A Little Light Reading

….as you anxiously await the multi-part “Living in Songdo” series:

This article from the NYT about the Korean (and Japanesse) bathing and beauty culture is SPOT ON.  Fortunately, as a foreigner, I get to reap the benefits and watch/participate with amusement and wonder, without being subjected to the standards Korean women face.

I also just learned about Mok Bang.  This is an extremely popular Korean trend where people live-broadcast themselves eating.  Just eating.  And viewers watch along and donate money to that person.  I learned about this from a post on Facebook before school one morning and was completely incredulous.  I asked the students about it and they were totally blase and all, “yeah.  Of course.  Mok bang.”  They could not understand my incredulity.  At all.

I have lived here for three years and I had not heard of this before.  What else is there?  I have to wonder.

And that concludes your Korean cultural lesson for the day.

Top Searches

Upon examination of the top searches that lead readers to my blog, queries about Songdo and life in Songdo (bars, running, Lotte, development) take the cake.  Of course, many people are still landing here based on searches for Chadwick International, and I think WordPress must push my blog to other runners because they are the ones who read and “like” certain posts.  But the queries for CI mostly only happen during hiring fairs and there is not one currently in session–the bumps in hits are pretty funny.

So, we head out tomorrow to Japan for a short ski trip over Lunar New Year (the Koreans don’t call it Chinese New Year) and when we return, I promise to post pictures and updated information about life in Songdo including all the best restaurants, bars, parks, and shopping.  I might even drag Tim out with me to take the photos.  So please stay tuned, and I will be back with what you’re looking for.

Found Another One

on layver in Tokyo we find the strangest flavor yet: Rum Raisin!

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The Unbearable Awesomeness of Regional Japanese Kit-Kat Flavors

Since our move to Korea, we’ve been to Japan 4 times, and in January we go for our 5th trip.  This makes me an expert on this current topic.  I could tell you about how great the skiing is (it’s great), or about how good the food is (it’s good), or about how interesting the culture is (it’s very interesting), but today I’m going to tell you about Kit-Kat.    What’s really cool about Japan is that there is so much to do and see.  Every region is unique, fascinating, and worth visiting.  Take a look at the guidebook at your local library–it’s huge.  And it’s not a huge country.  As a side-note, I have noticed that this is good measure of how cool a country will be.  There is a secret algorithm by which you can divide the square mileage of a country by the weight of it’s Lonely Planet to determine whether not you should visit and exactly how many times.

Out of 5 trips, 3 were/are purely ski trips and 2 were tourism/sight-seeing, Fuji-hiking sorts of trips.  Every trip was to a different region of Japan.  Whenever we go to a new country, I’m always looking for what’s different and while I’m not a foodie, I think that you can tell a lot about a people by what kind of packaged-processed food you can find.  So I pay attention to that:  flavors of potato chips, candy, ice cream flavors, etc.  And because I loved Kit-Kat when I was little, I picked up pretty quickly that Japan had a couple of different flavors.  Everywhere, we saw dark chocolate, strawberry and green tea flavors.  Fun, right?  I assumed this was it until we were leaving the country after that first trip.  We were on the Northern tip of the main island, in Aomori.  We found hot chili pepper Kit Kat.  Wow.  That was a find.  I figured, at the time, you could get them anywhere–just maybe at specialty stores or something.

By our third trip, while in Kyoto, I began to realize that the Kit Kat flavors vary by region–and now, by season.  Fun! We tried in vain to find the chili pepper variety, but have never seen those little babies again.  Kyoto has my favorite variety.  They are white chocolate with the famous, Kyoto wafer-cookie crumbled up into the chocolate.  The cookie is like a cross between a graham cracker and those yummy cinnamon biscuits from some random country in Europe that come individually wrapped.  You know the ones.  The package is red?……

Since this realization, I have been mildly obsessed with discovering the varieties of the region I’m in.   Near Mt. Fuji, there were mango flavored Kit Kats.  They also, of course, had special commemorative Mt. Fuji  Kit Kats in a Fuji-shaped box.  Those were blueberry cheesecake flavor.  On the Izu peninsula, we had wasabi flavored Kit Kat which are just as awesome as they sound, and for Halloween, we found pumpkin flavored ones (see picture below).  How awesome is that?  I know:  awesome.

