A birthday treat

Last night I was all set to write about something eclectic (traditional Korean music), but then I was pulled away from the computer by a big, pleasant surprise.  My wife took me out for my birthday, and some friends of ours joined us.  My birthday won’t arrive for a few more days, but I was happy to get out and celebrate the somber occasion (after about age 25, birthdays, become more somber than festive ).  What could be better than to celebrate your birthday with friends and loved ones on a weekend?  We went out for delicious Indian food and then for karaoke at a noraebang in Myeongdong.  Truth be told, I didn’t feel much like a party animal last night, but I was still happy to have been treated to a fun night on the town.  Two other couples with children escaped from home and joined us.  We had so much fun that we decided to get together every time one of us had a birthday.  All six of our birthdays are scattered throughout the year, so we can do it periodically.  From time to time, we’ll all plan to hire babysitters or nannies and treat ourselves to a night out. 
At the Indian restaurant we ate mango birthday cake.  I couldn’t believe it didn’t blow the candles out on the first try!  Shame on me.  Either my lungs are shrinking, or there were too many candles on the cake (probably the latter).   My friends gave me a T-shirt and a necktie.  The T-shirt reads "Army" in block letters–most likely a veiled attempt to con me into exercising and cadence calling, methinks.  I think I’ll pass.  The necktie is a nice red, silk tie.  It features an intricate pattern of cigarette lighters and ivy leaves.  I have no idea what subliminal message the tie’s pattern conjures, but I’m sure it’s meant to be comical.  Unfortunately, I’ve already ruined the tie.  I proudly wore it to work today, and like so many of my neckties, it’s already started to fray.  I am so distraught.  I’ve already thrown away a couple of good neckties gone bad.  All my ties have become victims of my workplace.  Virtually every day, they snag on the counter and fray at the ends.  I wore this tie once, and after just one day it started to unravel.  I’ve vowed not to wear any new ties to work until I move to a new job.  Neckties are much too expensive to replace frequently.  I’ll just keep wearing the frazzled ones.  Old and worn and frayed, just like me.

A strangely haunting day

Today was a strange day indeed.  Typically Saturdays are not a flurry of activity around our house, but today was different.  Perhaps a whiff of All Hallow’s Eve spawned some added tempestuousness today.  Actually, Halloween festivities were celebrated today in the American community in Seoul because October 31st is a Monday.  (Most Koreans do not celebrate Halloween, although some who live near military bases have adopted the holiday as a way to get free candy.)  The grand opening of the National Museum of Korea in Seoul this weekend also added to the day’s disequilibrium.  For three consecutive days, the National Museum, the sixth largest museum in the world, has been broadcasting ethereal Korean music and setting off fireworks displays, electrifying the surrounding neighborhoods.  The Halloween and National Museum grand opening celebrations collectively cast an abnormal pall over the day today.  Nothing seemed of the ordinary today.
Many other tangential events also transpired.  ‘Tis the season, I suppose.  The lazy days of summer are long gone, and the flurry of activity preceding the Yuletide is now upon us.  My son attended two different birthday parties, and I was invited over to a friend’s house for a Halloween party (I declined so I could take my son trick o’ treating).  Tomorrow another coworker will marry, and I will likely attend (I just found out and may have to change plans).  Some roughneck guys in the community hosted a no-holds barred football game, which I also missed (I promised to play in the Thanksgiving Day game).  Despite going to two different birthday parties in the neighborhood, my son still managed to take a nap.  He ate so much sugar and was so stimulated by today’s activities that he is still awake as I write and will probably sleep rather fitfully tonight. 
Tonight one of my wife’s coworkers and his family joined us for dinner (pizza) and trick o’ treating.  We all went trick o’ treating on Yongsan Army Base, home of some of the best trick o’ treating in Korea (it is also a very, very safe place to trick o’ treat).  My son was dressed up as (who else) "Thomas the Tank Engine."  His cute little costume featured a front pocket where he could store his candy treasure–his cargo hold.  The coworker’s young daughter was a princess.  It was her first time trick o’ treating as well as the first time the family had visited the U.S. Army base.  Although it is located next to their home in Itaewon, their family had ever had an opportunity to visit Yongsan before.  Most residents of Seoul have never been on Yongsan Army Base because it is restricted to authorized personnel (mostly military).  Tonight was also the first time my son had experienced trick o’ treating.  He had a great time collecting candy and watching other children dressed in an assortment of fanciful Halloween costumes.  At first he was too shy to tell strangers "trick o’ treat," but by the fourth or fifth house visit he’d built up enough courage to say the magic words and accept candy.  We not sure what we’re going to do with all the candy he collected.  He sure isn’t allowed to each all that unhealthy candy!  Dad may have to step in and eat some of it for him.  Sometimes dads have to make big sacrifices for their children.  LOL
Tonight our community hosted the best Haunted House I’ve ever seen.  I haven’t been in a haunted house for years, but this one had to be one of best volunteer, non-profit haunted houses in the world.  It was absolutely fabulous!  I toured the house after it was over, and I was immensely disturbed by the haunted remnants.  One of the ladies in our community who has been doing community haunted houses for over 12 years put in an amazing amount of work putting on the Haunted House, and other members of the community helped her turn it into a literal work of art.  Over 550 people went through the house in just three hours (the community Haunted House is open just one night each year).  Although this is only the 2nd annual community Haunted House, it’s already legendary in Seoul.  Tomorrow I will go back to help clean up and tear down displays.  Next year I might also participate as a mad doctor or killer clown.  Our community association helped fund the Haunted House, but it made so much money that the organizers did not need the funding after all.  I’m glad someone was willing to put in many thankless hours to make it happen.  The community wouldn’t be the same without it.

