Follow by Email - get notifications of new posts. :)

Monday, December 11, 2017

Red Light District: First Impressions

Isaiah met Katherine and I at the downtown McDonald's on Friday evening to lay the ground rules.  He has done this for years and would do all the talking.  If asked, we should just say we’re from Handong University; we should certain not talk to any men in suits; never open a window/door (just knock and wait); if we’re waved on, then don’t be pushy; don’t interfere with the business; we’re there to offer love (not judgment).

Photo from

Ok. After a short prayer we walked to the red light district, just one block from the most popular shopping area in the city.  Dark, narrow, crooked alleys were lit only by the bright pink lights spilling from spotless sliding glass doors.  Isaiah led the way, noting the presence of CCTV cameras.  I wondered who was watching: probably not the police, whose station flanked one end of this illegal district.  Through each window was a tidy sitting room; nearly all had space heaters and a cheap plastic chair by the window, facing the grimy alley; one had a tiny kitchen, with clean dishes in the rack, bananas on the countertop, and cute d├ęcor on the walls. Another had a washing machine, resting between loads. 

We passed a few well-lit rooms with no one in the chair or answering Isaiah’s knock.  A silhouetted, stub-tailed cat waited patiently outside one door; plant pots, filled with dirt, sat next to others.  Isaiah carried a box of instant coffee as a prop;  he also had a bag of heart-shaped notes, written with kind Korean greetings by his wife and children, taped to packets of instant coffee. 

Photo from
We stayed in the B alley, where the older, less attractive women work.  Isaiah was reluctant to take us to the A district, with young women for sale, because it’s busier and more closely guarded by pimps and the gangsters who run the business.  Besides, he didn't have enough notes just for the B women. 

We continued down the wandering pink-lit alleys; I wondered if I could touch the windows on both sides if I stretched out my arms.  At one place, a little dog barked ferociously at us from the floor next to the empty chair. A heavy-set thirty-something woman came to the door, just out of the shower with an elasticized pink towel wrapped around her dewy body.  She did not open the door to Isaiah’s “hello” or “we’re not selling anything,” but did once he showed her the paper hearts and coffee.  Another  woman happily greeted Isaiah, calling him “Baby Daddy” from previous visits he had made with his young family.  Some women, clearly bored, re-applied their makeup as they gazed into their smartphones, waving us on.  Some were cautious but reluctantly accepted the gifts. Isaiah played up his American accent, making Katherine giggle at his terrible-sounding Korean.  I wondered if this helped down-play his power advantage as a male, or helped ensure a short visit limited to comments on the cold weather and the small gift.  

One woman pointed to me and asked if I was a missionary (I don't actually know what Isaiah told her).  In one window, a middle-aged woman, with a single, central tooth, welcomed Isaiah warmly while pushing the seated overweight girl behind her.  This woman had apparently “aged out” of the sex worker trade and was now a manager, in charge of several girls.   I couldn’t help but wonder whether her teeth were lost to abuse or just years of neglect.

Nothing was as I had imagined it would be.  We saw only one man, a shambling, heavyset man in workman's clothes who did not make eye contact with us.  None of the women were dressed as I’d imagined, perhaps because they were the “B-level” ladies.  One seated lady wore an old bra with gaudy silver spangles glued around the top edge, but any provocative effect was muted by the pink fleece “Hello Kitty” blanket that covered her shoulders, lap, and legs.  Some wore gaudy high-heeled shoes that had seen years of service.  The women looked bored, suspicious, or blank-faced -- none used the dead snake-eye or “come hither” looks I’m used to seeing in Western movies and ads. 
Photo from

After 30 minutes, we had run out of heart-notes, and we slipped back out to the main street.  Walking back toward our cars, we passed a tiny, brightly-lit store with rows of cages in the window, showing little dogs sleeping, sitting, barking, or just looking out into the night with a faint look of despair in their eyes. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Unintentional Travelers (or: Goosenecks & Trash)

When we moved to Korea (a.k.a. "when I became obsessed with the beach"), we discovered a lot of strange marine creatures (e.g., herehere, and here) and a panoply of trash.  Both categories initially fascinated me, but gradually they became part of the ignorable background.

But last month at Youngilman port's tiny "surfer beach," instead of perceiving "creatures" and "trash" as separate categories, I noticed how they interacted: (a) one of God's creepier creatures enjoyed attaching itself to (b) human flotsam and jetsam.  Let's look a little closer.

Today's creepy creature is the gooseneck (or goose) barnacle, pictured above.  They have some good features: they filter the water to catch tiny food bits, they have nice white shells, and they seem to have rich social lives as I've never seen one alone.  They also have some weird features: as youths, they cement themselves to stuff with a rubbery red-brown neck/leg/stalk and wave their heads about to do the hokey-pokey  eat or possible cheer their friends.  And as they wave about, the shell opens, and a dark, 12-fingered hand/filter thing emerges.  This scenario might not be horrifying in some universe. But when you are peering rather closely at 10 or 50 or 1000 of them doing this together, dying slowly on a poorly-chosen home that's washed ashore, one's revulsion is disproportionate to their small size. (Side note: People eat these. Spanish people.  Maybe other people.  I can't bear to think about it. Eww.)

