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Friday, August 25, 2017

South Korean Civil Defense Drill

Dear Trevor (and others curious re. how South Koreans see the current political/military situation):

So much to say.  I shall limit myself, however, to a story about South Korea's annual Civil Defense Air Raid Drill (now in its 45th year; in Seoul they do this drill about 8 times per year).  My hope is that you will pick on some nuances that convey a great deal about current attitudes.

Now, this drill has been held since 1972. And citizens are encouraged to attend. I, as the mere wife of a foreigner, have not been educated about the time/date of such drills (not clear whether that's a university communication glitch or a marital one).  That said,  our kids' school does the drill faithfully.  Last year, however, the drill was aborted when the door to the underground air-raid shelter was locked .  And, maybe that's just as well!  Because access to said door was obstructed by a pile of old/broken university furniture.  Let us pause a moment here or reflection.  Last year, our campus shelter for 4000+ people was inaccessible for the announced, annual drill LET ALONE READY FOR ACTUAL BOMBS.

This year, I decided to take part with the kids' school.  I didn't know what to expect, so I asked google. The most information I could find for foreigners basically said, "when the sirens sound, follow Koreans."  (Ok, that's not quite fair; the best information was given in an adorable video made by a couple of tween Korean girls concerned about ignorant foreigners; they recommended a complicated shelter-seeking website that (a) is entirely in Korean and (b) has completely changed its layout since their filming so ... good luck, foreigners). Yup.

Ok.  So where's the shelter on campus?  No clue.  There are no signs.  Asking around led to information that the shelter was under my very office/classroom building!  Just a few minute walk from home.  Happily, a week ago I saw a laminated paper sign get taped up with arrow pointing downstairs.  The rest of the sign, like most things around here, was completely in Korean.  For all I knew, it was indicating the way to a faculty bar.

At 2pm on the designated Day to Practice Avoidance of Falling Bombs, a siren sounded (glad I was outside by the school already, as there were no other audible sirens on campus) and rapid Korean instructions issued from loudspeakers.

Teachers quickly got their grade 1-12 students into lines.
And, yes, those are twins.

Students followed their teacher in line across campus to the shelter.  And, hooray!
The door was open!

Here is the cement shelter/tunnel.  It is lined with pipes and cables.
I did not see any food, water, toilets, or first aid kits.
Several spiders, though.  And some puddles.

We walked and walked through this narrow space, passing many danger signs
(why? were the cables a threat?).
Do the children look worried? No. They do not.

And on and on, until we descended some rickety and slippery/wet steps...
...where we met up with Military Guy and Scary Plasticized Gas Mask Guy.
The latter of whom I thought was a robot.
Because they have those as flagman along highways; and in stores to promote smart phones.
Oops: He was not a robot.
(note: the wet floor was smelly - not the Guys)

Finally!  Going up the stairs to exit the tunnel/shelter,
were greeted by Scary Plasticized Gas Mask Guy #2.

And Plasticized Guy who said "good-bye" in Korean to every. single. person.
Do these children look frightened?
Sweaty and bored, maybe.  Certainly not scared of bombs.

 Students headed back to school just 15 minutes after the siren sounded. 

I asked around campus - long-timers mostly didn't bother doing the drill.  And people who were in the city at the tie said that no one was seeking shelter during the air raid drill.

So: do you get any sense that South Korea is freaking out about threats of war. Nope.  Neither do I.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Korean hospital: Some surprises

This summer, Elisabeth had severe abdominal pain and became an in-patient at a local Korean hospital. I, on the other hand, as her intrepid mother (who might have lost rock/paper/scissors with a certain husband), got a chance to glimpse the workings of said local Korean hospital. 

Now, you should know right away that I splurged on a private room.  Judge me if you want, but wait just a moment until you know more.

(1) Korean hospitals speak Korean.  Which is totally their right to do so.  I, however, can really only speak English, Medical, and enough Spanish to get to the beach.  My Korean skills are reserved for entertaining two-year-olds.  Thus, communication with any other patients in a room, let alone their presumably nosy visitors, would be nigh unto exhausting.

(2) Sleeping and healing among a multitude of sick strangers really didn't appeal to Elisabeth.  Further, we did not know whether the non-private rooms (with 2, 4, or 8 beds) were gender-segregated, and sleeping with a bunch of men was right out. 

