Monday, September 29, 2014

Let That Be Enough

Yesterday, after lunch, I went downstairs to the teacher's room for our daily gatchi time. That's not what's it called. But "gatchi" means "together" and we get a lot of together time in Korea.

Someone didn't have time for breakfast but brought kimbap to share: gatchi.
After lunch: gatchi.
Someone baked sweet potatoes to share: gatchi.
Someone didn't like lunch in the cafeteria and ordered fried chicken: gatchi.
It's Thursday afternoon and the cafeteria has leftover grapes: gatchi.

Similar to Americans, Koreans congregate and socialize around food. Different from Americans, you don't say "No, thanks." It's kinda, sorta expected that you come even if you don't feel like it, even if you're not hungry. Which, admittedly, is something I really struggle with.

The introverted part of me who grows tired of conversations I don't understand and food I'm not hungry for can get a wee bit weary. But I go anyway because I know they appreciate it. And more often than not, I learn something new I wouldn't have come to on my own.

Like yesterday.

I sat down for gatchi time with the women who had gathered to sip instant coffee out of small paper cups and gab in Korean. Graciously, a co-worker leaned over to me and said, "They are talking about how Jimmy should get eye lid surgery."

I looked at Jimmy who overheard and she explained, "Yesterday, I went to get my picture taken and the photographer kept telling me to open my eyes. But they were already open! My eyes are too small, too saggy. I want to have eyes like you!"

Surprise. "Umm..." Stalling. "Our eyes are different and I think that's okay. That photographer was not being very kind."

"No, he's right," she told me. "I need to get eye surgery."

Now, I'm not exactly sure how old Jimmy is. Her mother, I found out yesterday, is sixty-seven years-old. So, I would guess that Jimmy is in her mid-forties.

I asked, "Is this surgery common?"

Everyone reacted, the way Americans would if you said, "Is the sky blue?" In unison: "Of course!"

And they continued: "It's very common and cheap." And the longer I listened, the more I felt like the logic must go: If it's cheap and I look younger or more "beautiful" than, why not?

I imagine the same logic applies to what Jiyoung, another teacher, brought up next: "My husband is thinking about getting buttox surgery on his forehead."

"Wait, what surgery does he want?"


"How do you spell it?"


"Oh, BOtox surgery! Got it."

(What followed was a brief explanation of two very different words: "Botox" and "buttocks." And we might have taken a moment to giggle and draw a picture of someone who got a butt surgically attached to their forehead. But I digress...)

I asked, "How old is your husband?"

"He's thirty-two."

"Oh wow. He's so young. Do you want him to have the surgery?"

"Sure. Why not? It's so cheap." Ans she's right. It only costs about $50 USD.

Price is a powerful motivator. In a world where we can get so much at our convenience and pay so little, instead of asking "Why?" now we ask "Why not?" Do we rationalize purchases we don't really need simply because it's cheap?

I will probably never get any kind of cosmetic surgery because of what it would represent for me. If I ever find myself in a plastic surgeon's office, that means I have decided that what I am, what I have, and what I look like is not good enough and needs to be fixed. But I don't think any of us are broken.

And I feel like in the eyes of my co-workers, I don't carry much clout in conversations about what is considered beautiful. After all, according to them, I've hit the "good looks lottery" simply because I am not Korean. To them, probably because there isn't a large Asian model representation in a lot of foreign media, I am the closest resemblance to what they've seen in magazines. I'm surely not model material, but that doesn't stop one male teacher from calling me Scarlett Johansson when he sees me in the hallway.

So instead of trying to convince my co-workers that they look perfectly fine, all I can do is run my own race. I can fight for my own self-acceptance. I can avoid joining conversations about "what we don't like about our appearance today."

I can let that be enough.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Ways We Change

It's hard to say if during the past year living in Korea I've learned more about Eastern culture or more about Western culture? Do I know more about my home country or more about my adoptive country?

The learning curve is a steep one. Our Korean vocabulary is constantly growing because our need is constantly growing ("How do you say, 'I need a crochet hook' in Korean?"). Our education of cultural basics and nuances increases daily because so does our necessity to understand. And yet, each bit of information about Korea inevitably tells us something about America. How they are the same or--most of the time--how they are different.

It's a dichotomy that at the same time intrigues and exhausts me. And it befuddled me no more than than when we flew from Korea to the States a month ago. The cultural re-education was a tricky terrain to navigate.

When we first arrived in Korea, we automatically spoke to people in the last foreign language we remembered: Spanish. When we landed in the States and went out for Mexican food, we automatically spoke to our waitress in Korean. And I bowed to the cashier on our way out the door.

