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Wow…it’s been a long time since I’ve posted. We are very welll and looking forward to taking a trip back to North America for the summer break. As to my lack of posting, mostly it’s a combination of being busy with life and not feeling the desperate pull to write that I once did. I think I mostly need a break. But until I get back to into writing again, please take a moment to fill out this survey for parents of multiethnic Koreans in Korea if you are one. Also, if you know someone else who is, please pass it along to them. 🙂

 

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On the New School Year

March is the beginning of the school year in Korea, so tomorrow I’m back teaching a new set of students, and the little Mr. gets to move to a new class. This year we actually received a supply list, so I braved the back to school crowds on Friday and battled my way through the aisles to get everything he needs. Tres cute.

school supplies

And…I did a little interview over at Loving Korea. Go check it out and peruse Oegukeen’s lovely site while you are at it.

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On Being Me

I’ve just returned from several fabulous weeks in Canada doing very little but eating fresh berries, reading good books, and enjoying long drawn out meals with loved ones. It was a nice refreshing break after a hectic semester, and it’s so nice I’m able to go for a visit every year. But while I was abroad, it was brought to my attention that I speak about too many negative things when it comes to my life in Korea. I’m not sure if the comment was made to suggest I should dwell only on the positive, omit the negative, or be more glass half full about life, but I was told that I shouldn’t say such negative things because then people will think I have a horrible life here. The comment got me thinking about how my personality has shaped how I approach communicating points about my life and how the way in which I communicate in my everyday life has shaped my writing voice for this blog.

First and foremost, I am a person who critiques, and I am very vocal about my opinions. I probably would sleep better at night if I could learn how to turn off my brain to dissecting the issues and situations which occur in my life, community, and world around me, but it’s not who I am. I’ve never understood the need to white wash or simplify complex issues for the sake of social propriety, and I have absolutely no personal understanding of the necessity of saving face. No, I don’t get into the complexities of expat life with the cab driver I’m going to be chatting with for 5 minutes. I do have my stock ‘Korean food is good. Korean people are nice. Yes, Korean men are good. Hanboks are beautiful’ for those fleeting and surface conversations, but that’s not who I am as a person, and I can’t reduce what I need to say about issues to a sound bite with longer interactions (if you are a regular reader of this blog, I’m sure you’ve noticed I have a problem with being succinct!). I was interviewed for a campus newspaper several months ago and confused the student interviewer to no end. She wanted to know the ONE place Korean students should visit if they go to Canada. I was supposed to say ‘Niagara Falls!.’ But rather, I told her I thought people should rent a car and drive across the country because they couldn’t understand the complexity and diversity of a place like Canada unless they experienced it firsthand. All of my answers were like that – sound bite-less and kind of weird. The interview never got published. I get that. Therefore, when I get to talking about my life and experiences in Korea, I find it hard to speak to people I know in a normal discussion without looking at the complexity of issues. I guess this sometimes gives people the impression that my life is horrible…personally I think it shows my reality and I have no problem with being honest about the ups and downs and the benefits and drawbacks. Can anybody claim life is perfect? All the time? Whenever there’s a star or a religious personality who makes such claims, it usually comes out in a tell tale book ten years later that they claimed total happiness and perfection to hide an addiction, deep depression, or major family issues. Nobody.Is.Perfect.

I’ve also been thinking about how to outsiders, our bad things often seem worse than insiders experience them. For instance, I don’t get people who do shift work. I can’t understand how people bounce from one shift to another, sometimes in the same week depending on their job or situation, and how they can deal with the physical toil that puts on their bodies. I can’t imagine being the spouse of a surgeon who works insane hours or the spouse of a soldier in a combat zone. My friend’s fiancé went to Afghanistan 3 times, and he wasn’t safely enclosed in some heavily guarded compound. He was in the field teaching people how to fight.

A friend with 2 children under 3 was telling me in Canada just a few weeks ago how she wasn’t sure how she was going to cope going back to work at a group home for developmentally disabled adults after her maternity leave because the toilet training and toddler behavioural issues she was dealing with at home mirrored the work she was doing with adults. I cannot for a minute imagine having to clean up a grown person’s accident in a dollar store and then return home to deal with a toddler’s accidents on the kitchen floor, but the reality is that from nurses to early childhood educators to social workers, there’s a lot of people in the same position. I don’t think my friend was telling me about the difficulties of managing her job and motherhood because her life was so unmanageable and horrible, and I don’t think that she would say that she wants pity. She simply was trying to discuss and communicate difficulties in her life and was musing about how to deal with the situation when she returned to work. I don’t think less of her or her situation because of that conversation. In fact, I respect her more for the talents she has and the insights she shared about the difficulties about being a working mum. People have many reasons for sharing their difficulties – they want to vent, they want to communicate the whys and hows of their lives, they want people to understand where they are coming from with the decisions they make, they want to help others in similar situations feel less alone, they are working out the situation through talking about it, or they are diffusing situations through sharing burdens with others. Perhaps other people dislike this approach and I suppose there are some who want to only hear or share the positives because they think they think sharing the uplifting is a better approach to life. But I’m not that person, and for me, listening to other’s issues or sharing my own difficulties is a way to be honest about the reality we live in as well as a way to deal with issues.