(3) In Korea, overnight stays by family members are standard and thus each hospital bed has a pull-out cot underneath.  So, doing hospital math, a 4-bed room actually sleeps 8 people.  This compounded problem #1 and made problem #2 now apply to me.  Ah, no.  I didn't need men in the room OR scary ajummas.

(4) And, as I suspected, compared to US prices getting a private room was quite reasonable.  We paid the total bill when we checked out (I do love that feature): the private suite, CT scan,  x-rays, consultations with a doctor, blood draws, IV, and pain meds came to a total of.... About $400.  Judge me if you will. 

We didn't get a diagnosis for Elisabeth's abdominal pain (it wasn't appendicitis but could have been diverticulusis/-itis).  Even so, you might be interested in some highlights via pictures. 

My beloved TA helps Elisabeth get checked into the hospital.

My TA is called into the CT room to teach Elisabeth key Korean
words like, "breathe."

Ooh!  When the radiology tech guy stepped away
I got to peek at Elisabeth's innards.  So cool.

Elisabeth gets admitted and up we go to her private room.
Western readers might notice that the bed is super low,
which certainly makes it easier for the patient to board and deplane (disembark?).
The squatting nurse, using the bed as a desk, is a bit harder to explain.

Elisabeth rebels against wearing the hospital pants (yea for soft yoga pants from Oma and Opa!).
We move to the sitting room where my TA translates instructions for me (far left).
And I can't help but notice that Elisabeth is getting her blood drawn by Squatting Nurse.

Hmm.  No gloves for Squatting Nurse.  Ok. 

Hmmm.  Popping off the needle cap with one's teeth.
Squatting Nurse is just full of surprises.
Once the pain meds take effect, Elisabeth works on her microeconomics
and has a skype call with her teacher.  
Note the cool TV monitor attached to her bed;
the tabletop is part of the footboard that swings up.  Cool stuff.

Elisabeth settles into her cozy bed behind her giant No Food sign.
Thus, we didn't get to sample hospital food.
I might have gotten Nick to bring McDonald's food for my dinner. :)

 Any questions you have?  Other adventures or places you'd like to see featured?  Happy to accommodate.  :)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Meeting a Mole: Bad Samaritan

Apparently, it is NOT ok to ask your daughter’s visiting friend to touch your mole. Even if it’s a very cute mole.

So, remember the day I “saved” that beetle from its own foolishness?  Later that same day, I saw another animal in distress.  Here's how it happened.

David and I drove to the campus convenience store (yes, we drove because...he needed the driving practice?? it was hot out?) and along the way, in the right-hand gutter, scuttled a wee furry critter.  “A mole!” my brain registered just as we passed it.  “Back up!” I ordered hapless David, who was on an entirely different wavelength what with traffic and short-skirted pedestrians all about.  Being a good boy, he did as instructed, trusting my judgment.

I leapt from the van, a clutch of tissues in my hand, and (way too easily) swooped up our new friend.  I wanted to look at him – never having seen a mole up close – and intended to release him to a more suitable home than a plastic-guttered campus thoroughfare.

I hopped back into the van and commenced with close observations and amazing cooing sounds as David completed out brief journey to the store.  Oh, wait, I realized: I can’t bring this velvety joy inside the store.  Hmmm…aha!  I dumped the contents of the glove box (a fake-velvet-lined, little dark place) to create a cozy if temporary home for Mole.  I popped him (her?) and the tissues into the box and into the store we (David and I, not the mole) went.

So soft!  So cute!

Minutes later, laden with soda, ice cream, and some new novelty socks, we returned to the van and drove home, eager to show the family our new fuzzy friend (ok, I was eager; David was frankly horrified).  We parked, David grabbed the groceries, and I unlatched the glove compartment door, ready to (gently) seize Mole for our upstairs jaunt.

Oh….  Grabbing wasn’t necessary.  Mole was sleeping!  So soft and still.  I scooped him up and noted a bit of a wet stain on the floor of the box, near Mole’s chin.  Odd.  I dabbed at it briefly with tissues, then hurried upstairs to share the wonder of this rare creature.

