Sunday, November 25, 2012

What it means to live abroad

Making the decision to go abroad means trusting yourself completely; having faith that you will be okay, that you will make new friends and form new networks and that it's a personal promise that no matter how hard it might be, you will make it work. It's taking a leap into the big unknown and hoping you were right in wanting this. It's rolling with the punches and riding the highs, knowing that for once in your life you are completely alone in this decision and the experience is what YOU will make of it.

It's accepting that maybe it is a little selfish, to up and leave, but that it's okay. People will have their opinions but you're doing this for you. It means missing birthdays, Christmases, anniversary's, weddings and new's missing the smaller things like weekly catch ups with friends and Sunday braais with the family. It's missing the little things that become big things and accepting that it's just the way it has to be now. It's boxing up the jealousy at not being around or the homesickness that hits you hard enough to take the wind from your lungs and realising that this was a choice and you move past it. But it also means accepting that all and being thankful that you have so much to miss back home. It's moving past the wishes for home, and fully embracing where you are at this very moment. It means finally seeing that sometimes we need to get over ourselves and just enjoy what we have now.

It means ever longer spaces between the odd Skype call or text between means losing some friends, but realising that maybe they were never true friends to begin with. It means learning who you can trust and rely on and who will always be there to support you, no matter the distance. It's meeting new people, making new friends who come from all backgrounds and who you can learn so much from. It means friends becoming family away from home. It means sad goodbyes... accepting that you meet people who are sometimes only around for a few months, but who you grow so close to and share the kind of bond with that spans time and distance. It's learning to let go of the small things and enjoy the kind of maturity that being away can bring to a relationship.

It means growing and stretching as a person, and sometimes it hurts but mostly you feel more alive than ever before. It's new experiences  new faces, new is having your eyes forced open to points of view you may never have looked at before. It means learning to accept and embrace the differences between you and others; the realisation that a whole other world exists outside of what you imagine and to get the opportunity to experience this is life changing. It's the risk that you can never go back to your old life. It's feeling alone and foreign, making you sympathetic to those back home who feel that every day. It means accepting that maybe you can never go back...maybe home is not where you've always thought it was but is actually exactly where you are, right now. It's dealing with the internal struggle between staying and going. It's being bitten by the travel bug, hard.

It means being thankful for everything you have back home, and seeing how much you took for granted. It's making the decision to try and never take that all for granted again. It's coming to value your country, its people, as distance makes you see things clearer. Or maybe it means seeing the bigger picture, seeing how appealing the rest of the world is. It means getting excited when you meet a fellow countryman and going home with a greater appreciation for what the world holds. Maybe you choose to never leave home again or maybe you choose to never stop exploring...coming abroad means you want to make that kind of decision. It's the sense of accomplishment that comes with knowing you did it - you went against the odds and have made a life for yourself in a completely foreign land. You survived, you kept your promise to yourself and you're a better person for it.

It means anticipation - of what adventure lies next, of seeing your loved ones again, of growing and having a bag full of memories to show anyone willing to listen. I know that things are different for everyone, depending on where you are and what you're doing. But this is what living abroad means to me...what does it mean to you?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Oh, Korea.

Oh, Korea. It's something I say almost daily, in the same way you sigh at things that amuse or frustrate you. It's a common saying here and sometimes the only thing you can say as explanation escapes some of what we see in this land of contradictions. I asked some friends to help contribute to this one, so thank you for the input. Initially I was just going to put a list of material things down but decided to do away with borders and just write down everything that I find uniquely Korean. Some good, some bad, some weird. In no order...

1. Ribbons on pizza boxes

2. White gloves for driving. I don't know what they are used for - to keep the car/hands clean or to prevent your hands tanning?

3. Hello Kitty toilet seats

4. Kimchi. Kimchi everywhere.

5. Amazing stationery. At low prices. It's cheap, it's cheerful and there's a ton of it! The craze at school seems to be these really little food erasers, which come apart and do everything except seem practical for erasing stuff.

6. Extensions for your t-shirts in Summer (arm socks). You roll them up your arms, presumably to avoid the sun.

7. BB Cream. It's make-up/cream, like foundation, that Koreans use to lighten their skin. It stands for 'blemish balm' and is used as cream, sun screen, foundation or primer depending on how much coverage a person needs. Some women take it too far and end up with pale faces that look out of place against their darker skin. I don't use it but some people now swear by it!

8. Ondol heating. It's underfloor type heating that is the BOMB in Winter and almost everywhere has it. No need for heaters - just use the ondol to keep the frost at bay.

