Thursday, September 29, 2011

Work Cultures

I had never worked outside of the United States until July of this year, when I moved to Korea. I've never really discussed how the whole thing came about, because Korea has notoriously prickly rules and laws about disclosure, and until I know the consequences, I probably won't ever post about which company is currently employing me. However, I have no problem talking about my situation and my observations, and how I came to be in Korea.

I have no qualms about telling someone that I am good at my job. I've been working in this industry since May of 2003 (working in post-production on various projects). Since April of 2005, I have worked exclusively in post-production- specifically, visual effects- on films. In the years that I've spent working on movie after movie, I've learned, I've adapted, and I've generally become better at my job. After two movies, I was competent. After four movies, I was good. Now, I'm efficient, I know what to do and how to do it well, and I'm an asset to the producer for whom I am working. This may all sound conceited, but I promise that I have self-esteem issues, like most of the world's population, and one of the few areas in which I am truly confident is my work.

Anyways. In 2005, I met an artist during my first movie ever ("The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, & The Wardrobe"). We weren't really friends, we were just co-workers, and we sort of became acquaintances because we were on the same team at work. I worked with him again a time or two before I left that company and moved on.

Fast-forward to early 2011, when I'm in Albuquerque, working on "The Green Lantern" and wondering what I should do next, knowing that I want to leave New Mexico and not having much of a plan (which is quite liberating, let me say). Suddenly, whaddya know, that artist calls me up and asks me if I'd ever consider working in Korea.

Well. It's as if the stars aligned or something, because haven't I been going on and on about how I wanted to try living in Korea? Yes, I have. So after a couple months of sporadic e-mailing and a few phone calls at weird hours with this company, I found myself with gainful employment in the motherland, not knowing a soul that works at the company I've agreed to enter. (Side note: I would have gone about the process much differently if I didn't know the person that had introduced me to the company. Don't get sucked into one of those schemes aimed at foreigners!)

What with the vacationing through New Mexico, the move back to LA, and the vacation to the Caribbean, all in June, I didn't really have time to let myself get worried or anxious about relocating to a whole different country. I didn't even pack to move to Korea until the day before my flight. I was so busy meeting friends, saying goodbyes, and having coffee with my parents that I forgot that moving to a country 6,000 miles away from my home was kind of a big deal.

As it turns out, I'm really glad that I didn't worry. Because as it really turns out, moving far from home is only as big a deal as you make of it. Late at night on July 4, my sister drove me to the airport as we watched fireworks on either side of the 105. I checked in, went through security, and sat at my gate, charging my phone and my iPad while I sent texts for the last time, before my phone service shut off (actually, it's suspended until I get back).

Moving to Korea and living here isn't as momentous a change as I had thought it would be. I don't wake up in the morning and think, "I'M IN KOREA," I just wake up and think, "I want another couple hours of sleep." Despite the language and the obvious appearance of the people here, it doesn't occur to me very often that oh, my gosh, I'm in Korea.

I can say all this now because it's been about two and a half months since I started working, and I have (finally) gotten used to the changes in my life. I don't think that 2.5 months is that long of a time, though- even when I moved to Albuquerque, I had quite a long adjustment period. (Koreans were easier for me to adapt to than Albuquerquians, actually- though that's a whole separate post.)

Since I've got some time under my belt and am feeling quite a bit more comfortable here, I thought I would put together my thoughts on how different the work cultures are between Korea and America. Mind you, I work in a weird industry, so this doesn't hold true (AT ALL) for people with other types of jobs (investment bankers, this is not for you).

- Automatic respect:

Koreans use two different types of speech (and writing): casual and formal. (There's actually an uber formal type, as well, but let's disregard that for the sake of this discussion, as it's used only very rarely.) If you've just met someone for the first time? Formal (unless that someone is a child). If someone is older than you and you're not super close? Formal. If someone is the same age as you and you're friends? Casual. If someone is younger than you and also lower on the food chain than you? Casual. If you are quite high on the totem pole, even if you're not the oldest? Casual (the CEO of the company, who isn't the oldest person at work, speaks casually to everyone, as far as I can tell- he speaks to me in English, so we're both casual). I drop my speech every now and again to the kiddies (people in their early twenties) at work, and they don't even blink an eye, because I'm older (and foreign).

Americans, especially people in LA, have one type of speech: casual. Super casual, on occasion, and very often laced with curse words that are just part of the conversation, not necessarily expressions of anger. This levels out the playing field, I think. Whether you are the PA or the director, everyone speaks to you in the same way. The PA does not call the director by his title. There are titles galore in Korea. And sometimes, one person has more than one title. I had a tough time with this, as some of the supervisors are also directors (or general managers) of the company (감독님 vs. 본부장님). I now know the difference, and use the titles appropriately, but it was a rough month or so when I was getting titles and names mixed up.

To call a supervisor in for a meeting, an American PA would say, "John, please go to the screening room." Something bizarre to me is that, in Korea, when I'm looking a supervisor in the face or talking to him on the phone, I would never, ever say his name. I call him "supervisor (감독님)" and nothing else, as in "Supervisor, please go to the screening room (감독님, 시사실로 가세요)." When I refer to that person in a conversation and he's not around, I call him "John Supervisor (존 감독님)"-- yes, his name plus title. Like Mr. Smith, but more complicated. Imagine if, instead of just "mister," there were a plethora of other titles. That's Korea.

The rules and regulations for all these titles is confusing enough. To add formal and casual speech into the mix is just maddening. I used to just sigh in frustration through July and August because I just wanted to give up and spout off in English. I actually used to do that, but my English-speaking co-worker (two of them, actually) left the company. Those traitors, abandoning me.

The differentiations in speech and titles means that there's a sort of built-in caste system here in Korea (okay, there's no serfs, but you know what I mean!). As I understand it, visual effects (and animation) companies are the most casual, while big conglomerates are just staggering in their structure and strictness. The lowest on the totem pole tend to be the youngest, and the young ones that are high on the totem pole tend to be totally obnoxious. It's such a strange cultural difference that I never even thought about before I started working here, after which I was in work culture shock for about a month.

I feel like it's easier to get to know someone in the States because you're actually seeing their personality on a daily basis if you work together. Sure, they may be sugar-coating themselves and putting on their work veneer, but it's a light coating, like the dusting of powdered sugar on a doughnut. Koreans that work together can't really get to know each other, because there are titles and formal speech working against them. There is a shiny coating of politeness and respectability that is thickly layered over almost all Koreans in the workforce, shellacked into place through years of cultural expectation.

To counteract the formality and the stiffness, Koreans have come up with nights out among co-workers (hweshik, 회식). As I said before, it's a mandatory event that is akin to forcing an impatient four-year-old to sit through an opera. Sure, it's fun at times, but not being given a choice can rankle. I was a little bit pissed just for the principle of it, then realized I was being an idiot and cheered up (and drank up).

There are exceptions to these rules, of course. One of them being ... me. That's right. Though I am Korean, I am also American, and my Korean co-workers regard me with something akin to fear. I am allowed to be (and even expected to be) more facetious, more rambunctious, and more disrespectful that my peers. I suppose that I am mostly happy about that, because it lets me be me. My shellack isn't as thick as that of my equals, so I'm more myself than my co-workers are themselves. Co-workers tell me that my Korean is really good, which they would never tell to one of their Korean co-workers. They ask me questions about America, that great big mystery over the ocean. They ask me how to pronounce words. They generally just treat me a little bit differently. Some of the things that I've been asked or told:

How come your English is so good? (I replied, because I'm American.) Oh. How come your Korean's so good?

You're giving me a complex, your pronunciation is too good.

It's like you're a real American person!

Do you miss American food? Hot dogs, hamburgers?

How come Americans wear their shoes in the house? (I really don't know, and I don't get it.)