I would hope that when I discuss the difficulties about being a minority, living in a different culture, fitting in, or dealing with differences in marriage and life expectations that people do not think that my life sucks. It doesn’t. There are reasons why I stay, just like there are reasons anyone stays in a less than ideal situation. I try to communicate those reasons in real life and on this blog, but I understand that some people only hear, or only want to hear the negatives, and so sometimes the positives get lost in the complexities. I’m sorry for that, but it’s not my responsibility to ensure my readers have proper critical thinking and close reading skills or my listeners listen to and take in everything I have to say. And this attitude is really reflected in the voice which has developed for this blog. I’m not the kind of person who likes reading personal blogs about how someone ate a really great sandwich yesterday, and for the most part, that’s not the kind of thing you are going to read on my blog with the exception of a few reviews of veggie friendly restaurants. There are a precious few that do that style in the way I respond to as a reader, and they are either local people who point me to places I never knew existed, or the amazing Alien’s Day Out where Mipa somehow puts me on the edge of my seat wondering what she had for breakfast on her recent trip to Paris. The girl’s found her niche and she’s got a writing voice that speaks to me in a way that really makes me care that she ate that amazing vegan sandwich. But that’s not me, and that’s not where my talent lies in writing. I write the way I talk, and I can’t hide the way I feel when I talk. That’s just who I am.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is, I hope you my readers don’t pity me for exposing some of the difficulties or frustrations I experience in Korea or living the expat life. And I hope you don’t think that I live a shitty life. I don’t. There are some pretty damn good things in this life of mine at the moment. I write this blog to work things out for myself because in real life things are not just ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and you can’t be a thinking person and just happily accept everything that comes your way without examining how it is affecting your life and the world around you. I also write this blog to document the changes, good and bad that are happening to immigrant wives, multicultural families, and expat workers, and I hope that as the years progress I will be able to do retrospectives on the positive changes that have occurred in this society. But to do that, I need honest documentation of my thoughts, feelings, and experiences. And above all, I’ve started to realize that I write this blog because there’s a lot of people out there – some exactly like me – some in seemingly completely different situations who are actually facing similar issues on a strange bizarro-world level, that find some comfort in the confessional narrative that occurs here. And when those people leave comments or contact me directly, the blog becomes a way for us to collectively work out our issues in order to move forward. So perhaps people feel badly for me, perhaps people harbour ill-will against me for telling about my less than perfect experiences with Korea, Canada, or the expat world, and maybe some people feel my openness and critique reflect badly on me, my country of origin, and my country of residence. But I don’t really care what people think. I know who I am, and I have developed my writing voice, and I know that this is the way in which I communicate my reality.

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A little while ago, I responded to a request on The Grand Narrative about why there has recently been an increase in English blogs about dating Korean men.  Today I started to notice some traffic on my blog from Busan Haps , so I went over to see why and found out I had been quoted and linked!  It’s a small thing, but it’s nice to see that my thoughts were noted.  Here’s my full comments from the original post:

I just entered the world of blogging as a blogger (msleetobe.wordpress.com) and a reader back in September although I’ve been here for nearly 5 years, so I can’t really comment on what came before (and I avoid anything remotely ‘yellow feverish’ like the plague, so I’m not going to comment on that). However, I’ve seen a noticeable change in attitudes of both Western women and Korean men since I first got here. When I started dating my now husband, most of my friends weren’t dating Korean men…and a huge part of that had to do with Korean men not wanting to be really involved with Western women. One good friend casually dated several men – but only for a few dates each because they would disapear, lose their cell phone in the washing machine etc. etc. There seemed to be a lack of commitment to anything more than a few dates. While that might have been all a few women were looking for, many of them wanted something that was at least a quasi-relationship. Therefore, a lot of women I knew at the time cited not being able to find a long term partner (either Westerner or Korean) as one of their reasons for leaving Korea. I was the really weird one for staying and having a long term Korean boyfriend.