I really love this about Japan.  I like a lot of things about the culture, one of those being the attention to detail.  And while Kit Kat is owned by Nestle, scourge of the 3rd world and evil corporation, even that gigantic conglomerate will let tiny batches of this candy be made and sold by region.  I love it that the Izu peninsula is the only place where you can get Wasabi Kit Kat.  And so I continue to search.

We will go to Sapporo this winter for a ski trip.  I’m *almost* equally excited to discover the regional flavor.

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American Culture

Disclaimer:  This post was a long time in the thinking and writing and will be very long and boring.  It’s okay if you quit reading.  I won’t be offended.  I just needed to unload ideas that have been swimming around in my noggin. 

Growing up, I thought that “culture” was the traditional dress, art, and spicy food that people wore, made and ate in exotic places.  There was no such thing as American culture, because America is a “melting pot.”  We don’t have people in the mountains wearing swirly brightly colored skirts and top hats.  Though we do have mountain people making damn fine music on the banjo! America was the norm and everything else was “other.”  We eat Italian, Thai, and Mexican food.  I suppose it’s obvious then that I grew up in a very small town.  But even when I left and moved to Boulder and met different kinds of people and experienced cities and even traveled outside of the country, the word “culture” was still not at the front of my mind.  What we did and thought and ate was just what we did.

In graduate school we did a lot of talking about “multi-culturalism” and diversity and how to bring these things into the classroom because they are so valuable.  We talked about how culture is more than different holidays and foods.  It is also attitudes and values and thought that is influenced by language.  But I still could not internalize what the real difference was between us and them.  I could not see ourselves objectively because I was only looking at “them” and trying to understand “them” in a vacuum unaffected by own beliefs and values.

It took living in several different countries, working there, and interacting with parents and students to really be able to “see” and recognize and put my index finger on exactly what American culture is (and I’m still working on it).  Here, in the most different and “other” place I’ve ever lived, I find myself thinking about these concepts a lot because being in a place so opposite has given me the most insight into my own attitudes, values, and thought processes.

For example, I think most people know that Eastern cultures are Collectivist.  Before I lived here, I took that to mean that everyone looks out for each other, caring more about the group than the individual, and that relationships are more important than “getting things done.”  But collectivism really pervades many ways of thinking, sometimes in completely frustrating ways for the hapless American teacher.  One example is parent beliefs about how classes function.  Say we have a little darling named Johnny.  Little Johnny, in the eyes of the American teacher, has been showing a bad attitude and has been irresponsible about turning in homework.  In the eyes of Little Johnny’s mom, Johnny is in a bad class.  The class has a bad attitude because the group is bad and Johnny will do much better if you just put him in the advanced math class where he belongs.  This sort of thing makes me crazy on a daily basis, but only because it does not reflect my American values:  individualism, self-determination, personal responsibility.  All those things sound really good to you, too, right?  But maybe I’m wrong and those are not valuable things.  Or maybe, we’re both right, which waxes my noodle even more.  In the end, I win because mom put Johnny in the school to get a Western education so that he will be prepared for college in the States.  But they are not happy about it and still looking for ways to get him in advanced math instead of (my interpretation) being self-aware and personally responsible in setting time management goals or self-reflecting on attitudes projected and how that might influence other students around little Johnny.

Collectivism among children also means that bullying is easy because all you have to do is exclude someone.  You all ignore a peer and it’s the most devastating thing you can do to a kid here.  Here is where the self-determination in Americans comes in again.  This kind of bullying doesn’t work for us (as much), because we shrug and say we can do it better ourselves anyway, and so Americans must be much more violent and forceful to communicate their hate in a palpable way.  Which is worse?  I don’t know.

