Friday, December 3, 2010


I am a teacher.

Sometimes as a teacher of a foreign language I am considered fluff in the pocket of curricula. What do I teach? Nothing except how to ask where the bathroom is, when to use tell (for a story, a lie, or the truth and always with a direct object), and how to write a simple essay (five paragraphs consisting of one introductory, one conclusion, and three for the body). But what content do I teach? Do I teach them how to think like the logicians do? Do I teach them to create something like the engineers and the physicists? No, nothing so noble as this.

I teach them to communicate with their fellow human being. That’s no small feat. But every now and then, a moment of great holiness arises before me, and I teach something sacred. I teach them about life.

We talk of controversial issues in Unit 9. Politics, monarchy, democracy, dictatorship. Are you in favor of or opposed to X issue? What would you do if the government took away your freedom to X? Ah yes, very esoteric, conceptual things. Is war good or bad? Bad they say. Always bad? Yes, always. Oh, so the next time a Hitler rises to power, we should allow him to incinerate millions of people, when Japan decides to come to Korea again and take over the land, we should allow them to destroy the culture, rape the women, work the men to death or just murder people outright. War is bad, you say. Always?

And their eyes glaze over. They know. Yes, they know. Sometimes I teach them to tap into their accrued knowledge and sense of fair play, their own moral compass, but again what do I teach them?

“Last week we talked of racism, religious persecution, and other forms of discrimination,” I say to the class as I turn off the lights. “You said we should respect others’ cultures but could not give an example.” So again today I ask them, “what does respect look like?” Their faces look up at me, mouths agape, giving me fish face. “What does respect look like?”

And I turn on a 1 minute video showing a Jewish family lighting the Menorah on Hanukah at a community gathering that is decked out with Santa, Christmas trees, a wreath, and a Yule log. What is happening in the story? I ask them. Fish face is their only response.

“They are celebrating Hanukah.”

Fish face.

It occurs to me, “do you know what Hannukah is?”

Fish face.

”Have you heard of Hanukah?”

No, heads shaking.

“You’ve never heard of Hanukah?” I am incredulous. It is in my voice. I didn’t hide my surprise. That is the thing with surprise. It comes upon you as, well, a surprise.

And I take a moment to breathe, I say a quick prayer. Not even words, just an opening that the spirit of light and love will lead me to teach this lesson, to teach this story to them, that I will honor my Jewish friends with a telling of the story of the Maccabees and the Miracle of the Lights. It is in that moment that the humble reality that I am a teacher falls upon me like a shroud.

“The Macabees were a people long ago,” I begin. There, on the third floor of the Main Building, in South Korea, I tell them the story of Hanukah. Did I tell the story in great detail? No, I didn’t. But I did talk about the miracle of the lights, having faith, and respecting other’s religious beliefs. I showed them that in our little one minute video what respect looks like – it means action, it means having a menorah in the midst of the winter holiday decorations so that everyone will feel included. It is knowing that my way is not the only way.

Light and love to you all,

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Success and Failure

I've been rather comfortable with my failures. That was no small feat either. There was a time in my life that I was a perfectionist. It took a long time to break that pattern. I seem to have become a bit laissez-faire though since then.

I do many things just because I enjoy them. I'm Jane of all trades, Master of none. I can do everything well enough, but then I get (if I'm honest) kind of lazy and give up. Meh. I didn't really *need* to run a marathon or learn how to make Eggs Benedict or be able to draw cartoons. Walking a 5K, making scrambled eggs, and drawing just doodles are just fine. Sometimes, good enough is good enough.

Except when it isn't.

I've set several goals for myself to complete over the next year or so, and it's my intention to meet them. Well yeah, good intentions and $4 will get you a cup of coffee.

This month, I joined in a group of people around the world who took up the challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days called NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writers Month). That's about 8 pages a day, typing double spaced. I think. Either way, it's a lot! Well, I got up early sometimes, stayed up late other times skipped salsa class, said no to dinner with friends, gave up Castle (ok, not completely - he's an author... it was RESEARCH! Really!). And today, November 28, 2010, I can tell you that I am a NaNoWriMo WINNER! I completed the task.

Not only did I complete it, but I completed it with days to spare and several thousand words over the minimum limit! HOORAH!!!!

So, for all the people who have told me over the years, "Write a book, Pamila," I'm informing you. I am. No, it's not a travel book, no it's not a Teach ESL book, no it's not an autobiography. It's all of those and more. And it isn't anywhere near finished, but I have the good good bones for the book.

Kudos to my friends Janet and Alana who both heard my short story and told me that it was too complex and needed to be a book. I trust them and followed their advice. Now what to do with these 200 pages?

*Yes, I took that photo. It isn't perfect, but it's mine!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

By Invitation Only

The note came in an email. Do you want to join me for Russian Opera and Ballet? Russian? Hmmm. I check my map. Yep! I'm still in Korea. Tilting my head to the side, I can see Russian BIIIIIIIIIIIIIG Russia. It's to celebrate Russian - Korean Diplomatic Relations her letter continued. And leeeeeetle So. Korea, the mouse that roared.

First, Russian Ballet. Best in the world. No brainer.
Second, combination of two very different cultures. Intellectual porn.
Third, making a new friend. Well yeah.

It is the trifecta of fabulous.

We manage the buses, the language difficulties, and the hills that are the face of Korea, and there was the National Museum.

The tickets were By Invitation Only. I was invited. Wow.


Tonight I watched the best ballerina I've ever seen - she moved like water. Diana Vishneva. I heard Elchin Azizov, sing like the sound of G*d coming down from on high.

And how did that happen? By sitting on the bus on my way home from work and saying hello to the woman sitting beside me, Irina. She is from St. Petersburg and studies Korean and came here to continue her studies.

How many times do we sit on the bus and don't speak to the person beside us? We don't smile at the checkout counter person, we don't thank the person who pumps our gas, we don't invite the person behind us in line at the coffee shop to sit for a spell and chat. Our lives have become "By Invitation Only" and YOU aren't invited.

Where are your invitations? Somewhere under a pile of nonsense? Dusty beside the television? Stuck between the seats of our cars? If you start passing them out, life may overwhelm you with a woman who moves like water or a man who has the voice of G*d in his larynx. Or maybe you'll just get lil ole me, and that wouldn't be too bad, would it?

In case you are wondering, in my world, you ARE invited.

Here is the website for the event: It's worth just going to see the logo. You can spare ten seconds, can't you?

Pic from the internet.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Lifeboat

There is an old psychology exercise that is used on occasion with groups of people. It is called the Lifeboat. The premise is this: Like on the Titanic, there are only a few seats, about one third of the number of participants. The decision of who will live and who will die is based on democracy. People are voted into the boat. Prior to the vote, each person appeals to the group members for a seat on the boat.

For some people, this is a huge leap to suspend disbelief to the point of being able to do this exercise. For other people, they ask to be allowed in the boat so they can help their children, their work, other people. Some people talk about how they don't believe in the exercise, they think we should find a way for everybody. The insttuctions are clear. Only one third of the people will live.

There are the occasional few people who comprehend the purpose of the exercise - to fight for your life, to convince others that your life is worth saving, to love your life, to live it so completely that you deserve to keep your life more than someone else because you LIVE it. It seems hokey, but it is a sobering exercise, as it is designed to be.

A while back I was in a workshop in which this exercise was used. I was a pretty angry woman back then, but more than that, I didn't believe I deserved life (let alone liberty and the pursuit of happiness). Who was I to live instead of someone else? Heck who was I to take up space and oxygen period? I'd integrated all the horrific words and sentiments that had been tossed my way as I was tossed aside by people who didn't care and by a foster care system that had abandoned integrity. Why would I deserve to live?

What is shocking beyond the scope of the pleading for your life is the response from your group members and the people running the workshop. When you don't get into the boat - and 2/3 don't - people tell you why they didn't or wouldn't have voted for you. It can be something as simple as "I couldn't hear you" to "You didn't show passion." Hearing 10 people tell you why they think you don't deserve a seat in the boat, why they think your life is not worth living, is a breathtaking experience - it takes your breath away. Oddly, people say these things with absolute love and gentleness. Rare is it to find a harsh or spiteful response. People are reluctant at times but are prodded to give your honest and clear feedback (and short, no long-winded diatribes, please).

Many years ago, I was one of the people hearing why I wouldn't get in the boat. I was furious - the audacity of these people! I didn't "believe" in this. It went against my morals. I was outraged! How dare they! We all deserve to live! I won't be a party to this nonsense! ... But under all that, I just didn't believe I was worth it, I passively interacted with life, and I did not live it. I hated my job, I hated my home, I hated my life... I hated myself.