But inevitably, we sank back into our America roots quite speedily. After all, this is home. But the observations never faltered our entire three weeks at home. I couldn't help but notice all the things about America that are just so much "better" and "easier". When people asked, "What's it like in Korea?" I could easily list for them several ways in which Korea is a hard place to live. In fact, until recently, I've probably never been so patriotic in my entire life.

In America, I love that people speak my language.
That I can drive a car.
That I can be independent.
That I can walk into a store and find what I need without a pre-written script.
That I can find gluten-free food easily.
That I can blend in.
I love that people make small talk.
That people smile or make eye contact with complete strangers.
That I know the rules (even unwritten ones) and I get the jokes.
That I am not a foreigner, I am a native.

The grass is always greener.

At one point when we were home, my sister asked me, "What things will you miss about Korea when it's time to leave?"

And that's a harder question. I sat for a long while looking out at the street. What would I miss about the life we have in Korea? The answers came slowly. Almost painfully so.

Obviously, we've made friends I would miss.
And I do appreciate how Koreans build up instead of sprawling out.
I do love me some bibimbap. Yum!
I like how the neighborhoods are set up with everything you need in a small area.
I like that we ride our bikes everywhere.
I like that public transit is the norm and buses and taxis are accessible.
I like the little farmer's market we frequent on Friday afternoons.
I really love our apartment.
I like acquiring a new language.
I enjoy the challenge of thriving in and learning from a different culture.
I like the availability of coffee shops. Everywhere.
I appreciate that Koreans give a damn about the planet.
I like that composting food scraps is basically law.
I think it's cool that most appliances have an energy rating.
Ironically so, sometimes I like being the foreigner.

As we head into another year in Korea, I'll be keeping this list in my back pocket. The things that make this experience unique. The ways in which our lives will never be the same.


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Loving Better

Awhile ago, I heard this TED talk by Esther Perel. She talks about this question that people often think about: "How can I sustain desire in a committed relationship?"

She remarks that for the first time in our history, we want to experience long-term intimacy, not because we need to produce fourteen kids, but because we just want to enjoy the desire for our partner. However, this leads us into trouble, because what we used to get from an entire village we now expect from one person. We want security, predictability, safety, and permanence, but we also want adventure, novelty, mystery, risk, and surprise.

She talked to people all over the world and found that we are most drawn to our partners when:
-they've been away for awhile and we are reunited again
-our partner is radiant and confident
-there is surprise and fun and we laugh together

I get this.

I felt this most recently when Jeremy and I took a brief hiatus from our life in Korea in order to visit the U.S. for our summer vacation. I didn't know I needed it so much until I saw Jeremy flirting with my great-aunt. Until I saw Jeremy cutting trees in the back yard with my Dad. Until I watched Jeremy working with his hands and building a fire.

It's so easy in marriage to grow accustomed to the norm:
-alarm clock
-brush teeth
-kiss goodbye
-go to work
-come home from work
-make dinner

And even the little things like helping with household chores and making the bed blend into what is expected and hardly worth noticing. But leaving Korea and seeing him in other lights was important. I was reminded that Jeremy is really good at making people laugh.
I was reminded that Jeremy is a hard worker.
I was reminded that Jeremy is a curious learner.
I was reminded that Jeremy is intuitive and creative and fun.

Perel says that it's when we can look at our partner--this person that is so familiar--from a comfortable distance, that we can momentarily see them as somewhat mysterious and we move toward each other.

She quotes Marcel Proust, when she says,
"Mystery is not about traveling to new places.
It's about seeing with new eyes."

That's why it's important to move around once in awhile. Get lost. Try something new. Do something silly. Challenge each other. To see each other more clearly.

To love each other better.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Korea (Round Two)

If there is a word to describe the past three weeks, it would be: disorienting. 

From the regular school year to summer camp.
From Korea to America.
From Colorado to Nebraska.
From time zone to time zone.
From culture to culture.
And back again.

I'm grateful that we had the money and the time to visit the States. We are quite blessed. We spent ten days in Colorado and ten days in Nebraska. On the last day, Sunday night, we went to Jeremy's sister's wedding. It was lovely.

We partied, we danced, and we left the celebration around 10:30pm. 
Drove two hours to Lincoln. 
Left at 3am for the airport.
Drove an hour to Omaha.
Flew to Dallas. 
Tried to stay awake and looked like zombies doing it. 
Flew fourteen hours to Korea. 
Threw up three times along the way. 
Successfully found my parents at the airport in Korea.
Bussed it two hours to our city.
Took two taxis with all of our luggage to our apartment.
Crashed in bed.
Went to work the next morning.

We are kinda, sorta in a complete and total haze, but we're taking it one step at a time.

Korea (round two), here we go!