9. Phones. No matter where you are, you will be surrounded by people with phones attached to their hands. Even at the gym. It's a huge part of the culture here with every tom dick and harry having their preference: iPhone, Samsung, LG...all the big players are here.

10. Key pads. I really wish my apartment had a keypad instead of a regular lock. It makes getting in so much easier as you pop in your code and bam, you're in. Locks automatically and looks really cool too.

11. Fast, cheap internet and wifi, for everyone.

12. Korean socks are the shizz. They are cute, fluffy, and really like nothing else I've ever seen. Because socks are worn with pretty much every shoe, even in Summer, Koreans really love their socks and for me - the cuter the better.

13. Spitting. Can't get used to it; there is nothing worse than walking anywhere near a man who decides to bring up a spit ball and release it on the floor in front of you. Or a woman at a coffee shop spiting into her empty cup. It's disgusting.

14. Taking off your shoes. Most traditional restaurants will expect you to take your shoes off when coming in, and no one wears shoes indoors (houses, businesses, schools etc) unless they are 'inside' shoes. I used to think it's strange but now I think it's totally point 14 again and think about what you'd be walking into your house.

15. Ties in with #5: these super awesome magic machines that you put sticky tape into and it cuts your tape into neat little pieces whenever you need them. Also, doughnut shaped sticky tape holders (is that a thing?!).

16. Call buttons in restaurants  Most of us agree that these are the best things ever. In a restaurant, the staff don't hang around you like flies but disappear and can be called with one push of a button. Literally.

17. Related, no tipping at restaurants. Like ever. If you do, they'll give it back.

18. In a restaurant the staff might leave you be but walk into a shop, the beauty shops especially, and don't expect to get a minute alone as the attendants will follow you and stand right by you as you try to decide which BB cream suits you best.

19. Foot peels. Apparently that's a thing here.

20. Gmarket. Internet shopping. Need I say more?

21. Family Mart aka CU: convenience stores are EVERYWHERE, making them very... convenient.

22. Outdoor gym stations. These random things can be found on mountains  outside schools, in parks or in the middle of nowhere. Just little stations of 3 or 4 simple exercise machines in case you're coming home from Family Mart and decide you need a public workout.

23. Jimjilbangs: public bathhouses. These are super popular in Korea; I know that at gyms back home you would often be exposed to other naked bodies while changing and showering but a jimjilbang is much more than that. Men and women come to these to unwind, bath, and get scrubbed down by each other or someone else if you so desire. Obviously the men and women are separated in the actual baths (where nudity is mandatory) but can come together again (clothed) inside to enjoy some food, a sauna or two, even gym (most gyms have a jimjilbang as part of the package). Often they include sleeping areas, as a lot of people use these as accommodation when away. I've done it twice and just cannot enjoy it, but I know a lot of people swear by it. I will say they are very clean and professional, I just don't fancy being naked in front of a whole bunch of ajjumas as they clean every inch of themselves.

24. Soju and the miracle drink. Soju is cheap and me on this one. But you can save yourself from the dreaded hangover the next day by knocking back a special miracle drink "Dawn something something" or "Morning Care" which is supposed to help. I don't know how it does it and have never had it myself but apparently it's the stuff of rainbows.

25. It gets cold here, seriously cold. So the availability of USB heated cushions and slippers is not just quirky, it's lifesaving.

26. Service-e. I don't mean "Telkom coming to fix my phone line(like that'll ever happen, amIright?)" service but going to a shop, buying something, even if it's \3000 and getting something for free. Sometimes it's awesome like all the beauty samples and cotton wool you'll get at cosmetic shops or an extra cookie at the coffee shop but sometimes it's random but still paper towel with your shampoo. They like their free stuff and packages of things (see #40).

27. Hooks with adhesive that you need to heat up in order to stick to the wall - they work amazingly!

28. Pickles with everything.

29. Constant top ups when eating out: if the water, kimchi, salad, radish etc runs out...just ask for more and it will keep coming. Also, just the vast amount of food you get for relatively cheap!

30. Sweet bread. Sweet crisps. Sweet dressing on sweet bread for sweet sandwiches. Why Korea?

31. Awkward bathroom situations: shower/sinks in one, washing machines in bathrooms, squatter toilets and my WORST - how the doors to men's toilets are often open and you can see straight in!

32. Couples clothing. Down to the underwear.

33. No trash cans anywhere. Ever.

34. Coming from South Africa, it's really nice to see no burglar bars, no barbed wire or huge gated communities. I feel safe living on my own here.