Who are you?? (An alien, here to steal your brain.)

- Automatic disrespect:

That's right. There's a flip side to this coin, the dark underbelly of Korean workplaces. If you will harken back to your Asian history, the Korean War was technically between 1950 and 1953. That's not quite sixty years ago. I applaud the ROK for its significant growth from a war-torn third-world country to a very developed, very wired democracy. That growth comes with a price, of course, and part of the price is the legacy of disrespect.

Old Korean people can be horrible. They can be pushy, loud, and terrorizing. There is an acceptance that if you're old, you deserve everything. It's an entitlement issue that is the norm here, and it just baffles me.

In Korea, this disrespect holds true in age and also in gender. This article from the Economist says that South Korean women make only 63% of what their male peers earn. Perhaps that figure has gotten better, but I doubt that it's changed very much. I see this attitude (one could call it discrimination if one were American) on a daily basis, as the youngest women at work are ordered around and spoken casually to and generally just not given the same amount of respect that their male counterparts receive. Okay, sure, women are sort of coddled, more so than they are in the States, but I'd rather have the respect and carry my own laptop bag.

Again, I am an exception to these rules. Though women that are the same age as me are spoken to casually and ordered to do random things that have nothing to do with their actual jobs, those same men speak formally to me and wouldn't dream of asking me to fetch them a coffee (probably because they can tell that I would snap one of their appendages off if they dared). I try to be an advocate for the people that have no voice at work, because they don't even air their grievances. They didn't even tell me that they had such issues until a few weeks ago, when they finally felt close enough to me to unload. So since they can't (or won't), I speak up on their behalf when I feel that something is wrong. I have a voice, unlike those wide-eyed newbies.

This means, perversely, that I am the bad cop. I'm always the bad cop in almost every situation, because I lay out ground rules and I actually stick to my guns. Koreans have this laxness about how much work they're willing to deal with, in quantity and quality. If a director asks for ten more shots, Koreans will chirp, "anything you want! No problem!" while I am grousing about receiving overages and adjusting the budget and working out a new schedule.

I think the supervisors regard me as a strange creature because I am not as typically passive-aggressive and people-pleasing as most Koreans (though I am much more people-pleasing than a lot of Americans). But I get away with it all simply because I'm a foreigner.

- Overtime, or lack thereof:

In the States, hours are tracked and scrutinized because overtime adds up to a LOT of money. In Korea, everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) receives a salary. They don't deal with any silly overtime.

So, to compare: During "The Green Lantern," I stayed at work past midnight less than ten days throughout the project, which lasted a total of 13 months for me. During the movie that I am currently mired in, I have stayed at work past midnight about ten days in the month of September alone. I work on weekends, I work from home, I get phone calls on my cell, and because I'm in Korea, where everyone picks up their phones no matter where they are, I'm expected to pick up my phone without fail. Well, guess what? I hate talking on the phone, and I will willfully ignore you if I feel like it. I turn off my phone when I get home and I don't turn it on again until I wake up in the morning.

I have nothing against working; in fact, I love working. I don't mind staying late, I don't mind putting in the long hours. What I mind is looking at a project and seeing very clearly that those long hours could have been avoided with better planning.

Because time is literally money in the States, long hours aren't as brutal. Because Koreans use time to fix their lack of a detailed, hardcore schedule, long hours are expected and are the norm. I'm a big fan of pre-planning and executing the plan. I believe that a bad plan can be adjusted as the project trundles along. There is no fixing a non-existent plan. Maybe that's just my logic and my overly dominant left brain, but that's always been my attitude.

- Wink, wink, nudge, nudge:

I mentioned it briefly previously, but the way post-production is dealt with in Korea is very loose. Bids are a page long (if that) and basically just say "the work that you want us to do will cost X amount of money." American bids (at least for the bigger companies) are complex documents that include everything and anything that is relevant, broken down into the smallest denomination possible. They may even be overly detailed, but they are more accurate because a lot of thought and effort needs to be put into them in order to complete the bid.

In my past experience, if something changes, we used to stop working on whatever that asset or shot was until the budget was resolved. Sometimes, if the cost was negligible enough, we just did the work (rarely). If the change was substantial and would take more than a couple man days, an overage is calculated by re-bidding the asset or shot and charging the studio.

I miss those days.

In Korea, it's all about freebies. The director wants to add a herd of goats instead of the one goat that we bid for? Sure! The director wants to add FX water splashes to an entire scene that used to just be wire removals? Why not! The list just keeps on going. Koreans don't think it's weird to just do all this extra work, they think it's normal. It floored me the first time I realized that this was happening- it still shocks me, when I hear about a movie that's taken on extra work. Why, people, why?? Don't work for free, even if it's for your hero or your role model. Or especially if it's for a family member. Just don't do it. It never ends well.

- Personal property:

There are some instances of personal property issues in the States, sure. People write their names on their lunches in the company refrigerators. A few people label all their office supplies (I never did that- I mean, who's going to steal my stapler??). People are protective of their stuff, which I always thought was normal.

Today, I caught myself going to my co-worker's desk and snagging a snack. Yesterday, I went to a co-worker's desk to use a highlighter. I no longer think about it- I just go and take or use someone else's stuff. I never did that in the States unless it was someone that I knew really well.

Koreans are very fast to share (apparently, Americans don't learn as much about sharing in kindergarten as I thought). People share food, drink, office supplies, cars, everything. They will bring things to share, be it coffees or snacks or hand-held fans. I admit that there is a certain closeness that comes about because of all the sharing. Maybe sharing really is caring... Koreans are also quick to touch one another in a platonic way, though slow to touch in an intimate way. Even men are very touchy-feely, and it's not weird to see a guy sitting on another guy's lap. They're just being Korean.

I think the difference can be described as a pack mentality versus a loner mentality. Koreans don't like being alone, and are constantly communicating with or meeting with other people. I've been asked many, many times whether I'm okay living on my own (of course I am). If I'm walking out during lunchtime to run an errand by myself, people will stop me and make sure I'm not going to eat by myself. Americans are quick to make friends, but don't have as much of a problem being alone. Alone time is a good thing, at least on occasion. I think, though, that "alone time" can turn into "me time," which shows a sort of self-centered side to Americans (or LA people, maybe). Americans look out for themselves and protect number one, a concept that isn't part of the average Korean's mindset.

I see the pros and cons for both attitudes, and definitely think that going to either extreme is not healthy. That balance is hard to figure out, though I think that my time in Korea is helping me to see that there really is a balance to strike.


Being in Korea and discovering the other half of my cultural identity is an eye-opening experience which has made me realize why I never felt American enough back home. Of course, I don't feel Korean enough here, but again- I have a balance to find, and am trying to find it. I also have to figure out my future (or at least the year 2012) and am not really motivated to do so. Today, I just want to give my brain a rest. Tomorrow, I'll start picking through my options to see where I land.

I've been writing this post on and off all day long, and it's now past 10:30 at night. I'm at work, alternating between busyness and idleness, and am ready to go home for some sleep. I refuse to proofread this, I'm tired and rebellious.


The weather has gotten cold this week, as cold as winter in LA. I'm told by my co-workers that this weather is cool and autumnal, though I'm wearing a wool cardigan and shivering. It actually does feel like a distinctly different season, more so than it did in Albuquerque, my only previous experience with real seasons. I just want the leaves to change colors already!


I still have some work to do, so I'm going to get to it and then, hopefully, leave work before midnight. I have a feeling that this post will have a sequel, because I have the nagging sensation that I left some stuff out, but my mind is too bleary to think of it now. Yawn.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sickly

I've had a persistent cold that's plagued me since China. I'm going to blame the air pollution (awful), the fact that people smoked indoors everywhere we went (I needed to go outside and breathe sometimes, because the smog was slightly less irritating than the indoor cigarette smoke), and the fact that I was on two planes in three days (planes are just self-contained germ factories, recycling all that stale air continuously).