But just recently there seems to be a much bigger shift – I have several friends who have had more luck in finding guys who want to stay in a relationship for a bit longer…or at least leave relationships with more grace. Not only that, I’m suddenly hearing stories about Western girlfriends being introduced to parents as a girlfriend (not necessarily potential wife yet). It’s like…suddenly there is a possibility of being a Western girlfriend to a Korean now in a way that was much more difficult just a few years ago. We’re not just fantasies, but we don’t have to immediately become wives either. Whenever my husband and I go places now, we see several WF/KM couples, but say even 3 or 4 years ago that was really rare. Therefore, if there are more blogs about Western women dating Korean men now, it is absolutely linked to this newish possibility to being able to ‘date’ and not just be wife or fantasy.

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A little while ago, there was a bit of K-blog discussion about the modern Korean wedding, sometimes known as the ‘Western-style’ (more like ‘North American style’) or ‘wedding hall wedding’ (here and here and here).  Of course I was in the last stages of planning my own Korean wedding, so I didn’t have time to make a more timely response to those discussions.  Now, I’ve already blogged about how there are distinct and definite differences between this type of wedding in Canada and Korea, but I’d like to address the issue of ‘authenticity’ with the modern Korean wedding.

Long ago, even before we were engaged, Mr. Lee and I decided that we would not be having a wedding hall wedding in Korea.  There were a couple of reasons for this.  A) They are mostly cookie-cutter weddings, and we are not cookie-cutter type of people B) Mr. Lee works for a large company where workers are ‘required’ to attend even remotely connected coworker’s cookie-cutter weddings, which means that these days few of his coworkers actually attend weddings.  They go – hand in their money…eat the meal during the ceremony…and then rush upstairs to get into the photo to ‘prove’ they were there. By having a contemporary traditional wedding, people were actually excited to attend the ceremony C) Even his parents had a wedding hall-esq wedding…meaning that nobody since his grandparents’ generation had participated in a ‘traditional’ wedding – making it a unique experience for all but strangely many of my friends as a larger-than-you-would-expect number of expats marrying Koreans actually opt for this ceremony.

But the overarching feeling that we both had was that we didn’t want a wedding hall wedding because we didn’t like it.  We didn’t want the bubble machines, motorized carriages, smoke machines, blaring music, people talking on their cell phones loudly through the ceremony, the magic shows, the feats of strength…the sword used to cut the fake cake…and I’m not kidding about this.  These things regularly occur in wedding hall weddings.  In other words, to us it did not seem like an authentic wedding. 

Now, notice that I said, ‘to us.’ 

Authenticity is a tricky issue, and certainly there is a whole lot of nationalism and perhaps at times even fanaticism attached to culture in many places in the world, and especially in Korea.  To say that culture is and has always been shared is a touchy subject with many people because everyone wants their culture to be ‘unique’..the first…the innovators…the alpha of any cultural form, symbol, or ritual.  But academically, the more you do objective research, and the more you expand your search, the more you realize that finding ‘authentic’ culture or even the origins or a cultural practice is no easy or possibly even possible matter.  Therefore, any kind of academic discussion saying the way Koreans celebrate Christmas is ‘inauthentic’ is a ridiculous discussion to have…because it’s true that Christmas barely resembles ‘Western Christmas’ with the exception of the public displays of lights and perhaps some nativity plays safe inside closed churches, but saying it is ‘inauthentic’ misses the fact that many Christmas symbols are pre-Christian, pre-modern West symbols.  Not to mention the fact that many American, Canadian, Kiwi, Aussie, South African etc. customs are from Europe….which have evolved over centuries in a different contexts from their ‘European’ roots…just as European customs in Europe have evolved and changed.  (Have you ever read David Sedaris’ Six to Eight Black Men? Do it….it is Santa as you’ve never seen him presented before).  And then we have to talk about the point in culture when something is indeed ‘authentic.’  Is it what is practiced now? What our grandparents practiced? What people did 200, 500, 1000, 5000 years ago which have now changed beyond recognition?  Certainly if I met my great great great great grandparents, they would consider the modern Canadian wedding as just as ‘inauthentic’ as I would consider their weddings.  All this means that from a rational point of view, ‘authentic’ should never be used with great seriousness when we talk about culture.  We can certainly note something that came earlier or later, or something that is closer or further away from an earlier manifestation, but we cannot say in an objective and rational way that culture is authentic or inauthentic.  It’s too loaded of a term.