Still don’t know where we’re headed

My plan to get an early jump on our next assignment failed.  If you recall, I bid on follow-on assignments in several Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong (Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of China).  My chances of landing an early assignment were a bit slim, but I was cautiously optimistic.  Unfortunately, I found out a couple days ago that I will have to wait until early next year during my scheduled bid cycle to bid on my next assignment.  Today, my colleagues who were already scheduled to bid this cycle found out what their next assignments will be.  I’m thrilled for them.  The air at work today was abuzz with animated stirrings as the news of people’s onward assignments trickled throughout the building.  I’m especially happy to hear that many of my colleagues’ next assignments are decent (it gives me hope mine will be as well).  Some people are headed to Turkey (Istanbul and Ankara), China (Shanghai and Beijing), one will head to Germany, another to Sri Lanka.  Details are sketchy, but it seems that people were generally satisfied with their next assignments.  The anticipation is over and reality has arrived for them.
I learned one very important lesson from this exercise–knowing foreign languages definitely helps you improve your ability to secure a good, onward assignment.    Seoul has long had a reputation for being a difficult place to be when you do not know another foreign language beyond Korean.  During job bidding, you must submit ranked bids on 20 potential assignments for which one assignment will be selected for you.  Most of the time, you receive one of your top bids.  However, the requirement that you bid on 20 job assignments can leave one dissatisfied with their assignment if the selection is from the bottom of their list.  This is especially true if you do not speak any other foreign language besides Korean.  It limits your list to English-language posts, because you cannot bid on tours that require another foreign language.  Assignments in the Londons and Sydneys of the world are notoriously difficult to land, so you’re often left with English-prevalent places such as Manila, Phillippines, Chennai, India, or Lagos, Nigeria.  If you want to live in Nigeria, you would probably be happy with such a narrow bid list.  However, most people would rather have a wider bid selection. 
As for me, I’m happy to be qualified to bid on Spanish- and Chinese-speaking posts, which dramatically increase my bid selection.  Fortunately, more places are designated Spanish-required than any other language group (Arabic is second).  However, after learning that someone from Seoul just landed a job in Germany, I will now have to buckle down and focus on improving my German language skill.  I started to study German, but I slacked off after I decided to focus solely on working in China on my next assignment (I reasoned that there would be no need for me to study German if I knew I was headed to China.  If given a choice, I would actually prefer a German-required assignment than to work in China after I leave Korea.  I thought that heading to Europe would be an impossible dream bidding out of Seoul, but some people today made me a believer.  Jetzt muess ich Deutsch sehr fleissig ueben!  I have about six months to improve it.