Some people say that the difference between a self-actualized person and the rest of the world is that the self-actualized person is AWAKE! I was sleepwalking through my life. The Lifeboat exercise slammed that home.

One of the men who told me why he wouldn't have voted for me, one of the people running the exercise, was Alan Lerner. A lawyer and a teacher, he was a slight man. His words were matter of fact. There was no malevolence, no nastiness, just reality. He took his reading glasses off and said, "Pamila, I would not have voted for you because..." SLAM. SLAM. SLAM. SLAM. SLAM. SLAM. SLAM. SLAM. SLAM. SLAM. Ouch.

No one would have voted for me - I wouldn't have voted for me. That very well may be the point.

In the following years, Alan and I would begin a slow friendship. He was on occasion the opposing council on a case that I was the Child Advocate Social Worker on. Alan was always debonair and a gentleman, an inner core of steel that was softened by compassion and kindness. He was a man of honor.

Alan died last month. He was a man I regularly visited every time I returned to Philadelphia. He always made time to have lunch or coffee with me. I would meet him at his University of Pennsylvania office. Piles of files didn't detract from the warmth of his space. Family photos and baseball memorobilia surrounded him as he saved families.

It had taken me a long time to forgive him - forgive myself actually - for not wanting to vote for me to have a seat in the boat. Alan Lerner was a man who lived his life absolutely. Thanks to him and about ten other people, I too learned to live my life absolutely. Oh, I fall down at times, but I can dang sure tell you that today, I would be right there in that boat. If Alan were still alive, he'd be there with me.

To honor a man of Alan's stature, to honor him as he deserves, there is little that we can truly do, little that I can do. But there is one thing, only one thing that would be worthy - live.


So, now let me ask you. Why do you deserve a place in the boat? There are only 3 seats, and you'd better believe I'm in one of them. Would you fight for your life? Are you fighting for it today? Are you living it absolutely? If you are not, why not? If you are not, what are you going to do about it? Why should I vote for you to have a spot in the lifeboat?


*Please go here to read Alan's Obituary. It will make you smile.

*photo is from the intenet.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Yes, kissing.

What is the appeal? Is there an appeal? For as long as I can remember it has held absolute fascination for me. But not in the way you would think. Everywhere we go, there is some sort of allusion to it. Lipstick, air kisses, chap stick, botox, butterfly kisses, Eskimo kisses, French kisses... and the ever present man's side - the beard / 5 o'clock shadow kiss bringing swollen lips, red cheeks and chins, brush marks, burn marks, rub marks on sensitive skin.

Why do we love this thing?

There was a period in my life when I never kissed. Even when I was sexual, I refused to kiss - rather like prostitutes. It seemed too intimate, too personal. Sex was just ... another activity, like going bowling or seeing a band or visiting an arboretum. It just was something to do to pass the time. But kiss? Oh no. Mind you, that was a long time ago, and I've changed my tune... in case you were wondering.

Why do we love it so?

In particular I wonder about men. So often, we talk about men wanting only one thing, they are in it to get in a woman's pants. And that ... that stereotype seems so at odds with the stereotype we have for women - who hold back sexuality in order to "catch" their man. The old adage of he chases her until she catches him.

But really, do men even like kissing? Women fantasize about it, practice on our pillows, our hands, our arms, our breasts, we blow kisses in the mirrors, and we look to make kissable, pouty lips with that cherry lip gloss. But what of men? Do they fantasize about combing their fingers through a woman's hair, about pulling her close, about rubbing her soft skin against his rough beard? Do men anticipate that moment or is it just another tool in his arsenal for getting to the goods? Is it just a necessary step that he *has to* do because he can't get to *his* goal unless he pays the price?

Are we talking about the same act? Come on, men. 'fess up... then pucker up!

*photo is from the internet - (Washington Park, Albany, 2007)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

When 2 + 2 = 5

Life is popping along as it will. Here I am spouting off words like it matters. I do love my blog, though. I love having a "journal" type of spot, and I love that on occasion I get a love letter from a friend reminding me of why I do this... to stimulate conversation, to learn from others, to share experiences, strength, and hope. (Not to be to Anon Anon about things, but if the shoe fits, wear it until the heel breaks off!)

There is something glorious about combining two very different things into a wonderful whole. There is a song Gin and Juice by Snoop Dogg that I've heard by this crazy little bluegrass group in ... heaven knows where (the Gourds) The combining of rap and bluegrass is so bizarre that it's groovy! I love that. Irish Ceili in Seoul. German beer and Szechuan, Bobby McFerrin and Chick Corea, Barry White and Pavarotti, Sunshine and rain... ohhh look at the pretty rainbow!

It is in the combining of two different, disparate things that we magically create something new - sometimes dreadful, sometimes amazing. The process is often worth the mistake even when fireworks are not the result.

Happy everything!

And here's the URL for the Snoop Dogg song by the Gourds. Who made this crazy video?
If you can't use the link, just copy and paste.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Walking a mile...

There are a number of websites (google and therefore blogger is one) in which they have chosen to have all the different commands be represented in the language of the IP address of your computer. If you never leave your country of origin or you never go some place where another language is the native tongue, this is not an issue. However, some of us do travel. Not just people like me who go and live somewhere, but flight attendants, sales people, retired folks, etc. who visit and experience different cultures for the short term.

A problem we didn't plan on pops up. When we log onto a computer, we can't read it.


In an internet cafe, it's fine that the other language comes up - of course! But MY computer? MY blog? I can't get into my own writings because I can't read the directions? Some websites (wordpress for example) allow the writer (that's me) to choose the language and then they respect my choice. They don't change the words so I can't read my own blog directions. Some other websites (MSN and Yahoo for example) come up in the native language with a little flag or sign that allows you to change the language with one click. That seems very reasonable. Respect the local language, but don't make foreigners (there are ONE MILLION of us in So. Korea alone) be abandonded to ignorance.

I've been reading up on how to fix this on Blogger because one of my friends invited me to read her private blog. She's spending a year at wilderness camp, learning to live off the land, how to read the stars and to track, and I don't know what all, but it sounds realy cool! So I click on the link she sends me (the link is in English, she's in the USA, she speaks only English), and then the page that comes up is all in Korean! I have no idea which of the 15 or so buttons I should click. There is no option to change her page to English (I can't even change my own page to English for reading purposes). So what to do? It took about 15 minutes to figure it out. *I signed into my gmail account and then tried again. My gmail account was made while I was in the USA - thank goodness - and allowed me to get the English version of things. Now I can read her blog! Yay!

I'm reading the responses to people who have asked google about this on the forums. The responses often say something like "If you go to another country, you should learn the language." Ummm ok. So, I shouldn't be able to use my own? I shouldn't be able to communicate with other native English speakers? I shouldn't be able to access my own accounts? I should be even more cut off from communication until I learn to read Korean really well? That will take at least a year. And what about when I travel to Japan for a few days or a couple of weeks? I shouldn't be able to post photos or share my experiences with anyone because I can't read Japanese? As an aside, have you ever tried to learn Japanese? I mean seriously? Do you know how many characters they have in their language? Let's not even consider Chinese!

So, to the naysayers who sit in their happy little chairs telling me that it is part of the travel experience... Let me say this. Get a passport. Go visit somewhere and see how difficult simple day to day living is. I'm not talking about staying at the Seoul Hilton or the Beijing Ritz or the Tokyo Embassy Suites. Those are places wehere the staff all speak English and will take you to all the really nice tourist attractions where everyone speaks English or at least the signs are in English.

I'm talking about getting an apartment where the rental agreement is in a language you can't read. You don't recognize the food in the grocery store or what the menu says in a restaurant. You can't navigate the bus system or even find someone to ask for help. You can't see a doctor because you can't read the phone book. You overpay because you can't get the discount card because you can't read the application and no one can help you. You can't even try to figure stuff out because the words and letters of the language look like a doodle and you can't see the difference between one symbol and another.

After you do that, and you end up crying in the subway trying to figure out where you are going, or you get so angry and frustrated with trying to get a meal that you end up at the local McDonald's instead of trying the amazing local cuisine, or you stay in your room watching old episodes of NCIS because you can't figure out how to get anywhere... after you have those experiences, you come and tell me how I should learn these other languages just so I can write this note on my computer or call my mother from skype or upload a picture to my flickr account. Yeah, come here. I have an extra pair of mocassins I'm happy to share.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Food and love

Offerings to the gods,

..........hallelujah G*d call

.....grasping failure
..........spaghetti squash brained schemes.

loss of self
.....liquor... and sugar... and flour.
..........fog of forgetfulness

erasing failure. -glorious food!- forgotten celebration of life.

