Back home…but not for long

Last night my son and I returned to Korea, our adopted home.  My wife had returned two days earlier than we did because she had to work on Thursday and Friday.  We will be home until next Thursday, when we head back to the United States for two-and-a-half weeks of rest and relaxation (R&R).  We plan to visit family and friends in Montana, Idaho, and Washington.  Our R&R trip will be the first real vacation I’ve taken since Christmas 2001, when my wife and I went to Egypt and Jordan for three weeks (I went to China last week on an official exchange).  Until now, I’ve been too preoccupied with my first child, school, and work.  Of course, visiting family isn’t truly a vacation–we chose to go home to visit family over Sydney, Australia, our official R&R point.  No doubt Australia would have been more of a vacation.  One of my colleagues opted for R&R in Oceania and spent two glorious weeks in Australia and New Zealand.  Visiting Down Under would have been brilliant, but I have no qualms about going home to the Pacific Northwest to visit family we haven’t seen in over a year.
We had a fabulous time in China.  I wish I had more time tonight to write a long narrative about the trip, but as you can probably tell, Dear Reader, I haven’t had much time to blog lately.  I’m home now and will recap our trip nightly until we leave on Thursday evening.  Tonight’s entry will again be short so I can focus on posting photos from our trip.  I’m sure you would much prefer seeing photos of our trip over reading about it.
For the Shutterbugs:  I posted four sets of photos from our China trip, including Thames Town, Shanghai, Xi’an, and the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, a renown World Heritage Site famous for its terra cotta warriors.  The number of Shanghai photos posted is conspicuously small, namely because it was my fourth trip to that remarkable city, and I had already visited many of the city’s most famous sites.  Maybe next time.  I posted many more photos of Xi’an, ancient capital of the Tang Dynasty.  Enjoy!

Disco ayis

Unfortunately, I don’t have much time to write today because of other commitments, so I have post another short, whimsical blog entry.  As I walked to work today in Shanghai, I passed by a gaggle of upscale fine goods stores, including Gucci, Burberry, and Cartier, on my right.  On my left, across the street near a small park, I saw a gaggle of ayis (an Anglicized version of "ayi," which means "aunt," an endearing reference to an older lady) dancing disco.  Yes, disco.  On previous days I saw elderly Chinese–men and women–doing taijiquan, an ancient Chinese exercise akin to martial arts.  Disco has apparently become a hipper and more popular alternative to the ancient art of taijiquan, better known as taichi.  Whereas taijiquan is slow, methodical, and fluid, disco is fast, upbeat, and heart pumping, even grinding.  Indeed, the elderly are changing in Chinese society, just as the youths are changing.

Jeans nation

As I walk around Shanghai, I am struck by the number of people wearing blue jeans.  In Seoul, I don’t see many Koreans wearing blue jeans.  Korean men tend to wear slacks or suits, while women tend to wear dresses or slacks.  I wonder–is jeans-wearing a natural progression from Mao suits to dresses and suits, or are Mainland Chinese developing their own fashion standards?  Will Chinese men shed the pants for suits, and will the women eventually move from jeans to dresses?  It remains to be seen.

Being someone else

I’m sitting here typing at a colleague’s work station in Shanghai, someone I’ve never met.  We’re on a work exchange.  We swapped jobs for a couple of weeks.  Right now he is probably at my home in Seoul after a day at work sitting at my desk, working on work I would normally do.  I’m doing work he does here in Shanghai.  I will soon walk back to his home where I am staying for a couple of weeks.  It’s an radical sensation when you feel like you’re living someone else’s life.  For a brief moment in time, we will glimpse each others’ lives.  We don’t really know what it’s like to actually be someone else, but still we’re immersed in a different reality than our own. 
His life here in Shanghai isn’t too shabby–I’m doing my best not to clutter it up with junk.  I wonder what he thinks of mine, especially since he doesn’t have any children.  I can tell our personalities are different, so who knows what he’ll think after living my life for a couple of weeks.  He lives a DINKs lifestyle (double-income, no kids), whereas my life is built around child rearing.  Maybe it will be enlightening.  I doubt he will play with play dough or drink juice boxes.  If his wife becomes pregnant in the next couple of months, I will definitely wonder whether she became enamored by all the children’s toys laying around the house.  His life has certainly been enlightening to me.  I’d forgotten what it was like not to have any children.
If nothing else, it’s been fun.  Trying exchanging your life with someone else for a change.  It’s pretty cool!