35. Toilet paper on the outside of the need to estimate how much to take in with you and if you forget, better hope you have tissues handy.

36. Very efficient bus and train systems and taxi drivers who show you how real multi-tasking is done - watching a drama, checking their phone and driving you around!

37. Coffee shop culture: coffee shops are everywhere, they are cute and warm in winter, offer free wifi most of the time and I love it.

38. The independence of children...I've mentioned it before but I am constantly amazed by how these students just get stuff done. They get to school, to after school activities  hagwons and home, having fed themselves and been on time. They just do it, no adult supervision needed.

39. The stubborn use of Internet Explorer.

40. Bulk buying. I know it has to do with families often living all together but I don't need 12 toilet rolls right now or 15 toothbrushes...I just want one!!!

Okay I'm going to make the cut off there because I could probably keep going and will maybe do another post on this before I leave. Not all of these are good vs bad, they're just things I've only noticed or come to use in Korea. I love this crazy place and a lot of what I've mentioned above I'm going to miss terribly. I know a lot of you reading might have things to add so please don't hesitate to comment :)

I love writing this blog, but am running out ideas. Any feedback with suggestions of topics or things you'd like to know would be great.

As always, thanks for reading and happy weekend everyone ^^

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Time's Up

My morning trips to school are usually filled with the rambling thoughts inside my head, but today was a little more serious. "Bronin, we need to do survey. Will you teach next year or no teach". The time has come: no more dodging questions - I have to tell my school/s I'm not renewing and it feels a lot harder than I ever expected.

I feel insecure about going home, with no plan. I still have big dreams, still want to travel and I'm not ready to give any of that up just yet. So why I am leaving? I would stay for my kids - I have grown so fond of them. My schools, although maybe a little uninformed when it comes to what GET's need, have always treated me well. I've made awesome friends here, I can travel whenever I want and never have to be bored. I get paid A LOT to do fairly little. I love Korean food. My apartment feels like home now. Did I mention I get paid A LOT. I'm terrified of what waits for me at home: not just the typical "South African is in a shambles" worries but what will reality feel like? I have to find a job - what if no one wants me? I want to travel - what if I can't afford it? What if friends have forgotten about me and things have changed? What if I regret not staying...that's the real issue isn't it?

But after all of that, my gut still says going home is best. I know everyone says 'now is the time' and 'we'll never do this again'. Last time I checked, I was only 23 with the world at my feet. Yes, I totally get where these people are coming from and know that maybe once I go home I will (braces self) settle...but I still feel like this doesn't have to be the end. We're in charge of the paths we choose to take and naive as it may sound, I DO believe that I can have my way. And isn't this the time when we are allowed to have our heads in clouds of idealist dreams and  fantasies, believing there is a place in this world for us that we just need to find? I'd like to think this is EXACTLY what I'm supposed to be thinking. And I really, truly, dearly miss home. I push it aside and honestly, the homesickness as such hasn't been as bad as I expected. But I miss my family, my friends, my home. I miss my fat cat who likes to block my view of the television (I miss my TV), I miss home cooked meals and a cup of tea on the porch, speaking to my folks about my day. I miss sharing in the birthdays, the girls nights out. I miss walking into a restaurant and not worrying about whether or not I'll have to sit on the floor, and be able to look at a menu and think, 'I know what this says!!'. Maybe it's time I stop reading about all the problems in SA, all that needs to be done there and actually go and see what I can do - stop running away from the responsibility I have to get really involved. When it comes down to it though, this is what makes me confident(ish) in my decision: the money I would make, the biggest benefit for staying, is not worth more to me than being back in a position of communication. That's been my biggest issue here and is the biggest pull home (factoring out friends and family of course).

So there it is. My decision in black and white. Will I look at the pictures of my friends who are still here next year and regret leaving? Honestly, I don't know. But right now, I need to be home, I need to see what else is out there. Korea has given me so much and it breaks my heart to say goodbye. But my time is up, I need to move on. Well, let's not be melodramatic (it's hard for me not to be) I still have 3+ months. But I really didn't think that actually going through with this decision would feel so unsettling, hence the sharing of feelings on here.

I know a lot of people are going through the same thing, some haven't even been able to come to a final decision yet. I wish you the best decision, as my coteacher told me, and remember that whether you stay or go, you'll make it work. How's that for a little bit of Friday motivational speaking hey?

To my friends and family reading back home - I am SO looking forward to seeing you all in February.

