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Category Archives: Thoughts on Korea

The past week in Korea has been a blur of goodbyes.  I’ve managed to visit all of the most important places and say farewell to the most important people.  I’ve had lots of meals, lots of visits, and lots of train trips.  I swear, I keep Korail in business some weekends. I think Korail will miss me most.

People often ask me if religion brings me back to the orphanage in Gimcheon, but really, *I* bring myself back to the orphanage because I committed to volunteering at children’s crisis nurseries, group homes, shelters, and orphanages when I was 18. I cooked my first solo Thanksgiving dinner at a crisis shelter in Flagstaff when I was 19, which featured only breasts a lot of turkey and limited side dishes, since people donated only birds. I went twice a week to a small shelter in my 20s and my office partner and I decided one year to sponsor their entire Christmas. We bought “appropriate” gifts and took too many illegal pictures, but we both said it was the best thing we did that year. (Of course, she also reunited with her ex-BF/future husband on Christmas Eve Mass…)  Anyhow, I have always felt compelled to spend time with displaced kids, and it has nothing to do with my religion or my orphan status. It’s just me (and probably hugely contributed to my parents who did foster care when I was a teen).

So, I went to hold babies and braid the hair of little girls and feed everyone kimbap. I watched the babies dance along to a video and play with balloons and my two favorite babies told me everyone’s names and sat on my lap.  Only one peed on me. The babies did take me down, literally, before I left, after a giant baby bit me on the ankle and then the mob of babies attacked me for some last-minute lap time. The Baby Bang (room) is still King of the Hill lap war. My Baby Badass always wins =) I can’t explain the sense of melancholy I felt when leaving the babies for the last time.  I will never see them grow up. I will never see the smiles of the girls at Grace Jeep (house) when they recognize me and notice that I, yet again, have changed my hair. I won’t fold laundry with the house uhmma again or let her feed me Asian pears on a tiny fork. The last time to say goodbye in Korea has been harder than I thought it would be. And again, I am reminded how fortunate I am  to own the life that was gifted to me by happenstance.

I also went back to my very favorite place in Korea: Haeundae Beach. I took a cab, to a train, to the subway and then met my host, Sohee, who is quite pregnant.  We had a lovely goodbye lunch and again, I felt so overwhelmed realizing I would never hold her baby, and likely would never see her again.  I watched the waves roll gently into the sand and collected a bunch of broken seashell shards.  I tanned my legs and dug my toes into the cool sand.  I missed my dad.  I then took the subway to the lightrail to the bus to Inje campus, where I had a nice kimchi jjigae  dinner with Jihye, Eun Hye and Professor Cho. We said “See you later!” but we all knew: it might be goodbye forever. I also will never hold Jihye’s baby, due in December. Strange that my world is so completely divided… that ocean really gets in the way of my relationships.

And my students… in such a short time, it seems so strange that I have become attached to people with whom I was designed to have a transient relationship. They are meant to flow in and then leave my life, and I was placed here to leave theirs. I’m not sure I’ve left any concrete lasting impression upon them, but I know they have taught me so much about the boundaries of my own patience and about how the future can change in dramatic ways. I think I learned Korean culture through Korean students, both at Inje and at Hannam… maybe my perspective is flawed… but I hope this generation of young people choose to change the social climate in Korea.  I hope I taught them that they can be empowered to create change, even if it might require more force than their polite manners permit.

Anyhow, no goodbye is complete without a lot of nore at the norebang (singing at the song room = private room karaoke). AND soju. Lots of soju. I’ve decided whenever I land somewhere, I’ll need to create my own norebang in my home. And I’ll need to find Korean students who are required to sing for their elder sister. =P My students will always belong to me, in my memory, and I hope they will not forget me too soon.

Tomorrow, I leave Daejeon for good. I leave this disgusting tiny apartment where I can hear students breaking up and getting drunk and the chicken delivery scooter show up at the same time every night. I’ll leave in this room conversations where I fell in love over the phone, where I listened to my dad’s voicemails over and over, where I learned how to create curriculum via google search.

