New Year’s resolutions, anyone?

Last night was very busy and a lot of fun.  We’re on our way out soon to join friends for a New Year’s party, so I’ll write about it tomorrow.  Today I’ll write about a bit more concise topic–New Year’s resolutions.  Dear Reader, did you make New Year’s resolutions for 2006?  I tend not to, because they’re usually too difficult to fulfill.  I did last year, though.  How did I do?
  1. Finish Korean language class with an adequate testing score
  2. Arrive in Seoul safely
  3. Take a real vacation
Well, two out of three ain’t too bad.  I finished Korean language class last year with the required proficiency level.  However, I should have resolved to maintain it, because my Korean language ability has receded precipitously.  I am not taking any Korean classes right now, and I rarely speak Korean, unfortunately.  I speak a little once in awhile, although I never carry on conversations in Korean anymore.  Even my Chinese ability has decreased a bit.  My German improved, although not by much.  I plan to retest in German in January before I bid for my next assignment.  If I test well, I would be qualified to bid on German-speaking locales early next year (read Europe).
We also made it safely to Seoul.  However, we did not take a vacation this year.  My wife and son went to Shanghai, China in April and May, but I haven’t left Korea since we arrived here.  Interestingly, I feel like more of a homebody in Seoul than I did when we lived in the U.S.  We spent a few days in February in Hawaii en route to Korea.  We also made overnight trips to Gyeongju and Seoraksan National Park, but that’s all the traveling we’ve done together.  However, none of these were really "vacations."  We had planned to return to the U.S. over Christmas, but that trip has been postponed until next summer.
I thought about what resolutions I want to make for 2006.  Here’s what I came up with:
  • Lose 10 pounds.  I need to lose more weight than 10 pounds, but I need to be realistic!  I can never achieve unrealistic weight loss goals.  Can you relate?
  • Increase our net worth by 15%.  By aggressively saving, I think we can do it.
  • Spending more time reading for pleasure and reading what I need to read.  I never seem to have enough time to read.  It’s probably because I spend too much time on the computer.
  • Improve my Korean.  It would be nice to leave Korea speaking better Korean than I do now.
  • Take a real vacation.  This one carries over from last year’s resolutions.

So, Happy New Year, Dear Reader!  I hope you have a wonderful and prosperous 2006.  If you make any resolutions, I wish you all the best in fulfilling them.


From the "Things that Make You Go Hmm" Department:  This morning I found my son in the pantry trying to reach something on the shelf.  He was using a case of bottled water as a step chair.  The first thought that crossed my mind was, "Wow, my son can even walk on water!"  Now if he could just let us know when he needs to use the potty.

Distracted by Jumbotrons

Driving in Seoul is bad enough that drivers don’t need any further distractions.  Call it a clash between the highway and Korean digital superhighway.  Seven giant Jumbotron digital billboards are strategically placed around downtown Seoul in order to maximize viewership and inadvertantly distract drivers.  I usually don’t pay much attention to them while driving, but tonight I could not help it.  I was driving south towards Namdaemun in heavy traffic when I stopped and waited for the red light to turn.  As I waited, I couldn’t help but stare up at a monstrous digital advertisement featuring tennis sensation and stunningly beautiful Maria Sharapova.  The giant, digitized Wimbledon champion hits a few tennis balls that precisely hit a faraway target.  Then she suddenly hikes up her tennis skirt to reveal a portable media player strapped to her attractive, shapely leg.  I did not catch which product she was pitching–perhaps it was a Motorola product.  (When the beauty outshines the product being marketed, it’s overkill.)  No matter–the whole scene was rather distracting.  As the majority of drivers in Korea are men, I suspect that I was not the only male driver distracted by this huge, seductive advertisement overshadowing my line of sight.  When the traffic light turned green, I drove on and immediately thought about how easy it would be for this type of advertisement to cause traffic accidents.  While that speaks volumes about Maria Sharapova’s beauty, it doesn’t bode well for Seoul’s traffic safety.