These behaviors and values follow every hobby, job, and public behavior in silent yet obvious ways.  I’m going to save the observations in climbing and safety for my husband to reflect upon.  Because I didn’t really mean to get into what I think collectivism is in reality.  I meant to talk about American culture.

Because school is the great training ground–the place where you acquire all cultural capital you don’t get from your parents, it is an interesting comparison.  The leaders of today and yesterday, the States and Europe, all educate their children to be leaders, analytical thinkers, creative doers, capable team workers, and independent researchers.  This is American or Western culture.  In the developing world and the leaders of tomorrow (Asia), the public schools are still teaching memorization and copying.  The parents who understand and see this–probably those who went to international schools themselves–then send their children to us, knowing that the way forward is innovation and creativity.  Not copying.  But we still have to fight to break the mode of thinking that teachers should just be the deliverers of knowledge while students are the quiet receptacles.

And then there’s American food.  Earlier, I said we eat all kinds of food and so we don’t have culturally specific food.  But we do!  I mean, there are foods that are totally American, like collard greens, cheese fries and deep-fried turkey.  But if you think about all the options you have around you in your very own town or city, then you’ve hit the nail on the head.  You probably have at least one Chinese restaurant, a Mexican place or two (or more), Italian options, noodle places, Tapas places, seafood restaurants, and sushi places, BBQ pits, Greek restaurants, diners, hippie pizza joints, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants, and probably a whole handful of places that you don’t really know what category they fit into.  But they have good food.   Americans crave and value variety.  What makes good American food is the most unique  flavor combinations one can possibly create and still have the meal taste great.  It’s the mark of a great chef to be able to take a hundred ingredients and create some new fusion dish that no one has made before.  What’s valued in Italian and French food?  A few high quality ingredients well cooked in the same way it’s always been done.  Obviously, I’m generalizing, but you get the idea.  Have you ever been in a grocery store outside the States, then gone back shopping in the States?  The sheer number of options for even just Pringle flavors is staggering.  And have you seen the size of the cereal isle?  Do you know what everyone else in the world wants to eat?  Their own food.  The difference between this Turkish kofte place and that one is this one uses fresher ingredients.  Sure they taste the same to us, but not to the Turks.  Everywhere we have been, people want their own nationality’s food and that’s all (yes maybe once in a while they want some pasta).  Interesting difference, isn’t it?  I guess it’s because America was originally made up of so many different cultures, but not anymore.  This variety has become quintessentially American.

And thus concludes my current ramblings about Americans.  Being away has taught me who I am and where I really came from, according to me, of course.  I wonder what I’ll learn about myself tomorrow?

Reasons for Joy

I’ve officially caught my first stress cold of the new move.  THAT’s not a reason to be joyful–we’ll get to that in a minute.

I’m an introvert–and a fairly severe one at that.  All it means is that I need a lot of personal time in order to re-group, re-energize, reflect, and be sane.  So, when I need some time to re-energize, and I don’t want to take it, my body gets sick.  Convenient, huh?  I don’t get colds during cold season.  I get them at the most inopportune times–like, when I’m on a shortened summer vacation and have lots of people to see or, like this weekend, when there’s an international beer festival in town.  I know right?  Salt in the wound, my friends.  Even today, Tim went to Seoul to go bike shopping and exploring and I’m stuck at home, re-grouping, recovering, and hanging out with my cat.  In other words, I sort of feel like I’m missing out.  SO–in order to make myself feel better, and put myself in a positive mood, I’m going to show you a few things that I am so happy for here, rather than dwelling on the reasons why I caught a cold.  Because little things add up to big joy sometimes.