Maybe, in this room, I leave Ginger in Korea…

Or maybe, she comes home with me… a new Ginger… in a new world… in Meeguk.

 


It seems hollow to say my life has changed when nothing about my life in Korea has changed. Except, this huge thing has happened: My Dad DIED.  And I’ve had to tell the story to far too many strangers. Far too many times. Too much, too soon, too many.

My life in Korea is easy, and if it were only me alone suffering through something, I’d probably stay and pretend that everything else is normal. I can talk workplace politics.  I can feed students.  I can hold babies on weekends and sleep in late everyday. I can let the routine and calm and nothingness and mundane simplicity of Korea be home. It would be easy, especially since most days, my classroom is just a stage for the Ginger Show anyhow.  In Korea, I can pretend to be someone else with a  different life. Actually, I just AM someone else with a  different life.

But, someday, I’d have to go home.  Since Korea has never been, nor was it intended to be, a permanent plan, someday, I would have to be just regular Ginger again. Someday, I’d have to come back to a life I left at home. When I get there, no one will have washed and waxed Henri Le Celica or made sure my tires have air. No one will call to report how many times Wagger-Grace, Border Collie Extraordinaire, has sniffed the interior of the car looking for me.  There won’t have been anyone moving around my boxes or repacking things already packed or printing random new articles about Korea. Because, when I get home, whenever that would be, my dad will never be there again. Even if in Korea I can pretend that he MIGHT be…

So, I can delay the inevitable basket drop feeling of resuming a life where I return to being half-orphan, or I go home now. I’ve spent the past few years delaying a lot of realities, but this one isn’t something I can change with an insane delusion or a lot of hope or strategic planning. There is no use in stretching out a grieving process that never ends, only transitions into another kind of thing. At Christmas, my dad and I were talking about our birthdays and his parents, who had died many years ago.  He said, still – there were times he thought of things he wanted to tell his parents, or his twin brother, and there were times he thought “I’m gonna call…” only to remember: There was no one to answer.  I think that’s how it is already, except I’m still in some sort of half-denial phase.

If I don’t go home to feel my feelings, I probably will just be delusional forever about my grief. I’ll let grief get caught up in the nasty web of Korean culture clash and bad communication. I’ll let grief catch in my throat instead of be released. I’ll let grief capture me and make me freeze to a moment in time and a place in life. I’ll be trapped – in more ways than one.

And since I’m a girl that really really loves her freedom, that is not acceptable. So, as much as going home sounds super not fun at all, and looking for a new career in a new city, in a world without a dad seems extremely unappealing, that’s what I’m doing, because that’s what a girl does when she doesn’t want to belong to grief forever.

So, someday soon (like next week) this blog ends because there won’ be a Ginger and Korea anymore.  But stay tuned, Readers… I’m sure to pop up somewhere else.


So, I am having an incredibly difficult time leaving America.  I have not lost a credit card, I have not found a job, and actually, nothing incredible has happened while I’ve been back Stateside except I interchangeably call America AND Korea “home.”

When I first left Korea after my program at Inje University, I LOVED KOREA. I think the experience in a program specifically designed for Korean adoptees was insulating, plus, the atmosphere in the Busan area is incredibly warm. It was a definite softball way to acclimate to Korea, learn some culture, make some friends, and drink some soju. I acquired a strong affection for Korean ramyeon, shorter skirts, Gwangalli beach, bingsu, and all things aegyo. I came home excited to share my new affection with all of my Desert Dwellers, and about 500 different kinds of cosmetic products.

An extremely difficult summer fraught with about 100 extenuating circumstances, plus my first bona fide job offer in two years resulted in a knee jerk reaction to move to a city that did not make a great first impression, and to a University that gave me a definite bad feeling. I ignored these gut reactions because a) that’s what I do when I try to be reasonable b) the extremely difficult thing made me want to run far far away; c) I was broke.

