Sunday, August 9, 2009

More Traveling!! And not just me...

Wow so busy~!

Last weekend I went to 안동 (Andong) with my boyfriend. I had a long weekend so I told him I wanted to travel. We each chose two places we wanted to go, and then chose one from that list. His mother and aunts and grandmother live in/around 안동 (Andong) so it was the least expensive choice and he's familiar with the area.

My boyfriend's family really likes me. When we got off the bus in 안동 (Andong) Friday evening, we walked around for a ridiculously long time seeing a couple of sights and being cute together, then caught a taxi to his mother's apartment pretty late at night. At first I was really shy because 1. I was meeting my boyfriend's mother and 2. I can't speak Korean all that well. But, she was so excited to have us there and prepared some watermelon, beer, and snacks and we all chatted and ate together. There was a lot of "pass" said, which is what my boyfriend and I say when we can't understand each other, but it's amazing how little those moments detract from conversation.

Saturday we went to his aunt's restaurant, which is within walking distance of his mother's home. I swear, his aunt makes the best 육계장 (yukgae jang, a spicy beef and vegetable soup that is my favorite Korean food) and delicious 김밥 (kimbab, like Korean sushi rolls). His aunt asked me some questions, and with only a little trouble, I was able to understand and answer. Granted, they were simple questions like "When did you come to Korea?" "How old are you?" "Are you a student?" "Why did you come to Korea?" "How do you like Korea?" etc. I hear those questions all the time so I'm used to answering them in Korean. Then, while my boyfriend and I were eating, his cousins came in because their mother called them saying "규원이 (Kyu Won) is here with his girlfriend". They were two young boys, and very curious but shy. The younger one didn't believe I was really dating his cousin. My boyfriend wanted me to speak to them in English, but I didn't know what to say, and when I asked the younger one simple questions like "What is your name?" and "How old are you?" and "Do you go to school?" he didn't answer me. I felt like a monkey in a zoo, with everyone talking in Korean and looking at me and expecting me to do something, but neither I nor them knew what that something was. It was seriously awkward and I kind of wanted to disappear. But I knew that if I spent more time with them it would become more comfortable, so I put on a smiling face and tried my best. Then his other aunt and little girl cousin came. No kidding, that little girl speaks English better than even my boyfriend. She was by far the best among all of them, and also the youngest. She studies in an academy with a native English speaking teacher, and she wants to study in an English speaking country. At first, though, even she was shy. She also couldn't believe I was dating her cousin. It took a while to prove it.

My boyfriend and I were planning to go to a fish festival or just wander together, but his cousins wanted us to go to their grandmother's house with them. Since I don't really like fish and I was curious about the Korean countryside, I was up for it. So we crammed into a taxi with his aunt and three cousins and headed to the countryside. It was so beautiful. I was really nervous to meet his grandmother because I've heard that many Korean grandparents would never approve of their grandchildren dating foreigners. But, she really liked me. We all sat around in the living room chatting (mostly me listening and watching, understanding very little) and eating fruit as quickly as his aunt could cut it. Everyone kept giving me more fruit even when I was still eating, so I ended up with a toothpick topped by a peach (maybe peach?) in each hand and a nervous giggle. Culture note: around his grandmother, I had to sit on the couch with my feet flat on the floor, not touching my boyfriend at all. The older Korean generation's definition of PDA (public displays of affection) is very strict. Holding hands in public is as bad as making out. So when we were sitting together and his arm was around me, his grandmother walked in the room and fussed and separated us. Then his cousin told me to uncross my legs, because I guess that's disrespectful or unladylike here. I'm not 100% sure why on that one, but lesson learned.