Did I really think Mole was sleeping in my hands, after having run a mole-marathon down a hot summer tarmac, being grabbed up by a giant tissue claw, and stuffed into a heated box for 10 minutes?  Well, maybe.  Did I believe this even after Mole had released a goodly amount of fluid from his front end AND was no longer moving?  Well, maybe not.

Even so!  This little guy was a treasure to behold.  Marvelously soft fur, akin to the softest polar fleece; near-invisible eyes; and tiny pink baseball-mitt feet.

An amazing little paw/claw/digger

“Look!” I exclaimed to the household after bursting in. “Look what we found!” Surely this creature would be greeted with more enthusiasm than my ill-fated morning beetle!

I belatedly registered that Elisabeth’s friend Jenny was visiting.  But she’s an adventurous third-culture kid and so I immediately offered her, our guest, the first touch of my mole.  "Do you want to touch my mole?" In hindsight, I realize that she hadn't seen what was in my hands and had a rather different perspective on the situation.  I see now that she was rather concerned about the dubious honor of touching my mole, but she was a well-bred young lady and quite polite.  (After all, one must honor the principal's wife, even if the woman sounds crazy.)

“Um, sure?”  She hesitantly reached out her hand and I gladly proffered my handful of wonder, which she gingerly stroked with some confusion.

Elisabeth may never forgive me for embarrassing her.  David will never let me forget the day I killed a mole AND a beetle.  Nick just shakes his head.  Maybe I should stop rescuing animals.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Beetle Drama: Good Samaritan

I found this beetle in the community garden early this morning, stuck on the mesh fencing. I believe it's a cockchafer beetle (related to American June bugs and Australian Christmas beetles). And I think it's the adult version of our giant compost grubs.

He was really, really stuck, and despite his horror-show appearance, I felt kind of bad for him.  So I looked more closely: he'd apparently had his wings open while sitting/landing at the top of the fence and when he tried to re-fold them, the inner wings got all wrapped around the top string. 

I took a deep breath and wrangled for several minutes with those really clingy claws grabbing onto me.  I finally realized the string couldn't just be unwound or pulled out without causing a lot of damage.  Physical damage to him; psychological damage to me now that I was on this mission.

Alas. I cut the string attaching him to the fence and brought him home.  Like you do.

After disturbing my just-waking children with the giant beetle, I gathered my make-up tools and did some minor beetle surgery.  I removed the remaining string bits and he quickly readjusted his wings.  

Success!  Just like new!  

At which point he ran headlong off the table and fell right into my lap.  Ok, it's time to go, buddy.  

Not wanting to do the whole elevator ritual with a giant beetIe plus hordes of little kids heading to school, I walked my new friend over to our sliding door, calculated all the wind speeds and throwing forces needed to get this guy over the cement driveway and into the trees and grass where he could resume his beetle-y life.

Freed beetle.  Tools.  String bits.
I really, really expected him to fly, or at least glide, or do something at all useful in his own rescue.  Nope.  Five long stories below, at the edge of the grass he bounced.  Twice. 


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Adventuring Alone

You might imagine from 4 years of blogs about South Korea that I would be some sort of courageous person.  Bold!  Fearless!! Capable of facing ajummas and octopi alike!!  But, you would be quite wrong.  I never, ever venture alone.  It’s way too intimidating.  

Until yesterday, that is, when I finally decided to sneak past my twin mind guards of Fear (“What if something scary happens?” is his favorite taunt) and Guilt (“Why aren't you being productive?" is his). My semester’s grades were freshly submitted to the various electronic and secretarial overlords, our apartment was in decent order, the gardens were all tidy, and on day 1 of my vacation, I was already bored.  I don’t like bored.  It makes me grumpy.

I longed to go snorkeling.  The season here is very limited (June-September between 8am and 4pm on sunny days when the water is calm and clear) and the conditions today were perfect.  My family and friends were all (a) working, (b) traveling, or (c) not fans of the ocean.  No co-adventurers there.

Crap. On days like this, I usually sigh a lot, surf the internet, take naps. I’ll find some vaguely productive task so I feel less guilty for lazing around.  And I did all that and it was only 10am. So I just sat, miserable.

This. Is. Dumb.