I gave up the fight on Friday, because the two other people that I went to China with were also rather ill and we were all sniffly and coughy, and went to the pharmacy. Pharmacies in Korea are not like pharmacies in the States. I mentioned this from my trip to Korea last year (when I caught a really crazy cold), but one must always speak to the pharmacist when one enters a pharmacy. There aren't boxes of medicine (over-the-counter meds) just lying about.

I went into the pharmacy on Friday night after work, a little woozy from the cold. My wooziness meant that I was a little slow (slower than usual), and the pharmacist looked at me pityingly when I totally couldn't understand the Korean word for "symptoms" (which I still can't remember now). I explained that I was a foreigner, and I don't know hard words, and he switched to very proficient English.

Once he heard my symptoms (sore throat, coughing, feeling a bit feverish) he gave me two packages of pills and two pouches of herbal medicine (that blasted herbal medicine seems to be a permanent part of my life!), told me to take two pills from each package (four pills a dose is a LOT) and one pouch per four pills every four hours on Friday (hence only two pouches of herbal medicine, as I could only take two doses on Friday before the day was over), then take four pills three times a day on Saturday, which would deplete all the pills that I bought.


Whew, that was a lot of pills. They did make me feel better, but they wiped me out. I dozed all day on Saturday and was useless on Sunday. I'm mostly recovered now, with a minor case of sniffles and a bit of a headache (though that could be attributed to work).
I came into work on Monday morning to see the above. This isn't my desk, but I would've laughed if someone had stuck little sticky tabs all over my monitors. I just think it's funny that no matter where you work, office pranks remain largely the same.

My favorite office prank, by the way, is licking the back of gummy bears and sticking them on monitors. They really stick! And it's super gross to get all the gummies off, because they leave a sugary residue.

Sorry about the lame posting this week, but between work (and some in-fighting at work) and the cold, I've been treading water just to stay afloat.

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Monday, September 26, 2011

Daegu (대구)

Lots of photos ahead!

I traipsed off to Daegu (대구), a few hours south of Seoul, to visit William a couple weekends ago. He had a whole itinerary, and I feel like I saw a lot of Daegu- we went to lots of places, ate A LOT, saw a giant Buddha, and even found time for a noraebang (karaoke). So here are a bunch of photos:

William and Dean, though I was distracted by the large platter of fish that had arrived at our table just a few seconds before I look this picture. I think this is the only picture I took of William, and now that I look at it, I have no pictures of the two of us together!
I mean seriously, though, who can blame me for forgetting to take pictures of people? There were fishies to eat- there was always something to eat! This was at 어물전, a fish restaurant across the street from a funny motel. The motel had shower curtains (okay, they weren't shower curtains) blocking their driveway, so that people who were cheating on their spouses wouldn't get caught by parking their cars in plain view.
Daegu Stadium, where we went after lunch to have coffee and walk around. The mascot for the world championships is this colorful sheepdog-looking cartoon character, who was quite cute. That huge cutout of the athlete was the first one we saw, but not the last- they were all over the place, and very clever. One of the cutouts was a woman pole-vaulting, the pole being a lamppost. Another cutout was of a hurdler, a fence being the hurdle. All the cutouts were larger than life and double-sided, and added a lot of interest around the city.
From the stadium, we walked to the Daegu Art Museum to see some art. We made the mistake of deciding to walk because the day was overcast and breezy and we were high from all the fish we ate at lunch. It was a long walk, y'all. The museum was a really nice space, but the "Made in Daegu" exhibit on the second floor was not good. The contemporary art exhibit on the first floor was nice. No cameras or taking of pictures allowed, which is a shame (harrumph).
A quick stop at a pet shop for William's puppies, where I met Rufus. Yes, I've named this adorable little sleepyhead. His name is Rufus and he really wants to live with me. I miss my crazy cat!
This is Rufus's friend and neighbor, who was a little spastic. He's not striped, that's the reflection of my top. I really wanted to play with the kittens, but then I would never have left the pet shop, and we wouldn't have made it to the noraebang to sing lots of cheesy songs.
I have never seen this before, but found it hilarious. Really? Targeting cat food to their owners? Don't all cat owners have cat lovers' souls? This is just a bizarre marketing tactic.