My ultimate lesson in life is to learn to trust my extreme first impressions, and not rationalize with reason, logic, and good common sense. When I go against these instincts, bad things happen.  Without going into a lot of detail (see all my prior posts from this past year) I now basically HATE KOREA. Daejeon has made me hate Korea, my current job makes me hate Korea, my boss and work environment make me hate Korea.  I’m not sure I understood oppression, discrimination, or the feeling of despair so clearly until I moved into this situation. The level of lying and deception in the job recruitment process was so disgusting, I can’t believe how foolish I must have been. Or desperate.  I have to remember how broken I was when I decided I HAD to move to Korea.  A few people peeled me from the floor to make sure I got on the airplane last summer. 

Except now, I’m not broken.  I’m feeling rejuvenated and back to my old self (in all the good and bad ways).  My mind is working a million times over and I have opportunities to create a different life, and I actually feel motivated to begin again looking for new work in a new city.  Despite a million and one complications, I’m happy in my relationship, I know who my core friends are, and I have developed better communication skills with the people who I love.

But, despite these many strengths, the recovery process from two years of stapling together a financial living is very difficult in consideration of my law school debt. Bottom line: My bottom line is still in the red. Staying in Korea will give me a TINY bit of savings, but it might be enough floating money to get me to the next place. RATIONALLY, staying in Korea is the best thing financially and reasonably.

EMOTIONALLY, INSTINCTIVELY, VISCERALLY – I feel I should turnaround as soon as I land. I could spend three days and pack everything to return to a land where I speak my native language, find comfort in the familiar, and love people. I’ve been encouraged by more than one person (and The BF has threatened more than once to burn my passport) that if I feel I’m done in Korea, I should just come home and not waste another year feeling hatred and misery… as the saying goes… life is short. 

The hardest thing, though, is that I cannot imagine NOT being in Korea.  Something about Korea IS familiar and easy and I live every day with only my voice in my head, making decisions based purely on my (sometimes delusional) ideas and feelings. My plans for the future will still be there when the future gets here, and the people who love me will (or should anyhow) still love me. And it gives some things time to settle into the right place… and some love to normalize instead of fester. SIGH.

I said earlier on FB that the rock is hard and the hard place is rocky. I’m not sure what the right thing is…. I guess I just have to take some time to feel like I’m in Korea and try to have only my delusions and my voice guide my choice.

 


So, Korea has gotten under my skin, not in the good way, but in the sneak-attack-make-you-apathetic way.

Today, almost everyone I know is celebrating because America is finally catching up to reality.  I am proud again to be a member of a profession which helps to propel and compel social change (or at least tries to eliminate some of the roadblocks). US v. Windsor enforces what most of MY PEOPLE already knew:  EQUALITY means EQUAL.  And, furthermore, is for every citizen of the United States EQUALLY.

But I must confess: In Korea, I don’t proclaim and shame as much as I do in the United States. I am humiliated and heartbroken and ashamed of this fact. At home, my sister calls me one of the most gay-sessible people she knows and I remember being angry at friends for calling me an “ally” instead of just a person with basic reasoning skills who understands fundamental fairness.  And  I’m not sure why I lost my sense of logic and reason in Korea.  I’m not sure why I let Koreans steamroll me on equality issues.

It’s not only Marriage Equality.  It’s race equality, nationality, religion, sex, gender, class. As a sociologist, social worker, feminist, equalist, and attorney, Korea basically ignores, disdains, or shames the topics I have dedicated not only career, but my very existence to overcome.  I chose my battle holistically (granted, not always strategically), but I have always known my reputation for GRRRR on certain social equality issues precedes me, often to my delight and simultaneous horror. I’ve been lucky (or fucking stubborn), but I’ve been able to push through my agenda more than once. I’ve not been afraid to create enemies or burn bridges when I know I’m right.  And fairness and equality and equity are always right.

So, why have I lost myself here?