After eating fruit, we went with the cousins to wade in the nearby stream and hang out. By the time we waded down the stony, mossy stream to the little dam, nobody was shy anymore. His cousins were teasing us and picking cattails to make couple rings. The little girl picked some flowers for me. They were all trying to use as much English as they could and were teaching each other and asking questions. I was trying to use as much Korean as I could, too. Then we were called back to the house for dinner. We ate home-cooked, flavorful, melt-in-your-mouth 불고기 (bulgogi = beef) and country side dishes (every meal in Korea must have side dishes- they even serve pickles with pizza) outside. His grandmother insisted that I try everything and even handed me some potato. Everyone wanted to do something for me, and when it was time for my boyfriend and I to go to catch the bus, his cousin ran inside the house to get my purse for me. His grandmother gave him travel money and walked us to the bus stop, and even gave me a hug when we left, making sure to tell the bus driver where we were going so he could tell us when to get off. On the bus, the passengers were chatting with each other and with the driver, and they were sharing corn with everyone. I was handed two ears of corn with smiles, and my boyfriend and I munched all the way. When we finished an ear of corn, we simply threw it out the window like everyone else. After returning to civilization, we wandered around for hours and then returned to his mother's place. We all watched TV together, and we ate watermelon and snacks again.

Sunday, we wandered around, ate more delicious food, and got on a train back to Seoul. I should also mention that his mother gave me a shirt, some hair ties, and a 하회탈 (ha hweh tal- please correct my Korean spelling- traditional Korean mask, a symbol of 안동 (Andong) and of Korea) necklace that was won in a marathon and therefore very special. Anyway, I'm looking forward to returning there and visiting all of them again in the future.

I didn't come to Korea to be just a tourist, so getting to meet my boyfriend's family and go to the true countryside (which some Koreans haven't even seen) was a great experience. Actually, it reminded me a lot of my own family. Much of my family lives in the countryside, and I actually spent many years celebrating corn in Iowa every August with my mother's grandparents, parents, and so many relatives I couldn't remember all of their names. My great-grandparents passed away when I was in high school, so we don't go to that small town every year anymore, but those memories will always be an integral part of my childhood. Interestingly, the corn in Korea tastes very different than the corn in America. I can't really describe it. They're both good. Anyway, most of my father's side of the family lives in a small town in the middle of nowhere, Missouri. I'm related to probably a third of the people in the county, and my various relatives farm pecans, corn, soybeans, and even pigs. I'm sure I'm missing a few crops, but again, I don't even know the names of many of my relatives. I have hundreds of relatives and I don't see them much. Despite all of the glaring differences, like rice fields and mountains instead of endless plains of corn and cattle, Korean countryside people seem to be, at the core, the same as American countryside people. Relaxed, friendly, sharing, and appreciative of the simple things in life. Of course, this is a broad generalization of both nations, but this is just my experience. When I walked into my boyfriend's grandmother's house, my heart ached for a moment because it looked and felt and even smelled similar to my great-grandparents' home in Iowa and my great-grandmother's home in Missouri (she's still alive and farming). Even the way his family treated me was the same way my family treats new boyfriends and girlfriends who are brave enough to meet all of us. For the first time in my life, I really feel like a country person. I think there's a little farmer in me that will never quite fade. Although I don't want to live in the countryside, I feel at home there. It's a strange contradiction, I know, but the atmosphere feels so familiar and cozy to me. The problem is that I'd go stir-crazy and get bored. So far I love the big city because every day is different and I see so many different faces that I don't have to worry that they're making rumors about me or that I have to be careful of my actions so they won't judge me. Also, everything I need is within walking distance and public transportation is amazing. But sometimes I really wish I had someplace to be alone, to scream, to cry, to sing, to write, to breathe, to relax, to be a person instead of feeling like there are eyes on me. I have to be quiet in my room because the walls are thin and many, many people live here. I have to be respectable in public because I'm a representative of American culture, and on a more basic level because I'm a person and I don't want to look stupid in front of other people. I've developed one dual identity: human and American. Now I'm developing a second: country girl and city girl. In America, I was always a suburban girl, so it's strange that I've become somewhat homesick for a countryside life I've never actually lived.

