Thursday, April 28, 2011

Adjustments After Korea

I've been home from Korea for almost 4 weeks now so I've had some time to reflect back on my time there, the good, the bad, and the in-between. It feels normal to be back in the United States, so often it's not until I'm talking about a specific subject that I realize how different some of my experiences in Korea were. I was buying new running shoes the other day, something that was impossible for me in Korea between the limited brands, models, and lack of communication. I started talking to the salesguy about the running culture in Korea and realized I had a lot to say between running clothes, routes, gender observations, race etiquette, post-race food, etc... things I just got used to while I was there.

First of all, what I miss:
* Reading Korean. I didn't learn as much Korean as I wanted, but I can read hangul and it is sort of a fun puzzle to always read things in a different alphabet. My vocabulary was pretty limited, but by the end of the year I could read a typical kimbap menu like this one like a pro.

* Korean food. While I was there, I missed Western breakfasts and the multitude of ethnic foods that I'm used to as an American, but now I miss Korean food. I miss kimchi and eating meals with a million tasty, pickled, spicy side dishes (called banchan). This picture if from a staff dinner at a duck restaurant... you can see meat grilling, meat waiting to be cooked, salad, dipping sauces, and several side dishes.

* Noraebang. This is Korean karaoke, where you have your own room with your friends to sing. They have an amazing English song selection, completely on par with anything you would find in the US. I wasn't a die-hard noraebanger, but it was a fun thing to do at the end of a night should you ever want to.

* My students. Like 6th graders anywhere, they could be funny or smart or apathetic or infuriating. But for the most part they were incredibly sweet and earnest. I miss working with kids and seeing what they come up with, like this student who made his cookie house with a waterwheel. The side-ways oreo was positioned over a chocolatey waterway. Seriously, how does a kid his age even know what a waterwheel is, much less how to engineer a candy one?

* Ingrish/Ridiculous English signage. This is one of the best parts about living in a non-English-speaking country in my opinion. I was constantly amused by inaccurate or simply bizzare English word choices, whether for stores...

(The first store is selling "lingelie" and the other specializes in "Performance Feminism Fashion" and is relevantly called "Soup".)

... or menu translations...

... like this one at an Italian restaurant, where for about $20 you too can get a calzone that is "derived form Italian, trousers, topped with ham and like a dumping". Sounds delicious!

Things I don't know if I miss or not, it's just different:

* Fashion. On one hand, I'm ecstatic to be out of a country where every one dresses exactly the same. For women, men, kids, athletic wear, hiking, business, etc. there is ONE set style and every one adheres to it for better or worse. For example, standard office wear always made me think that my Korean coworkers were ready to go from the office to a cocktail party. Here is one of my coworkers on a typical day, wearing a cute party dress, heels, and a pearl bracelet to teach elementary school. I mean, they always looked great, but it made the foreign teachers in our slacks and sweaters look pretty frumpy by comparison.

Here are women wearing normal "workout" clothes. Seriously, why not wear a short short floral tennis skirt, spaghetti strapped tank top, and white (only white this season people!) leg warmers to take a leisurely stroll on the treadmill??

So I appreciate the fashion freedom here, to not have to wear one set thing in any given situation. You can have a head of dreadlocks the size of Texas, or wear a blanket like a sweater, or tight orange leopard-print pants, and not one bats an eyelash. On the other, after a year in Korea, Washington feels ridiculously underdressed to me now. I was downtown the other day and saw buisnessmen in trousers and briefcases wearing fleece jackets. I know that's normal here, but after the impeccable formalwear of this past year, it made me do a double-take. Later I went out to a nice dinner and half the people were wearing jeans. I sort of miss being around a more well-dressed public, but I will take a wee bit of sloppiness over being stared at any day.

* Using two hands. In Korea, when you give or receive anything, you should use two hands, or at least hold the item in your right hand while placing your left hand at some point along your right arm. It shows respect and your full attention to the person and the item. For example, here you can see my friend Greg pouring me a drink, in which we are both giving and receiving with two hands. It became so ingrained over the past year, that I still catch myself doing it.

* Wearing shoes in the house. In Korea, you NEVER wear shoes in a home or temple. Even at my school, we removed our shoes at the door everyday, and changed into slippers. I taught everyday in slippers! When I was moving into my apartment, the movers would slip off their shoes before coming in, even while carrying a desk or mattress. Now it feels a bit strange and slightly dirty to wear shoes inside all the time.

Things I don't miss:
* The pollution. Here is a picture of the window screen in my apartment after living there only a few weeks... and this was a brand new building. It was an industrial city, but I couldn't believe how visibly dirty it was compared to home. Many Koreans wear face masks with good reason. I had to dust my apartment like 10 times more often than I have ever had to living anywhere else.

* Hiking. Okay, Koreans love their mountains and going hiking, but I just couldn't get as excited about it as I am at home. I climbed the 3 tallest mountains in South Korea, as well as all the peaks in the provincial parks in my state of Jeollabukdo. I tried to be a good sport, but let's face it, by west coast standards, Korean hiking is a joke. The summer is extremely humid, so between the pollution and the moisture in the air, you never have good visibility. And there are so many people that the trail is often a traffic jam, and the peak a pushy madhouse to find a place to sit and take a picture. This is at the top of Mt. Halla on Jeju Island, the tallest mountain in Korea, in September. I can't wait for some solid time in the North Cascades where there is solitude and crisp sweeping views.

* Not knowing what was going on most of the time. Living in a foreign country is a linguistic adventure, but it is incredibly tiring and frustrating not speaking the language. You end up sacrificing a lot of small needs and wants when you can't be understood. It made me so thankful for Korean friends who would translate when we went out. Here I am with my friend Jason, trying desperately to decode a menu via the phone dictionary... and we still ended up with squid somehow.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Playing Catch-up

Once I got back on Washington soil, I decided to take it easy for a few days, and let my body clock adjust to the 17-hour time zone difference. Then it was time to start: Operation Do The Things I've Been Missing. I played this in Australia, after 11 months in Korea, and it mostly consisted of eating cheese and drinking vintage port and riding a bike in a straight line where I didn't have to constantly dodge people walking in front of me.

So far in Seattle my catching up has looked like this: walking around Greenlake, ridiculous amounts of coffee, Capitol Hill happy hours, obscenely cold and grey weather, CSA farmbox dinner, much-missed Western breakfasts at Glo and the Hi-Life, square dancing at the Tractor, and gardening in said cold and grey weather. Actually, there have been some nice-ish days, and I really can't complain anyway because I'm just so gosh-darn happy to be back. The highlight of being home so far though has been seeing my nieces, one who is 10 and so old and the other who is 2 and a half and so old. I mean, I know it's a very basic fact of life that kids grow up, but it just astounds me how much they have grown and changed in the last year. With the little one, I mostly marvel at how much she can talk while we play with balloons and have dance parties. The older one likes to cook, so I took her to a Korean market with me and then she helped me make the marinade for Korean galbi, the whole time just acting so old.

I also had to catch-up on car maintenance. My old Camry has been sitting at my parents' house for the past year, so I cleaned out the inside, got the oil changed, washed it, got insurance, and was pretty happy to be back on the road a few days after getting home.

I headed up to Bellingham, the drive alone filling me with elated nostalgia. I know I'm a total dork, but I actually started cheering when I got north of Mount Vernon and Mount Baker peaked over the hills. There is something about that 15 miles before Bellingham that make me feel like I'm really coming home to something, like the snow-dusted Chuckanuts are holding you in a little embrace before you round that last curve and see the sign shouting "Bellingham: Next 7 Exits"! After living there most of my adult life, it might be nestled a little deeper in my heart than Seattle is. I had to walk along the water to Boulevard Park, eat an Avenue Bread sandwich, sip a Black Drop americano, catch up with friends over cheese and wine at the Temple Bar, see some local live music at an ever-changing State Street venue, drink a Boundary Scotch Ale, wander around the Farmer's Market, hike to Fragrance Lake, and people-watch at the co-op. There are still so many people I want to see and things I want to do around that little city, and I will definitely be back up soon. I just love this place and it feels wonderful to have the time to sit with that love, adore and appreciate this life with these people. I'm not sure exactly where I'll head next, but for now I've never been more content not going anywhere at all.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Home Sweet Home

I made it home safe and sound after 13 months in Asia. I had an awesome year, and I'm also very happy to be back in Seattle. Here's something I wrote about a month ago when I first got to Thailand, as I was enjoying my travels but dreaming of home:

(Written Thursday March 10)

It's a tropical paradise of white beaches, torquoise water, soft sand, colorful fish, luscious fruit. Almost sterile in its beauty- too bright, too clean. And I don't want it any more. I want slate-green ocean and grey skies, beaches so rocky and rocks so barnacled you must wear sandals to swim. Messy, slimy waterfront of kelp and bladder-rack. Purple starfish the most vibrant animal underwater. Boring, boring, comfortingly boring clear jellyfish. Kale and carrots and local berries. Blackberries so abundant and invasive you can't sell them. Apples, delicious but unpretentious. These are our fruits. Salmon, caught and smoked by a family member. Cold water that I hold dear. Crisp, austere Cascades. Aloof Olympics. Rain that you can walk in but not swim in. Kids who eye me cautiously because I'm a stranger but not a foreigner. I want to complain about the lack of sun, not nurse a sunburn. I want to wear that old hat I've had for too long, and the knit scarf that is all stretched out. Cowgirl boots and rubber boots. Trade instant coffee for something organic, locally-roasted, and snobbily-brewed. Trade mango lassi for yerba mate. A chance to make my mom laugh, one of my favorite things. A chance for my friends to make me laugh.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Back to Thailand