Relishing the sweet pickles

I am moving to a new job soon.  I’ve been in the same area for about seven months, but next week (heck, next year) I will move on and do something else.  I can’t believe my time there is almost finished.  It’s been quite a ride, and I’m going to miss it.  I took my coworkers out for lunch today to thank them for all they’ve done.  They’ve all been a huge support, and I appreciate their help immensely.  I took them out today for a nice lunch at an Italian restaurant highly recommended by a friend of mine.  Her tastes are impeccable, and her restaurant choices are excellent. 
The meal was delicious as expected.  I wouldn’t have expected anything less from an upscale Italian restaurant.  The garlic bread with vinegar and oil, leafy green salad, rice pilaf, spaghetti carbonara, espresso, and gelato took me away from Korea for a brief respite.  I soon came back to reality when the waiter brought out a plate of red chilis and sweet pickles.  Chilis and sweet pickles served at an Italian restaurant?  You’ve got to be kidding!  Oh, yes.  Sweet pickles are a nod to the Korean palate.  Western-style restaurants can’t very well get away with serving customers a vat of aromatic kimchi, so they subtly substitute innocuous sweet pickles instead.  I can’t get away from sweet pickles at my favorite Italian restaurant (another one) near my office, nor at my favorite Indian restaurant, and I couldn’t escape them when I ate at a fabulous French restaurant in Busan.  The only foreign cuisine I’ve found in Korea not subjected to the tinge of sweet pickles is Mexican cuisine.  Of course, chili peppers are a staple in Mexican food, so Koreans merely substitute chilis for kimchi. 
It seems that no matter where you are–in Korea, the U.S., or elsewhere–you just can’t get away from food localization.  Restaurants serving foreign cuisine will always tailor it to local tastes.  That’s fine, but I think I’ll pass on the sweet pickles. 

It could happen to anyone, anytime

Dear Reader, I crashed tonight and am just waking up.  Work today was trying following a three-day weekend and a couple of unfortunate tragedies that happened yesterday.  Our office spent the day fighting many fires.  On days like these, I’m reminded that I’m not getting any younger.  I just finished a three-day weekend, and I still felt like I’d gone ten rounds in a boxing match.  Kudos to my wife for taking care of our son this evening without me.  She usually puts him to sleep, but I try to spend at least two hours each night playing with him after I get home.  Unfortunately, tonight I crashed and didn’t spend much time with him.  I will tomorrow.
Tonight, after I awoke, I thought about people who seem to have everything who suddenly become unfortunate victims of tragedy.  No, I am not really being fatalistic.  I’m recalling two unfortunate events that recently transpired–the one year anniversary of the Tsunami in Southeast Asia and Africa and the funeral of the son of Indianapolis Colts’ Coach Tony Dungy.  I know you know about the Tsunami; if you live in the U.S., you probably have heard the story of how Coach Dungy’s teenage son very likely took his own life, an unexpected, terrible tragedy for a family to bear.
December 26, 2004, the day of the Tsunami, seems so long ago, yet I know it is still fresh in many people’s minds.  I’m disappointed by sparse American media coverage of the first anniversary of this tragedy, just as I was with coverage of the tragic earthquake in Pakistan.  Events of this magnitude impact so many people, especially those who are left behind.  I think they deserve more than a one-minute headline.  I thought about the families of Tsunami victims who traveled to the sites where they lost their loved ones one year ago.  At the same time, I remembered the Dungy family, who buried their son.  Just a few weeks ago, the Dungys were on top of the world.  Their father’s team, the Colts, was on the verge of a perfect football season.  Now, the family must grapple with the loss of a loved one.  Neither the Tsunami nor the death of James Dungy were very expected.  It reminds me of how life can change in an instant.  Sometimes life-changing events are positive ones, but sometimes the event could be tragic.  Times like these remind me to live life to the fullest, because I’ll never know what will happen tomorrow.