So, deep in my mind, in a secret place the Guards don’t know about, I made a rash decision: I would go snorkeling at a safe, shallow sandy beach.  I quietly changed into my swimsuit.  Casually, I walked around the house, pretending to be tidying but actually collecting snacks, camera, and purse.  Then, before the Guards realized what was happening, I made a run for it, grabbing the snorkeling bag on the way out to the van. 

I drove through the gloriously green rice fields, like you do, even stopping to take pictures of ducks, herons and egrets.  And just 5 minutes later, I had arrived at the East Sea (called the Sea of Japan by non-Koreans).  I parked and stepped over the low rock wall onto the sandy beach.  Still anxious about the Guards, I dropped my stuff on the beach, grabbed my fins and mask/snorkel and rushed into the flat water to put on my gear. 

There was nothing left to do but snorkel.

And so I did.  Schools of grass puffers (I know, I know - it's a hilarious name), a tiny flounder, some silver whitings, and other underwater friends greeted me as I happily glided over their home turf.  I lost track of time and reluctantly came in only when I became cold.  Resting on the beach, I watched crabs hurling sand from their burrows; smiled at surfing school students; organized all the stuff I could find in a square foot of beach.  
Four years ago, this beach was FILTHY.
It looks amazingly clean to me now,
though I suppose other opinions may vary.

I kept laughing and scaring these guys.  :)

To see this kind of crab hurling arm (claw?) loads of sand,
click here for a short video

Surf School: Youngilman Port, Pohang, South Korea

Much to my astonishment, a perfectly ripe roma tomato rolled ashore. This would be a rare find in a market here, let alone at the beach.  It felt like an undeserved gift.  It tasted of warm sun and utter contentment.  

I'm still not courageous, or bold, or fearless.  But on this day, I learned that the mind guards are far weaker than I'd expected.  And that joy is an excellent co-adventurer.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Flower Arranging Class: A Win for the White Lady

The Lovely Grace.
Wrangling with a hand-tied bouquet.
Late last year, my lovely friend Grace invited me to a flower arranging class (you may remember Grace as a co-gardener and co-adventurer).  Now, I love sticking garden flowers in vases, but I don’t know anything about Formal Floral Arranging (and that is fun to say in a Korean accent).  So I was intrigued by her kind offer, but also stressed about being Token Dumb White Person among a group of wealthy Korean women. I could bring great shame upon the reputations of white people everywhere. (Nick suggests I'm a wee bit irrational on this point). But...lovely Grace promised to translate for me.  And hold my hand.  And possibly feed me chocolate ice cream if my fragile self got overwhelmed.

So...I agreed. I can’t afford the weekly class, but the teacher – a licensed floral arranger and mom of an adorable 2nd grader at my kids’ school – lets me pay ala carte for monthly visits to the class. And after 4 classes, it's high time to report on the experience for my dear (if lately neglected) readers.

The class is in a humongous Korean church that promotes community education-type programs (see the earlier nail salon here) .  Now, when I say “class” and “humongous church,” you'll need to revise the picture in your head of a cavernous space filled with rows of Koreans working in robotic unison.  No. Seriously, folks.  The biggest class I’ve been to had 6 people, including me and Grace, and we meet in a little conference room with perfectly normal people.)  

Two students, the teacher, and the requisite cup of coffee.
Which you have to accept graciously
but you don't have to drink. 
When we arrive, we usually help the teacher set up the room.  Note: I do not know the teacher’s name.  In Korea, names are far less important than status-related titles like “teacher.” (My own newest title is “Wife of an Important Man” because Nick is the school’s headmaster.  And, for the curious feminists, the answer is “no.”  There is no Korean term for “husband of an important woman.”) 

Teacher (선생님) writes the names of today’s featured arrangement and flowers (Korean and English) on the rolling white board.  She talks about the arrangement de jour e.g., hand-tied bouquet) and educates us about focal points, neutral and dominant colors, and the wonders of floral foam.
Flower Teacher Lady.