Life from food
.....flavors and scents
..........stirring and heating
...............tantalize, awaken

The skin of love
.....The skin of grapes
..........pacifier for the soul.

Eating - intimate, life giving.
heightened senses
fire charring
burning feral need

Biting and tasting
pleasured love making


Breathe sweet
.....sweet nectar
..........slipping down

salt simmer of life.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Father Judge

Father Judge.

His picture has been circulated the world over. He has taught more people about love and commitment through his death than anyone could in a life time.

Father Judge died giving last rites to a fallen firefighter on September 11. May we all believe so deeply that we give our hearts and bodies to the good.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Guardian of Wisdom

That's my teacher look. Is it daunting enough? I'm such a goofball in class, sometimes I think they don't take me seriously. Now, strong words:

Where's your homework?

There is a great responsibility that comes with teaching. When we present information, we are the experts, we are molding minds and opinions.

Never has that been so real for me as when I received requests from my students. I am doing a research project. What do students here want from their teachers? A wish list, three items. I thought they would say things like "be prepared" or "show videos" or "speak slowly." A few did. Certainly. However, most were about personality - they all boiled down to this: don't hurt me, be kind.

So, today, I remind myself - they are nervous. They want to do well. It is *MY* responsibility to create a safe environment for them to learn, to try, to succeed and to fail, to dust themselves off and get back on the horse.

So... unconditional positive regard. Thank you, Carl Rogers.


The child is the parent of the adult...

I received this note from a man today. He and I went to high school together.

"I realized years ago I and many others were mean to you."

He's not in a 12 step program. He doesn't have to apologize for any harm he did to others. He's just a kind man that realized what he did a long time ago.

I remember high school. I remember it as so many others do - hell. *I was going to say "challenging" but let's be real... It was one of those places where the social was much more difficult to navigate than the intellectual.

This man was not the worst of the people. Hell, I don't even remember the kids that much. I remember being traumatized from what had happened years before. I lived my entire teenage years still reeling from some pretty horrible abuse that had happened in my younger years. I was one messed up kid! Today, people would notice. Perhaps people noticed then, too, but they didn't know what to do.

This one man's apology made me cry, made me remember how hurt I was. It also softened up some hard part in my heart. I hate going back to my old hometown. If it were all forgiven, I wouldn't harbor anger and resentment. Thanks, buddy. Thank you for waking up that sleeping dog and taking the thorn out of its infected paw. Now it's time for the healing.


(yep, that's really me. 9 years old. I've gotten bigger over the years.)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I can hear the policeman's whistle. Shouting - I understand the words "go" and "where". I'm not sure what is being said. There is a woman's voice - frightened and excited. The rumble of the many hanging signs sounds like thunder. Maybe it is thunder. The wind blows pressure in the ears, that moment of no sound then boom! Sound everywhere.

I look out the window. Trash, papers, wrappers, swirling up, defying gravity to rise and then fall as the rain pelts it. The policeman's whistle. Shrill. Rain staccato in its force. Whoosh drop drop. Whoosh drop drop. The street littered with broken bottles and yesterday's news. Today's terror painted with yesterday's foibles.

The center of the typhoon is an hour north. When did space and time collide to become measuring points for one another?

I wonder if classes are cancelled today. They probably are not. Koreans are tenacious people. Perhaps there is an advisory. I can't read Korean. I do not know.

All the weather stations in English say is "wind, rain". They forgot to mention that it's a typhoon.

Tornado drills in high school. I open the door of my room, allow the wind to blow threw. It will end soon. A typhoon is just a hurricane, a tornado. They are all the same. It's just a matter of waiting. Waiting. Listening to the whistle of the wind, the whistle of the policeman.

Funny, the song "Whistle While You Work" runs through my head. It is 7 a.m. now. It's light out. The storm is moving on. And yet it remains, shaking things up, waking people. Is this what life is? Do we need a storm to shake things up, clean out the garbagtge in our souls, let us feel passionately and then clean up the muck?

Hmm. I don't know. What do you think?

*map is from

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bricheros and inter-racial dating

I'm in the Philippines this week. I've been here for a conference, and I've presented a paper on teaching technique. More than that, I've met some lovely people and had interesting conversation.

However, I find myself thinking of the intersection of relationships. Here there are tiny little women, beautiful and what we Americans would consider exotic. They are here with big, bulky (generally speaking) American men. It makes me wonder at what point I would be willing to give up my culture, my religion, my norms in order to be with someone.

In Peru there is a word for the native men who are involved with gringa women - they are called bricheros. It comes from the word for bridge - or at least that's what I tell myself. Maybe it doesn't. Actually, I think that word is porta or some such (like portable or porta-potty... ahhh yes, another reference to toilets in my blog!). Anyway, I look at the women here and I don't feel the connection with them that I would if I were in Peru, in a similar situation.

At what point does the positive from a partner outweigh the positive of history? When do we stop being a person of our land and just a person?

I remember a time that I loved a man from another country. I knew I truly loved him when I was willing to convert to Catholicism for him. There was no doubt in my mind. I loved him and wanted his happiness. That would have been the price of his happiness.

I wonder if that love is what these women feel for the men they are with here. Is it love? Is it the need to get out of a desperate situation? Is it just interesting and exotic for them? I don't know, I can't know. But as a lovely Irishman said to me recently, "The American green card isn't what it used to be."

I don't know. I just don't know. Ponderings. What I think of though in all this is where is the judgmental coming from? I'm finding myself somewhat judgmental in this situation, the same as Koreans do with white men and Korean women, the way Peruvians did about the bricheros and the gringas.

Why do we think it is important to be with "our own kind"? And at what point does the human race stop being "our own kind" in our biased world?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A senseless act of beauty

Itaewon is a seedy part of town. It is here that American GIs troll the streets, looking for bargains, booze, and broads. Just a block or two from the main subway stop is a street affectionately *koff* known as Hooker Hill. There's an old business run up there - the oldest one. It is also the place where foreigners tend to congregate with the Mexican, Greek, and Turkish restaurants. There's a foreign grocery, English bookstore, and the old fast food favorites - Taco Bell, Quiznos, KFC. It is one of the few places where you will see black people congregate - the ones from Africa and the ones from North America. This is the place where Spanish is spoken next to Swahili next to Hindi, next to Tagalog.

Many Koreans won't go to Itaewon - it is dangerous they tell me. They have no interest in being a victim, so they stay away. I'm not sure how much is true and how much is conjecture, but I certainly hug my bag a little closer to my tummy and make sure I walk with confidence. Most places in Korea I don't worry about these things. I lose something? It gets found and returned to me. I drop something? It's still there when I go back to find it. But not in Itaewon. I'm Careful there.

Visiting a pub with a number of Koreans, we a beer, ate chicken wings, pulled pranks on each other and mostly, we laughed. Our group was three or four Korean women, a couple of 20 something Irish lads, a kiwi man, several Korean men, and me.

The laughter and fun was moved to the home of X, one of the (several) bad boys of the bunch. As we walked along the streets of Itaewon with it's smells and hawkers, it's lights and slutty clothes, somewhere along the way I notice a sunflower growing out of a grate in the street. The grate is there to protect the roots of the tree growing there. It's the randomness of it that captures and charms me. The lady who is selling tsaskes tells me that she planted it. There was no time to ask her why or when or how she came up with the idea.

There, in Itaewon, a little bit of joy grows. Some senseless beauty - ambiguous in its origin - is undoubtedly an act of power - power against seedy, power against violence - power against fear.

Grow an act of senseless beauty where ever you may.


Saturday, July 31, 2010

The One That Got Away

There have been two men in my life that I have loved. I don't often talk of the one, mainly because he is married and out of respect for him, his wife, and their relationship. But this is *my* blog, about *my* life. He is half a world and half a lifetime away, and he is right here in my mind.

I'm not sure how he became so important to me. I mean, sure there was a connection - you know the kind. You look at each other and know there is something. It's like the air sizzles. People around you notice, say something, you make Freudian slips around each other, but you deny - to each other, to yourself, and to the world. It was like that between him and me. We are friends. That is all. But in our hearts, we know, we live knowing "if..."

We still communicate on occasion, he and I. As always, there's a part of me that thinks that clandestine word "affair". Oh, his wife knows that we communicate. There is no drama llama nonsense, there is no hiding. But still the word flits through my mind like a word on the tip of your tongue - it's there but you can't quite reach it.