Upon returning to Seoul, I met my friend Reza, who was visiting from 울산 (Ulsan). You might remember him as one of the friends I visited when I went there a few weeks ago. Here's a hint: he's the British one. Anyway, because we met so late at night we stayed out all night and ate, chatted, and hung out in an Indian-style cafe, then took the first train home (well, him to a hotel, me to home). Then I got a little sleep and woke up the next day feeling kind of sick, with a mildly painful case of diarrhea. Ignoring that, I went out again Monday night with Reza, my friend Julia who just moved here less than a month ago, and my boyfriend and two of his friends. Out of the foreigners, my Korean was the best. Out of the Koreans, my boyfriend's English was the best. My boyfriend and I have a hard time communicating relatively often, so you can imagine the six of us had quite the struggle. But, we all had a great time. One of my boyfriend's friends came up with the idea that at dinner, we should all introduce ourselves in the other language (Koreans in English, foreigners in Korean). It was both hilarious and a good language-barrier ice breaker because I think I was the only one who didn't have much trouble. I've been introducing myself in Korean for four months so I have that pretty much down-pat. It's the whole 'real conversation' thing I'm still working on. At the end of the evening, contact information was exchanged and we all said goodbye. It was one of the most awkwardly fun nights I've had in Korea. I love when people can try hard and laugh when they fail. Most of the conversation was in English, because they speak more English than we do Korean. Well, I might be even with them by now but I stumble a lot, and my vocabulary is only very utilitarian. I can talk about myself, make plans, buy things, give and ask for directions, and tell simple stories (the latter usually ends up extremely choppy). Most Koreans I know have a more well-rounded English vocabulary because they learned English from books, but they have a lot of trouble speaking because they don't learn speaking in class and they don't have many chances to practice. Also, I think the biggest problem is confidence and the intimidating fact that I'm often the first native speaker they've tried to talk to. I know I'm still nervous to talk to Koreans in Korean, Japanese people in Japanese, and French people in French. A couple of my friends have told me that my biggest problem speaking Korean is that I lack confidence so sentences often come out as questions because I'm more asking if I'm saying something right than just saying it.

Tuesday I was really sick. Abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting (which I haven't done in years), and lightheadedness. My boyfriend had had a stomachache, too, on Monday, so we guessed it was food poisoning from something we ate together in 안동 (Andong). I canceled all of my plans and spent half the day trying to sleep but being called every hour or two (unusual... most Koreans just text) and the other half between the bathroom, the computer, and bed. On Wednesday when I re-emerged into the real world, one of the first things I heard was "Wow you got a lot slimmer! Did you lose 2 or 3 kilograms?? Maybe I should get food poisoning!" Actually, that reminds me- I don't know if I mentioned it before but I've lost almost 10 kilograms since coming here. That's about 20 pounds, I think. I was at a pretty heavy weight, even for me, when I left America, so I still have to lose another 5 kilograms to be the skinniest I've been since early middle school. Causes of weight loss: public transportation, healthier food, and living alone but sharing a kitchen with many people (just think about the last one and you can imagine my eating habits at home).

This week's strangest encounters with people: I was in an elevator with a guy on my way to work and he said "hi" when we had almost reached the first floor. He then walked with me out of the building, talking in Korean and English, gave me his business card, and asked me for my phone number. He works for Rosetta Stone, the company I have to thank for which is where I have met most of my friends here including my boyfriend, and he seemed nice, so I gave it to him. He called me a few days later, but I was busy. We might get dinner later, we might not. It doesn't really matter to me because as a business contact he probably couldn't be of much use to me, and I have a boyfriend whom I love so there's no romantic intrigue. On Wednesday- or maybe it was Thursday, more strangers randomly talked to me than any other day I can remember. It was truly strange and I have no explanation except maybe cosmic coincidence. Yesterday evening I got out of the shower and a small, drunk, middle-aged woman who had been trying to puke in the toilet said "미안해요" ("I'm sorry") and hugged me for at least a minute, talking in a continuous stream that I couldn't understand. I didn't know what to do, so I just rubbed her back in a comforting way. Then she pulled away a little and apologized again, and she looked like she was going to kiss me. I was freaking out a bit, so I said, "I'm sorry but I should go to my room" as I stood there with wet hair, wrapped in a towel, and holding my shower basket and underwear. She said "I know that too, but I'm sorry," and hugged me again. She talked some more, then let me go and said "고마워요" ("Thank you"). I left, confused, and almost forgot to leave the bathroom slippers in the bathroom as I stepped out. The owner of my 고시원 (goshiweon) keeps asking me to spend half an hour chatting with him in the kitchen. He always mentions this when I'm going out, coming out of the shower, or otherwise obviously busy. I want to talk to him, but it's a very awkward situation in terms of timing. Also, he can't really speak English and I can't really speak Korean. He wants me to help him with English, I think. Usually I don't understand most of what he says. If I don't get something, he just says it more slowly instead of using easier vocabulary.