Flower Teacher with Floral Foam.
Add caption

Teacher then hands out the flowers (e.g., roses, ranunculus, delphiniums) and supplies and we set to work.  Depending on the arrangement type, we remove stems (it felt terribly wasteful at first), de-thorn as needed, and try to abide by the guidelines as we place flowers and greens. We grumble quietly at our difficulties, share tips for stabbing weak stems into sturdy floral foam, and sneak peeks at others’ creations to measure our own progress.  Teacher, being entirely Korean, comes around to correct us. I, being entirely American, expected to receive affirmation just for effort.  Nope. She is kind, but has standards that she is quite willing to repeat.  Repeatedly.  Accompanied by the plucking out of poorly-placed flowers.

Grace in action.
Me, about to throw this impossible hand-tied bouquet
across the room.
At the end of an hour or so, it’s time for the Korean Photo Ritual. Our arrangements are displayed together (sometimes we pose with them) and photographed half to death by every person in the room (and sometimes the church photographer). We are very nice to each other.  We each secretly believe our arrangement is the best. 

Hand-tied bouquets with neutral wrapping tones are IN this season.

Heart-shaped wreaths. Can you see which one is mine?
It's the best one.  Obviously.  

Candlestick centerpieces (the wall sign says Joyful Church). I got a bonus orchid this week,
just for being white.  Poor Grace.

Photo Herding.

Finally, Teacher helps us wrap our arrangements, which includes a dizzying array of carefully-folded plastic tissue paper, ribbons, and classy stickers advertising her floral shop.  Packaging is an art for which I do not have much patience; Teacher always always re-ties my bows.  I try not to be resentful.

So, I've done this four times. Is the social stress worth it?  Yes.  And again, yes.  I really enjoy the class once I’m there, and I love having a gorgeous arrangement of flowers in my home.   Which I might parade around the house, saying “Hey! Do you know who made this amazing arrangement?  ME!”   You're welcome, White people.  

P.S. Another white lady has joined the class!
Adre is a delightful German South African
who's lived in Korea for 10 years.

P. P. S. I've posted several brief videos of our last flower class, including the Serious Korea Wrapping Process.  Enjoy! 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Malaysia 3: Laughing with the Fishes (plus diving/snorkeling tips)

Split view of ocean (photo from
When once I gazed upon a lake or ocean, I simply admired the rhythmic waves and dazzling sun glinting off the inscrutable surface; what might be below that thin shiny film was alien, not compatible with human flourishing.  Dipping ones eyes below was accompanied with fear akin to near-miss experiences with death. Now, however, I know better. Now I long to slip through that transparent skin between worlds, to snorkel among the strange creatures in their universe.  And now I regularly dream of flying underwater, wondering at this other half of creation.  

Which sounds all wonderful, but here is the thing.  Snorkeling means you're within an arm's reach of air, of that joyous invisible lifesource.  

However, from the nanosecond we booked our flights to Malaysia (see our other adventures here and here), Nick beseeched us to pretty please try scuba diving again. (Backstory: Our family did a Discover Scuba class in the Philippines last year. I strongly failed to appreciate unlearning things like Up = Air = Life. Beloved Husband and oldest son, however, were ecstatic. The other two kids were, well, whatever.  You know.)  Back to beseeching: We the family gathered a formidable array of counter-arguments: David’s ear hurts terribly more than 2 meters underwater (he was later banned from diving by a Malaysian ENT doc/diver), so the pressure was off him (ha! A diving joke!). For her part, Elisabeth was concerned about torture by things who bite/sting/rip or generally look weird; I, on the other hand, prophesied death by frenzied drowning. We fought with vigor, but in the end Mr. Cajoling Puppy Eyes wore down the resistance from our Death Panic Eyes.  *Sigh.*   

So, we found a (truly wonderful) dive shop owner who booked a Discover class for us two days hence. Summary (and spoiler alert):  We had a fantastic time.  Nick, overjoyed at his victory, slavered all over the dive shop (and then on the boat ride to the islands, and then even more while diving like a manic eel, which got him into a wee spot of oxygen-less troubles later, but even THAT didn’t diminish his wiggly joy).  David snorkeled (jealously) above us; Sunny took excellent care of my irrational self; and Elisabeth was quite distracted from her fears by the personal attentions of a rather attractive young dive instructor.  

From left: me (failing to non-verbally cover regretful panic), joyous Nick, distractingly attractive dive instructor Nathan, suddenly-shy Elisabeth, David the causal, and Sunny (owner of Sunny Reef Divers, Kota Kinabalu and photo credit guy). 

