Solongseeyoutomorrow’s Blog

June 4, 2009

5 months+

Filed under: Uncategorized — solongseeyoutomorrow @ 6:55 am

5 months, after a 3-month hiatus

Wow blogging is hard; like all accounting, I suppose. Especially when you stop. First, I got busy and the blog nagged at me to stop, pause. And then, I stopped; I had plenty of time then to blog, but no spirit to do so (to say the least). Life is funny that — and in so many — way/s. I have liberated myself from the accounting sort of blog, but I wanted to chime in here. Who knows who of you might peek in again. Mom will.

I’ll do it in reverse; recuperating the past doesn’t work anyways; the present presses.

And short paragraphs. For me and for you.

The school for the girls turned out to be a disaster somehow. Simone has noted the irony so pointedly: the harder they try by them (the girls) the worse it gets. And it seems, quietly, that we have all given up on one another. The school created pull-out activities for the girls: paper-making, cooking etc., but at some point the pull-outs seemed silly and perhaps better suited to younger kids, ones not so desperately in need of quality teen company and also with a hankering, whatever it means, to “learn something.” Rumor is that the girls have been noted to have been “raised well” because through it all they have been polite and reply that “yes, they do like the school.” And they do appreciate the well-meaningness, and the kindness of individuals, but it just hasn’t worked. By the time we looked for other options: the highly competitive international/American school fare in Seoul, our efforts were met with in some cases, literal guffaws: 3 kids for part of a semester at our school? By the 4th or 5th call it was nearly humiliating. Put in our place. Somewhere in the middle of it all, Andy had occasion to hang out with Isaac at a playground of one said desirable international school and it made him realize a bit that we might have been fish out of water there too. The girls have made some peace with the small group of girls in their class — 4 other than them — but it hasn’t been easy. The age is hard and somehow it just didn’t work. Carm has a warm relationship with one girl — they spent an afternoon shopping and a sleep-over here and we’ll do it again, but linguistically they are limited. “What was I thinking,” Andy would say. Not enough. Not hard enough. I guess. But the dice might have fallen another way, I tell myself too. So, who knows what the girls will take from “alternative” “Korean” school; so hard to sort out the “Korean” from the “alternative.” Just now, I think, “normal” (structured) “American” schooling looks pretty delicious.

The saving grace: Ho Jin. Their artist/”brain” tutor/friend, 30-something going on 20-something who breezes in/out of their lives every Wednesday p.m. and all day Friday (the school was glad to see the girls go on Fridays because they have some sort of therapy session to deal with the longstanding issues of this particular formation of kids — the girls could say much more on that one).

(Secretly I am hoping my long-last blog might spur Carmen to resume too). Not so secret.

Ho Jin has them into algebra, augmented by Andy’s ever creative web surfing for materials. And Carmen and I are inching through my own make-shift curriculum on The Red Pony — what a beautiful book; how lucky I am to reread it as an adult. And Simone and I of late on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Equally amazing; read some 50 pages aloud of it yesterday with my voice raspy from pneumonia (just one more thing) and Isaac sat for the last 20 or so. How can he be so funny, smart, poetic…WOW. But don’t be impressed — none of this has been steady or consistent. Ho Jin grabs them and they head down-towns and enjoy each other’s breezy company. We have been blessed by many good people, even as some of “this” has been hard.

Isaac had the months when he spent the first stretch of school immobile on the floor — I never witnessed it. I guess 30 minutes was about as long as it went. He was hard to rouse (actually that is a constant), hard to push out the door (mostly Andy’s department, on his way to Seoul National), and then came the antics at school. But the make-shift arrangement for him seems to have worked better and there are few complaints, fewer antics, and a surprising number of mornings lately where he is the lone of the 3 heading to school and still he doesn’t complain (too much). I think that he and the school have accommodated one another: there is only so much accommodating he is going to do and good riddance. I think he is spending quite a bit of time coloring; I’ve lost count of the various people who come in to read with him etc. He takes most of the kids as the furniture in the room and I’ve stopped trying (we went through the phase in which we printed pictures of each of the kids and tried to learn their names…). The truth is it seems that he has some relationship with a few of them and to my parental chagrin he doesn’t manage much manners for the rest. So it goes. His favorite, Chusong, son of the flight attendants who took to greeting Isaac with bigger, warmer, Englishier greetings from the get-go. They had one after-school playdate at a café and yesterday Isaac announced he would like to have him over to help him in the immense task of widening the riverlet he is making at the edge of the river (the Hongjechon) that we live just above. That river, like many of the tributaries that feed into the immense Han River is day by day becoming more and more of a lovely civic space, for walking, biking (the district office lends bikes for free), light shows, ethnohistory (a reconstructed mill and merchant boat just down the hill from us) etc. And when I asked yesterday, Isaac that is, if he would like to go home tomorrow, he said two months is fine. He has cut out his work. He has a pail, 2 shovels, and trowel. Have water, accoutrements, and Isaac’s imagination and all is well.

But, the truth of the matter is that Isaac lives for MWF 10-12 at PPCoffee, the café where Isaac is king and doted over by the prettiest most charming 20 something Rea and her younger brother’s dearest friend, early 20 something, handsome and winning Jin. To make a long story short: the principal thought to take Isaac there in the early months, salve for the then obvious wounds of schooling in a foreign tongue. We heard about the café, the magician Gene, coffee made of cat poop, and the “work” that Isaac was doing there (on his special Friday visits with the principal). This went on for a couple of weeks until one week we had Isaac out of school on a Friday when the principal called to say that Isaac was expected at the café and suggested that I might call directly (to apologize, I gathered). So, we chased the call with a leisurely visit (after a small hike — we have had little success but with the shortest of hikes) one weekend afternoon. Instantly, I understood. The tiny café, about half the size of our kitchen (if that) is home-spun; everything crafted lovingly by Rea, from the cushions, to the painted branches and delicate lights on the ceiling, to the crafted high-up shelf with pretty little tea cups, to the one-of-a-kind menu in a notebook, to, to, to… to Rea who is, well (I hate to admit to Isaac’s long attraction to) simply beautiful, but in the most charming way. Everything about her. Simply everything. I love seeing her too. Who wouldn’t? I had a belly laugh with the girls’ teacher — who I really like — when I told her that I had discovered just why the principal was so happy to take Isaac there every Friday. I’m sure that occasioned her visit — but I have never checked. The café is a stone’s throw from the school and really but a neighborhood deal with prices that far exceed the home-spun décor. Who wouldn’t pay? One elderly gentleman, just return immigrated from NYC, gave Isaac — who served him ever so gingerly — a man won (6 some dollars then, about 8 today) tip. Rea and Jin speak remarkable English because of Rea’s sister and her husband’s coffee farm in the Philippines. So, in the eaves of the alternative school, another stitch of alternative culture in Seoul. They bring groups to the Philippines for coffee plantation experience, maybe some English, peppered with barrista culture etc. etc. I half joked back when (we are into the second month of this arrangement) that maybe Isaac could do some schooling there — he was already convinced that he was “working” there and had me doing the dishes during my first visit — because we certainly weren’t having much luck with the stack of little books he was supposed to go through on the quest to be able to read English. And then — I was surprised — she called: with a plan and a price. How could we refuse? I am shy to write about the details of Isaac’s time there. There is indulgence and then there is indulgence, this one the latter. The PPCoffee shop is labeled head to toe in English; there are the stuffed puppets that eat the “sight words” that Isaac flips through; not to mention the spattering of sweet drinks; snacks; water-gun fights; construction projects; and promises of future outings. Gosh, I really hope that THAT is not just the half of it. But who knows.

So, needless to say, Rea-days (after all it is only an hour+ before Rea and a couple of hours after) move Isaac’s week along. Now, how lucky is that. And who are we to complain about anything. But does he want for little-kid company. Desperately.

Dare I admit more. Two loving babysitters, again charming (and pretty) who hang with him a few days a week after school. And, the girls would wince to read this, but Isaac is a charmer, so these are all warm, cozy, loving arrangements for him. No wonder another two months is OK.

So, that is how we’ve made school “work” — or not — for the kids. And we are riding it out. Will I never hear the end of it from them? Who knows? Time will tell. But I have called a spade a spade, and acquiesced that not all can be chocked up to “experience” — do the girls ever have an allergy to that word; it rhymes with Korea and anthropology — an unholy trinity.

Writing is amazing. Putting it to paper makes it somehow not the disaster I even have been feeling it was. But then again, I am writing this blog again so it’s a chicken and egg thing. When the Blog was unwritten, everything was unfurling and all wrong. How bad can all of this really be?

Not to mention the week+ of their grandmother’s just-visit, the visit of Isaac’s buddy Zona back when, Ruth and Molly’s visit and tonight the arrival of Dana, Craig, Jonah, and Evie, dear hometown friends here for the next while. But there have been moments with everyone wanting to turn back the hands of time: sad, unproductive, moppy sort of moments.

Today is a Thursday, to weight the sunny scales even more. It has been about a month that Carm joins Isaac’s class for the “nature play” outing for most of the day. The sun shines and sets on Carmen for the girls in Isaac’s class — he is rather nonplussed by it. Carm packs goodies/presents for the gaggle, carries their backpacks, piggy backs a few at a time and puts every inch of her Korean to use. In pied piper mode she is happy as a clam. And she is so talented with that age. So. And her Korean is simply amazing — lots of passive understanding and lots of creative energy to spin what she knows together into a fabric of some meaning (I do recognize myself there). The other evening she trotted off on the #10 neighborhood bus to the subway station to the make-up shop where Grandma had indulged the girls and apparently lost her (red sox) credit card and with “grandmother,” “yesterday,” and “card” she learned that they had definitely returned the card (and picked up some much-needed make-up remover on the way). Simone has neither the interest in children nor in Korean per say. But we, in the know, know that she takes it all in. All. And that when push comes to shove, it is often Simone (i.e., in a cab) who in fact knows just where they are. And thank goodness for whichever teacher it was who told me back when that there is so much to be had from rereading because if there is one thing Simone has done here in spades it is rereading!! And I mean in spades!!! I think it was Mrs. “V.”

OK, I think I am going to read through this me/ass once, and leave a trail of things for next: Hapkido (the brightest light for the girls, already brown belts), Zona and family’s visit, old friends Alan and Sumie in Seoul, Ruth, Molly, Grandma, low/high of my myriad of talks, Jeju, Buddha’s birthdayand the rest will follow.


March 15, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — solongseeyoutomorrow @ 9:13 pm

Where did the weeks go?

[I will bracket our Japan trip for now]. One (week) was the first week of school. Big deal. The other: Andy was back in Urbana and I had my hands full with the emotional roller coaster of the three kids. And here we are.

So, let’s start with school. There is one 6th grade class and the girls are in it together: an experience which led to their suddenly announcing to me one day last week that they DEFINITELY want to be on different teams at the middle school next year. The classes at Sungmisan are small: about 12. The girls’ moods vary enormously (as they would at home too): they are happier on at the end of the days that have been less academic — when Korean has been less central. Which makes perfect sense. Fortunately, between nearly whole days at a local theatre for games, badminton, art, music, movie-making, they really do get some reprieves. Perhaps the hardest for them (and in Korea at large) has been that they really don’t like being stared at, pointed at, and having their lunches scrutinized by everyone in the lunch room (a woman came up to Simone on the subway yesterday and told her she looked like a perfect pink strawberry!). My mistake has been to try to explain this to them rationally: that Korea is a homogenous society, that yes there are many Americans here but that many people have still not had so much direct contact with them, that people are simply curious about what they might be eating for lunch etc., but rational explanations are not really the order of the day as the experience, as Haejoang reminded me, is mostly an emotional one. I encouraged the principal to talk to them about this; and their homeroom teacher to perhaps have an open conversation about it. I know, though, that I can no longer answer to/for this problem because it is entirely unproductive.

The girls have 4 other girls in their class and that is really a small number when you get to know them. And the group is not without complexity: there is the tom-boy who is feeling very threatened by Carmen, who is her athletic match (the teacher says that she has never before met her match in a girl); the girl who spent the first 7 years of her life in the U.S. and a recent year in New Zealand who does lots of translating for them, seems to love grooving with them about American popular culture, but also likes to commiserate with them about the problems with Korean kids (who stare, are “mannerless” etc.); the girl who is having a hard time because her Mom lives elsewhere and her Dad is about to leave for 3 months; and a girl who always seems happy and easy-going. Just a week ago we had all 4 girls over: the mother of the girls who seems threatened by Carmen stayed for all 6+ hours — it was a long afternoon! We had a pasta lunch, chocolate chip cookies, and some of us hiked up the mountain behind while Simone stayed back with the 2 girls who didn’t want to hike. It seemed to work; the “rival” felt most at home playing with Isaac — but attention to Isaac (who seems to win everyone’s heart everywhere) is truly a sore point with the girls these days. They are just so tired of the many people who proclaim his intelligence, cuteness etc. It couldn’t have been worse when having JUST set foot back in Korea (from Japan) the customs officer (we went to declare some apples and rice balls: they confiscated the delicious Nagano apples) upon hearing Isaac’s queries about the conveyer belt++ took the time to say how intelligent he was which the girls then asked me to translate and then they rolled their eyes as if to say “here we go again” and it somehow is true, from cab drivers to officials, they all comment on Isaac.

The girls’ teacher is lovely and seems to enjoy the ride of adolescents and their drama but adding Carmen and Simone to the mix definitely has its challenges — and she speaks it seems almost no English. They have been doing some Korean when the class is working on their Korean and it seems that things are converging in math class: one day last week he brought in a friend who could translate. Fortunately they don’t have much homework, but they have been sports about doing the assignments: a paper on yutnori, a Korean New Year’s game which lends itself to the study of probability (it was a math assignment); and a test of about 20 Chinese characters. There is little that I don’t hear from them about Korea: for the most part I remind myself that they enjoy many things here and that if we were back home I would ALSO be hearing many things about other aspects of their lives there. But of course since we are in Korea “for me” I do hear the run of it from the girls.

In the midst of all of this I think a great deal about the many Korean immigrants (short or long term) I know in the U.S. (including my grad students) and the emotional experience of putting kids in a school in a totally foreign language environment. Jiyeon, my remarkable RA who has now joined me in Korea (Oh my goodness, what good fortune for me), who is looking through a number of the early study abroad memoirs (we are writing a paper about that) says that there is lots of attention paid to the first day of school. The girls started 2 days before Isaac and I knew they were fortified by the English speaking girl and their own ability to retreat into novels (those first days were hard though because they were mostly planning and cleaning days), but when I left Isaac at 10 (I had been hanging out since 8:40 and every other first grade parent had long before gone on their way) I was on the verge of tears just wondering how he would make it till 2 in that 100% foreign language environment. When he was happy at 2 my heart soared and when he announced, “the girls have been going to school for 2 days already and haven’t made any friends but I already made lots of friends in just a day,” I couldn’t have been more relieved.

By the second day of school, Isaac was able to articulate a “strategy” for making friends in Korea: being funny, chasing kids about, parading his “martial” (a made up martial arts, loosely based on his sporadic attendance at Hapkido and Kung Fu Panda) etc. And it seems to be working; on this past rainy Friday morning when we couldn’t catch a cab for 30 minutes and ended up spending some 70 minutes on public transportation to get there (we need a different plan B) and reached the school an hour late, the kids in his class were heading down to recess and “Isaac is here!!” echoed through the stairwell. Once he said to Andy matter-of-factly, “Dad, didn’t YOU have your strategies for making friends when YOU were little?” He explained that he has secret strategies at home but that he won’t divulge them.

[The more frequent paragraph breaks are thanks to Judy Han who put in a plea] That first day of school we tried the “after school” and Isaac quit that day. After-school is pretty disorganized and the coordinators do not have the talent of his teacher whose nick name is “cookie” (many progressive organizations/groups use nicknames to try and break linguistic and social conventions of age and other hierarchies) and manages to communicate with Isaac despite having little English. I let him drop out because I think 5+ hours a day in Korean is enough to ask of him. So, the problem is that 3 days a week he gets out 2 hours before the girls and once a week an hour earlier. So far we have done a patchwork: me, the flight attendant mother of a classmate of his (who has very colloquial greeting-level English that doesn’t go too deep but does the trick; she is lovely and also knew just what to bring Isaac to keep him happy — a kit with lots of paper cars to assemble), Eun-Jung (the babysitter the kids all adore, especially Isaac — the girls explain that she knows just how to make him happy), and this last week I found two Yonsei undergrads (one a former student of So Jin’s) who can help out too. This retinue hangs out at the “chagun namu” (little tree) café down the street from the school that is run by a collective of (mostly) mothers from the school. The homemade chocolate ice cream and garlic toast (the bread is about 5 inches thick) are favorites and the coffee is good too. Isaac has a vision: that the Leal neighborhood (his elementary school at home) needs a café like this one and I think it could support one. His idea: instead of a fixed menu, whoever is working that day can set the menu. There are many parks in the neighborhood so as the weather warms I have a feeling that the 2 new babysitters, Haenul and Yesong will use those hours outside. The three kids are now able to taxi their way home alone: Carmen uses a little guide prepared by Yonmee (the teacher downstairs) and also she knows the way so she can direct the driver herself. A couple of days a week two 8th grade boys go home with them (Ho-chang and Sang-un; the girls objected profusely at first, but are very happy with the arrangement now) and hang out with Isaac which lets the girls head to Hapkido if we aren’t home yet. The boys do lots of rough housing with Isaac — read, he climbs all over them — and all three of them seem to have a great time; the big boys couldn’t be more adorable. As for the girls, they have very little to do with them — and that seems to work, mutually.

[whoops, that was a long paragraph] The girls got their yellow belts in Hapkido; I washed the white ones and put them away. Most evenings they are there at both 5 and 7 which pushes dinner till 8 and by 9 I for one am ready to drop. Only last night — they were demonstrating for Hee Jung’s parents (who took us to a lovely soy-based restaurant in Koyang in Kyonggi) — a humorous pop dance that they also do there. As I have written before, the brilliance of that neighborhood studio seems to be that they keep it all fun: between classes they seem to do pick up ball games etc. It really seems to be as much a playground with intermittent Hapkido lessons and the girls like the teen girl set there, although they aren’t coming as much now that school has picked up. No question that the prospect of the black belt is a motivation.

Isaac is ambivalent about Hapkido. A couple of weeks ago things had really devolved. The girls reported that he seemed to be purposely unlearning and that he seemed to be causing some problems during the class time; there was no question that he enjoyed the pre- and post- play time. So we asked him what to do about it — did he want to quit — and he proposed a meeting with Sabomnim. He cracked me up when he put it to me in plain terms: “Mom, let’s face it: have I made any progress in Hapkido? How long has it been since I started — 6 weeks — and I haven’t progressed at all (I was surprised he even knew the word/phrase).” The day came and Andy and I took him over at 6 (between classes for her) and we sat in the big chairs in the office next to the gym. Sabomnin was clearly getting a BIG kick out of this BIG summit for this little boy. They shook hands that he would give it another try, not every day, and that she would only teach him small things so as to not overwhelm him. Sabomnim told Isaac that he could realistically go up 2 belts — yellow to blue — which he said he didn’t think was possible. Since then (it was already over a week ago) he has gone twice (he needed some urging) and really enjoyed it. We’ll see; when it comes time to pay again I think we’ll give him the option of quitting. But the teacher is so lovely, and the play so much fun, that if we can make it work it would be great.

There is no question that being here is emotionally challenging for all the kids. Isaac has cried himself to sleep a couple of nights. I am blown away by the metaphor (or at least that is how I have come to hear it) he uses: often he says that he is always hungry in Korea and he longs most for Monical’s Pizza. Literally, he has cried most over missing Monical’s pizza which those of you who know it know is a very low end pizza chain in Urbana-Champaign. He talks about how when we go home he wants to go to Monical’s and then to the Courier Café and yesterday he mentioned Olive Garden. He is definitely crying out for comfort. When Andy couldn’t bring Monical’s back from Urbana last week, he cried from his soul. It hurt to watch.

Thank goodness that Zona, his school and neighborhood buddy, arrives in Seoul THIS Wednesday: quite remarkable really that this could happen (her Dad, Pega, has an invitation and frequent flier miles are letting Zona and her Mom, Ivana, come with). Having this visit on the horizon has really made a difference: Isaac will skip 2 days of school, and one day Zona will go to school with him. The kids are counting the days, and after that to my sister Ruth and her daughter Molly’s arrival mid-April, and then maybe my Mom’s visit in May, and Dana, Craig, Jonah, and Evie’s visit in June. They talk about the visits constantly and all they will show and do with them. I just feel crazily lucky that thanks to Haejoang we have a place where we really can host all these folks.

One big news about Zona’s visit is that Isaac will get to go to Lotte World (one of the 3 Seoul area amusement parks) and most importantly with Eun-Jung. A couple of Sundays ago Eun-Jung and her boyfriend took the girls to Lotte World and Isaac hemmed and hawed as to whether he wanted to go. He is, in fact, a bit afraid of amusement parks and was stressed but still wanting to go. He was frozen by indecision and very sad so I suggested that if he was that confused that he had better not go and arrange another time with Eun-Jung. This calmed him a bit, especially if he could go with her alone (the boyfriend he had never met might have stressed him a bit too), and he has been talking about it constantly ever since. The excitement is that this coming Friday afternoon, Eun-Jung is free to take Isaac and Zona to Lotte World. It is Isaac’s decision as to whether he wants the girls to come with and he is still deliberating. The night that he cried himself to sleep over whether to go or not he also cried over missing Monical’s pizza. That was also the weekend before the start of school, when he had truly broken down buying slippers for school and Velcro sneakers (on an otherwise beautiful walk down Seoul’s amazing Chengyech’on — the riverlet that was unearthed, cleaned up, and is now a beautiful stretch in the heart of Seoul). So, a lot was happening just then for Isaac. Ahh, as I write this I realize that we have already weathered a hard transition.

Last week Cookie got to thinking that Isaac had so much to say and couldn’t so 2 times she had her husband (who knows some English and is a freelance photographer) come to class to play with Isaac. Isaac lectured him about the universe, the planets, the coliseum, the empire state building etc. and he was so impressed; no doubt for Isaac it must have been so nice to get to be (again) in school the very verbal person that he is! So nice of Cookie to do that. Her husband has an earing, longish hair, and has a lovely way about him: before I met him, Isaac said to me, “Mom, he’s your style. You’ll really like him”! I did!

Another high point for Isaac was the letter (email) his teacher sent from home. Mrs. Hume — how does she manage it — typed in a little note from each student in his class and he was in stitches hearing them. One little boy (Isaac is pretty sure this was a joke) wrote: “Hope you’re having fun seeing the pyramids in Korea.” He just cracked up over that one and has told many people here about that hysterical line!!

The girls have a 4 day field trip coming up — to a beautiful island. Simone, after considerable initial enthusiasm, is getting cold feet (likely the food is worrying her), so we’ll see if/who ends up going. And after that we head to Cheju for a much anticipated long weekend with Hee Jung’s family.

OK, that was the kids and school. Now I need a little air time. Smile. In the middle of all this school+ trauma, I have somehow nonetheless managed to have lots of fun. I just love what this city offers: museums, old friends, new friends+++ And I like managing the public transportation; where driving is so intimidating to me at home, here I am so much more capable in getting around. And I like the small store shopping, and oddly living more in the cash economy; “I” spend so much more money here while at home I hardly use money. From this perch, Urbana Champaign seems isolated/ing and I worried about how I will feel when I get home; that will become “regular” again, I know. But, one has to worry.