He pulls at my heart. I see him, and I read his posts and chat with him every now and then. Mostly, though, I remember. I remember how I felt beautiful and strong and desirable when I was with him. I remember how much he laughed with me, the night he gave me a gift, the joy I felt being in a room with him and dozens of other people, always knowing exactly where he was that night.

Sometimes now, though, i wonder if it is him I am remembering or the feelings he elicited in me. The passion, the desire. I miss feeling beautiful. I miss feeling strong. I miss knowing that there is someone out there who really does have regrets about me.

He is back home, living a wonderful life with his wife. I don't begrudge him that, and he is happy. He's a dad, he has his hobbies and his work. I wish him well. I live my life, writing, working, having my hobbies and such. He wishes me well.

But every now and then, I indulge in a bit of "what if" daydreaming. I wonder about if I'd met him before his wife did. I wonder about if I'd stayed in the USA. I wonder about if we'd felt the spark when it wouldn't have been forbidden fruit. I like to think that every now and then he has a "what if" moment about me, too. I hope, a vain part of me hopes, that I am at times his Eve dangling an apple before the mists of his memory.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Being an Ambassador

My friend Terry, a lovely Kanuck woman (I probably misspelled Kanuck - arrogant American!), and I were talking the other day about the difficulties of being so very different here. It's like we have a big target on our foreheads, people stare. It is sometimes like being a monkey behind bars in the zoo. "Oooo look at that - they can eat with chopsticks, just like us!" or "Wow! They are speaking our language HA HA HA!" or the worst one, "Get out of my way, damned waygook." That last one can be a real pisser.

In Korea, there is a huge hierarchical system set up. They don't talk about, and it isn't always obvious to us, but it's there in some subtle and some not so subtle ways. The people at the convenience store will take the money from the ajeshis(older men) before taking our money, the older folks can touch others without being reprimanded. More obviously,people defer to each other, stepping aside, bowing their heads, averting eye contact. There are 7 levels of respect in the Korean language. So, the Koreans need to figure out which level to put you into. I've not really managed to let them know that we have (from my observation) about 3 levels in English.*

Koreans can't figure out how old we are, they don't know what job we do or how much money we make or what our title is. Therefore, they can't figure out if we are worthy of respect. So... sometimes ugliness ensues. Their sense of hierarchy smashes right up against our beliefs in equality and fairness. For the most part, the ex-patriates are ok with the difference, we handle it, we respect the culture, we let it go. But some days...SOME DAYS we just want to play Smashmouth.

There is a responsibility that most of us see as part of our duty of living abroad. We are ambassadors for our countries and for the world in general. We don't want to offend, we want them to think well or our countries, we are aware we are *guests* in their country, and frankly we don't need a run in with the law. Geesh, can you imagine that kind of fiasco! So, when they shove us or butt in front of us or slurp their noodles so loudly we can't hear ourselves think, we grin and bear it. Sometimes we grit and bear it. Other days we get in their faces.

I've been here for two months, and already someone has confronted a Korean *for* me and I've confronted one for someone else. We do it when they cross a line that means "danger" to us somehow, and we are careful. Because we are in a foreign environment, we don't always see the danger that comes our way or we don't want to confront it. Realistically, it could be a misunderstanding. So we try to be gentle about it. Ok, sometimes we do it when they just piss us off and have caught us on a bad day. But hey, you don't get to shove (truly SHOVE) my friend out of the way so you can go stand at the front of the line to get into the subway. Evidently men don't get to openly stare at my breasts about a foot and a half from me either.

In the end, we feel the weight of being on display and needing to respect their culture while honoring our own. It can be at times something of a heavy burden. Holding back because we know there is probably misunderstanding is one thing. Letting people bulldoze us is another. It reminds me that there are assholes everywhere. Sometimes I'm the asshole, sometimes I'm the one shat upon. Meh. It's the same everywhere.

*Nothing scientific about this or necessarily even correct, but in case anyone is wondering, the levels as I see them: Authority (the way you talk to a judge or police officer or the principal at school using words like "May" and "would you mind if..."), Informal (the way you talk to most everyone else, ("Can" instead of "may", using first names and no titles, etc.), Friends (the way you can say, "Hey bitch, what's up" to your best friend and not begin a smackdown).

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Urge to Hide from Life

It's not always easy, life.

While generally things are bright and good if we choose to look at them that way, there is always something that is a monkey on our backs. I certainly have them, we all do don't we?

Today is a difficult day for me. I look around my room, the little pink post-its with words that tell me of stories I want to write, characters I want to breathe life into, ideas I want to use, and even though I'm surrounded by these little bits of inspiration, I find it hard to pick up the pen.

I'm feeling overwhelmed - by the simple things - paying bills, errands to run, letters to write, gifts to be gotten, mail to be sent. There is truly nothing overwhelming about them. I just don't know which one to do first!

So, rather than just sit and stew, I'm off to Mrs. Jung's Coffee Shop. She plays jazz music over the speakers and old black and white movies on the wall (no sound). The coffee is good, the chairs are comfortable, and the setting is relaxing.

I think I will make a logo for her ... just for fun. (after I do at least 2 of the things above - paying bills, writing a couple of letters, and perhaps even reading a chapter in a book. I think I'm allowed to rest. I'm allowed to have peace. And as importantly, a good cup of coffee is a blessing.

Best to you all.

Coffee mug is at this website:

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Room of One's Own - a room to create

I found a new place to stay - a place with an actual bathroom! I have a water boiler and made a lovely cup of tea tonight. With a little more space, I've bought plants and, there is a window, there's a desk with a chair. And mostly, there is breathing room.

It's amazing what a little space can do for a person. Dinner here, a pot of coffee in the morning, and a bottle of wine just waiting to be opened. My place to create is here.

Recently I decided to write a book. It poured out of me, the silliest little thing - a book of humor and joy. A book to celebrate silliness. I wrote this short little ten page book the other day as a gift for a friend. Looking for an artist, I realized something. I am an artist. I am learning to draw. No, I am drawing. There is space in this room for art supplies. I am committed to drawing the art work for this little ten page book that I'm making for a friend.

I am writing a book of prayers. Inspired by my friend Mo, I have been writing "Say it in a Sentence" for several months. These little moments of truth are the basis for a book of spirituality. Perhaps the truth of the art will flow through me as well. I can only wait and be open to it.

A place to write... Virginia Woolf said, "For it would seem - her case proved it - that we write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person. The nerve which controls the pen winds itself about every fibre of our being, threads the heart, pierces the liver." And so, my whole person needed a place. This place is my writing place.

Don't be surprised if I write you a postcard, a letter, a note on the back of a used envelope or a book jacket. The need to write is like a drug for me. If I don't write, I will fall inside myself and shrivel into tiny crystallized, broken, brittle pieces. Do you see the words? They sear read hot and smoking in my heart until I open and let them out.... they dance and weep and fly. And I am nothing more than the incubation chamber for the words that live, live, live... Let them breathe. Oh my friends, I must let them breathe.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Let's talk about shit, shall we? Yes, I do mean shit. The real stuff.

In Korea most older bathrooms are squatters. For a woman to "go", one must lift one's skirt, lower one's panties, squat, aim, let flow.... or plop. The Koreans must have amazingly strong legs and great aim. I have neither. And when I'm sick, I'm lucky to get my panties out of the way.

Last week I couldn't keep anything down. Alternately vomiting and diarrhea-ing, my friendly goshiwon bathroom (and kitchen, shower, street vent) became my very own sicky-stop. It was never ending! I did all the things you are supposed to do, eat a BRAT diet (bread, rice, applesauce, tea), lots of fluids, rest. Having had food poisoning a number of times, I presumed that's all it was. One day, possibly two, clear out the old system, and I'll be good as new.

Day three, fever, sweating, chills, and right on the cusp of hallucinations because of dehydration, I decided it was time. I walked into my teacher's art studio, she took one look at me and went into high gear. She didn't even wait for me to speak to tell me she was taking me to the doctor. I must have looked seriously bad. Her tiny little feet click click click around while I moved at a snail's pace trying to just put on some clothes, drink some water, get my insurance card. Oh... and stop to be sick twice before even getting in the car.

By the then, the news of my sickness had spread to all my Korean friends like wildfire. Did I send out a text? Was the timing such that they all happened to contact me at that point? It was actually a combination. I told 2 people, and yet 5 different people were texting me - Can I bring you something? Do you want me to meet you at the hospital? Are you ok? The outpouring of concern was touching. I couldn't talk and concentrate on not getting sick at the car, so AhYoung fielded the calls.