For those of you who have not yet experienced the joy of this “lazy man’s sport” (quote from Sunny), I shall now offer some tips. Because I have 3 whole dives under my weight belt (ha! another diving joke!).  So I'm an expert beginner.  Fear me.

(Tip 1) Get a dive instructor who talks incessantly about safety.  Seriously.  While fitting us for equipment, Sunny shared stories about stupid divers, and his responses were reassuring (e.g., a guy who lied about his experience and couldn't do the basic skills wanted Sunny to certify him anyway.  Nope.).  When we got on the boat, the first things he (Sunny, not the lying diver) pointed out were the fire extinguisher and the first aid kit.  Thus, many of my fears about potential problems (like, say, leg cramps or giant jellyfish or a certain husband swimming himself out of oxygen) were considerably eased.  I did ask Sunny why in the WORLD he had a giant knife strapped to his leg, fearing the worst (large populations of underwater person-eating monsters).  Nope: he carries it to slash open illegal fishing nets and thus release the captured creatures.  Sunny gained so many points.

(Tip 2) Actually getting oneself into the water from the boat is the very scariest part.  That backwards rolling “SPLOOSH!” into death-infested waters with 60+ pounds of gear is nearly as scary as walking down the wedding aisle.  Or birthing babies, or going to dinner parties, or whatever terrifying stuff you’ve lived through.  The terror only lasts a few disconcerting seconds before your buoyancy vest pops you to the surface again and you laugh with joy that you're not dead.

(Tip 3) Once you’re in the water, you only have 1 job!  JUST ONE!  Forget all those gadgets and gauges and gear and just do your one job: breathe.  Iiiiinnnnnn….. ooouuuttttt….. iiiiinnnnn…… ooouuutttt….  Listen to those soothing bubbles.  You don’t even have to keep your eyes open. When you’re ready to open your eyes AND keep breathing, dive guy will steer you around and point out all the pretty fishes and hopefully check your gauges and stuff.

(Tip 4) This one is true for both snorkeling and diving: Try not to laugh while under water.  Doing so rapidly fills your mask with water and then you can’t see the pretty fishes even with your eyes open because you’re freaking out a tiny bit distracted by all the water now sloshing inside your nose holes.  To be sure, fish are surely funny and wonderful, and I am a big laugher on land, but refrain from such underwater behavior until you are skilled at mask-clearing.  I, after several laugh-related near-drownings, am now a mask-clearing expert, which allows me to chortle rather often.  This initially startled Sunny, but then he got over my switch from Panic Eyes to Joyous Bubble Face and let me do more of my own steering.  Once he had me reach out toward a mid-sized clownfish (think Nemo), which happily approached and bit my finger. And I laughed and laughed and blew the water out of my mask, ready to breathe again and see what else I could see under the watery ceiling.

So. Elisabeth and I are willing to do more scuba diving, but please don’t tell Nick, because you KNOW he’ll next beg us to dive in caves and at night and with electric eels and who knows what else. 

Elisabeth & me.  Photo by Nick.

Kota Kinabalu at the bottom of map;
Jesselton Pier to the right of the labeled Resort.
We went to all but Sulug Island.
P.S.  Wondering what we saw and where we went? We snorkeled and/or dived off four of the five TARP marine park islands (20 minutes off the coast of Kota Kinabalu).  We saw so many, many, many kinds of fish and corals plus some medium-sized sting-rays, giant urchins, starfish and even a big cuttlefish (oh, be still my heart!!)!  Here are a few of our pictures plus a list of the fish that Google and I could identify - perhaps only 1/3rd of the species.  :)

Parrotfish (common and Bleeker’s; Scaridae)
Lined surgeonfish (Acanthurus lineatus)
Sergeant major (Abudefduf saxatilis)
Pufferfish & boxfish
Several species of clownfish (saddleback, false, etc.)
Wrasse (bluestreak cleaner; red breasted)
Yellowback fusilier
Beaked butterflyfish
Harlequin sweetlips
Anna’s magnificent slug
Blue Sea Star & burgundy sea star
Giant clam
Black long spine urchin (Diadema setosum)
Pharaoh cuttlefish

Cornetfish (or, flutemouth; Fistularia petimba)