However, let me return to that phrase ‘to us.’  I do think that from an emotional, a personal, an individual point of view, that cultural can feel inauthentic.  I will never, no matter how much Mr. Lee begs, go to a rock concert and eat pasta on Christmas Eve.  For me that’s not an authentic way to spend Christmas Eve.  Christmas Eve means candlelight service, Christmas hymns, family rural Canada style dinner, and preparing privately for a great religious and cultural holiday.  It is not for going on a date with your significant other and braving the crowds for a K-pop concert.  That doesn’t mean that the Korean customs are wrong and I am right…it just means that I would feel like I was compromising my religious and cultural beliefs to do something other than I was raised with.  Even this past Christmas, when I went to Hong Kong to visit my sister, we went to her uber low Anglican church where they had glow sticks…seriously…glow sticks…for candles.  Merry Christmas to you Hong Kong! But we went to church and sang our hymns and heard the Gospel readings and then went back to our tiny hotel room to reminisce about Christmases past and track Santa’s travels on the NORAD website…because despite the radically different cultural context we were in, for us, Christmas is for Jesus and Christmas is meant to be spent with family…so that’s what we did.

So when it comes to wedding hall weddings in Korea, I want to say that for me, it doesn’t seem like an ‘authentic wedding.’  The symbols are there – the rituals are there, but to me they are but shadows of what I consider ‘the real thing.’  And for Mr. Lee, although he does not have the Canadian mainstream wedding experience, the wedding hall wedding does not seem dignified.  That’s not saying that it isn’t dignified for some people, and that for many brides it isn’t the ritual they have always dreamed of…it’s just not the ritual we have dreamed of.  And considering the fact that we are having a Canadian wedding at home which is sort of traditional (in a goth-rock sort of way), we didn’t want to have what we feel is the less ‘authentic’ version of the North American wedding.

Now, some people may say that as a ‘foreigner’ that I do not have the right to comment on Korean rituals.  I’ve already dealt a bit about the issues of what constitutes ‘foreigner’ and what kinds of rights and responsibilities we might/should have.  But on this particular issue, I want to simply say that when culture affects my life…when it is about celebrating my life stages … or affects my work or family life…or infringes upon my body…I do get a voice and I do have an opinion.  Of course, much of this hinges on the way in which we speak about culture, and if we can phrase differences of opinion in respectful ways, but I do think that expats, especially expats getting married or thinking about married here, have just as much right as our spouses to like or hate or feel ambivalence about wedding hall weddings. 

I fully realize that there are many pros about getting married in the wedding hall (see Roboseyo’s post), and most definitely our wedding venue had some of the things we perceive of as problems with the wedding hall wedding system (rushed feeling, lack of choice, buffet where everyone eats together)…but there ceremony itself was to our liking, and seeing as it was our wedding, we felt that it was within our rights to make our own judgements about what we were and were not comfortable with.

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On Dating K-Blogs

So I was sitting at home alone late last night because my darling husband’s boss informed him on Thursday night that he would be going on a ‘surprise’ overnight business trip far away from Seoul, and I was searching around other K-blogs without much interest when I stumbled upon this post The Grand Narrative.  I should probably go over there more often because there’s a lot of interesting stuff on that site, but was intrigued specifically by the discussion about the sudden increase in Western women blogging about their dating exploits here.  With the exception of I’m No Picasso, which I would not at all characterize as a ‘dating blog’ (the girl’s got some pretty cool stuff going on over there), I haven’t read anything about dating in Korea, probably because I’ve never tried to search for it before.  So I followed the link on The Grand Narrative to Chris in South Korea which lists a ton of them.  I don’t want to say which links I clicked on because I don’t want to be that bitchy, but let me just say that I lost an hour of my life to blogs which I wish I had never found.

I obviously have no problem with Western women dating Korean men, and I obviously have nothing against blogging about the experience.  But what makes me uncomfortable about some of the blogs I looked at were that they were only about sexual exploits.  I don’t understand how someone can move to another country and then devote most of their online writing time to talking about only who they slept with and how and how many numbers they got out at the clubs.  There certainly should be a place to discuss what it means to date in Korea.  It is vastly different in some ways, and in my early days here I spent many a night crying into my pillow or starting down an empty wine bottle with just as confused Western female friends as we tried to figure out what this and that meant, and where Mr. Park or Kim or Song went after being so kind and attentive for the first three dates.  I might have saved myself a lot of Kleenexes if I had entered the world of K-blogging earlier and gleaned some wisdom from others further ahead of me in this journey.  I also obviously get the fact that people want to blog about what is happening in their lives, and for many people that includes the people they meet and relationships in which they are involved. 