I didn't take photos, but we went to a noraebang (it was called Good Noraebang!), then we went to dinner at Outback Steakhouse (we have a joke about Outback), then parted ways in downtown Daegu. I can't speak for William, but I was exhausted, as I hadn't really slept the night before and we did do a lot, all over town. 
The next day was a trip to Donghwasa (Donghwa Temple), after a very arduous bus ride to Palgongsan (Palgong Mountain). It was less arduous for me- I had a seat, and only had to contend with people that were trying to sit on my lap (literally). William was standing the whole time, because he's chivalrous like that, and people were packed into the bus like sardines. The bus driver should have stopped letting people on the bus, but kept on letting them come in. It was seriously incredible, and probably dangerous. We survived and made it to the mountain, mostly intact- our kimbap (gimbap, 김밥) may have gotten a little squished.
Lanterns were strung up all over the place for Buddha's birthday. It says a lot that the lanterns are all still up in September when Buddha's birthday was on May 10 this year. Actually, it mostly says that the lanterns are made of vinyl and plastic and strung with electrical lights, rather than the old-school paper lanterns and candles. I was a little saddened to see the plastic, but I was glad to see the cheerful lanterns, so I guess that's that.
I didn't take a picture of the gourds- there were little gourd halves hung with twine to use for obtaining water from this fountain. We assumed that people were supposed to drink the water, but I have a fear of germs. We washed our hands using the gourds. That may have been disrespectful, but we had walked uphill to get to the temple and our hands needed the washing.
Those three round things at the base of the stairs are phoenix eggs. That's all I know, the sign next to them was in Korean and Chinese. I read some of the Korean, William read some of the Chinese, then we shrugged and walked up the stairs to go into the main square.
We went on a Sunday, and there were tons of worshipers around. I didn't want to take too many pictures, because my camera makes a really audible clicking noise, so I restricted myself to just a few shots. This temple was a little scary, because there are no railings around the platform. No ledge, no nothing.
Probably my favorite picture. This little gate led to a group of small buildings, including a temple. I made friends with a temple cat and gave him water in the little courtyard. Those temple cats, they're friendly and whiny, with their meowing and pacing. I couldn't get a good photo of the kitty in this area, unfortunately.
This was the temple inside the little courtyard, where I took a couple snaps because there were only two people inside. I still felt like I was intruding, so I beat a hasty retreat. I'm not Buddhist, but Korean culture has a lot of roots in Buddhism, and I respect that. I don't understand people who vehemently oppose any religion other than their own.
This little temple cat wouldn't stop meowing. He was very vocal, but refused to come closer. I've noticed that cats in Korea are smaller than cats in the States- and I'm not just talking about overfed house-pets. We saw three cats, all of them rather small and not fearful of people. One cat was running up the very edge of a set of stone steps, and I imagined that the cats loved the monks because the monks feed them. I hope the monks feed them.
Detail on one of the walls of one of the temples. I'm sure the images mean something, but I don't really know what they mean. I liked these temples because they weren't pristine and re-painted, like some of the places in Korea. I mean, the cleanly restored palaces and temples have a charm of their own, but the worn, faded places feel warmer, homier.
These huge, scary statues were in various buildings. I only took this one picture, because they were alarming and I didn't really feel the need to keep images of them. I took a photo of this one because he's got a baby dragon (and looks to be killing it). I like dragons!
There were two of these tunnels (maybe there were more, but we only saw two). One of the tunnels was the tunnel of hope. I don't think this was the hope tunnel- we couldn't figure out what the word was, and William said it was probably despair, in keeping with the yin-yang of Buddhism. I really doubt it's a tunnel of despair- probably something like contentment or inner peace or something.
There was a stream that ran down the mountain, visible from most areas around the temple. It reminded me a little of Hawaii, with the abundant green vegetation, but rather than tropical leaves, Korea is full of trees. I think my favorite part of Korea is the abundance of trees. We saw this part of the stream as we walked from the temples to the giant Buddha statue.
And here's the giant Buddha. He looks tiny in this picture, but it's just a weird trompe l'oeil- he's actually quite far behind the stone pagoda (are those pagodas? I don't know my Buddhist architecture). There were quite a few people praying, bowing before the Buddha, and milling about.
This fountain or faucet is off to the right side of the picture above. I'm not sure what's up with the water at this temple, but I think that it's supposed to be mountain water, which Koreans believe is good for the body (and soul, perhaps).
In front of the fountain. I don't know what the money is for. It was raining intermittently while we were up on the mountain, which wasn't too bad (just a sprinkle here and there, really), but was not good for taking pictures.
There were small figurines and little stacks of stones on the stone walls on either side of the fountain. Koreans stack stones all over stone-based mountains. This may not be a solely Korean thing, but my only experience with these stacks of stones is with Koreans. These are tiny examples; there are huge and elaborate ones at Maisan, somewhere I haven't been since I was in elementary school. I really need to go back while I'm in Korea.
Another look at the little stone stacks. Maybe they're supposed to lend some kind of Zen peace to the builder? I should try it out sometime, see if it brings me some inner peace.
This is the (rather large) temple in the same plaza as the Buddha. That large stone structure on the right side is one of the stone pagodas (visible in the first photo of the pagoda and the Buddha, where the Buddha looks small), which looks enormous in this picture- they actually were quite large.
The Buddha. There was a shiny marble floor just in front of the Buddha, where people prayed and bowed. They took their shoes off behind stepping onto the marble, so I assume it's a sacred place. That man in the white shirt was busy chasing off a sacrilegious pigeon that had dared to step on the marble.
A good look at the temple facing the Buddha. There were monks in that enclosure upstairs, holding a service (prayer? ceremony? I really am ignorant about Buddhism). The overcast day really flattened out all my pictures, which is too bad, because the surroundings and the temples were really beautiful.
The second floor of the temple. More lanterns! I wish the lighting had been better, because there were incredible details on the temple that I would have liked to photograph. Oh, well- there are lots of temples and lots of sights in Korea that are left to visit.
A look back at the pagoda. That stone wall on the lower right side is where all the small figurines and stacks of stones are. I will admit that the drizzly weather did photograph nicely as misty, foggy skies.
This is looking into the temple and out the window to the other stone pagoda (the twin to the one in the previous photo). I was trying to get a good shot of the interior of the temple, to no avail. There were rows of neatly lined-up golden Buddhas inside, mirrored by the lanterns hanging in regimented rows on the ceiling.
Walking down to the stream so we could eat our kimbap (and I could get attacked by a giant green bug). I just love trees! I love the way they look, the way they smell, and I cannot wait for my first real autumn. This is the first time I've lived in an area with tons of trees that will change color in the fall (well, not counting my first three years of life).
I don't remember where, exactly, I took this picture, because it looks unfamiliar to me. My camera tells me that I took it at the time that I was on Palgongsan, so I believe it. This is most likely somewhere near our picnic area- we went down to the stream and sat on a big rock to eat kimbap, have some water, and breathe in that crisp mountain air.
I love these types of areas, with leaves everywhere. I took a billion photos at Jeongbalsan (the mountain next door to my house), and most of them are of leaves, trees, or plants. It really was super green, that sort of brightening, cheering green. I'm not a nature girl- I love the convenience and bustle of cities too much- but I love nature occasionally, and this type of nature is probably my favorite.

Daegu isn't a particular novel city. It's like the other big cities in Korea, with a downtown, mountains all around, some museums, some sports arenas, and the like. Daegu was fun for me because William planned my visit, took me to see all the places that I may not have found on my own, and served as an excellent tour guide.

If I had gone to Daegu by myself, I probably would have ended up in downtown the whole time, since that's where my hotel was. There's a reason people go to foreign countries to visit their friends- it's better and more fun with a local.

Thanks for the awesome weekend, William! The weather wasn't on our side, but we still managed to have a good time.

(And no matter what he tells you, the man is a great singer.)

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Friday, September 23, 2011

Happy Birthday, Little Sister!

Today (it's finally the same day in Korea and America, for the next few hours!) is my little sister's birthday. Welcome to the late twenties, the water's fine!

The flower was photographed on my iPhone in Beijing. My sister's favorite color as a child was purple, and while this flower is more fuchsia than a real purple, it's still in the purple family. Also, the brighter green leaves look like perilla leaves, sometimes called shiso (깻잎, pronounced something like ggaetnip, or ggaet-neep). My sister loves ggaetnip (I do not).

I love you, sister of mine.

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Free-ish Speech

Let me preface this post, which will probably bloat into an uncontrollably long essay, by saying this, right off the bat:

I am not an English teacher in Korea.

This means a few different things, starting with the most obvious: I do not have the same experience or the same types of experiences as most of the expat blogs about living in Korea. I am certainly not saying that my experience is better or worse, it's just different.

My situation gets a little weirder when one takes into consideration my Korean heritage. This is an important point because it means that when other Koreans look at me, they see a Korean. They automatically assume that I am Korean, that I have the same cultural and social references. This is, of course, not true- I may be racially Korean, but I am culturally more American than Korean, which I think is fairly obvious from my blog. Yes, I have a rather strong Korean identity, but most of my culture is from my childhood and young adulthood, which were spent in California.

There are times when I get very frustrated here in Korea, and wish that I were just Korean. Why did my parents have to immigrate? Why couldn't they have taught me Korean, so that I'm completely proficient? Why am I caught between two cultures that are so different? I do not feel that way very often; I am usually very happy with my life, including how, where, and when I grew up.

Koreans tend to be rather xenophobic and prejudiced, in my experience. While expats that aren't ethnically Korean may think that I'm lucky, because I'm automatically accepted by Koreans, I feel that the opposite is true. Non-Korean expats have the benefit of their appearance, an immediately apparent trait, to explain away any awkwardness with the language or culture. I do not have that benefit at all, and so feel like I am disappointing Koreans whenever I don't understand something that they say to me or I don't get some joke that has its roots in a cultural reference that I don't get. Koreans expect me to speak Korean like a Korean, with all the colloquial terms and slang perfected. They anticipate it, actually, and get flummoxed when I ask them to explain something to me, something that someone my age would obviously know if they had grown up in Korea.

Well, I have news, Koreans- I didn't grow up in Korea. I'm sorry that I look so Korean that I am tricking you into thinking that I'm like every other Korean you meet, but I'm Korean-American. I know that I have practically no American accent when I speak in Korean, and I'm sorry about that, too- my parents raised me in Korean, so my casual, everyday Korean is very good. I know it would be easier for you to accept that I'm American if I had an obvious American accent, but I can't very well go about faking an American accent. I know it would also be easier for you if I had a Korean accent when I speak in English, but I can't fake that, either. So Koreans, I'm sorry for being both Korean and American and just confusing you.

I'm confused, too, though, so maybe we can all get through this together.

It's been over three months since I've started working at a Korean company. It's taken probably two and a half months for people to adjust to me and vice versa. While it didn't seem all that bad when I first got here, I think back to July and wonder, how did I work like that? It was awkward. It was so awkward that it was totes awks.