A few weeks ago, a student asked me what I thought about an article regarding gay marriage in America. I asked him what he thought, and his reply was “It is disgusting.” I could’ve shamed him, I probably should’ve, I had the hierarchical advantage and he appeared open to listening. But I didn’t.  Instead, with much exhaustion, I told him to think for himself about what fairness and equality meant and I went to my office and cried.  It is tiresome to be constantly surrounded by such a large and vast blanket of ignorance over issues which have simply not made their way across the sea yet. I cannot even imagine what it must be like for someone in Korea who cannot even fight for their right to be equal (or open or free) because the topic has not even been identified as an issue for discussion.  Koreans are convinced no one in Korea is born gay.

I find myself fighting mundane and stupid issues constantly and I realize now it’s because I am helpless and oppressed to make positive change for the issues that truly matter to me. I was in Gumi last month, and for the first time in a long while, I was overwhelmed with helplessness about the orphan situation in Korea. Even with my fiercest, most difficult, most damaged CPS kid, I never gave up hope that that child could have a better future. But in Korea, I’m often skeptical that a better future awaits many of the children raised in group home care. My fight feels futile, and I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so wholly incapable of fighting.  My GGRRRR has become a whispered gasp.

So, here I am without answers or a bow to put on this post.  Except to say, I’d like to spend the rest of my time in Korea focused on the battles that matter.  I’m tired of fighting for copier paper when Koreans still tell little girls that they can’t get a good job unless they are pretty.  I find it a waste of my intellect to keep asking for adequate housing, hot water, fair billing, or a venue for concerns when the TRUE thing I desire is to be treated like a person of value – something I cannot compel by force of action, screaming, or writing long emails filled with loathing. I can’t make Korea stop being hierarchical and collective and demand it move forward with progress, analytic thinking, and equality.

But, I can command it in my classroom, in my office, in my home, and in my presence.  And I can remember to battle, to proclaim and, if necessary, to shame.  I can be a Twinkie on a Soapbox again… I guess I just have to find a box…

TO BE CONTINUED…


So, May was filled with all kinds of good stuff.

My classes successfully raised all of the money necessary for an amazing  activity for KKOOM (Korean Kids and Orphanage Outreach Mission – http://www.kkoom.org) and also planned the event, marketing, publicity, fundraising, and research to accompany the project.  (by threat of F, anyhow.  I am discovering that a lot of parents paid for a passing grade, which makes me super uncomfortable, but since it wasn’t my intention, I have to let it go…) (SUPER SN: Also – I had to do a  lot of stuff. It was stuff that would take me five minutes to do but would take me 15 minutes to teach.  When I could, I tried to teach, but near the end, it was sort of not reasonable.  I fed them pah-dalk (green onion fried chicken) instead…).  I felt like SOME students in SOME classes learned something. I finished all of my classes in tact and with only one major change to the curriculum. I managed NOT to color my hair (but I did chop bangs and fix the layers).  And as a whole, I only managed to make 4 students cry. WIN!

This weird thing also happened, where I realized my office became the place for students to spend downtime. Some of this was necessary for the students working on projects, but sometimes, there were just a helluva lot of students loitering.  Now, I understand this is due to the snacks I keep lying around.  Sometimes, if I am starving and you are just standing there, you get a free lunch.  And sometimes, if you loiter long enough, I buy coffees for everyone loitering.  And sometimes, I just yell at you for loitering.  So, it’s really caveat emptor on reserving a seat in my office.

This might also be a super Korean thing, because if you develop a relationship with someone, the understanding is that this person will treat you with favor.  Except, I do anonymous grading in my classes. And, if I learn your REAL name (your given Korean name vs. your randomly chosen English nickname), really WATCH OUT, I just call on you because I know your name. There is no real advantage, but my students are probably just testing my boundaries.

Then, I also realized I have only boys in my mentoring class. Not really sure how I ended up with 8 freshman boys just self-selecting into my little group, but there they were all bushy-tailed and eager to play Yahtzee and eat Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn. As I began having 1:1 sessions, I saw a pattern emerge. My mentees had selected me for 1 of 3 (or all) reasons:  1) They heard free food was usually in my office; 2) a sibling or elder had recommended my class; 3) they started their mentoring session by saying “I want to do _____, but my parents think I should do ____.”  OR “I don’t know what my career passion is yet.”

