Thursday, March 31, 2011

Challenging Love

Recently it's felt like my faith has been under fire -a test of sorts to see if I can actually practice the very things I claim to believe. It's been happening in various ways, but I'll elaborate on a specific way now.

I realize it's easier to be kind to people who are kind, or at least neutral, to us. The challenge, of course, lies in demonstrating kindness and love to those we deem unlovely. And so I find myself dealing with a few challenging individuals. They're in the periphery of my life, which is to say that while we're not in close contact, I encounter them on a regular basis.

Feeling frustrated on my walk home from work tonight, I knew I needed something to motivate me. Is it any surprise that while reading a book by another author, I stumbled upon this quote from my one of my heroes:

Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.  -C.S. Lewis
The book I was reading was The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman. These words of his were particularly timely and resonated with me:
Love is a choice, not a feeling.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Intimate, Awkward

My students (all 173!) are in the midst of writing 5-paragraph essays, and I've been drowning in a sea of rough drafts as I attempt to provide helpful feedback. 

The assigned topic was to share three interesting facts about themselves, and while reading through their papers, I've learned many remarkable details about their lives. I've also learned that I will soon need to give a mini-lecture on the word intimate. I'm not sure what Korean word students are inputting into their electronic dictionaries which in turn translates to intimate, but more than a handful have said things like this in their essays:
Do you want to be intimate?

Be intimate with me!

My best friend is intimate with me.
Surely they mean something along the lines of:  Do you want to get acquainted? Let's get to know each other! My best friend and I are close.

While I'm not looking forward to the awkwardness of clearing up this vocabulary confusion, I realize that many of the students hope to study abroad, and the embarrassment that could ensue should they use the word out of context could be potentially devastating.

Duty calls.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Double Eyelids

There's so much to say on this topic, although I feel a little uncomfortable doing so.  And yet, it comes up often here.

Today in class we were talking about superlatives (the best, the worst, the tallest...), and the discussion included an opportunity for students to share their opinions on what the biggest problem facing Koreans today is. Several students mentioned looksism -which they explained is the practice of discrimination based on looks.

It makes me sad how prevalent plastic surgery has become here. The double eyelid procedure is the most popular of all -even guys have it done. Students have told me that it's common to do the surgery after they complete their college entrance exams, before they arrive at university. Others wait until term breaks, often before they begin their job search.

Drug stores and cosmetics shops sell double eyelid tape and glue (I suppose this is similar to wearing false eyelashes...?). I'm trying my best to understand that it's a culturally accepted practice. Even so, I was shocked to find the kid-friendly notepad pictured below -seems the socialization process begins very young.

Did you catch the caption on the notepad? A[n] ostrich has a beautiful double eyelid.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Take a Rest

I've begun to use words and expressions while living here that seem to be unique to Korea. Probably the one I use most often is:  take a rest. I'm not even aware that I say it, although whenever I do so around a certain American friend, she points out that I'm becoming so Korean.

For the uninitiated, here's a scenario involving the expression:
Me:  Wow. I'm really tired!
Colleague:  Oh, you should take a rest.

In the States, we take a nap and take a break, but when it comes to resting, well, we just rest (as in:  I'm going to rest for awhile.). What a fun yet confusing language!

Wish I could take a rest right now, but alas, a stack of essays awaits me.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Welcome, Spring!


Living in a place with four seasons, it's fun to look forward to and welcome each one as it arrives (well, maybe not the hot, sticky summers of Korea, but the other seasons are fun to anticipate).

Even though it actually snowed last week, the calendar heralded spring's official arrival. To celebrate, I hosted a little soiree last night at chez moi. Some girls from my church came over, and we dined on tasty homemade apps while sipping wine. More important than the food however was the opportunity to fellowship while discussing the joys and challenges of living here. It was good to laugh together and groan in empathy as we swapped stories of our Korean adventures.

It has not escaped my notice that wherever I've lived, God has been faithful to place people in my path with whom I can connect on meaningful levels. One of the biggest difficulties for me since landing in Korea has been living at great distance from loved ones back home. Yet God has brought new people into my life, some of whom are like surrogate sisters, cousins, and parents (in fact, two of the girls who were here last night share the names of my own sisters). Talk about a personal God!

Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, Your faithfulness to the skies.  -Psalm 36:5
I will sing of the Lord's great love forever; with my mouth I will make Your faithfulness known through all generations.            -Psalm 89:1

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It's a Wrap

Yesterday after class, a student discreetly passed me a note as he was leaving. Then, while pointing to his side, he said:  Be careful. Watch out. I was visibly confused, and even after opening his note, I was still uncertain of his message. 

Here's the note:

After a round of charades, I finally realized what he was trying to tell me -the wrap sweater I was wearing has a small slit sewn on the side, used to pull the tie through. Except, the student thought it was a hole and was concerned that my clothes were falling apart and that I'd soon be in an embarrassing situation.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In Plain Sight

As an addendum to yesterday's post, I ought to share something with you. 

For every observation of a local fashion or custom that challenges my Americanized/Westernized perception of masculinity, there's another one that loudly and clearly proclaims male on a universal level.

How can this be, you ask?

Hiding in plain sight are statues, tombstones, and household tchotchkes formed in the image of a uniquely male part. 

This weekend, while walking through a pottery shop stocked with traditional Korean vases and teacups, I spotted a highly unusual ashtray -or maybe it was a mint holder. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed in the store, so I can't show you an image, but trust me, it's indelibly seared in my brain. 

Three months ago, my department's holiday dinner was held at a nearby restaurant. The photo below is of a statue in the restaurant's lobby:

And I took this photo on the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace, one of the most popular tourist destinations:

I'm not sure if one should apply symbolic meaning to these types of structures or take them as is. Perhaps our Korean readers could shed some light on the matter? 

Monday, March 21, 2011

On Masculinity

Living in Korea has me often thinking about gender stereotypes and norms.

On a daily basis I observe things that are unusual by traditional American standards, such as:  guys carrying handbags (not merely messenger bags, but full-on purses like satchels, hobo bags...). This practice is utterly common in Seoul. I'm not saying every guy carries one but certainly enough that those who do, don't look out of place.

Same goes for long fingernails on men.

Ditto for wearing sweatshirts with teddy bears or puppies.

Using light foundation and cover-up is also common for guys here. 

Last week I bought the cutest pair of pink + white gingham boxer shorts in the men's section of a store. And at Uniqlo, one of my favorite shops (which, incidentally, happens to be Japanese), I consistently find a much better assortment of colors and prints in the guys' area.

I'm by no stretch a sociologist, but I do find such observations fascinating. In Korea, these guys completely blend in. Yet, transport them to Austin, LA, or NYC, and I'm pretty sure they'd stand out considerably. Moreover, I'd venture to guess that if in those geographical contexts, most wouldn't want to be noticed for any of the above reasons.

Where am I going with this? Not really sure. Maybe I'm evaluating my own understanding of gender norms and the reasons why I'm drawn to certain traits over others. I'm thinking that much of what I've long-considered masculine or feminine has a lot to do with the particular influences that I encountered from childhood and beyond -which are likely to be different from what another American's specific influences were and are.

So now I'm wondering:  would I still find Rock Hudson (circa 1960's) dreamy if I'd been born and raised elsewhere? Or Colin Firth as Mr./Mark Darcy? 

Or, would Won Bin be my #1 crush (as is the case with 99% of my female students)?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

On Japan

I feel negligent for not writing earlier about the recent devastation in Japan, though it is certainly on the minds of many here. If I were able to speak Korean, I'd have a better grasp of the natives' take on the situation. That said, from what I've observed this week while conversing with colleagues and conducting writing workshops with students, the subject seems to be top of mind for a lot of people.  

It's difficult for me to wrap meager human understanding around such a terrible event, which may explain why I've been reluctant to talk about it in this forum. When I don't understand something, I tend to ask questions, and I usually begin with Why?

In circumstances such as these, it can be tempting to believe that God is unfair or unkind for allowing such events to occur. However, I'm reminded of words from Beth Moore regarding a more appropriate response^:
1. Acknowledge His ways are higher than ours. We don't have all the information or understanding.
2. Acknowledge what we do know about God. Anytime you are overwhelmed by what you do not know or understand about God, consider what you do know about Him. Your heart and mind will be quieted, and you will be able to walk in faith.

Depending on your perspective, these may not be the easiest or most natural steps to follow. As for myself, I am striving to walk by faith and not by sight. While reading my devotional today, I came across a verse that offers hope:
His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.             -Daniel 7:14b

For those in Japan, and for those with loved ones there, my thoughts and prayers are with you. 