It’s really puzzling

Sometimes I enjoy watching my son think and act.  I sit back and watch his little mind at work.  It’s very entertaining.  Sometimes he impresses, amuses, confounds, annoys.  I especially enjoy watching him put together jigsaw puzzles.  He started months ago putting together six-piece puzzles and has since graduated to 60-piece puzzles featuring characters from "Finding Nemo" and "Madagascar," two popular animated films.  I love to challenge him by upping the ante every time he solves a puzzle.  He solved "Nemo" easily enough.  However, he hesitated to put together the "Madagascar" puzzle because it’s more intricate than "Nemo."  I alwasy encourage him and help him when he needs assistance, giving him a rousing round of applause whenever he finishes a puzzle.  Now he finishes both "Nemo" and "Madagascar" without fail.  I taught him how to put together the puzzle upside down in the frame so he won’t use the frame or the puzzle outlines to solve the puzzle.  Now he does it on his own.
Tonight I raised the bar even higher.  I threw the "Nemo" and "Madagascar" jigsaw puzzle pieces together into a big pile and challenged him to solve both of them simultaneously.  That clever little kid.  He was stumped at first, but then he ended up separating all the pieces into two piles and proceeded to solve both puzzles one at a time.  Drats, he foiled my plan!  Eventually I’d like to see him solve both of them in opposite frames, upside down.  He understood what I wanted him to do, but he did his own way.  I have no doubt that he’ll be able to do it over time, but for now I’m having fun coaching him and watching him grow and learn.
From the "Things that Make You Go…Hmm" Department:  Is there such thing as a boring discussion topic?  I’m really happy that people (well, some people) enjoy reading this blog.  I wonder if I could write about a completely uninteresting topic no one wants to read.  Is it possible to find a completely uninteresting topic to discuss?  What if I write about watching wet paint dry?  Nah, there’s bound to be someone who wants to read about that topic too, such as a professional painter.  What kind of topic do you think would be inherently uninteresting and no one would want to read?   Now that’s a puzzle I haven’t solved.  If you have any suggestions for the most boring, uninteresting topic of all, let me know!

Random thoughts

Tonight my son and I finished carving our pumpkin into Oliver the Train.  It looks pretty good!  I carved the train’s face on the front and the number "11" on the side (Oliver’s number is 11).  On Halloween night it will look great on our porch, welcoming trick or treaters.  I posted a few photos of the final product.
So Dr. Ben Bernanke has been nominated to replace Alan Greenspan as chair of the Federal Reserve.  At least we now know who will be Greenspan’s successor.  While the name "Bernanke" doesn’t quite conjure images of money and Wall Street like the name "Greenspan" does, it appears that Bernanke will not deviate significantly, at least initially, from Greenspan’s policies.  While I believe that Greenspan’s true legacy does not rise to mythos, I do think that Bernanke will have some big shoes to fill.  Unlike the recent nomination of Harriet Miers to U.S. Supreme Court, it appears that Bernanke will easily win confirmation.  I’m glad that the market reacted positively to the news.  After Hurricane Katrina battered stocks over the past couple of weeks, it’s about time that stocks headed upward for a change.
Wow, the Chicago White Sox look like they’re headed to their first World Series victory in 88 years.  Barring a disaster, they may sweep the Houston Astros or win in five games (if the Sox do choke, people might start wondering if the Sox rigged the World Series like they did in 1919, the infamous "Black Sox" World Series).  Although it’s a shame the outcome is so lopsided, it’s good to see some very close games.  And I guess my prediction of the Astros in seven is wrong yet again!  I guess I should stick to investing.
I finished a very important project today.  It’s something I developed from scatch and have been slowly transitioning to a team of people.  It’s a system for managing our operations.  The head of the operation will be heading back to the United States with the project results in hand and will be showing it to the Powers That Be.  If they like it, it could be implemented worldwide.  Now that it’s done, I’m turning my focus to implementing an ISO 9001 Quality Management System in our organization.  This is an even bigger challenge.  I have about one year to put together a team, a plan, and implement the system.  Not everyone is sold on the idea, so it will take a lot of work just to convince people that it is worth the effort.
Kevin, a blog reader, asked if the community association I wrote about in my previous blog is common in Korea.  Yes, and no.  Our community association is an expat community association; I don’t think there are many organized community associations for the expatriate community in Korea.  Most expats here are either affiliated with the military and are under the auspices of by U.S. Forces Korea, teachers, who are active in their schools and universities, and businesspeople and government- or non-government employees, who are usually taken care of by their organizations.  However, there are many Korean community associations.  In fact, it’s my understanding that Koreans who live together in apartment complexes often form community associations.  Some have been accused of price fixing, pressuring those who want to sell their apartments to sell at prices set by the group.  This is an illegal practice in Korea, and the "speculation" that arises from this has been popular in the Korean press.  If someone is coerced into selling their property at a fixed price, I can understand why it’s illegal.  Still, I question why there’s been a crackdown on housing speculation in Korea.
Blog Notes:  Dear Reader, I received my first hate comment today.  It’s been almost a year since I started this blog and have never received malicious comments before.  I never thought this blog was controversial enough to get any at all.  How do you respond to this comment? 