One of my co-workers told me (while we were in China, actually) that my Korean's gotten better. I was all, really? I don't notice a difference at all. He was very emphatic- my Korean's gotten better, and he can tell that I've gotten more comfortable. That much is true, for sure- I don't have to think as hard during a Korean conversation, because using Korean has gotten much more natural. My gut reactions are still in English; if something bad happens, I will still say "crap" rather than "헐", I will always say "what?" before I say "뭐?" (Though I love the word 헐, pronounced something like "hull," and used very similarly to "crap" or "argh". I just find the word itself to be funny, but I don't know why- it just hits my funny bone.)

Still, though, my Korean is better. How could it not get better, when I have to use Korean every single blessed day? I mean, I would have to actively be avoiding Korean in order to not improve. Non-Korean expats learn Korean, too, albeit probably at a slower pace. English teachers in Korea are hired to teach English, not to speak in Korean. I speak predominantly in Korean at work, so my Korean's improving, a tiny bit each day. I do appreciate that, because I always wanted to be able to speak Korean completely fluently.

If you were to talk to the Korean people that I know in the States, they would most likely tell you that I am fluent in Korean. This is true to a point, as I have no problems in casual settings or in restaurants or bars. The Korean used at work, at Immigrations, at the airport, at banks? That is hard Korean, more formal and proper than any Korean that I encountered in the States (other than at the consulate, where I almost died due to frustration). That is the Korean that I do not know, the reason that I am incapable of and have no desire to watch the news in Korea. That is the Korean that I want to learn, and the Korean at which I am getting slightly better.

I just realized that I've been rambling on and on with the introduction to this post (yes, that was my introduction- don't judge me, I've been feeling this way all summer long and am just now venting!), which is really supposed to be about Korean cyber bullies and the concept of free speech in Korea. Which I will get into now, because it's my blog and I can:

The issue of Korean cyber bullies came to my attention via the Korea Herald, an article titled "Praise is meaningless if not allowed to criticize" by Rob Ouwehand, who is better known online as Roboseyo. I feel, perhaps immodestly, that I have a slightly different position on this issue (and most issues regarding expats in Korea) than other expat bloggers who have posted about this issue, mostly due to my ethnicity.

Most of the better known expat bloggers in Korea are not Korean. I feel that the majority of the blogs that I've seen are by white writers, and the majority of those white writers are male. I have nothing against white men- I've dated several- and I generally agree with their opinions. I think my race and gender just slightly skew my viewpoint so that it's a bit different from those dudes, who are having a very different Korean experience from mine.

Rob wrote about expat bloggers who write negative things about Korea while they're living in Korea. From the Korea Herald article:

This January, an English teacher in Korea had a conversation with a few other expats. All the complaining she heard made her decide to vent her negativity on a blog, so that she didn’t have to be negative around her friends.

Also a regular blog reader, she took the repeated and repetitive theme of complaining about Korea, and exaggerated it to ridiculous degrees, partly to vent, and partly in hopes that the exaggeration would prompt some of the whiners to shake their heads and say,“Wait a minute ... Korea’s not as bad as all that.” She named the blog Lousy Korea, and while she expected some defensiveness from people who missed her point, she did not expect what happened.

The teacher, whom we'll call L.K. to protect her privacy, last week took her blog down completely. Threats were being made not only to L.K., but to other bloggers who were linked on her blog, and even the families of those bloggers. Lousy Korea is not the only blog that has been targeted by death threats, nor the only expat: Korean Rum Diary is another blogger who received a death threat with detailed descriptions of how he would be murdered, and included his real name and address.

Popular blogger Brian in Jeollanam-do was recently reported to immigration, most likely because of his critical opinions, and the president of the Association for Teachers of English in Korea also had his life threatened. Some of these people were attempting to discuss Korean social issues honestly. Others took negative approaches. However, it is shocking that there are people who believe that when somebody writes something they dislike, an appropriate response is to threaten that person’s job, life, friends or family.
Honestly, when I first read this article, my hackles rose.Well, who are these people, anyway, to be all writin' bad things about my motherland? I am being completely frank, that was my initial reaction. Initial reactions cannot be faked or controlled, after all. (Yes, I get all Southern when my hackles rise.)

Then, my second thought: What is wrong with people? Why are they making death threats?! Because ultimately, I believe people are entitled to their opinions. They can think negative things about Korea, because it's hard to be in a new culture and feel completely happy about it. I'm Korean, and I'm not having a totally bump-free time in Korea. How could someone who isn't Korea, who doesn't know Korea, have an easy go of it?
So what’s with these negative blogs, anyway? They’re misunderstood: A lot of the people who complain online save all their negativity for the Internet, so that they can be pleasant and polite during the day to their friends and coworkers. These people are not publishing their articles in famous magazines or newspapers -- they often aren’t writing for an audience at all: They’re participating in a group therapy session, dealing with culture shock by talking to others who also feel culture shock. Posting their thoughts where anybody can find them might not be the wisest choice, but such people deserve pity more than hostility.

Meanwhile, in the same way that hyper-negative bloggers leave a bad impression of expats in Korea, the extreme reactions from netizens, who really believe they are protecting Korea with their hateful behavior, creates the impression that Korean society can’t stand criticism. This tiny, angry minority of hostile people can be very noisy, and they’ve chosen different targets at different times: ask Park Jae-beom, Vera Hohleiter (the “Loser” girl from Misuda), Dog Poop Girl or Jim Hewish. These people do not realize that rather than protect Korea’s reputation, their behavior actually damages it by creating a false image of a country full of thin-skinned, reactionary and hostile netizens.
I was torn about this, and still am: if one writes negative things on the internet, someplace where anyone can see, then one should be prepared for the repercussions. I don't particularly pity people that do such things, because if they didn't want to rile people up, then they should lock their blogs or block certain users. For example, I still have no pity for Alexandra Wallace, because she did a stupid thing. Do I feel that the consequences were severe? Yes, I do. But the consequences of our actions can never be accurately predicted, particularly when our actions are public. I always write my blog with the assumption that reactions, if there are any, will be stronger than I would assume that they will be. Isn't that the reasonable thing to do? Are people just lacking common sense, that this doesn't occur to them?

I also think that Rob is unintentionally pointing out something that is actually mostly true- Koreans can't stand criticism. Saving face is an art form in Korea, particularly in the workplace.

William and I were chatting in a cab while I was in Daegu when the conversation meandered into Korean suicides, and how commonplace suicide seems to be. We both agreed that suicide is regarded to be a viable option to Koreans, at least more so than to Americans. Facing shame and ruin? Suicide. Teenaged and pregnant? Suicide. Cheated on your spouse and got caught? Suicide. Americans would rather be publicly humiliated than kill themselves, which is so much more reasonable, in my opinion. What's a little public shame when compared to your entire life?

In order to save face, Koreans will go to insane extremes (suicide, in my opinion, is insane in this day and age). Because of that cultural trait, Koreans are terrible with criticism, constructive or deconstructive (and everything in between). I have first-hand experience with this, as I've been quite critical in the workplace while in Korea. I get away with the amount of criticism that I spew simply because I'm American.

You see why I'm confused? First, I'm treated as though I should be totally Korean. Then, when I do something un-Korean (criticize, for instance), I'm treated as though I'm American. Oh, it's okay for her to do that because she's AMERICAN. There is an implied sneering of the lip when I'm called American in certain situations.
During Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan’s dictatorships, people were afraid to say anything different, difficult, or provocative, because people were regularly jailed for criticizing the regime. Even today, the situation is similar in North Korea. It is really sad that a few angry and aggressive commenters can create a culture of fear online, so that, once again, people are afraid to express their opinions. It is shameful that even though many Koreans alive today can still remember those dictatorships, some people are celebrating Korea’s new democratic freedoms by using the same fear and intimidation tactics Korea’s old dictators did, to stifle opinions they dislike.