Random observations about Korea

How was your Christmas, Dear Reader?  We had a nice Christmas at home.  Some of our family friends came over on Christmas Day to celebrate the holiday with us.  I hope you also had a wonderful Christmas or Chanukkah, if you celebrate either one of them.
I had the day off from work today.  In the morning, I went to a dentist’s appointment.  Most Koreans went back to work today; I’m glad to have had an extra day off.  In the afternoon, my wife and I had lunch at a Greek restaurant in Itaewon called "Santorini" and then went shopping.  We left our son home with our nanny.  It was nice to get away for a change and have some quality time for ourselves.  My wife finally bought a new wallet, and I made her promise to throw away her old one.  The faux leather has severely cracked, and she was using a paper clip as a makeshift zipper.  Her new red leather wallet is a nice upgrade.  In the afternoon, we stopped by Starbucks for some coffee and then went to E-Mart for more shopping.
I am always on the lookout for new and interesting observations about Korean culture.  Four came to light today.  I had planned to write about two of them, but I figured I might as well pass them all on to you.  In the morning when I went to the dentist, I passed by a group of elderly Koreans cleaning up a neighborhood.  I might not have given it another thought, but then I recalled a recent article I read in Seoul Magazine about elderly Koreans’ dedication to recycling and conservation in Korea.  I was amazed that a group of elderly Koreans, perhaps in their 70’s, would venture out on an absolutely freezing morning after Christmas to clean up the neighborhood.  The article mentioned that recycling in Korea is generally unprofitable and that the elderly do it mainly as a public service.  The Korean War and its aftermath significantly impacted the psyche of the elderly, and many grew up during long periods of tremendous scarcity.  I really admire their dedication.
I made my first visit to a Korean dentist today.  His office was filled with memorabilia from his alma mater, the State University of New York at Buffalo.  Dentists often post their credentials and diplomas on the wall for patients to see.  However, this dentist went so far as to prominently display posters of Buffalo and the university campus, alumni bumper stickers, and other varsity products.  I found his dedication a bit amusing.  It also reminded me just how much Koreans value an American university diploma.  Whether they graduate from Harvard University or from Podunk College, Koreans prize American college degrees because they are highly regarded in Korea.  Many equivalent degrees from top U.S. schools are held in higher esteem than degrees from top Korean schools.  I wondered why so many Korean students would work so hard to get into top Korean schools when they could earn a degree just as highly regarded from a U.S. school.  In some respects, it appears more difficult to earn admission to an elite Korean school through the rigorous college entrance exam than to be admitted to a top U.S. school.
At "Santorini" Greek restaurant, my wife and I dreamed about living someday in Greece.  We were not quite so enamored with the food.  Greek is one of my favorite cuisines, and Seoul has just two Greek restaurants, "Santorini" in Itaewon and a gyros joint near Ehwa Woman’s University.  We ate gyros, but they did not taste quite like they do in the United States.  For one, our only meat choices were limited to pork or chicken, not beef and lamb, as are more typical in Greek cuisine.  The avgolemono, a lemon chicken soup, was too brothy.  Following our meal, I asked the restaurant owner why they did not serve dolmathes, one of my favorite Greek dishes.  (Dolmathes are grape leaves stuffed with rice and minced lamb and served hot or cold with a side of tzatziki sauce.)  The owner commented that they cannot buy grape leaves in Korea.  It reminded me that some ethnic foods are virtually impossible to reproduce in Korea.  Likewise, I imagine that Korean food is nearly impossible to find in some parts of the world.  I wondered how many Korean restaurants are in Athens, Greece.  Not many, I reckon.  Good luck finding kimchi near the Aegean Sea.
At Starbucks, I met an American businessman who has lived in Korea for over two decades.  Out of curiosity, I asked him if he knew four long-time American expatriates I met in Seoul.  He said he knew every single one of them personally!  I met all four of them on different occasions for different reasons.  It reinforces the fact that the long-term American expatriate community in Korea is extremely small.  If we were to stay longer, I too would become, for better or for worse, part of this small circle of American expatriates living in Seoul.  It definitely does away with one’s ability to remain anonymous for long.

Transient holidays

We finished our Christmas shopping today.  I sent off most of the Christmas e-cards today.  Now we only have to prepare for tomorrow’s Christmas feast.  I hate to admit it, but I’m going to be glad when Christmas is over.  I told my wife today that I yearn for a simpler time.  I miss the days when a holiday did not require cutting edge logistics management.
I wanted to avoid writing yet another Christmas-themed blog entry today.  Instead, I thought I would mention a phenomenon many transients face during the holidays–being separated from their loved ones.  Maybe you’re an expatriate living in a foreign country where your holidays are not celebrated.  Perhaps you’re stationed overseas in a place such as Iraq.  Maybe you moved out of your hometown and live far, far away.  Maybe your family has passed away.  Perhaps you’re a road warrior staying in a hotel while your family is at home in another city.  I read once upon the time that Christmas is the time of year when the suicide rate in the U.S. is at its highest.  I don’t doubt that suicide rates worldwide are highest during local festivities.  Little wonder–the holidays are a time when loved ones come together to enjoy one another and share in the blessings they have received over the past year.  When you are alone, away, without the company of family and friends, the loneliness can be overwhelming.  If you live in a new location, usually it’s a matter of time before you meet new friends who can help mitigate the loneliness.  If you are transient and move frequently though, it is difficult to find new friends with each move you make.  Building friendships take time, and time is not on the side of the one who travels or moves frequently.
My wife has been through this difficulty ever since she left China as a teenager, because she has not been able to spend Chinese New Year with family since she moved alone to the U.S. years ago.   We’re both in this situation now.  We arrived in Korea earlier this year.  We don’t have any family here, although we’ve met many new friends.  In less than two years we’ll be in another place, leaving all of our friends here far behind.  Our connection will devolve into e-mail and phone contacts and the occasional visit.
Here are some ideas as to how to cope with this predicament:
  • Fly home for the holidays.  Many of my colleagues and friends went back to the U.S. for the holidays.  This is usually the most expensive option, especially if you live far away and have children.  You have to buy a plane ticket for each child over the age of two years.  The cost starts to add up.
  • Call your friends and families.  This is what people often do.  Contact the ones you love and talk to them over the holidays.  This is just as important for your loved ones as it is for you.  Be careful, though.  This could leave you feeling even lonelier.
  • Host a party and invite friends over to join you.  The longer you stay in one location, the easier it gets to make friends and celebrate the holidays with them.  I recall an occasion two months ago when one of my colleagues hosted a birthday party for his young son just two weeks after they arrived.  It was a bit awkward for him, but he invited many neighborhood children to the party, even children who had never met his son.  His son had a wonderful birthday party and made many new friends.
  • Go somewhere.  If you’re lonely at home, there’s no need to stay home.  Staying home alone can often worsen the situation.  Go somewhere fun.  Do something you like to do.  Go somewhere where you can meet new friends.  On two occasions, my wife and I spent Christmas in foreign countries where we knew absolutely no one.  We had a great time.  There’s nothing like spending Christmas Eve having dinner at a restaurant on the Nile River in Aswan, Egypt as the full moon shimmers, reflecting on the water and illuminating the hillsides on the opposite bank.
  • Forget it ever happened.  Sometimes the best thing to alleviate loneliness is to put the holiday furthest from your mind and do something else.  Read a book.  Go to a movie.  Play video games.  Write your blog.  Do something mindless that will keep your mind from wandering.
  • Do something that reminds you of the holidays.  Sometimes it helps to conjure memories of the holidays if you celebrate the holidays by doing something, buying something, or wearing something that reminds you of the holidays.  Just make sure it decreases loneliness, not exacerbate it.