You make me sick. Cancer is God’s way of getting rid of parasites on planet Earth. If you have Cancer I hope you die soon!!! If you have a problem with this, you’re a retard. Stop by my space and learn more retard. Ryan Benedetti

I could delete it, but I won’t.  I think it’s really sad.  It seems he just wants to use this as a platform to advertise his own blog.  He doesn’t really say why I make him sick and why he wants me to die.  I do take exception with how he treats cancer–it’s extremely inconsiderate of those who actually suffer from cancer.  He could very well have spammed a bunch of MSN blogs with his vective just to get attention.  He claims on his blog that someone else is spamming other people’s blogs and misusing his name.  If so, if I were him I would shut down the blog and start over rather than becoming a target for people’s ire.  Interestingly, his handle is Canadiankick.  I thought Canada was a peaceful nation.  Oh well, thanks for stopping by anyway, Canadiankick.

Weathering the proverbial storm

Late last month I took over as chair of our community’s association.  The association serves our expatriate community and manages the community’s myriad assets.  We have a large facility and lease space to several vendors, including Quiznos Sub and Starbucks.  We manage some extended-stay suites, event hall rentals, a business center, and merchandise sales.  We have many revenue streams and offer many services to the community.  We also host social events throughout the year, and we plan to invest the association’s excess cash so that we can meet the future needs of our community.  We’re a non-profit entity, but because we have so many revenue streams, we function like in many ways like a corporation.  It is truly an amazing operation.  I don’t use my MBA much on the job, but as part of the association’s Board, I am able to put my business skills to work.  I enjoy it very much.
Lately, the association faces several big challenges.  We haven’t had a cafeteria since last March, and we just lost an important vendor in a messy divorce.  Our business center vendor’s lease is almost up, and our facility desperately needs some maintenance.  We have to put on several key events for our community.  We’re losing some valuable employees.  Our association has a full-time general manager who’s been working hard to manage our operations.  However, I think her job is too much work for one person to handle.  She has a small staff, but each employee is assigned to a specific function.  As chair I’ve tried to work closely with her and her staff to make sure we do everything that needs to get done in the next six months.  Although some people in the community think a Board chair should sit back and take a passive role in the association, letting the GM function like a CEO, I prefer to be much more activist and as involved as I can be.  The GM appreciates this.  Corporate boards that serve at the whim of the CEO (in this case the GM) are not doing their jobs.  Corporate governance experts tend to agree with me.  I also see the chair role as a that of a visionary, where I help instill a vision of what the future of the association will look like and work with the Board and general manager to make it happen.  Many of the best boards in the corporate world are led by dynamic Board chairs who guide their companies and ensure the best interests of shareholders are served.  In this case, I need to look out for the interests of our community.
Right now the association faces several daunting challenges.  Last night, the association hosted a major reception for the community.  I emceed the event.  I don’t like public speaking, but I did fine addressing the crowd of about 160 people.  The reception was a culmination of the joint efforts of many people who worked to make sure everything was perfect.  I was really happy to see how we all pulled together to make it happen.  Today the Board approved the new business center vendor, who will offer Vonage phone service and business services to the community.  They will also build the association a professional web site which will serve as a portal for our potential customers.  If they deliver what they promise, the community will have a viable, alternate phone and Internet service provider.  For the next few days, we need to focus on finalizing the divorce from one of our vendors and finding a replacement vendor.  I hope we can accomplish this within two weeks.  The new vendor will offer food and coffee to our customers, and the absence of the previous vendor has been conspicuous.  Next, our attention will turn to reopening the employee cafeteria.  At the same time, we will sell merchandise at the upcoming APEC Summit in Busan in mid-November, and we will host Halloween and Thanksgiving events.  We will also finish facility maintenance before winter arrives, and we will invest our excess cash in low-risk, high-yield municipal bond funds.  Juggling all of these commitments is a momental task.  It feels at times like a perfect storm.  While overwhelming, we must weather these challenges and persevere.
When the dust settles and the smoke clears, our vendor contracts will be in place, and we will have given back in myriad ways to the community.  It’s a lot of work, and at times my wife asks me why I expend so much effort volunteering on behalf of the association.  It’s because someone needs to do it.  At this critical juncture in the association’s existence, we need to get through the challenges and outlast the storm.  And after my term ends in five months, I hope that the next association chair will be left with a tidy ship and calm waters.