Free speech is the lifeblood of a truly free society, and while free speech does not mean speech without consequences, there are acceptable responses to speech, like written responses, angry comments, criticisms and negative feedback, and there are unacceptable responses, like threats to someone’s privacy, job, safety, friends or even family. It doesn’t matter if someone’s opinion or method of expression is unpopular or even offensive: If their free speech is not also protected, nobody is really free to express themselves.

These days, Korea seems to be especially concerned with how it is perceived by countries around the world. Branding is the buzzword in food, business and tourism promotion. Positive mentions of Korea are repeated, but criticisms are met with outcry.

On the blogs, it’s the same: Everybody congratulates the happy bloggers for truly understanding Korea; however, if bloggers do not feel free to say what they really think, if they are writing positive things because they fear violence when they criticize, then their positive comments are as empty as the songs of North Korean school children praising their leader, for fear of the prison camp.

To comment, e-mail mattlamers@heraldm.com; Rob Ouwehand’s other writings can be found at the blog Roboseyo.blogspot.com; the opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent those of The Korea Herald – Ed.

By Rob Ouwehand
It's an interesting, thought-provoking article that I really appreciated, because it points out, very clearly, the observations of an expat that's been in Korea, living among Koreans, for several years (since 2003). He's also married to a Korean woman, I believe (and they're expecting in October, congratulations!), which adds another element to his perspective.

I honestly do not feel that the situation is quite as dire as the article makes it out to be, but perhaps it's because I've never gotten a death threat because of my blog (that's not an invitation to start threatening me). I also believe that unless something changes drastically, I won't necessarily be on the bad side of those few angry Korean netizens, because I don't hate Korea.

Perhaps non-Koreans think that my blog only says positive things about Korea, that I'm biased because I'm Korean. This may be true, to a certain extent. It's my blog, and I have no reason to be impartial. However, I am not such a nationalist that I can just blindly adore everything about the land of my birth. I just choose to focus on the things that I like, rather than nitpick about the things that I dislike.

Another thing that I've realized is that yes, the free speech rights of bloggers should be protected. But doesn't that also mean that the free speech of commenters should be protected, as well? Free speech doesn't mean smart speech. It just mean free, and whether that speech is ignorant, savvy, sarcastic, stupid, or reasonable is up to the person that is speaking (typing).

I wish everyone could just get along already, but that's never going to happen. I'm not passionate enough to go around and lecture people, but I am just opinionated enough to take the time and write on my blog.

Everyone's entitled to their own thoughts. These are mine.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Skewers in China

The whirlwind dash to China is over, and I am safely back in Korea. (Is it weird that I almost said "I am safely back home"? Hmm...)

Though I haven't had a post about Daegu yet, I'm going to start with China, because the photos and videos were taken on my iPhone, which means I don't need to go through tons of photos and edit.

We got to China on Tuesday evening after a pleasant enough flight. I love Korean Air, I feel like the airline really is trying to make air travel an easier experience. Checking in, security, all that was a breeze, without much of a wait- although that's less about the airline and more about the airport. Incheon Airport is WORLDS better than LAX in terms of convenience and efficiency. Plus, Incheon has tons of shopping, restaurants, coffee shops, and is so much cleaner.

My first impression of Beijing was that it was a sort of hybrid of Seoul and LA. Lots of tall buildings, like Seoul, and lots of smog, cars, and concrete, like LA. (Yes, Seoul has concrete, but there are also tons of trees that sort of make it seem less concrete-y than LA.)

We worked pretty much constantly, so there wasn't any time for sightseeing or exploring (not that I wanted to). We ate either at the restaurant next to our hotel or at the studio, where they had a kitchen and a cook who prepared lunch and dinner. The one time we left the studio for fun was on Wednesday night, our second (and last) night in China.

The four of us from my workplace and two of the Koreans that work in the studio in China (one is Korean-Chinese, the other is a Korean transplant) went to have lamb skewers. That's how it was explained to me- 양꼬치 (양 = lamb, 꼬치 = skewers). We walked from our hotel to the restaurant, about a fifteen minute trek through the concrete jungle.

The restaurant had a unique way of ordering- there is a video touchscreen at every table, where you place your order. You order by the skewer (I think we started with 20 lamb skewers) and keep ordering as you wish. We had lamb first, with beer (I drank a teensy amount of beer to appease my fellow Koreans), then went into pork skewers, then back to lamb.


I am not normally a big fan of lamb, but it was really delicious in this skewered form. There was a little dish of spices for each person, things that ranged from red pepper flakes to caraway seeds (I think). We ordered very Korean side dishes (like doragi, 도라지, which is apparently balloonflower) to go with our skewers.

This was the kind of beer we drank, which wasn't too bad. I mean, it wasn't too bad for me, because it didn't really taste too much like beer. So real beer drinkers would probably not like this very much. I think we went through ten bottles or so.
A few of us graduated to real booze. I still have no idea what this is called, because they just told me it's 백주 (백 = white, 주 = alcohol). It was strong, 42%, and very sweet, with an almost floral aftertaste. That dish on the right is the one with the spices, by the way. I drank a LOT, because when people offer you a drink, you're not supposed to say no. Especially when you're the youngest one at the table.
Chinese Coke. Love it. Apparently, it translates into something like "happiness in your mouth"? I don't know, I was tipsy by this time and could barely see straight, much less remember what Chinese characters meant.

Water with a singer/actor and my share of the skewers. One of the guys told me that he could eat 60 skewers. I managed eleven, and I was stuffed. That dish in the back with the pale blobs on it? Those are tangsooyuk! They are made with glutinous rice flour in the batter, which gives them a rice-cake-like coating that is crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. Really good, though the sauce was overwhelmingly sweet.

I was fascinated by the skewer-rotating thing, so I took a couple videos. The waiter brings over a platter of skewers, which you can get par-cooked. We preferred to get the par-cooked skewers, as they just needed a minute or two over the coals before they were ready to eat. We got one set of raw skewers and they took ages to cook through, especially since they were pork and really needed to be properly cooked.

A closer look at the twirly device. Once we got the skewers, we would put them into the slots. The handle of the skewer is magnetized, as is the machine, and that's what pulls the skewers along so that they turn over the coals. The more you drink, the more entrancing this machine gets.

It was the only fun we had on the trip, and since we had all been tired before we even went to China, we let loose, drank too much, and didn't get back to the hotel until 3:00 a.m. (a few of the guys stayed out even later and got back at 5:00).

We had a meeting with the director of the movie the next morning, and were quite bleary-eyed and probably exuding the scent of booze from every pore. Sometimes, even if it means less sleep, it's necessary to go all-out and have a good time.

I got home around 9:00 last night and tried to go to sleep, but couldn't. I've still got quite a big sleep deficit to overcome, so I have a feeling that this weekend will be all about catching up on sleep and doing laundry.

The weather in Korea is getting very cool, to the point that I've broken out scarves and the one cardigan that I brought with me. This weekend may also involve sending summer clothes back home and buying some autumn / winter clothing.

My future is very unclear at the moment, as I have an offer from the States that I am debating about, as well as continued discussions with the company in Korea. I'm not sure what the best plan for me would be- stay in Korea? go back home?- and which would be most advantageous to my career. I'm mulling. I have a feeling I need to mull faster.

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Happy Birthday, 아빠!


Yesterday (in Korea, today in the States) was my father's birthday. I was in Daegu, getting my wits scared out of me by a large green bug (praying mantis?) and my parents are currently on vacation in Canada. We are an international family, including my jetsetting sister.

I miss my family. I can't wait to see them again.

Preparing to go to China, so it's a zoo around here. Better blogging (and pictures from Daegu) once I'm back and rested up. I just wanted to wish Dad a joyous birthday before the 18th is over in North America!