Christmas scenes in Seoul

Tonight my family and I ventured out in the cold to see the Christmas scenes in Seoul.  The central district of Seoul, Jongno-gu, forms a large triangle.  To the south lies Seoul City Hall.  To the northeast sits Insadong Market, and to the northwest, Gyeongbok Palace forms the apex of the triangle.  Cheonggyecheon Stream, recently unearthed and developed into a city park, bisects this triangle.  The area between Cheonggyecheon Stream to the north and Seoul City Hall to the south is the Myeongdong Shopping District.  This small section of Seoul is brilliantly lit with thousands of Christmas lights and sprinkled with Christmas scenes.  It’s quite a beautiful site to behold.  I posted some of the best photos, Dear Reader, to give you a glimpse of the gorgeous Christmas scenes you can see in downtown Seoul.
The morning dawned with a dusting of snow.  The temperature today was cold but not frigid.  By nightfall however, the temperature dropped considerably and the wind picked up.  It was extremely cold outside!  Korea is not as cold as Siberia, but it was still bone chilling.  We braved the cold and started our evening in Namdaemun Market, where we shopped for Christmas toys.  The market was festive with myriad colorful lights strung above our heads and small shops converted into makeshift Christmas stores.  Don’t let the photos fool you, though.  It was far cold than the evening appears in the photos I posted.  It must have been miserable for the Namdaemun Market vendors who stayed out in the cold, trying to earn a few thousand extra won from cold passersby.
Following our trip to the market, we took a taxi to Cheonggyecheon Stream and walked along the stream for a couple of blocks, snapping photos amidst a crowd of amateur photographers.  After that, we took our son to a coffee shop and stayed there for awhile, drinking hot cocoa and sharing a pastry.  We ended our journey at Seoul City Hall, taking a few final photos of the large Christmas tree and snowflake castle displays beside the City Hall ice rink.  Although we were freezing, the Christmas scenes in downtown Seoul made the trip worthwhile.  Our son was a trooper for braving the cold with us.  He thoroughly enjoyed the trip.  Every so often, we asked him, "Are you cold?" to which he answered, "Nope.  It’s cold outside." 
Blog Notes:  Well, the uncertainty about Dr. Hwang’s fate lasted just one day after I mentioned his case.  Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk resigned today from his professorship at Seoul National University after the school found that his team faked nine of 11 samples used to support his 2005 Science paper.  What will happen with his World Stem Cell Club is still uncertain.  However, the Korean Government is likely to take action, perhaps recouping some of the $39 million it invested into Dr. Hwang’s research.  Dr. Hwang’s previous work, including the cloning of human embryo cells and of a dog, are still under investigation.
On a happier note, I was in our cafeteria today and saw workers preparing for the reopening of our cafeteria.  The previous cafeteria vendor shuttered operations in early March 2005.  On January 6, 2006, the cafeteria will reopen.  I am so excited!  It’s been a long time coming.  Also, the coffee vendor I mentioned a few weeks ago signed a one-year contract with our community association.  We briefly had a scare when the vendor’s corporate parent demanded they invest thousands of dollars into the empty space.  For a few days we thought we’d lost our new vendor.  The corporate parent relented, and the vendor signed the contract this week.  They will open their doors in late January.  Now, if only our community association could just fix the roof!  That project has been in work for almost a year.  It will cost a bundle to fix the roof, so we’re taking a "go slow" approach to fixing it.