The Goose Barnacle.

What struck me is that in the right context, these creatures are well-adapted to serving the marine ecosystem. But when they choose the wrong things to attach to, when they choose what seems like a solid idea but is just trash destined to eventually wash ashore, these creatures are doomed to slow deaths, waving their last goodbyes to passersby like me.  And here is our Metaphor for Life: to what do I attach myself?  Where do I pin my hopes and dreams and illusions of security?  (Ooh - theology/philosophy and marine biology in one blog!). Let's look at the strange homes of some goosenecks.

Milk Peanut.  Some sort of Chinese drink?
(ooh - see those horror hand/filters sticking out?
Now just imagine a classic Wilhelm Scream dubbed over that)

I think this flask is from China.  Not that the goosenecks care to read.   

Korean spray paint, I believe.

It's not a Korean beach unless you find a shoe or seven.
This one has bonus barnacles.

Big styrofoam fishing float; very commonly beached after storms.

All done waving.  Pretty shell variations, though.

I have to wonder what happened to the person
who was supposed to be wearing the no-longer-attached Chinese life jacket.

Barnacles on a string. 
Doesn't quite have the same rhythmic appeal of "soap on a rope."

A fluorescent light bulb (weirdly common on the beach) 

Even tiny barnacles on a lighter.

But wait!  Goosenecks apparently won't attach to just ANY kind of trash.  They have standards!

WHOA!  What's this?
No goosenecks seemed to find Barbie's torso attractive.  
And, so, our moral: Be careful what you attach to (lest you float ashore to die where an alien takes intrusive pictures of you dying with indignity).

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Library Love: 10 steps, 8 days, $0

Box bits from boxed book collections
I love reading.  And organizing.  And learning.  Put those together and I have enjoyed many an hour volunteering/tidying at the school library.  After over a year of doing so, I can quickly tidy the library, alphabetize and shelve books (even in Korean!) and direct kids to good books.  Mmmm...  :)  (Don't make me manage the kids, though.  I don't get paid NEARLY enough for that thankless job.)

Now, as a social psychologist, I can't analyze your unconscious urges but I can sure analyze social environments. And our library is...kind of...low on visual joy for those folks who don't swoon at the mere sight of tidy shelves of books.  The elementary side got a great upgrade earlier this year (beanbags! colorful floor mats!) but the rest of the place looked a little tired.  And its dusty corners were filling with books needing processing/repair or a trip to the Big Book Beyond.

I longed to add a little happy to the place, but I had no budget.  But I did have (a) a near-idolatrous addiction to transformational reality TV shows; (b) decades of experience as a scavenger (see here, for example), and (c) after-hours door code access.  So, while our beloved Library Guy was away earlier this month, I initiated Operation Library Love. Here was the plan:

(1) Sort and move stacks of books-to-be-processed to a more discrete location.

(2) Move giant book display shelf/stand away from wall. 

And that's as far as the actual plan went.  But more ideas came to mind gradually, so here's what happened.

(3) Select pages from a sad old broken English dictionary; affix pages to wall (pages: free; white glue I already had + water = free "modge podge").   Recoat a few times for durability (thank you, Ashley!).

(4) Cut up the (free) boxes that come with many book collections (see top of page).  Arrange.  Rearrange.  Fuss with some more.  Frown. Take pictures.  Frown more.  Go home to sleep on it.

(5) Wake up with revelation - we needed a focal point!  Ponder.  Idea! Google how to make giant 3D cardboard letters.  Go to the dumpster to get cardboard.  Darn: Box Man had already come, so no cardboard.  Heart deflates. Voice in head whispers, "look in the dumpster again."  Voila!  Sheets of 1" styrofoam!  Heart re-inflates.

(6) Design and cut out styrofoam letters.  Spend much time cleaning static clingy beads from table, chairs, floor, wall, and clothing.  Google how to glue stuff to styrofoam.  Learn useful tips like "superglue dissolves styrofoam."  Ooh.  Good to know.

(7) Note on calendar that Library Guy returning to work in just 3 days. Assign each family member a letter and a primary color; force them to cut out appropriate pictures from dead books and arrange on styrofoam letters. 

(8) Use white glue + water to affix pictures to styrofoam.  Admirably restrain excessive cursing at glue failures, static-clingy styro bits, etc.  Recoat letters for durability.

The Scarlet A (hee hee - English Lit insider joke!)

The Green D (does that have an English Lit meaning?  anyone?)

(9) Trim and lightly sand edges of dictionary wall pages (thank you, Judith!).  Fetch glue gun from home.  Fetch husband to help stick letters to wall.  Stick book box pictures to wall. 
Making much progress the night before
Library Guy returns to work...
(10) Final touches: Move a mat and beanbags to make a cozy reading spot.  Take pictures and await Library Guy's return.  Hope he likes it.  :)

TA DA!!!

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.