It was nice to arrive back at the airport in Bangkok and have it feel familiar. Just over 3 weeks ago, I was mildly shocked at leaving Korea and being in another new country. But it was already routine coming here, knowing where things were and hopping on the train to the city. It was a crazy day of travel, since the night before I had taken an overnight bus from Nha Trang, Vietnam, back to Saigon. I got in around 7am and had just enough time to say goodbye to Jacklyn one more time and take a shower before doing an organized tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels at 8:15. These are a huge underground tunnel system where Viet Cong hid during the war. I returned to in time to grab some lunch and get a taxi to the airport, catch my flight, and then try to make my way to the Northern Bus Terminal in Bangkok for yet another overnight bus. It was sort of a ridiculous day to plan into my trip, and I was prepared for something to go wrong, but amazingly nothing did. Instead, I got to the bus station at 9pm with a bus leaving in half and hour, so it was perfect. I managed to get a decent amount of sleep, and when I woke up was in the northern city of Chiang Mai.
I had heard a lot of good things about Chiang Mai, and even in the blue early-morning light, the place had a good feel. Markets were getting going, monks were walking in a line of red fabric down the sidewalk from one of numerous wats, and the side streets were narrow with small, cute restaurants, cafes, tour agencies, spas, and guesthouses. I checked into a hostel and had a mellow day walking around the city, visiting temples and eating good food.
The next day I took a one-day cooking class at the Thai Farm Cooking School, which was awesome. They picked up the 9 students from our various hotels, and in the end we had Americans, Swiss, Canadians, Germans, and a Singaporean. First we went to a local market where the instructor explained many key ingredients in Thai cooking. Then we drove out of the city to the lovely property and took a stroll through their gardens. We smelled kaffir lime, ate bitter eggplant, and compared different kinds of basil. We were making 5 courses, and for each course could choose from 3 different options. We could make green, yellow, or red curry from scratch, and with the paste make a chicken or tofu coconut curry. We also made a soup and salad, with most of the vegetables somewhat prepped so we were able to make the dishes fairly quickly. The instructor spoke great English and was very thorough and informative, and always reminded us to smile while cooking. We made our dishes, then all sat down to lunch outside on the terrace overlooking a pond. It was a feast, with our 3 dishes, plus jasmine rice, sticky rice, and other students sharing what they made. There was built-in siesta time to wander the farm or lay in the grass, which was much needed. In the afternoon we made another dish (spring rolls, pad thai, or pad see ew) that was meant as take-home food, in what the instructor called "Thai tupperware", referring to a plastic bag. Finally we made dessert, mango with sticky rice for me, and sat down together for our respective desserts and tea from the garden, while the instructor handed out the cookbooks and answered questions.
It was a really lovely day, well organized, with a good flow and a healthy, happy vibe. I thought I would never eat again, but I managed some street food when I went to the night market later that evening. I rented a motorbike and did some shopping before calling it a day. The next morning I headed just out of town to do a hike up to a small temple on a hillside. It was one of my favorite temples I've seen, with an ancient, tucked away, and not-at-all ostentatious feel to it. I couldn't have picked a better place to go on my last full day in Thailand. I was the only Westerner there, and struck up a conversation with an older Thai man. He was incredibly sweet as he asked me about the US and Korea. He asked me about my family and how old my parents were. "I'm same age as your dad! I can be like your dad!" he said. The monks were lining up for lunch at a long table lined with different dishes. The man explained that they had just finished a 15-day session, and at 11am the community serves them lunch in a sort of potluck-style. "After monks, eat, we can all eat too," he said. I told him I didn't want to intrude. "No, but you're like daughter! You have to eat with us!" he insisted. So I enjoyed rice, noodle dishes, eggs, cashew chicken, mixed veggies, fruit, and rice cakes while my new friend nodded happily.

I had to hurry down the mountain to return the motorbike and get to the train that evening. I took the overnight train which was quite comfortable, with full-sized sleeping bunks. While it had been fairly cool in Chiang Mai, I was greeted with a blast of heat in Bangkok. I spent the day drinking mango smoothies, iced coffee, walking by shrines, getting a massage, and checking out the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center, which was amazing. I haven't seen so much local art for, well, over a year. I met a new friend at the hostel to have dinner with before catching the flight. We talked about farming and our favorite types of heirloom tomatoes, and it made me excited to be back in the Pacific Northwest. I enjoyed my last plate of real Thai basil chicken, then headed to the airport for 28 hour trip home.