^excerpt from David:  90 Days with a Heart Like His by Beth Moore, p. 381.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


You know you're somewhere in Asia when Hello Kitty pops up in unexpected places -for example, at Krispy Kreme. 

Monday, March 14, 2011

White Day, Round II

Happy White Day! Can you believe it's here already? Seems like just yesterday...

My understanding of the holiday has expanded since last year, and I now have a clearer picture of the types of gifts exchanged:  cakes, cookies, chocolate or other candy (e.g. Chupa Chups, Tootsie Pops), and stuffed animals -often presented in an Easter-type basket. See photos below for more details.

A few students brought me little presents (very sweet and unexpected). My gift to them was teaching them how to write a paragraph. Most had never written one before, and so today they learned how to do so, and in English no less.



Sunday, March 13, 2011

Helmut Head

Helmet head has taken on a whole new meaning over here. According to these signs hanging in Euljiro Sam subway station, apparently there is a cure for male pattern baldness. While I'm unable to translate the text itself, the photos seem to indicate some sort of miracle.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Simpsons

It's fairly common for students to take on an English name in classes where English is widely spoken (e.g. a conversational English class, like the ones I teach). Of those that select an English name, many choose traditional ones. I've taught several Johns, Jacks, Simons, Catherines, Kellys, and Jennys. 

Then there are the students who opt for more original/creative/bizarre monikers. The list is long and varied, but it includes such gems as White, Eminem, and Durst Lance Black (the student insists I use all three names when addressing him). Last semester I taught a Homer Simpson, and now this term I have a Marge Simpson. After taking attendance yesterday, I mentioned to her that I'd previously taught a Homer Simpson, to which she replied:  he's my boyfriend. Turns out he'd recommended my class.

Now I'm wondering if and when Bart, Lisa, and Maggie will show up...


Tuesday, March 8, 2011


As anyone who's been here knows, Seoul is a city of contrasts.

I've mentioned the amazing subway system as well as incredibly reliable cell-phone coverage -no dropped calls, even underground!- and yet... this is also a town where vendors sell socks and chickens from their trucks. After a while, you get used to the perpetual juxtaposition of old and modern, but it tends to take visitors and newcomers by surprise.

The other day, while walking around my neighborhood, I stumbled onto the following scene:  

Very modern shopping complex and luxury apartments:

and then, directly across the street, this contraption (not sure what it does exactly, but it seemed to emit heat):

Generally, it feels like my life here spans multiple decades -several of which I've never even lived through. Be it fashion, food, music, architecture, or local customs, things are always interesting and usually never quite what you'd expect.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Smurf Resurgence

It was inevitable. 

With the re-release of Care Bears, the Little Miss girls, and Strawberry Shortcake's crew, it was only a matter of time before the Smurfs would make their comeback. I've seen them in advertisements over here, as well as on merchandise, and I wonder if they're popping up in your part of the globe. Let me know if you see any. 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Good to Be

It's good to be back at work. The spring semester has gotten off to a strong start, and I am really enjoying my job. On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday I met my new students -all 175 of them. The majority are freshmen -so bright and eager!- but in every class, I also recognized the familiar faces of students I'd taught previously. Must say, it was gratifying to see them again, as well as to hear other students say that their friends had recommended my class.

Two quotes to consider as I approach my responsibilities this term:
It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, but you can lose it in a minute.  -Will Rogers 
Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.  -Proverbs 16:18
Or as my Dad often says:  keep within the guardrails.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


I've recently returned from an exquisite visit to the Bay Area. The trip was memorable for myriad reasons, not least of which is that it re-invigorated all five of my senses. The jaw-dropping beauty of California's coastline, the fragrant ocean air, the taste of locally-produced wine, the sound of falling rain, and the opportunity to give lots of hugs to loved ones all combined to make a truly fantastic vacation.

There's no doubt I left my heart in San Francisco (cliche, I know), but the jet lag coming back has hit me hard, prompting me to wonder if I left my brain there, too. In any case, I've returned to Seoul, and with that, will return to chronicling my Korean adventures. Spring term has begun, and there's plenty of new material on the horizon. 

Thanks for tuning (back) in.   

These photos (and those above) are from my visit to Flora Springs winery in St. Helena. If you are near Napa Valley, I highly recommend that you stop by this very special place. Not only will you experience some lovely wines, you'll also receive quite an education in wine production, history, trends, and so much more. Ask for Jason: