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 http://londonkoreanlinks.net/2007/01/22/seouls-national-museum-of-contemporary-art/ — 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 (http://sungmisan.net/). 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: http://www.designboom.com/weblog/cat/9/view/3898/seoul-s-ewha-woman-s-university-by-dominique-perrault-architecture.html) (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 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePwUgZ6yngU). 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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inwangsan) (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.
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!)