At the hospital, the lovely Dr. Kim (shocking a Dr. KIM)spoke good English and told me about the lab work they would do while some nurse was able to stick a big enough needle into my hand as to break through my nauseous haze. OWWW! Poor Dr. Kim. I laughed and giggled as he checked my tummy. When I put my hands on top of his for the exam, a very intimate act here, the lovely Dr. Kim pulled away. I explained it was the only way to stop the tickling. Ahhh. And then the suggestion of an x-ray. No, I tell him. I'm mildly averse to x-rays, and then re-think(ish)through the fog. What is it for? To check for a blockage. No, I respond. We'll wait till after the lab work and see if it's necessary. He was all *blink blink*. People rarely question doctors here.

The IV fluids did wonders for me. No longer dehydrated, I could think as clearly as I generally do. I didn't have to pay the nausea price for that either! A bacterial infection they tell me. They don't know what, only that I have a fever, and they will treat the symptoms, letting the bacteria die out naturally after about a week. I will feel better in a few days.


I can barely walk, I'm still sweating profusely, and my tummy is dancing somersaults. But I'll feel better in a few days. *sigh*

The prescription - several attempts at explaining my multiple medication allergies resulted in finally learning that the medicine was not any of the hive-producing, itchy tablets. But they are placed in little sealed packets. In this bag, take one little packet 30 minutes before eating. This packet, 30 minutes after eating lunch, in the last packet 30 minutes after breakfast and dinner. All of them 3 times a day to stop the mass exodus from my body after only one bite. I guess they didn't realize I eat 5 small meals a day instead of three big ones. Ahh well.

For the next three days I still had some bouts of sickness, tapering to mere stomach gurgling (like there was a DRAGON in there!) and before I knew it I was good as ... well someone without diarrhea.

I still don't squat, but at least I'm not using everything in sight as my own personal regurgitorium.

Did I mention - ER visit, medication, lab work, IV, the whole shebang. Total bill about $150. Insurance paid half.

*photo off the internet - you don't think I'd actually *go* there, do you? With my knees?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Soccer... Reggae... Dance

Four a.m. I'm home. Finally, a night of dancing. Sweating. Twirling. Laughter. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We started on the subway, my friend and I discussing life, living in Asia as a single woman of a certain age, men (of course), work (of course), friendships (of course). We meet with some 20-something friends of hers, people I'm getting to know and chat and eventually make our way to a Middle Eastern restaurant for falafel, hummus, pita... where I was mistaken for the mother of one of my companions. Oh the food was good. Being singled out as an older woman - not so much.

On the way to the next place, we grab a cab - pouring rain keeps us from walking - and find ourselves in an alcove on a street in the trendy, hip part of town. College students walk about with red FIFA shirts and blinking red devil horns. The bar is a reggae club, but like so many places here, the chairs are pillows on the floor, each table in its own little alcove. Bob Marley is de riguer as is the Jamacain flag and the dredlocks. I'd never seen Koreans with dreds before. Very laid back. A couple of drinks and the soccer game took over. The match trumped dance music, and we watched from our cubby, 4 feet off the ground. My friend and I drifted off to disco-nap heaven and back to watching the game. In the end, Uruguay triumphed (2-1), and we moved on to the next place. The atmosphere was still one of a party on the street, and a certain politeness is generally the norm here.

We arrive. Following what seems a labyrinthian cave, we follow the cave like entrance into a room surrounded by drums, long picnic tables, the smell of candles in the air. Techno music that just couldn't find its way into the rhythm of my body had me watching from the sidelines, while the rest of the group danced. Our own cubby cradling me as I lounged inside its dark earth tones. The room decor reminded me of the abandoned city in the southwest US desert. Everything was earth tones. Sheets were the dance floor for the most part, our shoes in shoe bags from the moment we came in.

At about 1, the d.j. put on Abba and I too was laughing and dancing and shaking my money makers and at last, feeling the ecstasy that only dance brings for me. It sure was exuberant. Pouring ourselves into a cab, we ride along the Han River, wind in our hair, cooling our overheated skin, and find our way back to our homes, back to the quiet, smiles still stretched across our lips.

*photo from the internet

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

dé·jà vu

I met a woman this weekend who recently married a Korean man after knowing him a short time. His English isn't great, she speaks no Korean, and they have chosen a path together of exploration. They will tell all those stories of history ever so slowly, dictionaries at the ready, expectations put away, and surprises jumping out at them. Their stories will unravel to one another step by step, organically.

How do we connect with people without language? How do we know how? Do you ever have the feeling, the absolute awareness of another person? Someone you don't know? Do you experience it? I do. Just yesterday, first day of class. In a room of 30 some students, one man glowed. I don't know who he is, and he doesn't seem to glow for others, but it's like he is brighter in the room than the other folks. Who is he? What's so special about him? And maybe more importantly, why him? Why do *I* see the glow but others don't? Does he see me? Do I glow *for him*? Do I glow for other people? Do they (you?), too, recognize me before ever knowing me?

This thing happens to me on occasion. A man, a woman, a child even will just glow. One of my favoriates is a woman in her 70's, radiating peace and love, and glowing in my presence when I was in my 20's just out of university. She was a good woman, full of love and simplicity. She glowed. I didn't have a word for it then. Now, yes, "glow".

A painting ... no two! in the Louvre glowed for me causing me to sob right there in the Italian Renaissance wing. Immediately upon seeing the second painting I knew it was the work of the same artist - someone I had never heard of until that day. Now I look for that artist's work and have even gone to Italy just to see one of his portraits. A piece of music gets me, too - The Flower Duet just stops me in my tracks. I know not the first thing about art or opera, but I know that these things pull at my soul.

I've come to believe that past life wisps of memory are the mischief makers in these cases. I can't seem to let go. It's like a thought just on the edge of my mind. If I look too closely, it disappears. So I just sit quietly and listen or watch with my peripheral vision.

Today I look at my student, the one in class who glows, and I wonder if we were friends, was he my mother, were we enemies, did he save me in a past life? I will never know the answers to this, but I certainly have to be careful not to look at him too much, not to try figuring it out in class. While people will not look askance at that in front of a priceless painting, they will when you stare at one person long enough.

Gentle reminders of life and continuity, and the mystery... oh yes, the mystery.


*internet photo

Friday, June 11, 2010

Hot Diggety ... Dog Diggety...

Anyone who spends some time with me in a city knows that I love street food! Roasted chestnuts in Rome, pretzels with mustard in Philadelphia, choclo (a kind of big kerneled corn you eat with cheese) in Cusco, and here in Korea I found a hot dog vendor! New York hot dogs, they ain't!

Now, I know that sometimes I'm taking my life into my hands - dreadful food poisoning in Peru comes to mind - but it is so worth it. Not only do you usually get a pretty decent and inexpensive dinner, but you also get to support a small business. I like the honest exchange of money for a service. I like the simplicity of it. I like knowing that my money is helping Joe Q. Public and his family rather than some bureaucrat who doesn't know people from numbers. Yeah, people will have shoes because I chose chestnuts or pretzels, choclo or hot dogs for my dinner.

Tonight a couple got into the elevator, munching down on their dogs. Please understand. This is not socially acceptable behavior. People don't move about eating (or drinking coffee) here. It is against the norms. Must be some slamming good dogs, I'm thinking, and then I realize HEY, that's the place near MY place. Every day I pass Sso Ja Hot Dog stand. I first noticed it because the sign was made by my art teacher, and I recognize her style. Heck, why not?

Dropping my books and research papers off, grabbing my wallet and my outdoor shoes, I scoot on down to the little red outdoor hut and take a gander. I pass on the bulgogi barbecue (beef barbecue) and choose instead the SSo Ja Dog, a delight to eat as much as it is a delight to watch being made. He's the guy on the left, his friend is the guy on the right he tells me of the picture. His black spiky hair and 1940's type glasses so popular with the younger set here frame his smiling face as he cooks the dogs (sausage actually), cutting it into four pieces at a slant. The smell of the grilled meat fills my little corner of the concrete plaza, and I hear the sounds of laughter and people hawking their wares. He takes absolute care and makes precise cuts to the meat with special scissors after placing it in a steamed bun. The bamboo mats used for rolling sushi are the steamer, and the bun is soft, but not gooey. A clump or two or three of cabbage and onions beside the steaming sausage, and then the sauces. He flips the ketchup and mustard bottles like a bartender with a bottle of Cuervo and dances the red and yellow in wavy lines, perfectly proportioned to the very edge. I ask for hot sauce, and he says, no ... for Koreans. I tell him I live in Korea, I tell him about the goshiwon and the university and pepper my speech with enough Korean that I pass his meager test, and hot sauce flits down the inside of the warm, not gooey bun.

