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.