Although I fretted over it for much of last fall, I am loving co-teaching with Haejoang (I am not official, just along for the ride). And remarkably it turns out that this is the first formal anthropology undergraduate anthropology class at Yonsei (the department in brand new and celebrated just the other day with a founding party!!). We have just devoted the first two weeks to meditating on what it means that this class is in English (which is all the rage at Korean universities where new faculty have to sign a contract stating their willingness to teach in English for the rest of their careers — that is a longer subject) (actually Haejoang refused to do so until last year). The 20 some students wrote essays about their English learning histories which for all of them are enormously emotionally charged: many essays about jealousy (of those who can speak better; one young man cracked me up with a line in which he explained that he consoles himself when he sees really good speakers by thinking to himself that ‘they must have HUGE deficiencies in other areas’), many about MOTHERS (who are the agents pushing their kids to study English (one girl reported on her mother telling her that friends are nothing but a waste and that after she learns English and attends a top-rate school, that then friends will flock to her), and many about the trauma of not speaking/understanding English in spite of the enormous time/energy they have invested. There are 5 native speakers in the classroom and the others explain that there is no way that we can understand, as one girl put it graphically, the “English coffin that trails behind them.” Now the course will turn to examination of Korean families in film and ethnography which is the focus of the course. I really like the students, know all their names, and can’t wait to listen to them on the films and readings we have chosen. I am so grateful that I get this opportunity. And the teaching days have an added perk: Haejoang picks me up at 11 and we head for the Seoul Hilton to swim (it is in the neighborhood, empty, and beautiful). So, as it turns out, the teaching days are my slow days and it forces me to not “schedule” them which is good. I have so loved putting on Craig’s CDs (and he just supplied 2 new ones!!) and quietly enjoying the empty apartment before Haejoang arrives.

So, some of my own personal highlights. A visit to the National Museum of Art, Deoksugung for “The Modern Korea Rediscovered” — gorgeous (mostly realist) paintings from the 20s to 60s. It closes the 22nd and I am determined to go back. Especially because this week we begin to put paint to canvass (We being Simone and I). I love our teacher but am already deeply humbled. An amazing morning with Kang Shinpyo at the National Folklore museum: thanks to his connections it felt like I met the entire staff including the director who spoke about the museum needing to come into the present and anticipate that someday a Vietnamese (or some other) Korean will become president (I was impressed). And now I will be on a panel in May on multiculturalism and folklore museums — I insisted that I was not the idea candidate for the job but so it goes. Among many other fascinating projects, they have web captured ALL the contents of several contemporary farm houses (opening every single drawer); also they have on display a 70s apartment (great idea). I joined the Social Inequality group and enjoyed a first meeting at an amazing café, Etoile, close to Hapjong station (past the Xii gallery and down the street 100 metres; one of those large homes turned into a café).Had such a nice family gathering with Kyungjin Cho and family: always fun when kids connect! Andy was fascinated that evening to learn about some of the WHY as to why Seoul has developed the way it has: Doyoung explained that Koreans have the land mass of a smaller European country but the American mindset, wanting bigger, bigger… and hence this sea of apartments with everyone seeking ever bigger abodes. I had lovely gatherings with old friends from Urbana: Hyunju Park from linguistics who is willing to translate my recent book into Korean (wow) and shared so much about the trials of teaching in English in Korea these days; and Charse who I met with Isaac for the nicest couple of hours together. And when Andy was gone the kids and I joined Alex and his mom and grandma for pasta and headed to Peter Pan (our favorite bakery that So Jin put on our map) for ice cream (frozen pops that are to die for that the kids softened by holding them up to a ceiling held space heater while the grownups among us dipped them in coffee); when I went to that bakery next (with Haejoang who always figures out a way to stop somewhere so that I can pick up bread for the family) the woman there asked me if Alex’s grandmother had been my mother-in-law — I got a kick out of that because indeed Alex’s grandmother (the protagonist of my book on Korean women) is such an old friend. And then there are new friends: Ho Jin, a film maker who Haejoang put me in touch with — and who knows we might make a movie together (Ho Jin is sitting in on our class, just back from an MFA at CalArts and a smiley lovely person\. And Yong-gun who was on military leave for a few days and joined the kids and I for pizza when Andy was away (Yong-gun got in touch with me about 18 months ago to say that he was a Korean permanent resident who had never lived in Korea and was about to serve in the military; the dinner was fascinating, but most of all he has a real talent with kids and somehow helped us to end that first hard week of school in a joyous mode: pizza and the dry ice that came home with the ice cream we bought on the way home helped — the dry ice made Isaac laugh for well over an hour and he then broke out in song, “I love to laugh” from Mary Poppins and honestly I have NEVER seen the girls more charmed by their younger brother! And Angie Chung, fellow Asian Americanist whose book I had recently reviewed and is here teaching at Yonsei in sociology (we share so many interests!). And then there was a really old friend, Joon Lee who I knew from her undergraduate days at Harvard over 20 years ago, who out of the blue invited me to lunch (via Jun Yoo whose network never ceases to amaze). This is what amazes me about Seoul — everyone seems to come through or be here. Mike Robinson is here just now too with a group of students — waiting for a call from him. Also, speaking of old friends, I gave a talk at Yonsei and Kim Chin Woo and his lovely wife joined — and for lunch. Talk about feeling “at home.”

OK, it is Monday morning, the third week or school. Andy is back so my morning doesn’t need to be as crazy and Ho Jin comes over this morning so that we can talk about my “movie” (the one I want to make but still can’t quite describe!) I braved not 1, but 2 shopping trips with the girls this past weekend: very cute stuff, if I say so myself. And on Saturday we hiked up Ansan mountain opposite us, and down into the Yonsei campus and then into campus town for bagels and drinks. It was cold, but the clearest day imaginable (after a big rain on Friday) and we could see everything: Seoul is SUCH a pretty place really with all these mountains. Hee Jung’s Dad told us about a peak that we will do soon.

A couple of asides. In one of my encounters Isaac overheard someone tell me about G-d crying with him — it was a beautiful story of reconciliation — and Isaac spoke of it later; he takes it all in. I made a terrible email error this week: wrote a woman who directs a center I want to visit (for my “project” here) who then wrote me back a LOVELY letter that detailed everything she was up to and how busy she was and that I might call her as late as 11. I thought I was sending a note to Jiyeon and forwarded the letter and a little note saying something like, “WOW this woman is really busy telling me to call her at 11 — looks like we won’t meet her till April.” Turns out I sent it to her and she wrote back a VERY perplexed note. So I called and explained the whole thing. We laughed and enjoyed a great conversation and she invited me to visit and give a lecture – all that in Korean but she ended on an English note: “You owe me one.” I thought that was so cute.

February 25, 2009

I’ve stopped counting!

Filed under: Uncategorized — solongseeyoutomorrow @ 4:29 pm

Racing off to Japan this morning; writing myself a note about what I need to do when I get back. I pretty much treat myself as a would-be amnesiac (i.e., with all my lists).

Copyedited manuscript: done. Inch by inch.

Began blogging and Facebook at the same time. Both to keep up with Carmen. Just found an old friend, John Seel, in FB. So, I’m a fan now.

Andy and I spent about 90 minutes yesterday talking to the school principal, the English teacher (who was wonderful but never spoke English), the girls’ 6th grade homeroom teacher and the 2 candidates for Isaac’s 1st grade teacher. Although he is technically in second grade here, they feel that the more active, less literate culture of first grade will make things easier; also second grade has 4 high needs kids and they are calculating teacher time/energy. Their big dilemma: there is a returnee Korean girl who doesn’t speak much Korean and they are debating whether it is best to put Isaac and her in the same class or to split them. Our hunch (which we were honest about): likely best for Isaac to be together, and better for the girl (who will be here longer) to make her way in Korean company. Their worry: if they are together the other kids will find it intimidating to approach the English speaking duo. The English teacher will take all the kids during their respective classes’ Korean language time. We let her know that we have no need for Isaac to be tutored in Korean, but that if she could take up the (enormously difficult) activity of having him read the little books we brought with (from his first grade teacher) that would be awesome. At home, this is how it tends to go: line 1, Isaac is upright; line 2, Isaac has reclined and begun to yawn (they seem real); line 3, Isaac has reclined; line 4, Isaac has moved to the floor; line 5, I, for one, am wondering, “How effective can this be?” Funny when I went to describe to the teacher how difficult it is I really appreciated the Korean word for hard which is literally “strength goes into it” (i.e., a sort of compound verb) because it captures the nature of things better than the English in this case. They are very sure that there will be a big group of kids lined up to help Isaac learn how to read English; when I heard this I immediately said that I was sure that 4th or 5th grade Korean kids could easily parse his little books; to which, they smiled and said that the earlier grade kids could as well!! The girls’ teacher has that veteran-air and Andy and I both agreed that she can handle 6th graders, easy. They all asked just the right questions — very reassuring for Andy: the kids’ personality (Simone at the dinner table last night wanted the review of exactly how we had answered, to which Carmen chirped in with an imaginary narrative of what we might have said which was pretty much spot on!), health concerns, things they might particularly hate (a query from one of Isaac’s potential teachers) (our answer: being forced to do something; we communicated what a lovely boy Isaac is but that he is not moved by what the crowd does — no surprise that when we told him last night that no kids in his class would be wearing tie sneakers (a problem here because Isaac can’t tie his shoes and shoes come on and off so much) he said, “well, can’t I just be different?” to which Andy answered, “You’re going to be different enough already”). Andy and I were both delighted to learn that the teen set at the school is tomboyish and that the girls need to wear loose informal pants because of gym days twice a week, and Yoga the other days. This was big (nearly shocking) news to our tight jean set. So we’ll go buy some. But who knows? I have a funny feeling that the girls might come home and say that the teachers have no idea about the kids there…They sure do often think that we have no idea! A small school like this one looked so labor intensive to me. Dazzling — and our little meeting was still going at 6:30! Simone was not thrilled to learn that the new student ceremony next Saturday asks that everyone dress up in something that reveals their dreams; Simone has never liked costumes (I’m sort of with her on that one). Carmen and Isaac are ready to come as painters and I might join them. Just asked Andy for his impressions: He was surprised that all the teachers and the principal were there to meet with us at such length. Also, the school has taken even our kids’ transportation into consideration (Haejoang has helped behind the scenes on this one) and they will find an older teen to help take them home on some days when we can’t get there on time (rereading this — Oh my goodness how unhappy the girls are at this prospect: we heard no end of complaints, including from Isaac). Isaac ends some days at 2, others at 3, and he will join a first/second grade after-school program also. Let’s see. The school is cold. But warm otherwise. I feel so excited for the kids; like a first grader myself. Nervous too.

Let’s see (Mom) other kid stuff: one evening Isaac came to me to announce a discovery. I could really tell he had been mulling this one over for a while: (that now that he thinks about it) in Urbana everyone is connected to everyone else. And he went on to explain ‘degrees of separation’ — that even if we don’t know them directly, they would know someone we know. And, he’s right. Again — they aren’t reading this these days but still — the girls would wince to read this but I do think it is wonderful that living in a large metropolis afforded this “discovery” of his! The kids have really been enjoying their time with Eun-Jung, the former student of my former student (!), who knows just how to make them happy: shopping, movies, TV programs (in Korean), cooking plans+++ I am deeply indebted to her. The girls are amazed at her careful planning, detailed schedules for each meeting. I’m amazed that she wears spike heels nearly every time she comes; given the grade and quality of the hill she has to walk up to get here this is simply incredible. Yesterday, she was leaving with Isaac for Hapkido (the girls had run ahead) and she bowed to us as she always does, and Isaac bowed too (it was so instinctive and cute and they were holding hands). Again, we are lucky.