Happy Friday lovely people of the internet.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

When you're big in Korea

When I started thinking about writing this blog, all I could hear in my head was the Big in Japan song by Alphaville. Now it's stuck in my head so maybe it can get stuck in yours too. Take it or leave it :)

It's coming up to 9 months here and if there's still one thing that surprises me, it's the level of 'vanity' in Korea. I hesitate to use the word vanity due to its largely negative connotations, which I'm trying to avoid, but the word still seems to fit best. Before coming to Korea, all the groups I was involved in on Facebook that dealt with new teachers coming to Korea contained threads discussing fears, of mostly women, that us Westerners would not be able to find clothes to fit. I know it was a concern for me; people saying we need to bring clothes and not rely on stores here, freaking me out. Quite honestly most of the threads freaked me out: bring toothpaste, deodorant  shampoo, sheets, etc etc all to last a year. I felt like I was moving to a barren waste land!! Luckily I decided to take my chances and come with the minimum...yes I do get some stuff sent over but it is more than possible to find everything you need here or on the internet. But I digress. It seemed impossible to a lot of people that us Western body shapes could ever fit into the tiny doll clothes that South Korean women wear. And throughout my time here, this issue and other issues of beauty have played on my mind a lot, and I felt like blogging about it. Partly because I think it's interesting and partly because I don't have much exciting news to blog about and feel like writing ;)

Working in an Elementary School, I did not expect my students to be overly concerned about appearance. When I was 10, all I cared about was playing marbles, honing in on my yo-yo skills and hoping my parents had packed great snacks in my lunch box. Looks were not something that overly concerned me yet at that age. And so I was surprised to see my young students checking themselves out in the mirror at every opportunity. There is at least 1 mirror in every classroom, and it's not uncommon to find students, boys and girls, just staring at themselves. Of course my teachers do the same, often reapplying make-up or fixing hair, but I didn't think my students would care all that much. Often on the streets I see Middle or High School students walking around with mirrors, checking themselves out. And I don't mean the inconspicuous tiny mirrors we may have used in High School back home. No these are full size vanity mirrors, and they often spend ages looking at themselves, not just a quick glance to make sure they're not carrying around their lunch in their teeth. If a mirror is unavailable for some reason, then a phone is a great substitute. There is no, for lack of a better word, skaam here - it is perfectly normal to spend your time looking at yourself. It's something that struck my family when they were here too - how South Korean men and women love looking at themselves. Now I must point out that I'm not trying to condemn their actions - I'm just sharing my observations and opinions.

South Korea is known for it's plastic surgery, with people from all over Asia and the rest of the world flocking to see the best doctors. Interesting articles on this can be seen here and here. A trend that is particularly popular is 'double eye-lid' surgery. I'm not going to try and explain it but the aim of this procedure is bigger, more open looking eyes, and since being here, I can definitely tell the difference between single and double eye-lids. Now let me address something that irks me a little bit. We've spoken about it briefly here among my friends and I've read a bit about it too - the myth that all South Koreans (Asians?) want to look Western (white?), and that's why they have things like double eye-lid surgery and skin whitening  I disagree. What makes us think we are so desirable? I think sometimes it's easy to fall into the 'rock star' trap here, where you think that just because you're Western and the Koreans make a fuss of you, it means you rock. Maybe you do, and often they really do think we're attractive...but we're all different and that's where a lot of the attention comes from. Just my opinion. So things like bigger eye-lids are probably more sought after because all over the world, big eyes are seen as beautiful, not matter where you're from. Also, the skin whitening in Korea isn't necessarily about looking 'white' but rather it stems from long held beliefs that dark skin means you are poor: historically, poorer Koreans would spend their days in the fields, working to make a living and therefore getting darker in the sun, whereas more well off Koreans avoided the sun, therefore looking light. That is maybe why light skin is popular, not because they are actually trying to look white. I just think that as foreigners, we need to be careful not to assume we are in fact the bees knees. Rant over, for now. I don't want this blog to be about plastic surgery - it's common, it's spoken about openly, and it's just a part of the bigger beauty picture.