I'm watching Shrek 2 dubbed in Korean. Odd.

Side note - my earlier post "Fame" is getting a lot of attention. I thank everyone for your encouragement, insight, support, and even for your criticism (the valid and constructive kind, not the childish kind). Since that aspect of my experience here is such a hot topic, I'll make a conscious effort to include events and thoughts related to my minority status in future posts.


  1. I am absolutely delighted to have found your blog, especially since in the past few weeks I have been toying with the idea of moving to Seoul with my younger brother; and now my younger sister wants to come too!

    But the internet can be a cruel mother sometimes. I'm in a predicament in the UK as I'm not exactly educated and my job options in S. Korea wouldn't exactly be fantastic, if practically non-existant. So that's what is stopping me at the moment.

    But it sounds like you're having an absolute whale of a time! I've read every single one of your posts and enjoyed every one too. It's lovely reading the thoughts of someone the same age as me (I'm a little bit older O_o ) who had the same thing of being tired of their situation and wanted to move somewhere else and made a go at it.

    I have to say, you've been an inspiration to me. I'm not saying that in a sort of arse-kissing way XD but reading your blog really has made me think about my dream.

    Kamsahamnida! ^_^


  2. Hi! I've just discovered your blog and I have read some of your entries and I really like it : )

    I am a 19-year-old girl, I'm from Argentina, and I'm planning to go to live to Seoul in 2 years. I can't speak Korean at all right now, but next year I'm moving to my country's capital to study Korean there, since I live in a little town and nobody teaches it here. I will apply for Language Institutes in Seoul to continue learning the language there.

    I'm really excited about this idea, but I wanted to know what was it really like to live there for a foreing person. So I'm really happy I found your blog, especially because it's quite different from other blogs I've read, in which they only talk about food, places they visit, and so on, but you are writing a lot about your feelings and personal things about living there, and that makes it really interesting for me; which I think it's because I realise that we have things in common for your "Fame" entry.

    So I will continue reading this : )
    Keep updating on your korean life ^^

    (Sorry if I make mistakes in my writing, English is not my first language -it's Spanish-)


  3. Thanks everyone!^^

    Georgina - one thing I try not to talk about here is work, because my visa and work situation are confusing and something I should keep to myself. Let's just say I wouldn't recommend coming here to teach English without being eligible for the E-2 visa, which means having an undergraduate degree or better. Try to set up some other, legal job before coming here so you don't have to worry about visa issues. The biggest visa issue is that I can't get an alien registration card/number, and without it I can't get a bank account, a cell phone, an apartment, even movie tickets online in my own name. It's extremely stressful, and I have to leave the country every 90 days without being 100% sure they'll let me back in. I'm not sure what kind of options that leaves you with, but I can live this way only because I know I will graduate university in a year and then I can start my real life. Right now I'm living alone in a closet-sized room with a window to a hallway, just like about 50 other people here. I share a bathroom, laundry room, and a kitchen with all of them, and they all stare at me because I'm different. If I could get a loan, I could afford to get a small apartment or a one-room (like a mini studio flat). But because of the visa situation I can't do that. Don't subject yourself to the life I'm living without a visible way out. I have my social life, piano, zeal for the culture, and hope for a great future to make this livable. What would you have? That's one of the most important questions to be able to answer before getting on a plane.

    Don't worry, I will keep updating on my Korean life ^^ Every day is an adventure!

  4. Cheers Kristin, thanks for the heads up!

    I know what you mean though. But I'm definitely keeping my mind open about it all. I'm coming over to Seoul for a visit next year hopefully, to check the place out and see what the dealio is job wise and to see what other options I have. It's a bit difficult trying to find everything out here in the UK and especially when the only jobs that are on offer over the net are all teaching ones. O_o

    But I hope everything works out for you alright. You keep writing and I'll keep reading! ^_^