Monday, November 29, 2010

November blues

November has always been my least favorite month, and this year has not provided any exception. After a jam-packed August, September, and October fueled by the momentum that only comes with being new to a city, country, and culture, I crashed. I had been warned that my first several months here would be hampered by unshakeable illness due to the pollution and constant exposure to germy children. But after making it through the first few months with nothing more than a short-lived cold, I thought I had gotten off scot-free. November came to prove me wrong with a vengeance.

Plagues of interminable mucus, an incessant cough, several bouts of cold and flu bugs, and insomnia left me lethargic and fatigued. This understandably resulted in an excruciatingly lackluster month in which I did little more than rest and mope. Not until the end of the month was I able to do anything more notable than having several movie marathons or buying a down coat in preparation for the ill-reputed yet seemingly non-existent Korean winter. And after a visit to a Korean doctor procured an x-ray reminiscent of a smoker’s lung, I floated around in a haze of several rounds of varying prescription and over-the-counter drugs, both Korean and American, until my hacking was reduced to a much more tolerable light cough. Luckily, the worst of it seems to be over with November finally coming to a close and Christmas in sight.


Being a dancer, I always thought yoga would be a good fit. But in the US yoga is trendy and thus it’s expensive, so I never wanted to fork over the money to find out whether or not I liked it. But in Korea, where trendy doesn’t equal expensive, it’s a different story. Here, yoga is actually absurdly cheap (as long as it’s not Bikram yoga) despite its popularity. So I figured now was a great time to see if my suspicions about yoga were correct.

Within a few weeks of arriving here, I joined Prana Yoga Studio just two blocks down the street and instantly became an addict. (At $2 a class, it’s hard not to be!) Within a week I was already a regular at the 7:00 class taught daily by Chin, an adorable Korean woman with an endearing personality and English word bank of about 30 words. She also quickly took a liking to me, I think partly because I was one of three foreigners in the class (now one of one) and partly because she mistook my God-given gumbi-ness and dance-endowed body placement for yoga expertise. Even after discovering that I’m no veteran yoga-goer, made clear by my pitiful balance and the fact that I’m hopeless when it comes to deep breathing, she has set the bar high.

From day one Chin has been nothing short of persistent in challenging me to build my yoga prowess. She is unrelenting in her battle to get me to breathe properly, informs me regularly that I need to do lots of sit ups in my spare time (often using the entire class’s English abilities to stage this conversation), and encourages me into all the pretzel-like poses that no one else is willing to attempt, all the while asking “You are ok? You are ok?” We have definitely had moments where she pushed me into some position so bizarre or abnormal that I simply had to laugh, my limbs bent in ways they definitely shouldn’t be. With her help, I have finally conquered the rooster, embryo in womb, supported headstand, and final asanas, all of which my body had stubbornly rejected for the first 2 months or so. All of this has earned me one of the coveted spots in the front of the class.

Yes, the language barrier poses some obstacles, but I’ve memorized the general routine and can pick up most variations from watching. Plus, if I can’t figure out my body placement with the help of my 19 years of dance, Chin will come along and manhandle me into the proper position. I’ve also picked up on some Korean words. Something that sounds like “bashigo” is inhale, while exhale is something close to “daeshigo.” There’re also a handful of other terms that I won’t even try to spell but I at least recognize as cues to do various forms of stretching, breathing, or moving. Of course, there are always times when I am utterly lost in translation, like those times when Chin will give an instruction that makes no sense in the context – “point” and “jump” are very basic instructions but when I’m being told to point my hip or jump when I’m sitting on the floor I’m at a complete loss. I have yet to figure out the translation.

With all of the sweating and pretzeling I wouldn’t say yoga has been as relaxing as it’s cracked up to be. But even with the ratio of time spent relaxing to contorting being about one to three, the last 15 minutes of class are enough to shake off any of the stress and strain still clinging to me after a day with screaming children. I must admit, the defining moment of my whole yoga experience comes in these last 15 minutes when we simply lay on the heated floors under flannel blankets while Chin circulates amongst the class, dotting our noses with eucalyptus oil before commencing a brief but wonderful arm and chest massage.

With all of that, I always leave the studio feeling some combination of unwound, triumphant, exhausted, and content. And as Chin always offers her farewell of “Okaaay. Thank yooou. See you Monday!” (no matter what day it is) I never fail to leave smiling.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The precarious peninsula

The BBC calls the Korean peninsula “one of the world’s geo-political hotspots,” a categorization made quite clear yesterday when North and South Korea exchanged fire on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. It’s often easy to forget the precariousness of the situation on my peninsula of residence – taking for granted that right across the border, which is not all that far away, resides one of the world’s most elusive and ominous regimes. But it becomes hard to ignore when it shows up in my inbox; the subject lines of emails from the BBC, New York Times, and US Embassy in Seoul blaring “Artillery Firing into Northwest Islands off the Coast,” “Border Clash Prompts South Korean Missile Warning,” and “South Korea Scrambles Jets.”