The thing I've been wrestling around with and thinking about a lot here is as a Western woman in Korea, how has their focus on the ideal beauty affected me, if at all? I've noticed time and again how anything slightly different is pointed out. I dye my hair and my kids faint. My skin breaks out and they are very quick to point it out, saying I look tired. In fact in general, Koreans do not mince their words - they will tell it like it is and ask what is wrong with your face if you have a spot. Thanks, like I wasn't already conscious about it Korea. A student is a little chubby and they get poked at (literally). I know a few very thin English teachers who have been asked if they are pregnant. You go shopping in the smaller towns like Jecheon and the majority of the clothes are too small or just don't fit right. Myeong-dong is one of many Western shopping havens, where we end up spending too much money in shops like Forever 21 and H&M because we can't find things easily elsewhere. We resort to shopping online at amazing stores like ASOS to find things that might fit. I know this might be sounding like another blog to freak the newbies out, sorry. It is possible to find things here and I've even bought things in Jecheon but it can be disheartening when you see all these amazing clothes and know they won't fit. And there are plenty of foreigners who don't suffer shopping at all - go you! So it depends. We are surrounded by stick thin, beautiful Korean men and women daily - standing next to my coteacher makes me feel like a troll. I have a friend who says she never really thought about her skin tone but since coming here, it's discussed often and she's much more aware of it. Among foreigners, I often see adverts for Herbalife and such, emphasising the need to keep slim - and I won't lie, I cannot understand how Koreans can stay so thin and eat so much rice!! And so it's not just pressure from Korea that filters through, but from foreigners too. We're different, we get stared at, poked and prodded and I often feel like I'm under a microscope here, with every little thing being noticed.

Sometimes this feels great, as I mentioned in my rant above. My teachers all compliment me on the way I dress, on my hair, they told me I am beautiful when I arrived and have beautiful eyes. Sometimes you feel on top of the world (even when your coteacher tells you your hairy arms make you a 'beautiful woman' while stoking your said hairy arm). But other times I really wish they'd look away. I don't know if being in Korea has made me more, or less, self-conscious about my looks. On one hand, I feel more 'vain' than ever before; yes, I have caught myself checking out my hair in my phone and I can't help but check myself out in the hundreds of mirrors at school. I am excited by the massive beauty store culture here and love browsing for new make-up and nail polishes (the beauty store phenomenon is another issue entirely - beauty value back home is really going to struggle to entertain me now). I'm much more aware of how I present myself but am also much more aware of my flaws...they stand out more here. On the other hand, I feel like I'm so different anyway that I really don't care. I'm not stupid (generally). I know that my body structure is not that of a South Korean woman, and I'm never going to look like them no matter what I do. So why care? Why not just accept that I'm me, I look like I do, I break out and I spend too much money in Myeong-dong. I'm really okay with that. I like that my kids 'ooh and ahh' when I dye my hair, put on some lipstick or just wear a bow to tame my curls - it makes me feel appreciated. But I've also learned to let go of the "you look tired" comments and pokes and prods. It's not worth it.

I don't know if this post has been helpful for anyone, and I know it's made me vulnerable but I really think it's something a lot of foreigners here deal with, no matter what dress/pants size you are. Being in Korea and being flooded with the "be better" attitude and expectations can be rough on the ego. But I think I've leaned to accept myself better here than anywhere else. I've grown so much over my time here and this is part of it. Do I think that it's healthy for Koreans, especially Korean children to be so image obsessed? No. I feel sorry my students who are a little bit bigger and are already being picked on. I wish there was more room for diversity in Korea, in general. Do I think plastic surgery is wrong? Not necessarily - I'm not one to pass judgement but I think it needs to be done for the right reasons. I don't think Korea is necessarily any different to the rest of the world when it comes to it's beauty ideals: all over the world there is pressure to look a certain way and go the 'extra' mile to achieve it. But I think because it's so openly discussed in Korea and because us being different stands out, it's easy to feel it more here. I'm all for being healthy and being careful not to overdo it on the carbs, but I think that my issue is when all this beauty focus causes kids to feel like they aren't good enough, Koreans to go to unhealthy lengths to attain an ideal (which is called an 'ideal' for a reason) and for some of us foreigners to feel like there's some standard we just cannot achieve, causing feelings of inferiority next to our Korean friends.

I don't know if I've made a point here. But this is part of my journey I thought I would share and would love to hear any of your opinions. I know that maybe what I've said was a little bit off, I'm not claiming to be factual, it's just as I see it :) I also feel like I've said "here" a lot. I apologise.

For the noobs: don't panic. The one thing you may hear which IS true is that if your feet are slightly bigger, you probably will struggle to find shoes. But regardless of what you read above, shopping for clothes in Korea all depends on you, your town and what you like. Some people fit right in, others struggle more and prefer the online stores, some just don't like Korean styles. So don't worry - a world of shopping fulfillment still waits for you here ;)

Maybe I am 'big in Korea'. That's okay, and that's how I see it today. I can't feel my toes and it's lunch time so I'm out.