Chuncheon de ja vue

When I left Chuncheon for the second time last fall on our way to Seoraksan National Park, I did not think I would return to Chuncheon again.  Alas, today I did.  I visited Kangwon National University’s business school and gave a speech on the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to about 50 undergraduate business students.  The speech lasted about 45 minutes with about 20 minutes for Q&A.  The students were very quiet.  Either my speech was so riveting and comprehensive that they were left with no questions to ask, or they were too shy or disinterested to ask me questions.  I finally coaxed a few, thought-provoking questions from them.  The FTA and upcoming negotiations beginning June 2006 are a hot topic in Korean circles, so I was surprised by their lack of response.  Most Koreans support an FTA, although some have expressed reservations that it may negatively impact Korea.  Most agree that it will ultimately benefit the country.
After the speech I joined a few faculty members for dinner at Santorini, an Italian restaurant located atop a gorgeous vista overlooking Chuncheon.  The view was breath-taking.  I will try to post some photos tomorrow night.  Saturday’s yellow sand disappated and the rains came in on Sunday, washing away the grime.  Today was a beautiful day–very refreshing after the horror of what some say is the worst bout of yellow sand in Korean history.  The clouds painted beautiful patterns in the sky as the sun set.  It was the most beautiful sunset–and one of the few, period–I have seen since I arrived in Korea.  It reminded me fondly of days when I lived in Virginia and frequently watched the sunset.  I posted some photos of Virginia sunsets in one of my earlier photo albums.  I was amused that the Italian restaurant took a name derived from one of Greece’s most famous Aegean islands.  The food and wine were delectable, although sweet pickles and jalapeno peppers yet again made their way on to the table.  What a way to spoil a perfect evening!

Foreign Service Written Exam

Yesterday I proctored the Foreign Service Written Exam (FSWE) in Seoul.  The testing site was the only one in Korea, and Americans came from all over the country to take the exam.  The exam, held once a year each April, is the first step one takes to become a Foreign Service officer, or diplomat, working for the U.S. Department of State.  Reader Editfish, an aspiring diplomat, thoroughly details the FSWE on his excellent blog, Tumbleweeds.  He sat for the exam in the U.S. yesterday and is hopefully well on his way to joining the Foreign Service.  (Editfish, let me know how it went!)  I wish him and everyone who took the exam yesterday success.  Editfish should find out in July whether he passed the exam and will go on the next step, the Oral Assessment (FSOA).  The FSOA is not just an interview–it includes a group exercise, a structured interview, and a case analysis.  Once a Foreign Service candidate has passed the FSWE, FSOA, and received both medical and security clearances, he or she is ranked according to their FSOA score, and their name is added to a job register.  Then, they wait until they’re offered a position as an FSO.  Joining the Foreign Service is a competitive and frequently arduous process.  Of the 31,500 applicants who applied to join the Foreign Service in 2003, just 500 entered the Foreign Service.  It can be heart-breaking for many who don’t make it, because once they are eliminated from contention, they have to start all over and take the FSWE again.  The FSWE is held once a year at various locations around the world.  If you are interested in the Foreign Service and missed your chance this year, plan ahead for 2007 and study for the exam and register for the 2007 FSWE early next year.  To be eligible, you must be an American citizen between 21 and 59.5 years of age.  Other than that, there are no other conditions–you can be a truck driver, lawyers, domestic engineer, you name it.  You’re only limited by your interest and ability to pass a series of high hurdles required to enter the Foreign Service.
I digress.  Several years ago I took the FSWE and passed.  I remember taking the exam in a big lecture hall on the University of Washington campus.  The testing conditions then were far better than what test takers faced yesterday in Seoul.  I felt so bad for them!  I hope they pass the exam despite the challenging testing conditions.  Most of the test-takers took the test in a garage.  I am not kidding!  A garage.  The most hilarious moment of the day was when I saw two signs next to each other.  One read:
Foreign Service Written Exam site
 The other:
Vehicle Maintenance and Repair Shop
Very inauspicious, indeed.  Imagine taking an exam in a garage.  Makeshift wooden desks with folding chairs sat amidst automobile service equipment.  After entering through the garage door, you’re bombarded by the odor of tires and grease.  If that wasn’t enough, you then found yourself breathing in yellow sand from the Gobi Desert seeping into the garage.  Yesterday was one of the worst days of yellow sand on record.  It was absolutely terrible, and the exam takers were subjected to fumes and yellow sand throughout the exam.  The garage was also cold because, well, most garages are not heated. 
Why did they have to take the exam in a garage?  The Embassy in Seoul has limited space to host a large number of FSWE test takers.  Despite the less-than-ideal testing conditions, I think that many of the applicants will pass the exam and move on to the FSOA.  The testing conditions reminded me of an oft-heard phrase in the Foreign Service–"Suck it up."  In spite of how bad things are, just go ahead and do it.  In this case, the test takers–and the proctors–literally had to suck it up.  Yellow sand and fumes, that is.  Things could have been worse. 

