as we walk toward them. We glare right back at them to challenge them, telepathically saying "what are YOU looking at?!". Often times, staring as we walk by isn't enough. They will stop walking and turn around to continue watching us as we walk away. Ugh. Really?!

This is something you sort of get used to after a few months here, but it doesn't really make it any more bearable. Most of the time, you tolerate it. Sometimes, like now for me, it infuriates you. I try not to think about it. I often find myself now avoiding eye contact with people. Which is so not me. BUT, staying true to form, I look for the positives in a negative situation. I've always thought of myself to be a confident person, but the demeaning looks I receive have done some damage to that. After a while I deciding I wasn't going to let that ruin me. So, I have adapted a new mindset. The idea is, people are going to stare at me regardless- I might as well do what I want. So now, no more itchy stockings after work. More experiments with different clothing styles (hats, layering, funky patterns, etc). More jamming to my iPod on the subway and bus. More tight-fitting jeans that show off my curves. I have to say, It is pretty liberating, so I guess it's blessing in disguise.

2) Stripper heels. I'm not sure why this bothers me so much, but Korean women wear HUGE high heels. Not just when they're going out for an evening outing. All the time, everyone. I find myself staring in disbelief at these 5, maybe even 6" heels on women whose jobs involve standing. Hairdressers, store clerks, etc. How do their feet not killing after 5 minutes in those shoes? The reason I call them stripper heels is because at home, the only women who wear heels that high are strippers (or women who want the same kind of attention as strippers get). Plus, when matched with mini-skirts (as they so often are) and Korean womens' beautiful, long legs, Korean women dressed like that look to me indecent. The worst part is that 80% of the women in these heels can't even walk properly in them. This was a sight I saw often at home, especially at night out in da clubs: women just shuffling their way from here to there, taking tiny steps because they can't straighten their knees all the way because their heels are too high. It's pathetic. Here's a little tip for choosing shoes: if you can't walk in them, don't wear them. Duuurrrr! Just today, when walking to the park, we passed a girl who was walking very awkwardly; it looked like she may have been injured somehow or maybe even slightly handicapped. On her feet were 3-inch stiletto-style heels. I couldn't believe it.

Don't have much of a positive light to shine on this matter, except that it makes me feel better about myself when I'm comfortably walking around in my flats while the Koreans stumble along in their monster heels. Perhaps I'd feel differently if I was trying to catch the attention of a Korean male, but I'm not. So, that's that.

3) As much as I'd like to think of myself as wordly and adventurous, I really don't like most Korean food. The reason being, that the majority of Korean food is spicy or exotic (to me) seafood. Eel, octopus, and squid are ingredients in regular meals- even school lunches. Now, when I say spicy, I'm not talking about food with a little kick that puts the cherry on top of a delectable bite. No, I'm talking about EVERYTHING- vegetables, meat, fish, and soup, all absolutely drowning in chili pepper paste. You can't get away from it. Koreans really like to eat things that are "good for your health", which explains why they love the chili pepper. However, it is literally the only spice they use. Salty foods are "bad for your health", so at school lunch, there is rarely a salty item. My rule of thumb for any item I see on the menu is- if it's red, it's spicy. This means I am usually left to choking down the spicy food (as my nose starts running--and its rude to blow your nose at the table in Korea), or resorting to eating solely rice for my meal. This explains why I gained a good 5 pounds since I've been here-- I've just been eating a lot of white rice! Nowadays, my spicy tolerance has increased just a bit, so I can enjoy some of the spicy vegetables, especially if they are cold. A cold vegetable salad of cucumbers and scallions is my favorite. That, or very thinly sliced kimchi (so I can eat only a little at a time). Granted, I do have to accompany any bite of these with a heap of rice, but hey...at least I'm improving!

On that note, we move on to point # 3.5.) Korea is a culture of food. So, it goes without saying, that as someone who doesn't like a lot of Korean food, it can be pretty frustrating. In Korea, when someone offers you food, you eat it. Even if it's not specifically offered to you, you eat it. Basically, if there is food in the same vicinity as you, you are expected to eat it. I went along with this at the beginning as much as I could. Even now, when I return to the office after a class and there is a rice cake (NOT delicious) on the desk for me, I kindly thank whoever put it there and put it in my purse "for later". The minute I get home, I throw it away or offer it to a student I see on my way out of work. Or there is ginger juice (yes, that exists. And it tastes and looks like dirt) on my desk. I take a sip and when no one is looking, I dump the rest in the water fountain and throw it away as if I finished it. For the sake of my taste buds and sometimes my health, however, I am put in an awkward situation where it's either eat something you don't want or refuse (and subsequently be considered rude). Now that I've started a mini-diet to shed the little "rice baby" that has been growing in me, this has become a bit more of a problem.