Wrapped in paper, he hands it to me with a smile and a flourish, and tells me to come back another time. In the sanctuary of my room, four floors up, I bite into possibly the best sausage sandwich I've ever had. It was hot, I will tell you. Yep. It was hot, and it was spicy, and it burnt my tongue. And I loved it.

He had asked if I wanted two or one. I decided one since maybe I wouldn't like it. Smarter that way, you know. Now, I wish I'd asked for two but don't have the gumption to run back down and ask for another. I bite into an apple from my fridge, and the cold takes away the heat in my mouth. And I ponder. How often can I go for a sausage sandwich without being obnoxious? I mean seriously - two fifty. That's how much a Korean hot dog costs on the street. Five bucks for two. All you have to do is give your money to the nice man with the spiky hair, and you have a party in your mouth! Next time I'm taking the five bucks with me. Life should always be so rocking!

Photo from internet. I gotta get a camera.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Wherever you go, there you are...

:: Warning :: Self pity to follow ::

I'm not good at relationships. It's the truth. I have lived my life from one place to the next, not really getting close to people. I'm always surprised when someone tells me they love me. I don't quite trust their confession anyway. I've lived separate from my family most of my life. The ones I did live with have passed. In many ways, I'm alone in the world. It's not a terrible thing. It's just... a thing.

When I was coming up (that's growing up for those of you who don't speak "Philly-ese"), I remember silence. Days and days of silence. I figured out early on that speaking could be my downfall. Seeing the truth and speaking it was not acceptable. My father used to tell me that I was so fat that the grates in the street would collapse under me if I walked on them. "But cars weigh more than I do, and they go over them all the time," I told him. My realization cost me. I didn't see his hand coming, but I sure did see the stars after. In school, a teacher was tired of my silences and gave me an assignment. I was a good student, and I always completed my work. My new task? Read a story to the class. She was a smart lady. In first grade, we were told to write about something we hate to do. I wrote "I hate to talk. It always gets me in trouble." Some things never change.

And so, this week, in vino veritas. Except it was soju and cervezas. I was told that I say X about someone and it angers him. I didn't know I did that! It was an ugly thing, and I say it in jest, not knowing it was upsetting. I'm so glad he told me. I want to watch my words. I know I will bite my tongue and weigh my words when we are together. We drink to that. And the alcohol sets in. Again, between the two of us there is a misunderstanding, and I wonder if he is right... and then.

And then I yelled back. I said the quiet, niggling little things that my "diplomacy" and my "humor" never allowed me to say. It was not pretty. I stand behind what I remember saying (not that it is accurate, but what I think I said). It could have been said in a more kind way. I didn't have to be a jerk. There is no excuse. I chose to throw back those drinks. I know I'm not a happy, silly drunk. Usually, I'm a sad drunk. Not this time. Evidently I'm also a bitch drunk.

The guilt I feel, the turning in my gut, the self-loathing are getting to me a bit. I'm embarrassed that I angered my friend. *Is he still my friend? I don't know*.

So, here I am. Still crap at relationships. I suppose now I remember why I don't believe people when they say they love me. Who would love someone who was such a jerk? And now my tummy hurts knowing I have to face him in a day and a half. I will. I won't hide. But still I will hear all the things in my head that I say, that I've heard others say to me. And I will avoid the street grates. Who knows? Maybe my fathead self really will break them.

*photo is from the internet.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Comfort Women

I can hear it before I see it. Loudspeakers. A woman's voice. Greenery all around me, the indignation and anger of women breaking the serenity of the garden I am walking through. On the other side, main street, the whirr of bus wheels going by, an occasional car horn, and the discussions of passersby don't interrupt the protest outside the Japanese Embassy in the Insa-dong section of town. Every Wednesday, 12 noon, there is a protest for the comfort women.

It is not often you see a Korean woman taking charge. For sure they do behind closed doors, but not in public. Women here are an enigma. They appear soft and flowing, like the organza skirts and blouses they wear for their office jobs. They are quiet, they seem serene and move with elegance and grace.

Not so, here. Here, in front of the Japanese Embassy, about 150-200 people gather to hear a tiny woman. Young women begin. They are passionate, full of power; they rev the masses up, chants and shouts, banners and home made posters wave in the spring breeze. Haksang (students) and adjummas (middle aged women) are united to call out their rage of the atrocities poured onto this tiny woman, and others like her. She moves slowly, a pale pink blouse and straw cap protecting her from the sun. Her voice is strong. She is one of the few surviving comfort women, girls really, who were kidnapped and forced to serve Japanese soldiers in sexual slavery during World War II.

The woman next to me holds a sign urging the Japanese government to take responsibility for its role in the abuse of these stolen women. It is written in Korean. Around me though, I see similar signs in Japanese and English. A man sells a book - or is t a DVD? I can't get close enough to tell. The picture on the front looks quite a lot like the woman in the pale pink shirt and the straw hat. She takes the podium, her words full of fire. She is hearty and hale. While I can not understand the language, the message is clear. "Ilbon" (Japan) is a word often spoken during her diatribe. Each time it is spoken, it comes out with disgust.

There are so many things that separate us, this little woman and I. Age, race, culture. But there is one that brings us together. We are both women. We are both women who know the atrocities one person can throw upon another, disregarding humanity. How often do we have the opportunity to be in the presence of someone who has survived such horror? I owe it to her, to women everywhere, perhaps to history itself, to bear witness to the message.

*There are estimated to be between 100-200 comfort women still alive.*

Here is a short documentary regarding this:

A personal story about comfort women can be found here:

(photo from internet)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Flushing with possibility

I'm having a torrid love affair in Korea. Yes, I am. I'm not ashamed to tell you that I ended a love affair with a beautiful man and have commenced upon a new tet-a-tet.

It is certainly a new experience, this love affair. It is with the plumbing here. Ahhh, you may not know about the wonderful toilets here. Yes, you read that right - the toilets. Whether it is intermission at a concert, a break between meetings or stooping by an office building's facilities, there is always the opportunity for a little love in the afternoon!

How is it possible to be in the midst of such scandal? If only you had access to what is de riguer here. yes, yes there are squatters and the common western thrones, but on occasion, when you are very lucky and the planets are aligned just so, you find yourself in a top of the line stall that promises you expulsion bliss.

On the sides are two rows of buttons. One row warms the seat - ahhhh lovely, happy winter bum! The other row has choices of spray or stream, angled just so, heaven! Turn up the temperature, or down if you dare, and soon Hitachi will be out of business.

When you've ended your sordid exploits in the loo and have lit up a fag, there is always the blow dry option.

Yes, my darlings, even the toilets are risque in Korea.

*pic is off the internet... couldn't seem to upload mine!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

It's a long life...

... and there are many of them.

Friday, May 14, 2010

It's Beca's 40th birthday! Woo Hoo!!!! And she's having a big party! Woo Hoo!!! Many of my friends are flying into Washington D.C. for her party! Woo Hoo! Flights from here cost $1,600. Woo. Hoo. *sigh*

People ask if it's hard to be far from people. Of course it is, but it is the price I pay for the work I do, for the life I live. In moments like this, though, it is beyond hard. It is lonely. I want to be there, hug them, dance with them, be silly with them. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY can flirt like my friends and I when we get together - sometimes innocent batting of the eyelashes, a deep in the throat growl, actual gawking, seductive looks, flipping of the hair, we do it all! Sometimes we don't do a thing, and the cleavage, tight skirts, big hair and scent of sexy woman is enticing enough. Vaa Vaa Vaa Voom!

But none of that for me for Beca's fortieth. $1,600 was more than I could commit for a party, and the time change would have thrown me. Let's not even talk about trying to ask for the time off. It just wasn't gonna happen.

*Cue the music.* Here she comes to save the day!!! Alana! My hero! She is Wonder Woman (complete with bustier, flippy dark hair, and invisible plane). Ok the plane is actually Skype. From Florida to DC she took her computer with her, carrying it to the restaurant, and making sure the webcam worked, and she was Lt. Uhura on the Star Ship Birthday Palooza!

We toasted Beca's birthday, them with evening adult beverages, me with a tiny bottle of champagne I picked up just for this event. I met new people that I've only heard of, blew kisses to old friends, and laughed half a world away from the physical party. Wonder Alana Woman trudged from here to there, her camera distorting images until she landed on someone and shared the scene with me.

Laughter turned to tears as I told her in a private moment how much it meant to me to be included. Without Alana, I would have been left out of my girlfriend's birthday party. I can't tell you how it touched me to be a part of it. It is good to belong. Much love to Alana, my Wonder Woman.