If the museums are right, and if they are peppered with hot chocolate and a good lunch, the kids are pretty tolerant. I think what they like least is anything too modern. They were happiest at the Palace Museum in Kyongbokgun (which these days is dazzling because of the clear skies and gorgeous mountain scenery); I think kids like to hear about royalty and Isaac (Oh oh praising him again) generated a whole theory of democracy, explaining to me that the difference is that Obama is from a “regular family,” and, yes, that “anyone can become president.” But meanwhile the room full of nothing but jars for royal placentas and the gorgeous GM cars that the list king was driven in etc. etc. all excited them. They even liked the exhibit about court music (Anne P. are you reading — and we talked about YOU there). And what really took us to the museum was the exhibit on the Seungnaemun (formerly Namdaemun or the South Gate) which was recently burned down by a disgruntled man displaced from his home by redevelopment — of course for Isaac that the #1 national treasure (I didn’t fully disclose that although it is indeed #1 the numbering system does not mean that it was designated the most important) was destroyed is very dramatic, and its current rebuilding noteworthy. In the elegant café there I ran into Ham Sejung who I had met there the day before (the kids thought that was quite a coincidence. The gift shop there is beautiful and I recommend it to folks over Insadong for quick (and expensive) shopping of the more traditional Korean fare. I bought the most beautiful lacquer tray for Noboru and Rika. Then we went off to a gallery (the same one we visited very soon after our arrival) next to a restaurant that had appealed to the kids last time (but we hadn’t gone). This time the gallery was housing Yu Sok-nam’s hundreds of wooden sculptures of (homeless) dogs on the streets of Seoul. We have a small sculpture of hers of a mother/daughter (in a lantern) in our entry way in Urbana and Haejoang has a small lovely little sculpture of hers here in a windowsill and I was pretty sure that the kids would hence feel “at home” amongst these works. And they did. I am not a dog fan but I love her work. She did one series of dogs and flowers (something to do with 108 Buddhist sins?) and they were (the flowers that is) beautiful. All this was followed by shopping with Eun-Jung (I went on my own way) at the Nambuk Terminal; the girls are becoming veterans who can run the shopping comparison between the Namdaemun Market, and South of the river, Koex and the Nambuk Terminal underground strips. They bought spring jackets (stylish), shirts etc. And Eun-jung found the key to Isaac’s heart: the play mobile store in the Kyobo building in Kangnam. Saved. He built a little card board house floor his new “soldier” (I never quite know what they are). (Later I found out it was a prisoner and jail master and little mice for the cell. Lovely).

[Need to pack for Japan; will write the rest from there].
I’ll save Japan for another entry but here I am in Osaka at the wooden table that pretty much is Noboru’s dining room attached to a small kitchen and it is so much home for me — I think I have spent thousands of hours here, hanging, talking, working…This is the famous table that Mrs. Murakami used to recline under after a long day and a good meal and where once Andy (who was jet-lagged) joined her under the table (Noboru tells the story to show just how relaxed his household is and how friendly his mom was) — we have it on photo! Back from skiing the kids are exhausted. NHK news in the background is reporting that Japanese universities are in trouble because of the market (and the falling population).

I went to two movies in a single week. All smiles. The first with Jin-young — blanking on the title (not wireless here) — a documentary about an elderly farming couple and a cow. The film documents the final 18 months of the cow’s life, the cow that the farmer relied on for his stubborn hand-farming. Frankly, it was dull fare, although the scenery was beautiful and the elderly man/cow cuts were somewhat poetic. The film ends with text about the suffering of “our elders to afford our lives now” — which struck me as particularly sappy and romantic. The film’s saving grace was the wife who is a bit cynical about her husband’s stubborn ways and defiant commitment to the cow and her constant reprieve, “my fate…” The second movie was with Sejung who works for Soo-Jung at Rainbow Youth (more on that in a sec): Daytime Drinking, a travel pic about a guy who finds himself in Kangwon Province and ends up at the very same seaside that we visited after we went skiing. It was interesting for capturing a sort of light-hearted helplessness of young people with few prospects.

I had fascinating morning learning about Sejung Ham’s Rainbow Youth work: she has created numerous programs to teach teachers and kids about what it means to live with North Korean refugees/immigrants. I left with a pile of little books and a DVD for teachers. It was fascinating to hear how she decided to explain to South Koreans the challenges for North Korean kids who find themselves in the South (for example, that not only are they typically put back a year but they find themselves in math classes in which they can’t understand a single problem because North Korean math does not use roman numerals, instead writing all programs in Korean (i.e., no numbers appear). She also showed me a number of books for the North Korean kids which are efforts to de-code the many illegible aspects of Korean society. It was fascinating to learn which aspects require translation: that in the South kids are legally required to attend school, that in the South not every school is necessarily doing the same thing, that most kids go to after schools…Hers is a veritable diagnosis of the cultural divides. She is about to head to the U.S. to study educational philosophy and it was interesting to learn that she felt that it was her ed philosophy background that facilitated her ability to imagine and execute these “cross-cultural” educational programs. She has applied to Urbana too… I hope she finds her way there because I think her experience in creating these first-generation programs and then guiding their enactment is pretty incredible. (I suggested that she write an article before she heads to the U.S.). That same day (my day, and did I ever use it) I ventured to Taek-Lim (who I met in Seoul in 1984 — we read Geertz together; who was I to have been helping anyone with that text at that point, but whatever…)’s Oral History Institute that she founded in the last couple of years. It was great to see her “space” and to learn about her work these years; one of the university’s library/information/archival programs is relying on her program to train their students and they send them to her! That day I also met my oil painting teacher at the South Gate Market where we lined up the equipment — much more than I imagined. Simone will join me so we had to think about what we both needed and what we could share. I have to admit I’m a bit nervous. She was very nice and I think we’ll get along well. That day I went hither/thither all over Seoul and ended up with Sejung again for Daytime Drinking where we ran into the girls who had taken care of Carmen and Simone 2 years ago when I needed to be in a meeting (that was their first trip to a Korean amusement park); the funny thing was that I had asked one of the boyfriends the way to the theatre (it was down a long alley and it seemed an unlikely place to me) and he recognized me and had been tempted to say, “Are you headed to Daytime Drinking.” They left the theatre heading for a bar (! I have to admit I could have never gone drinking after that salubrious (is that the right word?) film) and we headed to a little Chinese (steamed) dumpling shop (so yummy, just like the ones I loved in Shanghai) run by a Chinese couple that started the shop knowing NO Korean; eventually some of the guests put up signs in Korean explaining the fare and now they speak a bit. Although there have been Chinese in Korea throughout the century (and they have been active in the Chinese restaurant sector), this sort of recent immigrant shop struck me as very new (the alley to the theatre and shop is at Ankuk, heading to the library that stands on the former site of the Kyonggi High School that so many famous people and academics attended — it has now moved south the river where much of Seoul’s wealth and high fashion+++ is amassed). I had another afternoon to myself which I spent with Soo-Jung, first heading to a three-generation-show of her classmate-film director of my favorite Korean movies, Memories of Murder and The Host (this spring his new film “Mother [in English]” comes out — I can’t wait (Just read a wonderful book about him, a directors’ series published in 2008). The show (mostly his Dad’s design work) was unremarkable but from there we headed to a little coffee grinding shop in Soo-Jung’s neighborhood (we’ve been living on that coffee since) and to a fancy department store where Soo-Jung was determined to buy Isaac a simpler chocolate cake (her more elegant present of a variety of fancy cakes the other day had caused a raucous because they all vied for the simplest chocolate cake) and we settled on classic chocolate cup cakes with blue frosting (perfection for the kids). It seemed so amazing to be ambling about Seoul in a leisurely way with Soo-Jung who had taken the afternoon off from her weighty work responsibilities as the assistant director of Rainbow Youth (which houses both the North Korean immigrant youth section and a section for other immigrant youth) (their office has as amazing view of the Kyungbok Palace which of course –when I mentioned it — they said they hardly have time to notice it).

We had my old friend Pae-gu (a farmer who I met in 1987) and his family over for dinner. Only they arrived late at 8:30 (we had settled on 7:00) having eaten dinner. Thank goodness for his teen boys who were willing to eat the home-made pizzas just the same. His older boy was great with English and we had lots of fun at dinner because he was teasing his younger brother about his girlfriend who had just given him home-made chocolate for Valentine’s Day (In both Japan and Korea, it is girls who give boys presents on Valentine’s Day — go figure) (evidentially home-made chocolate is all the rage, typically by following instructions on the internet). Pae-gu’s wife joined later and we talked a bit about the U.S. and Korean agriculture (she remains active in farmers’ movements). The boys were a wonderful tonic for Isaac: they pulled Isaac all around the apartment (he was tied to his Hapkido belt) and they did all sorts of stuff on the balconies. He had so much fun but at some point he took a little fit (he had just rammed into a table), went to our room and threw up; poor kid, he ended up having a hard night and a slow Sunday where he ate nothing and looked so waif-like; Andy ventured out with the girls for another Seoul peak where they ran into scores of weekend middle aged hikers (all in perfect gear) and found themselves (even though they had headed pretty far to what we figured would be the outskirts of Seoul) surrounded by a sea of apartment buildings. They reported that I would not have liked some of the ladders so just as well (plus I would have hated seeing Isaac on some of those ladders).

The Korean ethnography group met for the first time: 7 of us doing field work in Korea. And we filmed it with my new camera (Q-ho manned the camera). We did 30 minutes apiece (having sent short documents beforehand) and it was lots of fun. Erica (UC Irvine) on Peruvians in Korea (and the church), Josie (U of I) on college film clubs, John (U of I) on gays and internet, Hae Yeon (U WI) on Filipina migrant laborers, brides and sex workers, Seo Yeong on time/space/labor at Seoul’s 24 hour Tongdaemun Market, and Euy Ryung (UNC) on multicultural discourse/NGOs. In March we will be joined by a 7th member from Rutgers studying Vietnamese in a provincial area. Since I am so used to the weekly advisee meeting, I loved the gathering. And I was delighted to learn later that some of them headed out to dinner together. It is so much fun to be able to learn about all these exciting dissertations in the making. Who knows if we will collectively decide to edit the films into something, but I’ll leave that for much later. I wasn’t too psyched about being filmed myself but we all got used to it. I felt very spoiled to have everyone come to me, but Haejoang’s place is perfect for such a meeting.

Isaac and I also had a nice visit with Chung-Kang and her 2 kids: how she is managing the kids, the final touches of her dissertation, job searching, and kid #3 in May, who knows. But she is always calm and even made us a lovely lunch. Isaac while there enjoyed the littler kids toys and company and after drawing a picture, asked for an envelope, and a while later announced to Chung-Kang that there was a letter at the door. He had her for a minute. It was cute.

Ok, winding down. I wanted to end on one encounter and I will keep the details vague. I had a very sad conversation with a woman in her early 40s. On the brink of a divorce and a government worker, she described her hopelessness: insecure about her job, she fears, she said, for her very existence; who, she mused, will care for her, feed her? What made this even sadder was that earlier in our encounter she explained that she shares nothing private with anyone other than someone connected by blood — those are the only people, she went on, who can truly share her suffering because it flows into their very bloodstream. It is commonsense to describe Koreans’ keen sense of blood-relatedness (resistance to adoption beyond the patrilineage, heightened interest in genetic determinism (prejudice against those from families with genetic proclivities to illness or disability) etc.), but I had never heard anyone voice anything quite like this and it struck me as semi-tragic. Because, nonetheless, at the end of the day she worried for her future and didn’t even mention family. Also, remarkably she had described herself as an unlikely Korean. Haejoang often talks and writes about South Korea’s weak “support system” that leaves people insecure about their futures and goes far to explain South Korea’s familism (the sense that one can only rely on family) and class reproduction anxiety (which fuels South Korea’s aggressive globalization). This woman seemed a text-book case. I was pretty shaken by the whole encounter. She also said that she often goes to sleep hoping she might not wake up in the morning. No sooner had I heard all this then it seemed that everywhere I turned massive job insecurity was making its way into the fabric of family lives. One friend mentioned thinking about liquidating their assets and heading to the countryside for a quiet life of some farming and internet-based activity. Ahh. We are all feeling the economy. Together.

February 10, 2009

1 month+

Filed under: Uncategorized — solongseeyoutomorrow @ 10:44 pm

How do people keep this up? My excuse this week (I missed my own Friday (internal) deadline): the copyedited manuscript of my book, The Intimate University: Korean American College Students and the Problems of Segregation (the press edited my title, removing “family” which they say doesn’t sell). I love being copyedited but it is humbling. The editor removed ALL of my attempts to be tentative: (my parenthetical comments) — all dashes too — and every instance in which I put a “word” in quotes. And s/he ex-ed all of the idioms/informal expressions — hadn’t realized I use so many — from “the likes of” to “whole cloth,” “be all, end all,” “tipped the scale,” etc. This blog, though, will remain unedited, clichéd, and tentative!