Other teachers or parents will leave some food in the office for people to share. Often, it is something sweet and fatty like birthday cake, nasty and Korean like rice cakes, or even something I like to eat like kimbap or fruit. When the food arrives (or when someone notices it), they go and eat it. I sometimes choose not to eat it because, well, I don't feel like it. A normal sentiment in America, where people choosing not to eat something is a personal decision. But in Korea, OY! Exhibit A. When I arrived at school this morning, there were grapes in the office. I like grapes, in fact they are good for me while I diet, but I had just finished scarfing down my breakfast, so I didn't eat any. The following is NOT a dramatization.
Colleague 1, the minute I sit at my desk: "Melissa, are you busy?"
"No, not really."
"Have some grapes."
"No, thanks."
"Um, well, I just had breakfast, so I don't feel like eating anything right now."
*Confused, a bit offended look on colleagues face.*

30 minutes later, colleague #2: "Melissa! Have some grapes!!!"
"No, thanks. I don't want any right now."
"Don't you like grapes?"
(in head) ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?!?
"I do, I'll just have some later."
*Same, confused, offended expression*

You might be thinking, 'Melissa, just eat the damn grapes.' But this is a mild example, because it's often something I just don't enjoy eating. This happens on a regular basis, especially at meals. Exhibit B: Lunchtime. I always put kimchi (or any other spicy item) on my tray because if I don't people notice and ask me why I didn't take any kimchi (or other spicy item). I usually eat a bite or two, just so I don't feel totally bad about wasting it, but the rest of it I usually throw away. (And the environmental enthusiast in me squirms.) However, if someone notices that I'm not eating my kimchi, or spicy fish, or octopus, etc, they say, "Melissa, why aren't you eating your [kimchi]? Oh, maybe its too spicy for you. Foreigners don't like spicy food." So, now I represent ALL foreigners? Everyone. Everywhere. Did they already forget that the previous native English teacher, who was originally from Mexico, loved spicy food?! or, "Melissa, you don't like those (whole) little fishes on a pile on your plate? They are so delicious! It's such a great feeling when their little eyes bore into your soul while you pinch them with your chosticks. Try!" OK FINE I'LL EAT THE KIMCHI!!!

OK, that may have been a dramatization.

4) Koreans are shallow. I've mentioned this in previous posts, but the truth of this statement has become clearer and clearer the longer I've been here. So much in this society is based on looks and money. Did you know that when you send a resume to a company, you must send along your picture as well? I had to do the same thing when I applied to this job. Koreans base their search for a life parter on money. I didn't think this concept was so pervasive until after a few conversations with my co-workers. Nam teacher, the youngest one and the one who I'm closest with, is 29 and still single. Her love life often becomes the topic of conversation when we are out. I (half-jokingly) mentioned that I knew a very tall, handsome, sexy Korean man who dances (really, really good) salsa where I take lessons. The minute they heard 'dancer', though, they immediately said "Nooooo, no artists. Korean mothers do not like that. Samsung man. Yes! Samsung man is better! Very rich. No artists, not rich." Now, I know this is not just a Korean concept. But I consider these women my friends, and sometimes I forgot that they are Korean. These sensible, smart, modern women actually think like that? It reminded me how this way of thinking really does permeate into most people's perspectives. This part of Korean culture doesn't influence me as much as the previous ones, but it definitely adds to my frustration.

I can understand and appreciate the social importance of the Korean identity, food, and good looks have in this country. However, it's totally differnt thing to be in it. This is a lesson I've learned while I've been here. As a passionate anthropology major, I always prided myself in being able to easily accept and understand other societies' paradigms. It never occured to me, though, how different it is to be in that society. From the outside, I understand a lot about why things are the way there are. Its just difficult to be part of it. It doesn't feel right. It pulls me away from my comfort zone, my beliefs, what makes me me. Does that make me stubborn, ignorant, unadaptable? Deep down, am I as unaccepting and close-minded as I believe many Americans to be? This is the intellectual and personal struggle I'm enduring at the moment. What does it mean to be an American, a person for that matter, living in another country? Is it really possible to stick to my beliefs all the while conforming with the ones around me in order to fit in and not offend people? Is my defiance against some Korean customs the action of a close-minded traveler or of a strong, individual?

I don't want this entire entry to be a downer or intellectual crunch time. So, here are some quick, interesting updates from my everyday life :)

Val spent the month of June in Cameroon (hey that rhymes!), visiting his family. It was really hard being far away from him again, but at least this time it was just a month. He arrives back in Korea on Wednesday (the 29). I can't wait for him to be back! His presence always helps to sooth my frustrations. When he's around, everything is OK. Things are going great with us.

Also, I booked my big vacation. Blythe, Michelle, and I are going to Malaysia and Thailand for 10 days in August. WOOOOO! We leave August 10th. We'll spend 2.5 days in Kuala Lampur (Malaysia), 3 days in Phuket (Thailand), and 5 days in Bangkok.

Many of you have been asking me about when I'm coming home, and/or if I'm staying another year here after my contract ends October 1st. This is a quite a difficult decision for me, seeing as life in Korea is clearly very frustrating at times, though my friends are awesome, and of course the love of my life is here and will be for another couple years. I will announce my decision as soon as I make it. If I do decide to renew my contract, I'll be in the states for the entire month of October, and then will return to Korea to start work again in November. If I don't renew, I'll definitely be stateside for some time. What comes next is still in the works--I've got some (exciting) ideas floating around in my head, but aren't really ready to share them yet. Again, as soon as I I know, you'll know!

Thanks for reading, folks.