Mommy’s Words: A love affair with puzzles

Tonight I have the privilege of publishing my wife’s first blog entry.  I don’t even have to pay her any royalties fees, although I bought her dinner tonight!  She’s talked for some time about blogging too and released her first entry yesterday.  I hope it’s the first of many.  Here is her inaugural entry focusing on our son’s sporadic love of puzzles.  Enjoy! 

Our son has been a big fan of puzzles since before he turned two years old.  He started with two simple puzzles that I picked up at Namdaemum Market last March.  One was full of patterns of trucks, cranes, and boats.  The other was number 1 to 10.  He impressed everyone when we were on vacation in China last April with how fast he can put those puzzles together. 


Now, after a slew of puzzles ranging from Thomas the Tank Engine, Winnie the Pooh, inding Nemo, Madagascar, three dinosaurs, all the way to a difficult level of 70 pieces (pretty good for a two-year-old), he finally seems to be growing out of the puzzle phase.  This is exemplified by multiple incidents of dumping all the puzzle pieces out of their cases and then declaring, Mommy do it!  All efforts to coax him into putting the puzzles back together again end in vain, and I usually end up being the one to pick up the mess.  This went on for a little while until yesterday, when he accidentally discovered a new puzzle that I hid away in the closet.  He enthusiastically pulled it out and cried happily, New toy! 


And this is not just a typical puzzle.  Its a 100-piece-glow-in-the-dark-Thomas-and-Percy-Moonlight-Ride puzzle.  Wow!  He rushed to the TV room with it and sat down at the same spot where he always does his puzzles and started working at it, despite the fact that it was almost time for his bath.  He did need quite a bit of help from daddy as he has never done a puzzle this big.  When he was done, he ran to me to show off his puzzle work.  Then we turned off all the lights in the house and together admired this puzzle glowing in the dark.  It brought to life a scene when Thomas and Percy rest in their engine shed at the end of the day under the moonlight. Goodnight, Thomas.  Goodnight, Percy, said our son gently before he headed to the bath tub.


Our plan is to frame and hang this puzzle up as a poster in our son’s room when he is done playing with it, so he can see it glowing in the dark when he sleeps.  And this grand 100-piece puzzle may very well be the conclusion of his love affair with puzzles.


Until he is ready to tackle a 500-piece puzzle, that is…

End of entry.


Blog Note:  Editfish, thank you for your detailed insights into the Korean "gae."  Thanks for writing me offline too–I’ll respond soon.  My wife, who was born in China, is not aware of this concept in Chinese society.  It may very well be that "hui" is a traditional Chinese concept that is rarely practiced in China today.  It may also be that she left China at a young age and is unaware of changing trends in Chinese society.  Some say that contemporary Korea embodies traditional Chinese ideals even more than modern China, particularly with regard to Confucian ideals.  It would not surprise if "gae" were imported from China.  In my Western mind, "gae" sounds a bit like a Ponzi scheme, although "gae" investors know full well what they’re getting into, invest with friends and/or family they trust, and invest the money up front rather than sequentially.  Why not just save up money and buy something that can benefit the whole group such as a rental property?  I’ve met dozens of Koreans who travel to the United States using "gae" funds.  The only benefit other members get from the trip is a travel slideshow.