Some kid highlights first. Mom will agree that these are the most interesting and by far the most important. Isaac had two play dates, both recruited via Hapkido (the martial art). One boy was 4 years older, the other an age mate. Isaac slows down his English and adds a funny twang to it in the hopes that his friends can understand. They couldn’t. But they played, mostly in parallel which is not too uncommon for this age. Meanwhile, he has announced that he likes the playtime before the Hapkido class, the rolling around with all sorts of big/soft blocks and balls and kids, but not the class itself. When I tried yesterday to make the comparison to school — “there’s fun time but there is also class time” — he was entirely unmoved: “But you have to go to school and you don’t have to go to Hapkido.” What’s a parent to say? The girls meanwhile, led by Carmen’s resolve, announced that they would like to attend Hapkido three times a day (4, 5, and 7). Why? The master, Sabomnim, seemed to let them know that a black belt during their time in Korea is in the offing (I gather it would usually take a year) if they work very hard. We have let them know that 3 times a day might cramp our style, to which Simone said something like, “But you’re the ones who wanted us to do Hapkido.” I keep reminding myself that there is nothing the kids are doing/saying that is unique to their being in Korea; that keeps me sane. The girls followed their Korean teacher to school for a party last Saturday morning. She teaches their grade (6th) and thought they would have fun. They had a blast. They particularly got a kick out of how very easy it was to pick out the “alpha girl” (this was not coined in Korea, but Koreans have taken to this way of describing high achieving, ambitious girls) that they had heard over pizza when we had Yon-mi and Eun-kyung (the 2nd grade teacher who has been helping with Isaac) over. See Carmen’s blog for a description of how that girl introduced herself in English. All this bad press about public school and public school teachers, but here are two who couldn’t be more committed, wise, principled…The kids have broken in another tutor/babysitter (11 year olds do NOT need babysitters. I repeat). She began on a formal pedagogical note and things didn’t go well. Second meeting: they were busily planning a shopping trip and learning how to haggle, “That’s too expensive, please cut the price.” The kids announced that she was fine! I dragged them (alone; Andy is cramming on a grant) yesterday to the National Museum in Seoul Grand Park. How did I manage this? The museum can be reached by a chair lift (I overheard the girls explaining to Isaac later that I was gripping his hand for my sake, not his. True) and from most of the museum’s picture frame windows, Seoul Land, the most younger kid-friendly (but still thrilling enough for 11 year olds) amusement park, was in plain view. I told them that I would convince Andy to take them there on Thursday (his day!) My argument: there is no better week because this week kids are in school (Korea has an interesting schedule: a 6-weekish vacation Dec-Jan, the semester’s final two weeks in early February, a two-week winter vacation in late February, and the start of the new school year in March) (theirs being an alternative school things have been “rationalized” cutting out the two weeks in Feb in school) (rationalized for whom?) It was a grey, drizzly day and the park and museum were hollow, never mind the park’s parking capacity for tens of thousands. The crown jewel of the museum is Nam June Paik’s TV pagoda, 1003 TVs to be precise, standing for 10.03, Korea’s national founding day, which is the centerpiece of the museum around which one winds up the museum’s three floors. The special show was on the works of up-and-coming young artists; the girls stand their ground that classical art is much better. Isaac did like several pieces: the rocket ship that had broken through the museum wall, the 3-D video installation of a trip to Antarctica (it was beautiful) and another video installation of a rocket launching that seemed to include a 3-D panorama that moved (or was it the video?) (see this odd site for the best photos I was able to locate quickly — the kids loved the sculpture garden too). We never made it to the zoo, but somehow the museum (+chairlift) did the trick. There was a children’s wing with many beautiful paintings: not necessarily children’s art but more easily accessible portraiture. And while we are on the subject of culture: this home comes with cable. And yes the Disney channel has its play. Likely our no-TV (at home) kids will remember THIS about their time in Korea as much as anything else. Don’t ask me what they watch. I do see Mr. Bean on the screen though.

Andy and I ventured to the first new parent meeting at the kids’ school ( There were many things that reminded me of PTA/new parent meetings at home: nervous, concerned parents, veteran parents guiding the way, the call for volunteers (more important in the case of this private, cooperative school). It was interesting to see how parents introduced themselves: typically standing up as a couple, some nudging as to who would go first, and in most cases the wife leading the way. The most interesting thing was, though, the extent to which parents shared not only their dreams for their children (these parents have opted for an alternative school, and for the substantial fees to become a co-op member) but also their hopes for changes in their own life. They spoke either of having been in the neighborhood, just moved to the neighborhood (with great effort) or being in the throes of moving. The uniformly seemed to embrace the idea of more cooperative living (like family, like a village etc.). I felt moved and a bit choked up at their sincere resolve and desires for something different. And speaking of community, that evening we joined for the opening of a community theatre. The opening was staged by inviting the “spirit” of the mountain (the neighborhood is a hill) to bless the event. There was the humorous “calling” of the spirit followed by her clever MCing of the welcoming remarks and gifts of 6 notables (yours truly was one of them; Haejoang hadn’t exactly made that clear to me but I winged it). My gift was Carmen (Simone bagged out and joined Andy who was not enjoying this Korean language event) who recited one of her Bat mitzvah blessings and also gave lovely remarks about the health and future of the theatre and neighborhood (go Carm!). The other 5 folks said such lovely things. Most memorable for me were Haejoang’s memories of early childhood during the Korean War — in retreat in Pusan — where kids really played and had great fun (out of school); all that to wish the neighborhood this healthy space of play. As we were driving off with Haejoang we ran into the “spirit” (costume off) and Isaac both praised her “acting” and asked her how come she had known everything (she had passed a quiz about the neighborhood, just checking that she was indeed the local spirit, and had known everything!) We went off to dinner with Haejoang at a swank (and low-fat!) Italian place in Ehwa University’s (Korea’s posh and premier women’s university with thin students) new student union, which is a veritable architectural masterpiece. Talk about a statement, and talk about money. (Ok, this took longer to find than it should have: (But it is worth it to take a peak). Isaac, who wants to be an architect when he grows up (just now), loved it. I did too. I have never heard of Dominique Perrault (which means very little!).

Determined to take advantage of “being here,” I ventured off to the all-the-buzz movie of the moment, Speed Scandal ( So there I was at a 9:30 movie (very late for Korean films) with a handful of couples. The film was so funny, I was crying at points. I won’t go into here, but check it out!

Andy is leading the way to the mastery of Seoul via its peaks. This week Inwangan ( (I am determined to learn how to make hyperlinks, but photos first). It was beautiful: and what a view of the Kyongbok Palace and the Blue House (Korea’s White House). The path did test my fear of heights, but as long as I couldn’t see Isaac I was fine. Andy has located contour maps on line and I defer. Wonder which peak next? I diverted the family to a shamanic temple complex at the foot of the hill and a stone relief Buddha on the way out, but it is hard to squeeze “culture” in. The kids, most of all the girls, most of all Carmen, are onto me! Isaac did have a lovely conversation with one woman who had set up her prayer paraphernalia on the dais beneath the Buddha and explained to Isaac that all he had to do was ask the Buddha for what he wanted. Carmen takes offense at things having to do with “gods” in the plural. The girls want to go to Friday temple (Jewish!) services but Chabad seems to be the only gig in town (there is a temple on the military base but it seems complicated to get access) and Andy and I aren’t sure how we feel about that. (Frances, are you reading?)

There is no question that there is some family fatigue re: “Mom’s old friends.” So Andy and Isaac sat out the visit to Cheamri (in Kyunggi Province) where I lived for a couple of months in 1987 (when I couldn’t figure out what I really wanted my dissertation to be about!). I think I can speak for the girls though when I say that we had a great (long) day. Tongsop, now 39, was THE loveliest young person (the funny thing is that both Jin-young and I — Jinyoung had been there with me and she and her son joined for this visit — remember Tongsop having been much younger than he in fact was) I had ever encountered. If I even just think about what he was like I feel almost teary: sincere, endearing, lovingly curious, generous, winning… And there he was, and his parents, his Dad in his 70s, alive and well. It had bothered me for years that I had lost touch. Tongsop was dressed in a black suit; when I asked if these were his work clothes the family chimed in to say that he had dressed for our visit! He has a lovely wife and 2 adorable kids, the youngest a girl Isaac’s age who took a liking to Carmen and was ready to have her move in. The first person they asked about was “asur” and it took me a few minutes to even figure out what this was about. Then I got it, “Arthur,” who had visited when I was there. And out came the photos, tiny photos of Art helping with farm labor; the girls were shocked to see the photos of a younger and much thinner (and very handsome) uncle (my younger brother). Art was a hit in Korea, his burly manner (he did the work of 5 men, said Tongsop’s Dad), and in particular they remembered that at the time Art was a snow-maker. Those photos really took me back; and young Tongsop was there too. Tongsop was every bit as sincere. He has a small forklifiting operation — if only I could have helped him when he was negotiating the import from Sweden, he mused — but with the economic downturn things are tough and he might have to get rid of one of his two men. I could tell he was worried. His father just grinned throughout the whole visit and his mother just kept exclaiming over the kids’ beauty, my being a professor, our reunion, Arthur etc. And talk about change: the highway and apartment complexes in plain view, and the veritable museum commemorating the April 1919 massacre (by the Japanese) that had taken place in this village. Tongsop lives on one of those apartment complexes, and his older brother (in the Philippines in winter running a scuba diving tourist tour) lives in small house behind the parents. And the death of the eldest brother — a tragedy shortly after we lived there — did come up; we were silent together for a few moments. (I hate to admit that these untimely deaths have sometimes made it harder for me to keep in touch with some folks. I don’t understand it myself). We left laden with namul (garlicky vegetables, often stringy green vegetables, most often the greens of an array of plants), and homegrown soy beans and sticky rice. Jin-young too had loved the day and her son Chung-sok had again been a good sport: this was not his first outing down our memory lane. The girls got into the mood — not sure that they would easily admit to this — of the visit. We had taken the train to Suwon on the way there (a breezy 35 minutes) but on the way back things were sold out so we sub-wayed our way back: a nearly 2 hour trip, much of it on very crowded trains, and at first with a number of Vietnamese workers. The face of Korea is changing but you need to leave Seoul to know it. As Andy said, it seems to be note unlike the Paris model with the immigrants in the outskirts around the city. Tongsop told me that his nearby town, Paran, is an immigrant shopping scene on weekends. When I glanced at the map (not my strong suit) I realized how close we were to Py’ongtaek, a big immigrant area and also the future home of the American military which is scheduled to leave Seoul entirely.

OK, this is too long.

Other things.

A leisurely lunch here with Jin-young and her family; Andy and her husband got along famously, talking about cars and looking at maps. Jin-young and I go so far back (she took off time from college to help me when I was doing fieldwork (for the article she wrote about me a few years ago (in Korean) check this out: HERE IS MY INTERVIEW ARTICLE ABOUT YOU)); there is nothing like an old friend; no secrets. We are heading to a documentary film together tonight. I simply can’t believe my fortune to be able to hang with dear old friends here. Speaking of which, So Jin took me to the café of a dear old friend of hers and we had so much fun visiting. Ok, my kids think that I am trying to corner the market on coincidences (and their having met someone in a Swiss mountain village who was born in Carle Hospital in Urbana is pretty amazing), but I can’t resist this one. So Jin’s friend had only recently opened this second café. When I asked where the first one is, she named a neighborhood, and as we zoomed in from there we figured out that that very morning I had poked my head in that café looking for something for Isaac to snack on. Now if that isn’t a karmic connection! But my running into Jesook and Honhee at a smallish contemporary art museum in Shanghai took the cake. I cried at that one (and the fact that they had, to boot, slept in the hotel room next to mine!).

Yesterday, speaking of cafes and coincidences, Andy walked in with “Guess who I ran into today?” I was really curious and tried to imagine who of my network might have been at the Yonhee coffee shop that Yon-mi (the teacher) had sent him to… finally he said, So-yeon’s mother and he really had me there. I was stunned, my dear old friend there, out to meet her brother. I called her late last night, on the way back from shopping, and she too was tickled by the encounter, telling me many times how pankôpda she was, happy to run into Andy there. So, the city is shrinking before our eyes.