(That photo above is from the subway last night, a wee dog with dyed fur. We saw bottles of pet fur dye in Daegu and were appalled. Figures that I would see an example of it the next day! I thought my dad would laugh at it.)

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hectic Weekend

It's about 5:20 a.m. and I just got home. Whew.

Tomorrow (er, today) is a mad dash at work and then a sprint via KTX to Daegu, followed by a late night at work on Sunday (I get back from Daegu on Sunday evening), then a flight to China for a few meetings, one night spent in Beijing, then a flight back to Korea on Wednesday night, probably landing just after midnight on Thursday.

All this to say, blogging will be crappy. Or maybe it won't, but I doubt that.

I've already been told that I probably won't have full access to my GMail account while I'm in China, which is ridiculous and depressing all at the same time.

Now if only I could fall asleep...

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Korean Vanity

Or, the post wherein I outline how much time I waste for vanity's sake.

Koreans are, generally, very concerned with appearance, especially the ladies. Most women that I see have on make-up, have styled their hair, and are wearing outfits, rather than just clothes.

I am probably one of the least put-together women in my office, as I don't wear much jewelry (I really only wear earrings, and only when I remember to put them on), I don't switch out my purse very frequently (there's a girl in my office that has a different purse every single day, depending on what her outfit is), I don't blow out my hair, and I don't wear colored makeup. By "colored makeup," I mean eyeshadow or lipstick. On a daily basis, I have on base makeup (so my skin looks nice), eyeliner, and eyebrow pencil. I sometimes remember to put on blusher. I never wear lipstick, and I only put on eyeshadow twice or three times a year (you know, for all those times I go clubbing).

In LA, I was considered rather preppy and conservative, as far as my appearance goes. I wear heels and sandals, and my outfits are general some sort of sweater and either jeans or trousers. I don't wear t-shirts to work. I sometimes wear blouses, and every once in a blue moon, I'll wear sweats (yoga pants) with a hoodie (generally if I have to work on weekends). While my daily wardrobe was a little formal for the LA workplace, it's pretty much casual here in the Korean workplace.

There are women in my office that wear prom dresses to work. One girl had on a bridesmaid's dress one day, I swear. It was peach organza with fluffy sleeves and a full cocktail-length skirt. Who looks at that kind of dress in a store and thinks that she'll wear it to work?? Not me, that's for sure.

Most of the women at work wear makeup, have their nails done, and have some sort of processed hair (perms and dyes). They wear jewelry, carry girly bags, and will sacrifice comfort in order to wear tottering heels. Most women also have great skin, something I envy.

As I've watched TV, talked to co-workers, and just soaked in the vibe here, I've realized that good skin is earned. I always thought it was genetics, and while my mother has nice skin, I just figured that I was never going to have clear, even skin. I have sensitive combination skin, which is annoying to deal with, and I get a blemish here and there every couple weeks. Not only do I get those blemishes, but I have rather long-lasting scars, even when I don't pick at my spots. I always just resigned myself to cleansing very thoroughly, exfoliating every few days, and applying concealer when necessary. What else can one do, when one is fast approaching 30 with no sign of improvement in one's skin?

Turns out, one spends money. Korean women use time and money to get their skin to be better than it really is, and I was rather taken aback by the sheer amount of products and propaganda that bombards me from all angles.

Advertising is pervasive, especially in such a wired country, to the point that I have a hard time remembering that when I was back home, I wasn't too perturbed about my skin's condition. Here in Korea, there are commercials, billboards, and constant reminders that YOUR SKIN IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH. A couple examples:

Lim Su-Jeong (임수정), an actress and spokeswoman for SK-II (that's SK2 with Roman numerals), one of the pricier skincare lines. It's made in Japan, and Cate Blanchett is the international spokeswoman. (Cate Blanchett has ridiculously beautiful skin.) It's available for purchase in the U.S. at Bloomingdale's, here.
Song Hye-Gyo (송혜교) is also an actress and the spokeswoman for Laneige, a Korean skincare brand (under the Amore-Pacific umbrella, which contains a ton of cosmetic brands).

Korean ads focus on pale, luminous skin, and try to make it appear that their spokespeople aren't wearing any make-up at all. This somehow really gets to me (I must be part of the target audience) and makes me crave that kind of clear, glowing complexion.

I don't know if it's subliminal or just really clever marketing, but I've been all about skincare lately. I started off quite well, with good (cheap) intentions, at road shops (lower end cosmetic brands that have stand-alone shops all over the place) like the Face Shop, Skinfood, Innisfree, Missha, and TonyMoly. I still go to road shops to stock up on face masks and foam cleansers, and one of Innisfree's scrubs has completely won me over (the Jeju Volcanic Pore Scrub Foam, which is awesome and has replaced my St. Ives Apricot Scrub, which has been my exfoliating scrub for years and years).

However, I realized that I needed a new moisturizer, because my Shiseido Brightening Moisturizing Gel was almost out. Besides which, my sensitive skin forces me to switch moisturizers when the weather changes- the gel works really well in the summer, but isn't moisturizing enough when it gets cooler. So I moseyed over to Lotte Department Store, intending to buy the Protective Cream, which is part of the same line as the Moisturizing Gel ... and I got sucked into the wonder of cosmetic counters in Korea.

There are a LOT of brands. They promise to do a lot of things. I browsed, I wandered, I tried different things (the backs of my hands have never been so moisturized before) and then I fell into the steep trap of SK-II.

I've seen commercials and advertisements for this brand, which I had heard about years ago. It was always way, way too expensive for me to even consider purchasing, but my newfound obsession with skincare and a little bit more disposable income meant that I was shelling out quite a lot of money for some moisturizer. (Don't ask how much, I still treat the thing like it's made of pure gold.)

Since I still had toner (also called "skin" in Korea), I just bought the moisturizer and fled before I could spend any more money. Before I ran off, though, the salesgirl gave me samples of SK-II's toner and essence. The essence is quite famous, reputed to be "miracle water," with something called pitera, which apparently decreases wrinkles and increases elasticity.

The essence, while famous, smells odd. Not really bad, but it's weird. The toner's fine, whatever- it's a little more moisturizing than other toners, but it doesn't seem to be anything spectacular. The essence, though, while it might smell weird, really does seem to have an effect. It's runny, just a little bit more viscous than water, and then feels sort of sticky in a couple seconds, once it's on the skin. It absorbs really well and then helps with the moisturizer, which seems to kind of bind to the essence.

I've been using the samples of the toner, essence, and moisturizer (the girl gave me two samples of the same moisturizer that I bought, telling me to use the samples to test the product) for about a week, and my skin is much happier. The samples I got are larger than most samples, they're really more like travel-sized bottles, rather than those tiny sample bottles that are normally distributed. I'll probably be able to use the samples for at least another two weeks, if not longer.

Back in the States, I used to use Qiora (a sister brand to Shiseido) off-and-on, mostly because I saw a difference in my skin, but it wasn't radical enough for me to justify the price on a regular basis. So I would buy the stuff when my skin got out of control (dry and flaking on my cheeks, oily and angry in my T-zone), use it until I ran out, and then let my skin go off on its own. I would use Qiora, Clinique, Elizabeth Arden (which always made me feel like an old lady), Lancome (eye cream), Shiseido, Clean & Clear (I don't discriminate by price), and all kinds of other brands, swapping out products dependent on my mood and my skin's condition.

For the past month, I've been using masks quite regularly and cleansing my face as thoroughly as possible. Adding SK-II to the mix seems to have really made my skin relax and brighten up.

I don't have perfect skin, not at all, but I'm hoping that it continues to get better. I'm also questioning why I care so much (curses to your emphasis on complexion, Korea!); when in Rome....