Blasts from the past

Dear Reader, I am sorry for the long absence.  As you know, I love writing this blog.  I look forward to writing each night about something different and offbeat.  Unfortunately, last week was a difficult week for me, with illness and other commitments I needed to fulfill.  Famous last words, I know, but it was just one of those weeks.  I’ve done everything that needed to be done, and for the time being, I can relax a bit and spend more time writing.  I feel much better, although I still have a cough (thanks for the kind words and well wishes!).  As is often the case, the cough will likely linger on for another week or so.
There’s so much to write about since my last entry that I think I’ll focus tonight on just a couple of interesting items.  Both happened last night.  I spent much of the weekend with my son.  After having spent the previous weekend at Seoul City Hall and working as a movie extra, I needed to spend more time with my family.  We had a wonderful time.  Last night, while his mother went out with some friends, my son and I stayed home and played together.  We began to carve a pumpkin into a Jack O’Lantern.  I gutted it, and he assisted.  The pumpkin still awaits a face because I stopped midway through carving when my son lost interest.  He was a great helper, helping daddy put the pumpkin guts into the plastic bowl and cleaning the gunk off my hands.  He industriously studied the inside of the pumpkin and asked me if he could have a bite.  I told him it didn’t taste good, but he tried a tiny piece anyway…and spit it out.  Sometimes you just have to learn something yourself.  We’ll finish up the pumpkin carving tomorrow evening.  He wants me to turn Jack O’Lantern into a train.  While I’m not surprised by his choice, since he absolutely loves trains, I was amused that he chose Oliver from "Thomas the Tank Engine" to serve as the model for his carved pumpkin.  He could have chosen Thomas, or Gordon, or Henry, or any number of central characters from the story, "Thomas the Tank Engine."  Instead, there was something about this pumpkin that reminded him of Oliver.  I’m not sure why–it’s a green train that’s not much different from the other "Thomas" trains.  At times, children’s minds work in mysterious ways.  So tomorrow night, we shall turn my son’s pumpkin into Oliver the Train. 
I haven’t carved a pumpkin in years.  The last time I did was over a decade ago when my wife and I just started dating.  We were still in college at the time.  We were over at her dormitory a few days before Halloween.  The residence hall had given away free pumpkins, and we went into the kitchen and carved a pumpkin into a Jack O’Lantern.  My Chinese wife had never carved a pumpkin before, for Halloween is a western tradition virtually unknown to Chinese (it’s catching on now in China, I’ve been told).  Like my son, she primarily watched me carve it.   Although it happened a long time ago and the memory has faded a bit, it came back to me as my son watched me once again carve a pumpkin.  After that first Halloween together, my wife and I made it a habit to spend Halloween going out for dinner.  We never really were the type of people to stay home and pass out candy to trick o’treaters.  However, now that we have a child who’s old enough to wear a costume (he’s going to be Thomas the Tank Engine–who else?), Halloween has taken on a new meaning.  We’re not really fans of a celebration that has such dark undertones, but I’m happy to let my son do some of those things most kids like to do, like carving pumpkins, dressing in a costume, and trick o’treating.  Trick o’treating can be filled with hazards, but since my neighbors are also my coworkers, I think we can safely trick o’treat without fear of tainted candy in a secure environment.
Last night while we were carving the pumpkin, I suddenly heard explosions outside our house.  It took me a few minutes to ascertain that it the sound of a fireworks display.  For a brief moment, the unthinkable crossed my mind–were those bombs?  Gunfire?  I turned on the television just to make sure.  Thankfully, it wasn’t an attack.  If it were, I would probably not be writing tonight.  It is not something to take lightly  After all, in Seoul we are well within range of North Korean artillery.  If there were an invasion by North Korea, the entire city of Seoul could be destroyed within two-to-three days.  No matter how unlikely it seems now, we are within range of a war zone, and the Koreas are technically in a tense ceasefire.  There has been no peace on the Korean Peninsula since 1950.  Last night was not a holiday such as Independence Day, when you expect fireworks.  I might not have thought anything of them, but I could not help imagining briefly what would happen if an invasion really occurred.  I would have to send my family to safety in Japan and stay behind, helping people, just as my colleagues in Islamabad are now feverishly helping those savaged by the tragic earthquake in Pakistan.  Seoul seems so far away from that possibility.  When you live here, you rarely ever think about the possibility of war; that is, until it suddenly grabs your attention.  Living in Seoul gives you a different perspective on something that seems so innocuous, even a fireworks display.  Every once in awhile, the City of Seoul still stages afternoon siren drills, and the entire city stops for five to 10 minutes, an ominous reminder that Seoul is not quite like any other modern metropolis.