Other highlights. Kang Shin P’yo, an anthropologist I have heard of for many years, called Haejoang and gave me a message for her which prompted me to introduce myself, which prompted his next-day visit, which prompted Isaac and I visiting the excellent Seoul Museum of History, which prompted a joint meeting with a publisher about the possibility of translating my old book, The Melodrama of Mobility…Kang was dazzled by the stories and jokes of the director of the publishing house (whose late father-in-law took my mother and I out to dinner decades ago). One of them stays with me. She calls her friend and asks about her only-son’s college entrance exam. The friend, she goes on (she was good at telling a joke), says “Haven’t you heard that’s 5 years in jail?” “What?” says the publisher. “You don’t know that one,” says the friend: “5 years if you ask about the college entrance exams, 10 years if you ask about employment, life sentence if you inquire about marriage, and the death penalty if you age if they’re ‘living well’ (chal sanya).” So, the moral it seemed: tough times and changing mores. It was fascinating too to hear from Professor Kang about his voyages in anthropology that began with a PhD at Hawaii under the granddaughter of John Dewey!

Ok, I had better get back to living. For any/all who braved any of this, you should get back to living too (only kidding!)

January 30, 2009

3 weeks

Filed under: Uncategorized — solongseeyoutomorrow @ 11:31 pm

Action-packed, as I think the New Year’s week is for most here — the official holiday was Monday and Tuesday; we could feel the city drain a bit but we were in the thick of it (on the roads) when the hoards returned (a 15 mile drive took nearly 3 hours! — all part of the experience; oddly though, many were men alone in their cars — when I asked, one woman suggested it might be men having gone off after their household chesa (the rituals for the ancestors on New Year’s morning) to “play”; I wonder if it wasn’t men alone doing New Year’s greetings and grave visits (other folks have agreed with me). In a phone (skype — we are paying $5/mo. for limitless phone calls to the U.S.!) conversation with my dear friend Karen Winter-Nelson last week, Isaac chimed in to say that he was very excited about the saebae (i.e., the New Year’s bowing (with some monetary rewards)). This prompted 14 year old Ezra to wonder whether he could still bow at his age which in turn prompted me to ask So Jin (who we had spent the holiday with) and Jiwon (the 15 year old daughter of my old friend — and I pride myself because I formally introduced him to his wife); true to their ages, So Jin wrote to Karen to say that one bows to their parents as long as they are alive, while Jiwon wrote with a kid’s eye, namely offering until what age one could bow (for cash) (until marriage generally, but in the case of her family she continues to see her grandparents give her parents money!). Meanwhile So Jin chirped in to say that she had been thinking that perhaps college students should no longer to be given cash this way, but her siblings persisted so she had no choice but to give as well. (After I began writing this someone told me that in his family his parents and married siblings give money to one another during the bow (the kids go first); yet others have mentioned the considerable financial burden of these payments). Just this morning the 3 kids were video skyping with the girls’ friend Ellen and they were performing the bow for her — and they were also showing her video clips (through skype) of the 1st birthday party we went to (will get to that). And, while I’m on the topic of the new technologies, Karen had already (by the time of her son Ezra’s query) found the Korean New Year’s bow on Youtube. How is one to keep up?

I have always liked the Japanese expression “hana yori dango” meaning “more than the flowers, the rice-cakes” — meaning when people’s attentions go to the more material/crass than the spirit (in this case during the formal “flower watching” in the Japanese spring). All that to say that it is odd (or not so, really) that I have described the money given on the holiday before the holiday. With no further ado. Isaac and I got into the mood the Sunday before with a visit to the “Korean house village” at Namsan (i.e., the have transported a “traditional” rural yangban (former elites) complex where they were doing many “traditional” games, demonstrations, and performances. Isaac pushed a metal ring, swung at a top with a string to keep it going, took in a wonderful drumming performance, pounded sticky rice to make ddôk, etc., together with the “Evanston boys.” (There had been a possibility that Isaac would visit the boys’ home to which he said: “Mom how would you feel if it’s your second week and you’re having your first play date!” — he seems very content to go ‘when he is ready’). It was bitter cold and he was a great sport and I relented (like all kids, he was pretty persistent) and bought him two wooden swords (one for Simone of course who for some reason loves sword fighting) (what was I thinking? The apartment is big but not that big and the swords were quickly broken and confiscated by Andy!) The crowd (not so large actually) was mostly Chinese! I chatted with a family from Taiwan on vacation — I would have loved to know if the others were resident or not. (Andy and the girls explored a water wheel in the neighborhood and a mountain behind (Ansan) which we all hiked almost all the way up yesterday (Andy read yesterday–he is busily finding hiking maps for Seoul) that it was the scene of an enormous Korean War battle with many deaths) (we are baffled why there is no residential development there — but appreciative and also of the remarkable network of what appear to be newly groomed paths, lookouts, and as with the mountain above us, remarkable vita parcours (that’s what we call it after the European exercise stations that dot their hills as well). (Since I wrote this I have found out that it was citizen activism that saved the hill from apartment building and that downstairs Yon-mi’s Dad was very involved. We’ll have to ask him about it).

As for the day of New Year’s, the kids slept in (we watched Titanic the night before such that all New Year’s Day all Isaac wanted to talk about was other ship-sinking but most of all to learn from Andy about all the technologies that today — continued risks aside — make Titanic-like events less likely; I think asking for more was Isaac’s was of calming himself) and by the time I called So Jin it was pretty clear that we would miss the family chesa. But, they waited. Andy drove: muttering a bit on the way about the different way that Koreans tend to direct people to their abodes. The chesa table with the dark wood dishes (many of them) was set up in front of a folding screen and piled high with goodies — the fruit of So Jin and her mother-in-law’s effort. When I kept telling Isaac that these were offerings for the ancestors he wanted to know when they would eat it all. Later he learned when So Jin told us that now we would have to wait a bit for the ancestors to eat before we could. So Jin’s husband, Byoung-young — with his parents looking on and chiming in and with the help of a ritual handbook propped on the shelf — guided everyone through the bowing and greeting of both living and dead. And, yes, the kids were elated to receive New Year’s money from So Jin and her in-laws. But when we went to spend it and he realized the value-of-money and that with ALL that it would only turn into a single stuffed animal, he was saddened (we were at the underground shoppng haven, Co-ex). Ah. It was lovely to observe the way in which So Jin and Byoung-young and his parents took the occasion to share with Hyemin their hopes for her into the New Year: that she study well, be well-mannered etc. At least as a parent, I think it’s great to have/make those occasions, to single out what we care about. Hyemin, Isaac’s age, bowed to us too! All told our kids to have a great time in Korea! Although serious, there was nothing stiff or off-putting to the occasion and we all felt very comfortable there. And then the screen and offerings — after the ancestors’ time to eat — were folded up, and tucked away (there is a special trunk) and we ate. When Byoung-young lit a piece of paper (I should know what it was but I don’t) to send the ancestors away (he stepped out of the apartment into the hall), Isaac explained that the flame must be guiding them back, which So Jin agreed captured to spirit perfectly. (The girls will complain — if they ever read this far — that I am (yet again) lavishing far too much praise on Isaac!)

What a feast. And then a bit later we headed to So Jin’s temple, the Hanmaum Seon (Korean zen) Center ( founded by a woman, now in her 80s, Master Daehaeng. I know that the Center/temple has been an important place of refuge, learning, prayer, and comradeship for So Jin (once I enjoyed a whole dinner hearing all about So Jin’s intensive many-month-long training there — and So Jin’s peace-of-mind is enough to make me want to follow in her footsteps). I think it was 5 stories, and floors 3, 4, and 5 are enormous, completely open, prayer chambers (with 5’s televised on 3 and 4), and with 5’s decorated with more traditional painted wooden ceiling etc. And all floors with a Buddha. The building is quite new, although on the location of the old temple. We arrived, knowingly, after the temple’s chesa ceremony and thus saw the temple emptied. It was beautiful and peaceful and it was lovely to meet several of the people who had joined So Jin for her intensive training (I could feel their bond) and to see the lovely garden which includes a beautiful relief of the Master feeding ducks in Germany (an adherent there — there are many — took a photo that inspired the relief), beautiful clay mosaics (several again with my favorite decorative motif of 10-good luck symbols), and many other delights for the eye, including the beautiful way in which 7 golden spheres on the top of the stupa in the garden replicate the 7 golden spheres on the top of the temple. I took a picture of them together and was pleased, only to find out in the gift shop that such a shot is nearly canonical! So Jin described — I forget if it was heresay — how the Master herself oversaw the erecting of the spheres on the garden stupa, wanting to be sure of their safety. I loved that detail and the image of the 80s-something Master lovingly overseeing the finishing touches of this garden. Another detail: So Jin told me that she has taken to greeting people on the New Years with “In the New Year, make lots of god fortune” rather than the standard, “In the New Year, receive lots of goof fortune.” Smile. And a lovely bit of luck. Some parishioners (not sure what to say) had already begun making the lanterns for the spring lantern festival: we headed to the temple basement to find a young man and woman each practicing their ink and brush drawings (of standard motifs) and the architecture made of some of them made of think wooden thread-like rods. When asked they explained that the painting/coloring — volunteer work that runs 100s of hours — is a religious practice itself. It looked appealing to me; I like repetition of that sort!

Another highlight was Shim-il’s first birthday celebration with nearly 50 people! Shim-il is the grandson of the woman who I called So-yeon’s Mother in my book on women and melodrama inSouth Korea. I’ve known the family since 1983 and Shim-il’s Dad since he was quite a young boy. Shim-il’s Mom is Chinese and the family lives in Shanghai. Most gathered were the relatives on So-yeon’s Mother’s side as well as a number of Cathedral (they are Catholic) folks (priests and other folks) because Shim-il’s grandfather is the president of his congregation. I was on cloud nine to see so many people I know and like in one place and to meet all of the 20-something cousins; we were seated (it was a long table at a lovely restaurant) next to them and they were a cosmopolitan group with many studies abroad among them. Andy was immediately comfortable (wine helped) and as one of the cousins had his fiancée with and was about to marry there was lots of fodder for fun banter. Nearing the end of the party the soon-to-groom handed out his wedding invitations to all at the party (us included); Andy joked that we would be numbers 645-650 (the size of their “mid-size” wedding had already been a topic of conversation; if not for the fact that we will be in Japan then, we would go!). So-yeon’s Father who I say quite a bit about in that book, faults aside, is a man who knows how to have a good time: he is at home in a crowd and an entertainer par excellence. Even now, I keep asking myself, what made that party so much fun when it could have been stiff and perfunctory. At the other end of the table was the “altar-like” table set for the baby — piled high with fruits and sweets (standard for such an event). On that table was the tray full of items that the baby — as tradition has it — picks up to foretell his course (will he make money? Be a scholar? Life a long life? etc.) It was fun to watch the little hands (with hovering adults guiding) make their way to an enormous wad of string to predict long life and to a book and ruler to foretell the scholar. Several nights later over pizza dinner with Jiwon (the daughter of the marriage I “arranged” — they had hosted us for a wonderful evening that included a pool, sauna, hot tub, wine, and plum wine; I was barely standing by 10ish) we had ourselves is stitches imagining that there might have been entirely other things on such a table: chains to predict a criminal, a microphone a rock star etc. etc. The conversation was devishly irreverent which the kids somehow “got.” I nearly cried laughing. (I had visions of it on Youtube). (later Q-ho told me that these days with money being everything some people attach coins to everything on the tray (books and brushes included) so that the baby can’t avoid symbols or economic well-being! I insisted that this must be a joke but he said no). Back to the party. Shim-il (meaning one heart) seemed a bit overwhelmed by all the Korean (he had only been here 2 days) but smiled when we spoke English to him — he won our hearts. So-yeon’s Mother called me to ask what I thought of her Chinese daughter-in-law. I liked her: tall, frank, and remarkably at ease in this most-difficult of situations (she speaks no Korean). But, not surprisingly, she had lots to say; this historically fragile relationship of mother and daughter-in-law is made ever more so by this sort of international marriage, of which there are more and more in South Korea (some 15% of marriages; largely, however, to resident foreign workers or the marriages of migrant brides to farmers who find themselves stranded in the countryside where no South Korean girl wants to settle). Seo-yeon’s Mother asked me to meet her son to remind him of the importance of remembering Korea (and teaching Shim-il Korean) but he leaves today and it didn’t happen.