Sunday, May 9, 2010

Good Sunday Morning to you

See that beautiful woman in the picture? That's me. Best picture I've ever taken in my life. I guaran-dang-tee you that is NOT how I look in the morning. Not at all. No. Uhn uh. Not even close. Can I have an amen?


Morning, Sunday. 0700 I agreed to help my dear friend Ramon with the selling of his stuff as he prepares for the next chapter in his travelog. We've known each other for years and in two countries, neither of which is our own. I'm not really looking forward to his leaving, but a promise is a promise, and at the end of the day, I want to make his leaving as easy as possible for him. Even so, you might say I'm dragging my ass a bit. It's Sunday morning for goodness' sake! *sigh*

Living in a goshiwon is a lot like living in a dorm... with a bunch of people who don't speak my language and who have strange food habits (to me) and who are quiet and then screechingly loud at unnervingly odd intervals. There is Mrs. Bossy, who thinks that yelling at me in Korean will make me understand her, Divorced Mrs. Kim who believes George Bush was a great president... because he's a Christian. All righty then. And the manager who is always trying to get me to drink soju or makolay with him. He was drunk once and thought it would be a good idea to tickle me and then to corner me so he could pour his soul out to me. I hate being around drunk people. Imagine what it's like around drunk people who don't speak your language. Patience, young Skywalker, patience.

Sunday morning. Right. So I'm taking my draggy butt to the bathroom, necessitating leaving my room and going down the hall when I run into Miss Oddball. Now y'all know that if *I* think she's odd, we're talking serious strange. A bit of background on Miss Oddball. I have tried in my friendly way to say hello (in Korean and English), offered her half of my lunch - she's emaciated poor dear, and just generally tried to be pleasant without words. She always walks away, head down, shaking her hand at me. Yeah, she's odd. She showers in the morning. No, that's not the odd part. The odd part is she showers with the door open, hunkered down, with all her clothes on, and instead of using the shower, she pours water into a bowl, then pouring it over her hair and such proceeds to clean herself in front of G*d and everybody. Odd.

Generally speaking, I wouldn't care about this odd behavior (maybe she's claustrophobic?), but she uses the one ladies' shower that actually is a shower. The other stall's shower feature doesn't work. So in essence she and her clothed bird bath take up both the women's showers, and woo, we get a bird's eye view. *I don't watch, I wait in my room... and usually shower at night to avoid her. I prefer that anyway, but there is the odd morning when I wake up all sweaty (see how I slid in that word "odd" with a different meaning? Heh. I'm clever).

So Miss Oddball sees me Sunday morning (you thought I'd forgotten, didn't you?), and actually laughs at me in my pajamas. My pajamas are brown with pink polka dots, spaghetti straps. Shirt and pants. Very respectable. Ok, so a lot of decolletage shows, but unless I wear a turtleneck, that is par for the course. So there she is, Miss Bird Bath Oddball, laughing at me. Don't do that when I've just gotten up, had no coffee, and gotta pee like a race horse.

I believe my response to her snortaciousness was as follows: Yeah, right. Like you got room to talk, sister. You shower with your clothes on. Pfffffffffffft.

Thank goodness she doesn't speak English.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Piano that was Grand

Walking through the main building of campus, one sees the President's Office, the Mail Room, Academic something or other all brought together by a cold hallway, the floor a series of laminated squares exacly the same. Step. Step. Step. It's institutional in its very monotony. However, there's a coffee shop and small store, bright rooms, soft lounge couches, and in the sterile lobby a grand piano, covered with a purple cloth, saving it from dust and debris that blows in with the hourly rush of students hurrying from one building to another. The rumor is that the Vice President likes music. I learned that indeed it is true when he caught me singing while I walked down the hallway. A small world - he has a son studying at The University of Pennsylvania Law School and another one who is at Berkely. Small world, indeed.

The second floor of this building has a loft type half wall that looks down onto the lobby, and it is on this floor that the faculty lounge is located. The computers are slow, the coffee is burned, but it has one truly redeeming factor - it is the warmest place in the building thanks to a kerosene heater that spits out heat (and odor) to keep our stiff fingers supple.

After midterm week, I found myself alone in the lounge listing grades. I followed the university prescribed formula, shaking the rusty equations from the back of my mind, contemplating mean, median, and mode. My university statistics lessons were taunting me. Soon, I was immersed in the numbers and putting grades to names when a sound wafted into my conciousness, shaking my concentration, and I realized it was someone playing the piano.

This is not some common occurrence. And this is not Chopsticks. I don't know what the piece was, but I snuck out and peered over the wall to see a student, t-shirt and faded jeans unselfconciously playing something haunting and gentle. I stood mesmerized that this young man, and indeed he was young, could play a tune that pulled at the very heartstrings of an old cynic like me. He played until he finished, his fingers lingering for just a moment on the keys. I held my breath hoping he would begin a new tune, but he had other plans. Picking up his cell phone, reading a text message, he left, just another student in t-shirt and faded jeans having warmed our building with not just music but with a sense of wonder.


*photo is from the internet. (I gotta buy a camera.)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

There was a celebration this week at my university. And like all celebrations there were speeches and flowers, gifts, and photographers... and bowing. A lot of bowing.

When one chooses to live abroad, in a land where the language is foreign, one must choose to either be very arrogant and self-centered or to embrace ambiguity. One, in this instance being moi. My choice? Ambiguity.

First, we learn all the I am's ... Je suis, Yo soy, Nanin imnida. We communicate about ourselves and who we are (I'm a student, I'm a woman, I'm a daughter) first and then we learn the things that attach to us. Where is the train / bathroom / bank? Quiero pasta fagioli, dos coronetos, mul chusayo. "I" am the center of the communications universe.

And this is where many people end their learning. Honestly, I don't know how to say "what's your name," "what did you do last night," "is that a picture of your family" or any of the other things that one picks up living abroad. Korean is proving to be quite a challenge. But a few words here and there are making it into my lexicon. The other day, I learned "haksang" (student). I drew a picture of birds and pointed to a group of high school girls who were chirping and flitting about like birds, and the ladies in the shop taught me the word. But I digress.

Back to the ceremony. A room like the UN, there were headphones for interpretation (channel 1 for English), and men sat at attention in dark suits, their ties sparkling under the lights. Koreans have the most gloriously beautiful ties. Truly, they sparkle. Anyway, ambiguity. A woman dressed in Buddhist prayer garb was given an award, a metal placed around her neck, and she put her hands in prayer position as she bowed first to the school's president, to the other people on the stage, and then to us, the audience. "Who is she?" I whisper to the man next to me (sparkly tie). He tells me she is not attached to the university except that she gave a huge endowment to the law school. There is another man who also receives an award. He runs one of the largest newspapers in the country. He speaks with humor and a glint in his eye, and it doesn't take language to feel his charm. She is peace, he is charm . I have no idea what they said.

But this I know - they were both happy even if their joy was shown in different ways. A smile is a smile as long as it reaches the eyes. Calm is calm no matter whether it comes from meditation or laughter.

Ambiguity has taught me (there it is) about people. We are all the same - we all want to belong, we all want to be appreciated, we all want to feel safe. And we all want to feel joy.

May you be one with the ambiguity around you.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

I should draw a bird on a canvas. A tiny little bird in freedom...

"You are showing me a whole new part of Seoul," she tells me. "I am Korean. I'm suppoesd to introduce you to my country." She smiled when she said it, and I think she meant it. I don't believe she was offended. She had directed people here and there in the past but hadn't experienced it herself. I was reminded of "saber" and "conocer" in Spanish. To have information, to have experience. Both meaning "to know". My friend had never been to the galleries that are my regular haunt. I was thrilled to show her something, to give something back after all the times she had helped me since my very first full day in Korea. She studies Shakespeare and talks of the Oedipal Complex of Hamlet, and tells me about her favorite poetry. At that first meeting I hoped she would become my friend. Yes, I think she will be my friend. It is a process, but it is also just a great pleasure to talk with another woman, one with similar interests.

One of our first stops is a back door with a black cape at the entrance, closing off the sun. As we clomp down the steps, we see our own image and I wonder aloud if it is an interactive exhibit. And it is. There are etchings and photographs but what captures our attention is an electronic drumset. As my friend sits down, she plays a beat and the words come out with each tap "money", "nothing", "passion". "Passion, passion, passion," she taps. The artist comes to us and shows that changes can be made to the pattern, and as I sit down, she puts on laughter. Each thump of a drum is accompanied by a giggle, a chortle, a guffaw. And before I realize it, the studio is filled with the sounds of joy. It is not clear where the recording ends and our own laughter begins. How glorious! How beautiful! We thank her for bringing such happiness to our day, and move along, stopping here and there to admire handmade hats and ceramic cups and the smell of hot cinnamon filled waffles.