I think I was supposed to be wise or sage or at least be a better “nuna.”  Instead, I sat there baffled with the first young man. I wanted to tell him to try everything until he figured out what he liked.  But I remembered I was in Korea and that was impossible. Instead, I told him that finding your career is like falling in love;  you have a general sense of what you’re looking for, but you don’t feel it until you find it. I wanted to tell the kid today to fuck his parents’ desire and just follow his talent and passion, but then I remembered: I’m in Korea.  So, instead, I told him he could develop a great career that combined his parents’ desire for stability and his want for a more creative path. I told him I’d help him figure out what he likes besides his creative passion.

All of these comments are UN-Korean, where hierarchy and parental deference is paramount to true satisfaction, and where it is subversive to plan for an alternative life.  Happiness is about fitting in, belonging, agreeing. My heart aches slightly at advising these young gentlemen to try to conform, when I’m not sure conformity is right for everyone.  But I’m in Korea. And I’m basically an epic-fail at managing the culture clash.

So, maybe I encourage a tiny bit of rebellion and subversion.  Maybe I share my own truth and my own need for adventure too freely. Maybe, I’ll never be Korean…

 

 


My parents taught me good manners when I was a little girl. That means, be polite. Speak kindly to adults and children alike.  Say “please” if you want something. Say “thank you” when someone does something nice for you. Play fair. Tell the truth. Don’t try to hurt other people.  Reward others for hard work and effort. Don’t judge a book by its cover (though this makes no sense because we always picked bedtime stories by the cover).   These are excellent rules when other people have similar values and manners.

However, where my parents failed to instruct me  is regarding what to do when people are completely oblivious to your manners, say, because of a complete culture difference and language barrier (OR PERHAPS: extreme stupidity, borderline personality disorder, or subpar IQ/EQ). What am I supposed to do, when I tried with good intention to adhere to the cultural norms and be “respectful” and the only result was I got more confusion and usually a lot of dishonesty?  I understand that it is a normative standard here to tell polite white lies in order to avoid conflict, but it has gotten to the point of ridiculousness. I have yet to have a conversation with my boss where he gives me the same answer twice to the same question. And generally, my entire personality is frowned upon, because I am a woman, I am educated, I speak freely when I think strategically,  and I value my juris doctor/law license (mostly because it was hard, it hurt to leave social work, and I’m still paying for both).  At what point, do I decide my own comfort is not something I’m willing to forsake in order to appear “culturally sensitive”???

Since I’ve been in Korea, Korea has mostly tried to “change me more Korean.”  To some degree, Korea has succeeded.  I’m lackadaisical most days; I know what is essential will get done, and what doesn’t get done can get finished urgently if necessary, and if not necessary, then whatever it is probably isn’t important. Hopefully, it’s not important.  I sometimes abuse the hierarchy rank system to force people to fetch me coffee (but I also buy a lot of freaking coffee for students and staff).  I take for granted my personal safety when walking down dark alleys at 3AM. I pretend I’m going to sing at norebang, but then refuse to hold the microphone. I learned to act cute and say “Oppa!  Sarangayo!” (this was actually quite effective over the winter break…)  And I am completely obsessed with slapping on face creams and making my eyes look bigger.

But, Korea also wants to destroy me in the ways that I find myself to be distinctly American. I value conciseness, efficiency, diversity, adversity, and conflict.  I see change as progress, not destruction.  I believe in equality, which means EQUAL, not token. I laugh without my mouth covered.  I like to be tan. I don’t feel bad that my friends have children and are unmarried.  I do not feel compelled to be married.  I don’t take time off work for a government authorized menstruation day (but I should in Korea….)  I’m tired of tip-toeing in Korea so that Koreans don’t think I am an obnoxious American. Koreans will treat me however they wish, regardless of my ability to conform to their norms. And that treatment is unequal, inefficient, and often lacking in truth or integrity.  My parents may have taught me to be quietly obedient, but I have taught myself to carry myself with authoritative self-regard.  I’ve worked diligently to teach others that I require equal respect, that I command the attention of any room, and that what I have to say is thoughtful and purposeful.  I’m done apologizing that I am not Korean enough. I’m ready to remember what it means to be American, even in Korea…

However, I don’t have to act Korean by treating those around me with the same ill-regard that I receive.   After all, **I** was raised with good manners.