As if all this wasn’t enough eventful, Carmen had a very special visit two evenings ago: of the deaf couple we met selling hôtddôk (sweet rice panckes) on a truck. We had been corresponding by texting (Frances, I did learn how!) and it took many days for us to find a free night! (Don’t ask Andy what he thinks of our schedule, but things are calming down). They arrived with their 15 year old (13 American age) daughter who is not deaf and can translate her parents’ signing with ease. The father doesn’t speak and can’t read lips; the very active and expressive mother speaks (I can make it out but it takes work) and read lips. Both parents are educated (the Mom seems to have a college degree); they do the truck on the weekends and during the week it seems that the Mom is busy with various work with deaf people and the father polishes cars. This New Years, what with things being tight, they opted on selling the pancakes rather than visiting. (Soo-Jung told me last night that the ski area she went to on the New Years was nearly empty. So the economic crisis is running its course here too.) For nearly 3 hours Carmen and Sôn-a’s Mom compared ASL (American Sign Language) and Korean sign language (which they told me is a colonial period product and similar to Japanese sign language — I will have to look into this). The Mother took copious notes and we all had a ball. The signs were all slightly different, but many of them somewhat intelligible — it was so much fun comparing. We all got the biggest laugh when we figured out that the ASL sign for being born (one hand sliding under the other) is the Korean sign for putting in a video. Carmen was at her best: enthusiastically explaining even the many ASL jokes that she knows (they were VERY hard to translate). Many year ago I translated Japanese at a deaf school in Hartford (I was traveling with the then young-adult peace activist children of atomic bomb victims) and I remember so clearly how very interested the kids were in me and my speaking Japanese (this was after weeks of being on the road where I was having invisibility blues — I felt like not much more than a mouth-piece much of the time). That evening too it was as if we were all sort of enjoying the joy of translation in and of itself. They brought a mocca cake that was divine and I felt terrible when I had to say that I needed to feed my family dinner. Likely Carmen and I will head there one afternoon next week.

Other highlights:

A lovely lunch with my long-term RA’s parents, sister, and brother-in-law at a hotel buffet with — to the kids’ delight — a chocolate fondue waterfall of sorts. Everything else became appetizers to the altar. Jiyeon’s Dad is an avid snow boarded, skier, and hiker and had spent the New Years afternoon and evening till midnight skiing. His wife had joined his trips when younger but when he began to snowboard she found herself left behind and prefers to stay home for quieter fare. In the few days since, Jiyeon has been offered an academic job in the U.S. and I am so happy for all of them. Crazily, I asked Jiyeon if I could offer her a spring RAship in Seoul and she obliged (so she will come soon). I am terribly spoiled, what with Q-ho “the great” (he has done everything from detective work — finding old friends — to bringing rice for our family from his hometown; I hope I can return the favors into the future) who has eased all of our transitions here (he is one of Haejoang’s students) and Jiyeon soon to come.

A dinner here of 5 (!!) anthropologists of Korea (So Jin, Erica Vogel (studying Peruvians here), Seo Young Park studying the Tongdaemun market (women, time, production), and that was how I was able to see Laura Nelson again and it was so much fun). I know of 6 people doing anthropological (or kindred) research here so we will meet monthly. Also met and old friend of an old friend who is studying gaming in Korea and has a fabulous blog on things-internet: (for the academically inclined I recommend her most recent co-authored publication that explains South Korea’s uniqueness for resisting (Japanese) console-based (e.g., the Wii) gaming and instead doing internet-based games, often at the ubiquitous so-called PC-bang (i.e., rooms)). And when Florence came over, so did John Cho (one of my students who is still field-working here) and Hae Yeon Choo who I met at the Monterey SSRC (first) Korea Workshop last summer and is studying Filipina laborers, sex workers, and brides (she is happy to have me visit her in the field which would be very special for me).

A lovely dinner hosted by Yang Han-sun, a former student who just landed a tenure-track job and was kind enough to feel compelled to take a group of Illinois-anthro folks (me, So Jin, Soo Jung, John, Josie, and Hye-young) out to a delicious dinner. Those of us with kids shared the woes (and joys) of child-rearing. As is so often the case, folks in Seoul don’t see one another (what with busy lives, and in a crowded city) so my visit prompted their reunion (again!). But I missed the Hapkido exhibition at which all three kids punched pieces of balsa wood (to split it) and apparently succeeded. By the time I left the studio, Isaac was being coddled by a big group of older boys and the girls were ensconced in a group of slightly older teens who each of whom was communicating with hand motions to say that all of the others in the group were nuts. I could see friendships in the making. The kids are continuing their Korean with Yon-mi downstairs and by now the girls can read han’gul and say interesting things like “parking lot” and “subway.” And Kay (Kayoun) who taught them in preschool at home and is just back from finishing her Ed PhD has found the kids another lovely teacher who can spend some hours here. This is music to my ears because these are long weeks with little child care!

FINALLY, and I mean it, So Jin (through her artist brother and sister-in-law) have found me an oil painting teacher. Yes, it makes no sense to come to Seoul and learn oil painting, but I have the time. So. I can’t wait to begin.

Whoops, two more little things. One. I love apartment living. Andy and I spend lots of time at the same table (in the early morning). The kitchen fans out into the dining-living open space so I never feel isolated there. And every room is easily accessible such that even though the apartment is spacious it all seems easier. And day by day there are touches of Haejoang’s that move me: the photo from our New Year’s card shortly after Isaac’s birth is hanging on the sliding door to the kitchen; the laminated card from this year with the photo that Tom Bassett took of the kids at a New Hampshire beach when they were in boogie board heaven is propped on the shelf at the door; and a welcome sign to Carmen and Simone with a purple ribbon hang’s on the door to the room that Simone and Isaac decided to share. My Mom has always been a big believer in welcome signs and as I was much less efficient than my other siblings with practical contributions to household labor, they were my province and I loved them (placenames for the table too). In our family it is Carmen who tends to take this on. Two, I finally figured out one of the reasons I love Seoul: over half of the country lives in Seoul and vicinity and everyone else isn’t very far away anyways. So, everyone I know here is nearby. That is a luxury that we so don’t have in the U.S. Actually, as it turns out, I will see many more American friends here in Seoul than I would at home (a number of old friend will pass through, even those without obvious Korea connections!)

Mom, you still here?

January 22, 2009

2 weeks…

Filed under: Uncategorized — solongseeyoutomorrow @ 11:46 pm

Do not want to live to blog, but I am enjoying this rhythm.

What’s not to like: nearly a continuous family vacation. We all need, I fear, a reality check! But, for the moment, we’ll just “enjoy” (when did we all start saying that?)

Lots of excitement here/there. We watched the inauguration (WOW!) at 1:30 a.m. on Feb 20 at a condo at THE South Korean ski resort: Yongpy’ông in Kangwondo — my first visit both to the province and the resort. For his Obama collection Isaac chose to buy a South Korean newspaper that featured Obama swearing in; So Jin and I coaxed him to choose one of the many other newspapers that featured gorgeous photos of the couple dancing, strolling etc. but he insisted on the serious one. Yongpy’ông is vying to host the 2018 winter Olympics and my goodness are they ever ready. A “resort” seems the wrong word for this ski city with its world-class water park, enormous sleeping capacity, nearly 20 lifts…It has been over 20 years since I have skied so it is hard for me to distinguish what is Korean from what is a transformed sport. Nearly half of the people on the mountain (at least on the bunny slope) were show boarding and there are air stations all over the place equipped with nozzles for drying off your skis (i.e., at the end of the day or even as you head into lunch). I was hesitant about skiing — the metal in my leg, the fact that we live on a hill that I can barely walk up even in full tact etc. — but, like riding a bike, it all came back to me. The girls picked up from where they had left off with my sister Ruth and niece Molly a year ago in New Hampshire. It was a first for Isaac and Andy and it was warm and the (made) snow was in great form; Isaac took to it easily and was quickly converted; Byung-ho (who was finishing up his PhD in anthro just as I was applying/arriving in 1990 — he was, I think, instrumental in my hire!) and Jin-su (his brother-in-law) were (again) instrumental in managing Andy’s getting down the hill (I think it took OVER an hour) at which point Andy announced the end of his skiing career (his legs can’t figure themselves into a snow plow and instead he found himself heading down with the speed of a racer (the rest is history and I could barely look)). The girls quickly picked out Jin-su (the better skier) as their personal guide and they went on to tackle a “gold” (green-blue-gold-black) which in hindsight even Carmen admits was a bit ambitious. It was certainly hard to feel the economic crisis, but evidently we were witnessing but a fraction of capacity (it was a weekday). It was definitely a younger set: small kids in large groups (the kids all agreed that American kids would be too unwieldy to handle in such large groups) and college students on break (Isaac quizzed each of his chair-lift mates — the chairlifts are 4 across (a new one for me) and one of them is in an internet-based club that rents a room in the town that the members all share). Red-jacketed, helmeted (required for kids) Isaac was popular on the slopes; he had a blast, but 12 runs did him in and he literally collapsed at 12:30 (we had only purchased morning tickets), balling that he wanted to keep skiing and then that he hated skiing etc. etc. Hats off to Byung-ho for engineering this trip (no small feat), to Andy for trying a new trick at our age (!), to Jin-su for his good cheer in helping all of us, to Ji-young (his daughter) for putting up with us, and to me for braving the sport after such a hiatus. Also noteworthy: Andy took his biggest car trip thus far: 1 hour plus to Byung-ho’s apartment in Sanbon. The English speaking GPS (Haejoang arranged for one) was a help (he braved Seoul driving without it last Saturday to Home-plus; the streets were crazy-crowded, and the store was not to be believed (crowded) — the outing exhausted Simone, Andy, and me (Simone came along to secure baking items and indeed made chocolate chip cookies the very next morning which many friends then enjoyed) and meanwhile Carmen and Isaac played (and watched some TV at home)).

We had a special après-ski treat: a one-hour trip to the coastal city of Gangneung — inspired by my student/friend Jin-Heon who wrote from Urbana to say that this is one of his favorite winter spots (I didn’t even know that Kangwondo was both he and his wife’s “home town” and that So Jin too was born on the Eastern coast). The Gyeonpo (Kyongp’o) beach was beautiful, having been evidently recently completely re-done, razing all the sashimi-dives that have typically dotted most touristy beaches: the result, a gorgeous pristine stretch. Isaac ended up with his pants off (in January) and the girls in bare feet. Kids and beaches simply are a match. Andy couldn’t believe that we had traversed the width of the country which prompted him to figure out which U.S. state best approximates South Korea’s size (his answer: Indiana).

And on this perpetual vacation of ours, there have been more treats. “Evanston Mom” (a very Korean way of referring to the Mom of the boys we met in Evanston), So-yeong took the girls shopping to Namdaemun market (her also stylish unmarried sister joined while her husband was sent home to take care of the boys, only after picking up the girls and delivering all 4 of them to the market!) Five hours later they returned toting many bags (we gave each girl 50,000 won — about $40): skirts, leggings, sweaters, and fabulous scarves (a gift from So-yeong). One of Carmen’s appeals: “We need to fit in with the Korean style” (!) Really cute stuff and all had fun (I think teen shopping is a great thing to sub-contract!) So-yeong is the Mom of 2 boys, so I think she had fun (purportedly So-yeong and her sister commiserated with the girls by telling them that they too much prefer shopping to museums) (how taxing our 30 minute visit to a show on early modern landscapes and calligraphy seems to have been!) (it was beautiful).

When we “dragged” them to the museum (Hapkoje Gallery near Kyôngbokkung Palace) I spotted a hôtddok (sticky rice flour pancakes filled with brown sugar) truck and was compelled because the Seoul I remember had these everywhere (the truck definitely was playing to this nostalgia with a sign about the “taste of yore”). The kids loved them. But the exciting thing was that the couple was deaf. Between the woman’s lip-reading, Carmen’s signing, and writing, we had a nice conversation and have since been texting (although I haven’t figured out Korean language texting yet — next week). Also, a friend of the woman’s called to say that they would arrange to have a deaf person and hearing friend from our neighborhood visit us so that Carmen can begin her forays (she has wanted to learn about Korean signing). I am simply stunned at the easy way in which everything is falling into place, most importantly for the kids. Speaking of which, Alex’s Mom (and Alex) took the girls to Everland amusement park (a good hour outside of Seoul (in Yongin which we passed on the way to the ski area); they came home at 10:30 last night, exhilarated (I’ll leave those details to Carmen’s blog). For his part, Isaac had a treat because Q-ho (anthropologist here who is ably assisting me!) took him to the Palace which the girls had little patience for when we walked through the grounds but which enthralled him. All 3 of them are quite taken with their Chinese zodiac animals: Isaac the snake and the girls the Ox, the year that is about to begin with many festivities this coming Monday (Isaac and I went with So Jin yesterday to buy him a han’bok (Korean traditional clothing) for the day (he was most excited though to learn that the little red purse (a “service” with the purchase) will be filled with coins if he bows to his elders on new years day! Q-ho bought Isaac a reproduction of the snake sculpture at the Palace and last night he did a beautiful sketch of it. Taking photos in front of their zodiac animal is becoming a pastime and we are in good Korean company when we do it (there were beautiful wooden ones at the East coast beach).