A shiny black building appears, and I say "Oh we must go in!" and she tells me that when she walks by she thinks it must be expensive. Oh no, it is free - I have been there several times. I am so excited to show her this place! We start at the top of the Insa Arts Center, the fifth floor, and make our way down. There are paintings of trucks and highways, landscapes and some modern art that anyway.... At some point we walk into a room that takes my breath away. Wooden tablets, a single line and ripples of waves in brown and tan and chestnut and walnut - every hue of brown imaginable. She reaches out and touches the wood - she touches something in every exhibit - and smiles in her mischievous way.

His words flow through her, the artist talking of cutting then bonding the pieces of wood together, shaping, chiseling. His hands move as he talks, his passion evident. I understand him. Even without all the words, I can feel his love for the grain and the swirls, his pleasure in finding the most beautiful pieces, sanding them down. "A single raindrop" he says in English, and "ripples" I reply. He smiles and says "yes". The two of us in synch for that one moment. He signs a pamphlet for me, writing that he will not forget our meeting, and I leave him with my turqouise pen so he can sign for others. I am certain others will want his autograph. I am deeply touched by his work. My grandfather was a carpenter, you see. Wood calls to me in some odd way. But I digress.

There is a woman who lived in the USA, her husband studying at the university where I taught a year or two ago. She talks of the war in Iraq and how the photos had touched her, traumatized her. Her drawings are black and white, drippings of blood red here and there. I choose to see the harmony of a song, the taking of light and shadow and making a harmonious study of life. We smile and talk of the interconnectedness of nature and people. I tell her of Walden's Pond and Thoreau. She talks of her art showing the oneness of humanity despite our differences. We shake hands and bow and end with a kiss to each other's cheek. The oneness of humanity right there in our saying goodbye.

We talk with several artists, my friend and I. A painter who made the most sensitive paintings of flower bouquets, the colors bursting out, dot dot dot of magenta and buttercup and royal blue. "It must be a woman," I whisper. "No man is sensitive enough to make these paintings." A flier on the wall shows the artist's photograph, and I turn and there he is in a tan zip up jacket you might buy at Lands' End or Eddie Bauer, his hair cut close to his scalp, a regular Joe that blends into the crowd except for the twinkle in his eye. Oh my prejudice. Foolish girl. The artist does not speak English but for a few words, and I am the same with Hangul. My friend, though, speaks both. She is not quite fluent, but almost, almost. This quiet, unassuming man has the depth to show flowers so beautiful you can smell them, hear the bees buzzing about. He takes us to the central painting (You can see it in the link. There is a woman in profile, flowers to her back and a great open white space in front of her and chunks of color at the top of the painting.), the one the rest of his paintings spring from, and he explains of how the water dries in this spot, changing the color of the fabric in a way that can not be controlled. This is the space of G*d, he tells us, and the place where paint is controlled by him is the space of people. What a man. He explains his paintings as so many of the artists have done, and we leave with a deeper understanding. I am half in love with him as we walk away.

How can I lure you to come with me some time? To meet my friend. Come see the art of Korea, meet the people. Perhaps you too will be touched by passion, perhaps a mirror will be held up of your prejudice, and perhaps, just perhaps, a slight woman humming with the power of two languages will show you the togetherness of us all.


Friday, March 26, 2010

Yellow Dust

Pollution in China wreaks havoc on people in Japan and Korea. Every year in March, the yellow dust - pollutants from Chinese factories - blows down to cover the sky of other countries. Last week I had to use my inhaler. I wondered what was going on.

The next day I saw this story:

The following is a direct quote from the paper:

The worst-recorded yellow dust storm hit the nation on Saturday, causing the weather agency to issue its first nationwide warning, according to the Korea Meteorological Administration.
The KMA lifted the yellow dust warning at 4 a.m. yesterday as the storm weakened overnight.

In the afternoon, the yellow dust moved out of the country following the low-pressure system that was quickly moving eastward, the KMA said. Yellow dust in China's northern region also quickly weakened and became less likely to affect the peninsula.

"With the wind blowing from the southwest, the possibility is that the density of fine dust in the western coastal region and some inland areas can get thicker on Monday. Thus, extra caution needs to be taken to take care of your health," a KMA official said.

The sandstorm, which scientists blame on China's industrialization and deforestation, hit the nation Saturday for the fifth time this year.


On Saturday, the Chinese capital of Beijing was blanketed with the yellow dust, as a sandstorm caused by a severe drought in the north and in Mongolia swept into the city, according to news reports.

The storm, which earlier buffeted parts of northeastern China, brought strong winds and cut visibility in Beijing.

Authorities issued a rare level-five pollution warning, signaling hazardous conditions, and urged residents to stay indoors.

Sandstorms frequently hit the arid north of China in the spring, when temperatures start to rise, stirring up clouds of dust that can travel across China, to Korea and Japan and even as far as the United States.

Sounds to me like somebody needs to plant a tree or ten thousand...

*photos from the internet... but that one of the earth is pretty cool, huh?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Subway... and I don't mean the Sammich

Hey everybody,

I had a rough kind of day today, and rather than pretend everything is hunky dory, I thought I would share it here.

I was on the subway and had sat down (it was a 2 hour subway ride and my feet hurt). And as people filled up the train, eventually, I got up so an older gentleman could sit down. Another man offered to let me sit next to him, and slid over to make room. Ok, so subway seats for Asians are just about big enough for half of me. So I smiled and pantomimed "big hips" and "no thank you" and everyone was really smiley about it. When a spot opened they said to sit down, which I declined, and they were talking about me, telling the new person who had just entered the car about me and my big hips. I know this is what was said because the teller copied the pantomime I had done. They were all good natured about it and friendly, and I detected not even an iota of malice toward me. Just a simple acknowledgement. (Like how Latinos call people Gordito - which means Fatty - but it's very affectionate and no malice there either)... well... after a couple of stops, I moved further down the car and found myself crying.

I felt like those people didn't see me, they didn't see a friendly foreigner. They saw me as fat. And that just cut right to the quick. *Now, I know they also saw the friendly part and they saw me being respectful to an older person, and in that way I was a good will ambassador, but something about the interaction just kind of broke my heart. My face was flushed in shame and my tears actually dripped off my face.

The weird thing for me is that I almost never feel this way. I know I'm a big woman. I know that I have a thyroid issue. I know that I'm pretty healthy - eat mostly really well, exercise daily (not as much as before, but HEY, I'm working now). I know that people love me, are attracted to me, I'm a sexy, sensual woman...I usually feel ok about my body - I love it... or at least I enjoy it. But something about today and those tiny little people, and my big hips. I felt like a beached whale.

Because the people on the subway were 100% pleasant and positive and kind even, I can not say anything bad about them - I was not a victim of cruelty or mean spirited ribbing. Every bit of shame and upset that I had came from inside me.

I don't know if this is me "bottoming out" as they say in AA, or whether it is just a singular incident in my life, but this much I do know. It was 3 p.m. and I hadn't had lunch. I finished the errand that had taken me on a 2 hour subway ride, and decided to get some lunch before I left to face rush hour traffic (you don't know traffic until you are stuffed in a kimchi smelling subway, unable to move because of the press of bodies against you... ahem)... So I walked around - Japanese Restaurant NOPE, Korean restaurant NOPE, McDonald's HECK NO, and then I saw a place that was a coffee / sandwich shop. It was called Momma's Diner or something like that. So I went there, got a strawberry banana juice, a turkey sandwich (on amazing black bread) and ate my meal. I drank some water, and I ate the pickles and salad that came with the sandwich, then I read my book for a bit. I relaxed.

Dinner was some soup (I've caught a cold), and a bit of humble pie I suppose.

That was my rough day... in the midst of eating generally really wonderful, healthy, yummy food, I needed to be reminded to stop and take care of myself.

My shame still lingers around the edges, 5 hours later. I still feel sad, but I know that tomorrow morning I will go to my gimbop shop (where I have an account now!), and I will have a healthy breakfast of gimbop, soup, and two veggie dishes and a liter of water. I know that I will go to work, and I will eat a healthy lunch in the cafeteria like every day. And then when I return home, I will get some apples and yogurt at the store (I just ran out a few days ago), and I will continue on as I do. There is some comfort in knowing what will happen tomorrow, and that I don't have to beat myself up for some presumed failure on my part.

But this I commit for just 24 hours. No sugar. That is all.

Love to you all.

*map is (of course) from the internet