 

 

 


OKAY, I am a really crappy blogger. And I’m actually pretty bad at being accountable for my pro-procrastination tendencies.  This morning, The BF said, “Why are you always getting on me about being consistent and following through? Have you done ANYTHING in Korea you said you were going to do?” OUCH.

So, for the record, YES, I’ve done SOME of the things I said I was gonna do.  I ate exorbitant amounts of soon dooboo jjigae (soft tofu soup). I volunteer (semi) regularly at an orphanage.  I am not spending more money than I earn (though I’m not really saving any money when I keep booking new vacations to various islands every break). I am no longer afraid of public transportation.  But, yes, The BF is right – I’m not doing most of the stuff I said I was going to do, and his not-so-subtle reminder that I have problems being self-accountable has lit a recent fire under my over-sized ass.

This past month, I started planning stuff again – planning for the future and planning specifically for my OWN future and making conscious decisions about what is most important to me.  This means that my choices don’t always make sense to 99% of the people I know – but I understand my own intentions and my own desires better than ever. Now, I just have to eradicate the firmly placed belief that I cannot afford to try anything new. The BF: “WTF? If you fail, you’ll just be as broke as you are right now. Better at least see if you can earn the life you want first.” I hate when people are right more often than I am (especially this really unconventional person).

This also means I (along with my two business classes) have been planning a full-day event for Korean orphans and I’ve been teaching my students how to solicit donations and funding.  This is a novel concept in Korea – where bribery is called “favor” and relationships mean “guilt-funded.” My students were incredulous when I told them we would raise over 1 Million won (about $1000) for this event, but we are nearly halfway to our goal now.  I feel the old GRRR start to growl, and remember how satisfying it is to plan an event that also has a social impact (see “Diversity Queen 2008”). In addition, I have begun planning my exit route from Korea, a place that has the potential to become a black hole of stagnation. It’s easy to get comfortable with the lifestyle here, but the longer I’m here, the more risk I have of losing sight of the things I ultimately want.

I also did a 5 day fast, started counting calories obsessively, reduced the number of cups of coffee I drink, and started taking yoga at this expensive studio across from my office. Taking an exercise class in a language you don’t understand is basically as hard as it sounds.  Coupled with the fact that a lot of yoga should be done with closed eyes or looking toward the ground or ceiling, and you have your classic recipe for clumsy disaster. Last week, the instructor asked every girl in class if they wanted to be my friend and translate into English for me.  A sixteen year old high schooler got the job:

16 Year Old HS Girl: “Um, teacher says, um, you should use contraction to lose your weight. She really is caring for you and wants to help you lose your weight. She wants you to find a nice husband before you are too old. She said to our entire class! So, she says, work hard to lose your weight. Practice yoga everyday.”

Meanwhile, I can understand “Now left, now right.” But I have no idea which left or right body part should be moving, or to where it should move. As an even greater bonus, I think I appalled one of my students by showing up during her yoga class. I’m pretty sure she was freaked out.

Today, I posted my birth plate in hopes of helping to locate my birth family. This has been a process of stop-starting, and I haven’t received much help from my agency here. Now, I just wait and see what happens. I am currently living in the city of my birth, and I am also comfortable finding nothing. Only time will tell if I am also comfortable finding something.

The last goal I had set for myself was to begin writing my law school memoir (and to make it funny). Since I am unimportant and irrelevant to most people in the world, getting it published is a non-issue. I want it written before I forget all the stuff that made law school hilarious…

So, I’m still here in Korea, working, living, searching… and procrastinating. Let’s hope next month, I’ll have more things checked off the “To Do in Korea” List!

Korean Bridge Birth Plate