My new favorite mask, which I just discovered yesterday, is from Innisfree. (I think it's my favorite road shop, their products seem to be the nicest.) It's some sort of brightening wrinkle-reducing formula, but the awesome thing is that the mask covers the entire face and wraps around the neck! It feels a little suffocating at first, and it's rather annoying to unfold and apply, but it's fine once it's on and I like that it includes the neck. It also fit really well- I don't like those masks with really small eye-holes or really big mouth-holes, because I'm picky that way. If I'm going to put on a mask for 15 - 20 minutes, it better cover all the skin on my face.

It's already Thursday, and thank goodness. I'm ready for my weekend escape to Daegu, where I will wreak havoc on my skin by eating unhealthy food and probably drinking. I doubt that I'll be leaving work anytime soon (it's just past 9:00 now), but I'm definitely leaving on time tomorrow, so I can catch my train.

Hooray for short weeks (even if they have long days)!

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Bits and Bobs

Random photos from the long weekend (though I really only got Sunday and Monday off, as I came into work on Saturday and Tuesday):

Army dudes on the subway. Yup, the one on the right is sleeping. I see guys in uniform pretty much daily, as all Korean men have a two-year mandatory army stint, and they seem to get a couple days off here and there. Usually, I always see them carrying things that look like gifts- for the girlfriend or parents, I assume.
The sign stuck to the window made me laugh a little bit. It says 약한방차: 약한 냉방을 원하는 고객일 위한 차량입나다, which means that this particular car is a less-air-conditioned car than the typical (freezing) subway car. It was warmer, I admit, probably at least 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
My first Korean manicure. All these pictures were taken with my iPhone, which is overly saturating all the colors. The color at the tips of my nails is less neon, more of a peachy coral. Very pretty color. I quite like the manicure, except the woman filed my nails crooked, which just tortures me. I will end up taking a nail file to all my nails, but I'm resisting the temptation for now (filing the ends of manicured nails tends to encourage chipping, I've found).

It's almost midnight and I'm at work. Hopefully, it's only crazy busy until tomorrow, and then quiet from Friday. Besides which, I've already purchased a train ticket for Friday night, so I'm leaving no matter what!

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Monday, September 12, 2011

Happy 추석!

Today (Monday, September 12) is 추석 (Chuseok), or Korean Thanksgiving. As I've mentioned before, I've never spent a major Korean holiday in Korea. I'm not used to having lots of family around, people to make plans with. Getting my American family together for holidays is really easy, because there's just four of us. With my Korean family, it's a little more complicated.

Because my grandfather is currently in Seoul at his second son's (third child's) house, the kids in the family that live in Seoul (or, in my case, Seoul-adjacent) were expected to trek over for the holiday. This uncle is my mother's younger brother and has four daughters, all younger than me. The cousins who live in Seoul are my mother's older brother's kids, two sons, one older and one younger than me. The three of us were to all meet at my uncle's house, but my older cousin said he would meet me at the subway station, since I don't know how to get to my uncle's house.

Convoluted and totally confusing, yes? Turns out, having lots of family means there is more chaos. And it also turns out that traveling via public transit during a national holiday is awful. It doesn't help that I may have taken the longest way possible to get to Seoul (thanks a lot, Jihachul app, thanks) and what should have taken less than an hour took almost two and a half hours.
The first transfer on the subway was pretty easy. The photo above was taken at 대곡 (Daegok) Station, where the app told me to transfer. So I did, because this app has guided me to and from Seoul for the past two months.
I waited at this particular station (in a very rural area) for probably about half an hour, because I didn't realize that my transfer was onto a county line. I mean, really, it's very hard to tell the difference.

So the app told me that I would just make the one transfer and proceed right along to Seoul Station, which is where I was to meet my cousin. Easy. Sure, I had to wait half an hour at Daegok, but if that's the only transfer I'm taking, I can deal. Yeah, not so much.
The train stopped at Digital Media City Station and then we all got kicked out. I looked around and noticed that transferring to the next platform would lead to Seoul Station. Seemed rather straightforward and normal, so I waited for the subway.
I waited ... and waited ... and took pictures ... and texted people ... and waited some more. I think three trains, honest-to-goodness passenger trains, not subway trains, whizzed past in the first twenty minutes. All I did was impatiently pace around that platform, carrying a purse and an awfully heavy camera, listening to Adele and cursing the subway system.
It wasn't until I'd been at the station for well over half an hour that the subway train finally showed up. I dashed in, took a seat, and began realizing that transportation on Chuseok is no joke- people weren't kidding when they said traveling during holidays in Korea is crappy at best.
I'll admit that I did like this station because I like trains, and regular underground stations aren't nearly as interesting to photograph as this type of outdoor station. Proof of Korea's industrialization in the background, with the new tall and shiny building on the left and the new building on the right, still being built.

Finally got to Seoul Station, where there were thousands of people milling around, making me feel suffocated as they crammed together and got all up in each other's personal space. Ugh. I didn't take any pictures at Seoul Station because my cousin and I were calling and texting each other, trying to figure out where the other was and not succeeding.

We finally found each other and walked to the bus stop, where we got on the bus and exited one stop late. Because we were so late and we're both impatient, we trekked to the previous stop, rather than waiting for the bus going in the opposite direction.
The photo above was taken at the first bus stop. The taller tower is Namsan Tower (남산 타워), which I had tons of photos of from last year (can't believe that I haven't posted those pictures yet). I do distinctly remember that Namsan (literally "South Mountain") is very close to my uncle's house, so I knew we were somewhere in the vicinity.

My cousin and I were in a neighborhood mart (a small little store in a small little street that's lined with stores selling different things- groceries, fruit, vegetables, fish, etc.) buying a box of giant Asian pears (a traditional gift during Chuseok) when we saw our aunt and uncle walk down the street. What amazing timing- and thank goodness we didn't have to hike up the rather steep hill and try to find their house without assistance.

My grandfather, aunt, uncle, their four daughters, my two cousins, two congregants of my uncle's church (he's a pastor), and I had Chuseok lunch (so much food), tons of fruit (peaches, apples, and pears), espresso, traditional Korean pastries, walnuts and pine nuts, and then a little more espresso. We all lolled about in a food-induced stupor for a couple hours afterward, talking about insignificant things, teasing each other, and acting very much like a family.
My uncle took a nap in the tent he has outside, which is his little outdoor retreat (he had a movie playing out there while he dozed). Our grandfather nagged his grandkids a little- mostly the two boys. The youngest, a sixth grader, skipped around the room while we watched her. It was so much like a normal family, like my family, but with different people.
That's the cousin that met me at Seoul Station. He worries about me, probably because he's the only cousin I have that's older than me, and because he's older, he feels a little responsible. He is probably the cousin that I am closest to, because I've seen him more than any other cousin. We're not that close, but we're not strangers- most of my cousins are strangers to me, even though we share DNA. Hopefully, being in Korea will help me to feel like my family is really my family. (And that's my uncle's tent in the back- he was in there when I took this picture.)
My grandfather with three of his grandchildren. The two girls are the youngest and second oldest of my uncle's daughters. The baby was probably bored all day because she's the youngest by almost ten years, so we're not very much fun for her to hang out with. The dude is my older cousin's little brother, he's the same age as my sister.

I didn't take the county line on my way home, so it only took about an hour to get back. Never taking that county line again. I shake my fist at you, Gyeongui Line (경의선)!

The transit hiccups had me all tired out before I even got to my uncle's house; it's only just past midnight now and I am wiped out. Tomorrow's technically part of the holiday, but I think I have to go into work for a couple hours and get some stuff done. Poop.

I'm hoping to find Jeongbal Mountain tomorrow, but I may settle for Lake Park, since it's close and easy. I may not have the energy for an uphill hike by the time I'm done with work.

Hooray for short work weeks, at least! And hooray for spending holidays with family!

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