Is this the beginning of round two of the Korean War, or is it just more of North Korea’s posturing? It’s probably too soon to tell, but I hope for the latter. As the New York Times so kindly points out, “A face-off on the Korean Peninsula would require tens of thousands of troops, air power and the possibility of a resumption of the Korean War, a battle that American officials believe would not last long, but might end in the destruction of Seoul if the North unleashed artillery batteries near the border.” Slightly unsettling.

Of course, this is not the first time North Korea’s threats have been brought to my attention - I signed my contract not long after a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean navy ship, making “What about North Korea?” the first question everyone asked after I announced I was moving to Seoul. Nevertheless, it’s understandably disconcerting to have it pointed out on every media outlet that your place of residence, which happens to be the main target of a crazy military regime, could possibly be in imminent danger.

All that being said, there’s not much to do besides hope for the best, wait to see how things pan out, and take the necessary precautions (i.e. registering with the embassy, carrying a passport and cash, and having an exit strategy.)

For articles see the links below:

Monday, November 1, 2010

Halloween shenanigans

The Addams Family
Originally uploaded by shelbs1988
Halloween has never been at the top of my list of favorite holidays, but I must say that this Halloween was above par – there’s nothing quite like celebrating Halloween festivities with a bunch of 6 year olds. It was a week-long event, with the holiday merriment including lots of Halloween art; a parent open-house with mummy wrapping, edible spider art, a monster mash walk, scary stories, and monster puppet-making; Halloween BINGO; jack-o-lantern carving; and goodie bag decorating; all culminating in pseudo trick-or-treating and a costume fashion show on Friday.

If the week itself wasn’t exhausting, Friday sure was. Finding ways to entertain costumed children who are overloaded on sugar is no easy feat. Luckily, my class’s costumes weren’t too over-the-top. In order to keep the boys from all coming as Spiderman and the girls from all being fairy princesses, classes get costume assignments. My class got “traditional costumes around the world.” (Mac people: don’t worry, I’m aware that this category crosses all sorts of PC lines.) We had costumes representing Japan, China, England, Switzerland, Mexico, and Native Americans along with a Robin Hood, Zoro and Snow White (who were relegated to the ranks of England, Mexico, and Germany, respectively). I was informed that my costume needed to be more than an accessory or two so I decided on Native American as my traditional costume of choice and ran with it. I must say, I really outdid myself, seeing as I’m neither crafty nor a Halloween fan, making my costume entirely out of felt, feathers, and hot glue.

Needless to say, I welcomed the weekend very enthusiastically, not to say that the Halloween celebrations ended at school. Inspired by the glasses donned by “hip Koreans,” Maria, Britney, and I decided to spend our Saturday as a Where’s Waldo trio in the foreigner district of Seoul, Itaewon (an area I usually avoid, but where better to celebrate this ridiculous holiday?) To our amusement, Waldo was a hit! By the end of the night we had been in dozens of photos with random people and had heard our fill of unoriginal Waldo comments (there’s only so many ways you can respond to “I found you!”) We thoroughly enjoyed our comfortable, popular, easily identifiable costumes and managed to make it until the subways started running again at 5:00am to avoid paying cab fare. Overall, I’d say the night was a success.

Big transitions

The most shocking part of being in Korea hasn’t been the food, the language, the cultural subtleties, or getting used to being a lone foreigner in a sea of Koreans. By now I’ve gotten over my foreigner self-consciousness, figured out a routine, and developed culturally acceptable habits in Korean etiquette. No, the hardest part of living in Korea hasn’t been Korea at all; it’s been the transition into the real world after a lifetime of being in school.

After seventeen years of the same routine, I find myself homework-less, stress free, generally rested, and totally lost. You would think that being free of deadlines, stress, and sleep deprivation would be a relief, but the transition requires a different gauge of fulfillment and success, grasp on time and energy, and perspective on productivity. It has totally thrown me for a loop. School is what I do, it’s what I’m good at, and it’s always been a big part of my identity. The switch from all-nighters, frequent twenty page papers, and daily discussions centering around the world’s most daunting questions to Disney sing-alongs, hours of cutting out construction paper, and discussing Halloween ghouls has been startling to say the least.

Not only am I adjusting to having a schedule that isn’t crammed with homework and studying (yes, it is an adjustment, believe it or not…what do I do with all this free time?!), I’m also getting used to post-grad loneliness. Our entire lives we are surrounded by companions (wanted or not), from our families to our classmates and teammates, and later, roommates. People who we know and share activities, experiences, and interests with have always been nearby. After graduation, especially after moving to a new place, this is no longer the case. Now, friends are spread across the city, working at different places, and doing different things (not to mention the friends who are elsewhere in the country or the world). Unlike my dorm-days when friends were almost too easily accessible, it can now take hours on public transport to meet someone, it takes some getting used to.

Of course, this transition is not specific to my living in Seoul, I’m sure I’d feel the same discomfort were I in any other city: Chicago, D.C., London, you name it. It may not be culture shock, but it’s been a shock to my system nevertheless.