Other things:

Isaac has found the “Monicals” (his favorite pizza chain at home) in Seoul: near the Yonsei gate (although he also proclaimed that it is more like the upscale fare at Timpone’s). There he sprinkled parmesan (“the best I have ever tasted,” he said) on the seaweed (kim) that I had in my purse (always safe to have along for Isaac) and proclaimed “kimcheese” which is funny because of its proximity to kimch’i (the pickled cabbage that is Korea’s staple food).

My old friend and fellow anthropologist of Korea Laura Nelson is in town and what a treat to spend an evening together and to have another on the horizon. She is here beginning research on breast cancer in South Korea with many fascinating hypotheses about South Korean (and American) particularities.

After many years of little contact, I had a wonderful meeting with Choong Soon Kim who along with Laurel Kendall welcomed me so kindly to Korean anthropology. He treated me to a fabulous breakfast and we had sooo much fun catching up. He is the President of Korean Digital University and reminded me that his was the first anthropology PhD in the U.S. Into his 70s, he is still furiously writing and has a fascinating book on the horizon on Korea’s multicultural past and present. Now here is a tidbit that was remarkable news to me: 26% of Korea’s 4000 surname sub-groups (i.e., the Kims of Kimae (a place name)) (from 286 surname groups)) are descendents of naturalized Koreans (e.g., from China, Vietnam, Mongolia…) Into the present, his University is making a big push to serve the many foreign wives (and husbands) in South Korea today — particularly in the regions (i.e., outside of greater Seoul).

Yesterday I met Professor Kwang-yeong Shin (Sociology, Chungang U.) who I met first at a conference in Toronto on neoliberalism. It was fascinating to listen to his thoughts about South Korea’s recent changes, particularly in regard to class/inequality. A year ago he began an Inequality study group that I hope to join — he is also part of a group on inequality in East Asia that my old friend Hiroshi Ishida (Tokyo U.) is also active in. Professor Shin said that rather than fret about South Korea’s 880000 won generation (i.e., circa $700 with the devalued won), that is 20-somethings with low paid jobs (who he points out get to live at home), it is the 50-something men who have been forced to retire as early as their late 40s and end up as apartment guards, taxi can drivers (that explains all the drivers who frustrate Andy for hardly knowing their way around), Amway-like salesmen, or eventually small business owners (which helps explain South Korea’s some 50,000 hairdressers and South Korea’s persistent #1 self employment figure (34% of the population, 25% excluding farmers)). He also told me about the dramatic extent of the economic bubble that is now bursting (3X real estate increases (the sense that one had to buy NOW), dramatic rise of the stock exchange etc. South Korea’s currency devaluation is paralleled only by Iceland’s (alas, a good time for those of us with dollars).

Way too long. The New Year this coming Monday and other reunions on the horizon too. Really, who else but Mom and Dad would read this!

January 16, 2009

One week to the day!

Filed under: Uncategorized — solongseeyoutomorrow @ 5:00 am

Just a week, today. And it’s snowing. Crazy how much we have somehow been able to do and still, for my part, feel relaxed. Getting “away” is key: not my house, not my every-day — makes a difference! I teased Carmen that she’ll go home answering to “What did you do in Korea?” with “I blogged”; and I’ll go home replying, “I read Carm’s blog.” Hers is great: much more fun. And I can just refer to her photos until she teaches me those tricks! So, if you haven’t already, do visit: Andy, no surprise, has begun to master his environs; I can talk to the cab drivers, but it is Andy who tells them where to go! The Seoul on-line bus maps are his universe. And today he is off at Seoul National: his first real day at work.

So, the kids. A bit of a routine has taken hold: but Andy and I clamor for more. Just now they are downstairs with Yôn-mi, a 5th grade teacher on winter break, learning the alphabet (han’gul) and some Korean — they can all count a bit now which comes in handy at Hapkido (Korean aikido) where there is lots of movement-to-numbers. Yôn-mi has called in extra support, a teacher of younger kids, for Isaac! Hapkido is a hit; the woman master (sabon-nim) is warm and funny and orchestrates a fun-filled hour that is circus like — every few minutes the act changes and yesterday included breaking some boards (with a seam) in half. The unheated studio seems to be a neighborhood hang-out; and the hours are flexible — every day at 11, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 7 — and they can go twice if they want.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Korea-net is kicking in — and it is large and strong!

My good friend and artist Bea Nettles enjoyed the assistance of a young woman Sim Jana (last name first) last summer and suggested I reach her while she was home on break (she did her BA at the U of I) and is now doing book making at Columbia College). Jana’s father is “Seoul Intangible [i.e., living] Cultural Heritage No. 26 Somok (Door & Window),” namely he carves beautiful wooden, well, doors and windows. With the assistance of Jana’s Mother, he fitted a whole traditional home with his own woodwork; it is a museum of sorts and eventually his family will live there. It is called: Chun Won San Bang (some blog features: The kids took wood shavings as mementos! And Jana has played with door/window motifs in some of her remarkable work ( The kids are invited back to try their hand at it in the courtyard when it warms up — aspiring architect Isaac was thrilled. In the courtyard is a tree on which Sim Yong-sik (the intangible) has placed hand-carved tiny turtles at the base and the branches are full of stylized wooden birds made by a friend of his; and the wall of the courtyard is the work of another friend — a beautiful mosaic (not exactly, since it is all clay, but I don’t know what to call it) of a traditional Korean pattern that features 10 good luck symbols (e.g., the pine, crane, turtle…). I have loved that motif for years and this rendition is breath-taking (a photo will follow).

And the U of I network took me to an amazing event the other evening, a farewell party for Lee Gi-beom (EPS Ph.D. from years ago — I was on his committee) who was stepping down from the directorship of Okedongmu (, an NGO devoted to North Korean children. I was able to see my old friends Soo-Jung and Byung-ho too. I learned how to program my cell and have enjoyed calling many old friends this week — and so lovely to be able to say: there’s no rush, we have months and months ahead.

We did our family’s foreign registration and could see Seoul’s changing demography. So Jin’s house is nearby so we were able to visit her family; I was so happy to see her in-laws who kindly hosted me when I visited several summers ago. For Isaac’s part, he told me that he wants to know what it would feel like to listen to English if you didn’t know even a single word and I told him that it would feel just like it feels for him to be in Korea. He wasn’t convinced and said that he would like to forget all of his English so that he could really know. Josie, another U of I-er here in Seoul, called this poetic!

And have we been eating well. Simone fell in love with Casa Della Luce at Yonsei’s East Gate. And we followed cousin Kathy’s recommendation to waffles at the Café at the Ilmin Museum in downtown Seoul ( WOW, a thick waffle topped with whipped cream and fruit and it seems that waffles are “in” in Seoul these days and that there are whole neighborhoods known for them! And, yes, we are enjoying Korean fare too and the fabulous cooking of the once-a-week cook that we inherited (for a price, of course) with the house. Isaac is basking in kim (Korean “nori” (in Japanese) or seaweed) which many friends have brought him. And U of I-er Hee Jung’s mother brought us so much delicious kimch’i yesterday and the Korean version (I think) of the Japanese “Christmas cake” — lots of whipped cream — the girls loved it!

That about says it. Skiing in Kangwondo on the horizon! And Carmen is counting the days until Everland with Alex, the grandson of my old friend, So-yôn’s mother, next Thursday. Sunday we have a hike planned — and Carmen a shopping spree with the stylish Mom of the Evanston boys, Soo-Jung. Simone might check out jazz dance in the neighborhood. And I have found a pool — now to mobilize myself back into that groove.

January 11, 2009

Day 4 in Seoul

Filed under: Uncategorized — solongseeyoutomorrow @ 9:29 pm

My first blog. Wouldn’t even be able to post if Carmen hadn’t started hers first and told me what to do. Thank goodness for millenial kids. In a word, we are lucky: an old friendship has afforded us a beautiful apartment — 4 bedrooms, 3 lofts, nestled in the hills in Seoul’s NW. This  is an old neighborhood  with an old neighborhood feel. A far cry from the cutting edge of Seoul life South of the Han River. Haejoang (our host) left us a childhood friend (who long ago married a Korean settler in Taiwan — from the colonial era) who oversaw this apartment’s recent maekover (it is incredible!) to help us settle in for a couple of days: now we know the ropes: the various garbage collecting, the groceries down the steep (really) hill that stores will deliver, the bus routes. Ch’unhui-ssi has now gone her way to Jeju Island to be with her Mom in her 90s (we plan to visit her) (I’ve  never been to South Korea’s tropical island and its about time) (Her daughter is here learning Korean at Yonsei — her Mom wants her to learn the can/will do spirit of Koreans that she finds lacking in Taiwan’s warmer climate and mindset!).  Meanwhile Haejoang gave Andy a driving lesson (he was great) and she is arranging for English GPS and she has made all sorts of other arrangements too: at 10 this morning we head to the kids’s school neighborhood for MW 10-12 soccer for Carmen and Isaac (and we knock on a little ballet studio door for Simone); the 10 year old boy on  the first floor will knock today at 4:30 to take all 3 kids to the neighborhood hapkido (a taekwondo-like marital art); and Yonmee from the third floor  (a twenty-something school teacher on winter break (winter break is South Korea’s summer break, i.e., long) will knock and get started with Korean lessons for the kids (our “villa”- the word for small apartment buildings — has 7 units; a far cry from the much more typical huge apartment complexes that pretty much ARE the Seoul landscape). So, Haejoang has been busy on our behalf!! The kids have already seen their school ( and met (very briefly) all their teachers who happened to be in a faculty meeting (they are young!) School doesn’t start until March 1 which is why Andy and I are grateful  for all of these other arrangements.  Soon we will be more solo as Haejoang heads to Japan and Nepal (afterwards she will  live with a friend for the duration — incredible right! her generosity). (Andy is free to use her car but driving in Seoul is not for the faint). Other than seeing So Jin (my old friend and former student) and Q-ho (Haejoang’s student  who will be helping  me with my work while I am here) who were kind enough to pick us up at 6 am on Jan 9, I have not begun to make contact with my Korea network. It is SO lovely to come here and not feel the need to power-connect; it has been about 12 years since I lighted into Korea for more than 10 days. With 7 months,  I can take it slow. The only friends we connected with are Isaac’s: 2 little boys and their parents who we met in Evanston when we subletted last summer — they brought toys (to lend — the perfect tonic for Isaac, including han’gul (alphabet) magnets for the fridge) and “kim” (seaweed), Isaac’s trademark food) and they took us to a tofu-specialty shop down the road where Isaac fell asleep under the table (in one of those rooms with the low tables that you snuggle into with the warmed floor). And yesterday we went to Seoul’s premier bookstore (Kyobo) and bought Korea’s Lonely Planet guide (NK is included), Obama’s autobiography (it was sold  out in Urbana’s best bookstore), maps to quench Andy’s desires for detail (although now he is hooked on the “Seoul Metropolitan Bus Map” which does it all, building by building; he’s been at it now for over 2 hours), and a play-do kitchen set for Isaac (he is really missing his things from home). This is an odd genre: no question my parents will want to read every-word, but as for the rest of you, I by no means mean to presume this level of interest. The best editor it seems will be time: i.e., not coming in too often. Let me close on the lovely serendipity that my cousin Kathy spent several years in Seoul several years ago and is able  to get us started on some healthy Korea tourism  — I am delighted this  visit to be a  tourist! The researcher gig is old hat; these are new ropes.

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