So, here are some small things that put me in a good mood:

First of all, I’m a beer, red wine, and Irish whiskey kind of girl  (now, I do love a good sapphire martini, but those are reserved for certain times of year and occasions).  If you’ve ever lived in a country where the only available beer is the locally made, headache-inducing pilsner (and they all taste the same), of which both Ecuador and Turkey fall into this category, then you can understand my beer anguish of the last 4 years.  At least in Ecuador we could get Argentinean and Chilean wines.  In Turkey, it’s only Turkish wine, and I am sorry.  I love Turkey, but Turkish wine is terrible.  There, I said it, and I’m not taking it back.  The local Korean beer is ALSO the same old headache-inducing pilsner.  Friends of ours believe these beers all over the world are preserved with formaldehyde, thus the headache.  I don’t know if that’s true, but Tim and I are both affected by the local brew.  A good rule of thumb is keep to under 2, and you’ll be fine.  However, wonderful beers that I love are imported!  Yes, they are a tad pricey, but life is too short to drink bad beer!  Above is just a sampling of what we currently have in the fridge.  You’ll also notice the Argentine and Chilean wines.  These can be bought for about $10–pretty close to States prices.  All other wines are crazy expensive, so imagine my complete relief.    This makes me happy.  This is cause for celebration and joy.

I adore Asian food.  Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and now, Korean.  I always said sushi was a food I could eat everyday and never tire of.  Of course, that’s likely an exaggeration, because I’m all-American, and our pleasure in food comes from variety and uniqueness of flavor combinations.  As far as I can tell, we are the only people on the planet who prefer so much variety and choice in our diets.  I’m thankfully now somewhere that I really love the local food.  We’ve got dumplings and rice bowls and Asian noodles and seaweed and sesame oil comin’ out the wazoo.  Food, something that seems so trivial, can contribute horribly to culture shock and if you can’t get things you know and like, and you don’t like the local food, you’re in for a hard time.  We thankfully have both here.  We are loving the local food, but also have access to so much more of our familiar items than we did in the local grocery stores of Ecuador or Turkey.

When was the last time your kitchen sink gave you joy?  The last time for me was in our little condo in Boulder.  We had beautiful granite counter tops and an awesome, deep, stainless sink.  But it wasn’t as big as this one!  Let me back up a bit.  My husband is a foodie.  He is quite a cook, and is also the type of person who needs a square meal every night.  Me?  I can’t be bothered.  Food to me is a pain in the ass, so I am beyond happy to let him keep me fed.  That means that I do the cleaning.  So I spend a half hour or more every night in front of the kitchen sink (no dishwasher).  In Turkey, in our little cement block, the kitchen sink was tiny.  It wouldn’t hold large cooking dishes and it was awkwardly placed.  Amazingly, they would have those same sinks in large, modern kitchen too, so this was truly baffling to me.  Behold, my kitchen sink that will hold a full-sized cutting board, baking dish, large pot, or anything else Tim might use for his nightly creations.  This makes my life so much easier.

Another cause for joy is the sheer size of our new house.  I have a dedicated yoga room that overlooks my running park, a walk-in closet, and an office (in addition to a large master bedroom and a guest bedroom).  We have never had this much space before–ever, and it is glorious!  Just ask my frisky cat who loves to tear all over it, up and down the hallway, chasing us or toys.

There are many things right with the above two pictures.  First of all, there are two bathrooms.  Maybe it sounds simple to you, but if you’ve ever shared a single bathroom with your spouse and various house guests, then you understand.  Having two makes everyone happy.  Secondly, we have a bathtub.  My husband enjoys a bath every now and then.  Happy husband = joyful Erin.  It’s just a strange coincidence that there’s a television in the tub.  Lastly, the shower in the other bathroom is the width of the bathroom and has both the regular shower head and the rain head.  This is cause for joy because in Turkey, our single bathroom had a tube that enclosed a small corner of the room and that was the shower.  You could not bend over–so dropping the soap was an ordeal, or fit more than one person, which translates, again, to soap-retrieving being an arduous task.

Did I mention that Bali loves her new home?  She has huge windows to gaze out, a long hallway to race up and down, and a giant scratchy lounge that we found at the store.  Happy Bali = Happy Erin.

This is just a sampling of the various small things about our new home that I’m thankful for.  When the locals, or the weather, or your stress-cold gets you down, try this exercise.  I feel better already.