However, there’s something kind of icky about reading a blog which is only about what Korean men are like, what they like, what they do or don’t do in bed, and how they like or don’t like you to be shaved.  (Or reading a blog about what Korean women are like, what they like, what they do or don’t do in bed…..I’m not harping on the Western women here….I find the blogs documenting Western male yellow fever equally as disgusting, I’ve just never entered the female world yet after years of trying to avoid Western men with these kinds of views).  I think it’s also sad.  You come to a new country, so vastly different from your own and your life seems to revolve around the men you meet in the bars, meet on the street, meet in the classroom.  You don’t talk about the crazy stuff you’re eating, the beautiful places you’re visiting, your job, your friends…nothing.  Only about the people who make it or don’t make it into your bed.

Maybe I’m a blog-snob.  Okay, I probably am a blog snob.  The blogs I gravitate to are ones that are smart, engage in critical thinking, and the ones which discuss Korea, society, education, marriage, motherhood, and life in all of their complexities.  I see the place of expats in Korea not just as individuals who come in to sleep with as many locals as possible but as individuals who come and both contribute to and learn from this land.  For many people, that will probably include having relationships or experiences with Koreans, but I certainly hope that most people are having more than just sexual experiences with Koreans, and I hope that Western women who are blogging here present themselves as more than just the promiscuous wanton women we are often perceived to be.

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Recently, I’ve become pretty impressed with the Korea Herald. They now have an ‘expat life’ section, and they get normal people – usually expat bloggers – to write pieces pertinent to issues surrounding being a foreigner, and perhaps more importantly, living as a foreigner in Korea. Here are a couple of my recent favourites for those of you who don’t read the KH.

First, there have been several articles about Bonojit Hussain, Indian-national professor who was harassed and assaulted by a drunk Korean man for being Indian and (shocking!) traveling with a Korean woman. Unfortunately for the Korean man, Hussain is actually doing his PhD on unions and activism and has taken the issue to court instead of accepting a settlement. Fortunately for the expat community, the issue of racism is finally making its way to Korean courts. As it stands, there are currently no hate laws or laws pertaining to making racist remarks or threats in Korea. Of course Hussain has also had enormous problems with the police taking his complaint seriously and also was discriminated against by the police themselves.

The situation reminds me of the time when I got my wallet stolen and my credit card was used. When I went to file a report, they sat me at a table with an African American girl..and when we said ‘hi’ to each other, they decided that we must be friends who had our credit cards stolen at the same place since we spoke the same language. Then, although the American girl had video of the thieves using her card at a hotel in the area (she had done some sleuthing work!), they said she knew the people because they were also black. In fact, the police officer said ‘that guy…he looks like your brother…he’s black…like you! So he’s your brother. Why don’t you just call him and tell him to bring your card back?” Of course, the police officer also asked her what his phone number was…because you always ask the person who stole your credit card what their phone number is while they are stealing from you…..Yes, the police are extremely effective and culturally sensitive here.

Also, Brian from briandeutsch.blogspot.com has had a couple of good articles recently, including this one on ubiquitous ‘thoughtless’ English words strangely incorporated into daily Korean life. He makes a good case for not only why Koreans themselves should reevaluate the way English has been imported and used in advertising/signage etc. but also how a possible return to using Korean words in place of Korean-English hybrids should not turn into blaming ‘English’ or ‘foreigners’ for a situations created by Koreans in Korea.

A few months ago, FI’s family members were remarking that because there is a trend to name apartment buildings/restaurants/offices/businesses by using English-Korean hybrids and then writing them in English, there are now many older people who can’t read or understand the name of the apartment complex in which they live. Seriously?!

And lastly, also in today’s paper is a good article about the need for expats to come together and stick up for each other. My favourite part?

First of all, expats of any stripe need to recognize that, for all our differences, we have a lot in common. When a story like Bonojit Hussain, who was victim of a racist attack on a bus, appears, we owe it to ourselves to give him support, however we can. The same goes for racial discrimination or scapegoating in business, in government, or in the media, because even if it’s not our sub-group this time, next time it could be. Racism doesn’t stop to check visa status, years in country, skill with children, diligence on the job, or ability to eat spicy food: We’re in this together.

It harkens back to my feelings about a ‘foreigner’s rights and responsibilities. We have the right to be treated with dignity and respect in Korea, but we also have the responsibility to advocate and work for this respect for ourselves and others. God helps those who help themselves.

So good job KH! There are so many more articles in this section that I’ve enjoyed reading and passing on. Hopefully other media outlets will also start to publish thoughtful pieces by and about foreigners so Koreans and foreigners can have a more nuanced view about ways to make this country a better place for all to live.

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