Posts Tagged 'Expat Life'

North Village

BUKCHON, Seoul — HAD I WOKEN UP on these uneven streets with a dose of amnesia, I could have easily guessed that I’d been dropped into some far off town or fallen through a seam in the fabric of time. This is a Seoul that I have never seen; it is calm, even reflective. Walking down its  alleyways puts me in touch with the human element of times now past, like opening an ancient book of poetry and seeing tea stains made by the master who penned it.

The patchwork of traditional hanok homes that form Seoul’s North Village (Bukchon) is iconographic of the city’s roots, but so too is the plaster that fills in its cracks and the newly finished timber of half of the neighborhood’s doorways. This place may feel ancient, but the destruction wrought by war and development means that many of these homes are replicas. Still, they exude a homey character that has been decimated by the ambitious wrecking ball in most other corners of the city.

I can’t help but wonder what the capital might have looked like if the iron-fisted general behind South Korea’s economic miracle had possessed a nostalgic streak, or been even mildly inspired by traditional aesthetics. Imagine if the now shamelessly gaudy South River neighborhoods had preserved some of their rice fields; if the dilapidated, communist-bloc inspired apartment buildings that define the skyline were instead low, wooden housing developments that would last.

I’ve written before about the destruction of Beijing’s hutong. The difference between here and there is that at least there’s a conversation about China erasing the physical remnants of its history. Here, it is a non-issue. This neighborhood will likely continue to be protected, but elsewhere in the city, progress continues.

On Dislocation

Lake Wingra. Madison, Wis. Photo by windelbo.

Lake Wingra. Madison, Wis. Photo by windelbo.

SEOUL — I WAKE UP AND EVERYTHING is gone. The familiar props have vanished like a set on Broadway, and in their place is a just a big window and the day ahead. There are bare walls; an apartment without memories. Slowly, the inertia of routine animates my limbs into showering, putting on socks. I’m out the door and I press the elevator call button. Night is draining from the sky.

Hours pass.

My legs gyrate awkwardly on an elliptical machine and I wonder who I’ve become. I am not someone who joins health clubs. I see flashes of the University of Wisconsin arboretum. The road is covered in patches of snow and I can see my breath. There’s tall grass on the edge of the the lake. My tires hum.

Pounding techno pulls me from my reverie. My reflection bounces up and down on the window; people on the street below scurry off to somewhere.

Everything about moving here has been harder than I expected. Stripped of the elements that made up what I called life — the time to write, my bicycle, locally grown food, coffee shops and friends — I’ve found myself in an identity funk. I slip back and forth between welcoming this, in hopes that the experience is somehow making me richer, and feeling like I’ve just lost track.

Korea, ironically, has in some ways felt more distant and elusive than I when I was Stateside. I mainly see three places: the apartment, the subway car and the office. What keeps me grounded in the fact that I am actually here is an often acute sense of alienation from my surroundings and occasional bouts of homesickness. What has also escaped me is progress towards finishing a set of personal projects: language fluency, regular posting and an in-depth piece of journalism among them.

I once read that a person can only successfully do 2.5 things during a given period of time. A job counts as one thing, a new marriage another, the saying went. I’ve been testing this theory since I got here, railing against it with inflated ambitions and strict time schedules. Still, the rule has held true. Which is why I find myself squeezing in 40 minutes at the gym on the odd day to keep from becoming totally sedentary, instead of taking the long, daily bike rides I would prefer. And why this blog has fallen into disarray.

All of this, however, is being viewed from a perspective that is too muddled in the daily without respect to the full equation. When I am afforded the presence of mind to observe where I am — both geographically and in life — I feel more satisfied. I notice the how the leaves are changing off in the mountains, the way Seoul’s air seems purer with the crackle of autumn.

What its even more enlivening is when I think about travel. My wife and I recently found a block of time in which to escape, and as soon as we had set the dates we stirred into action. Laptops flew open, clicking over maps and researching phrasebooks. Malaysia has taken our imagination. The idea of waking up in Sarawak and peering out towards the South China Sea sends a cool ripple through me; the unfamiliar once again inspires.

Looking West: Britain’s Revised Immigration Policy

London in movement by fabbriciuse

London in movement by fabbriciuse

SEOUL — IT’S TOUGH BEING UNWANTED, especially when you’ve fallen out of favor with a major Western power. Britain’s migration advisory committee published a list Tuesday (local time) reducing the number of skilled jobs open to non-EU migrants to 700,000 from 1 million. Effective November, the fields of medicine, secondary education and social work will be closed to those from outside the European bloc, along with 300,000 other jobs. Whether this is a sign of growing economic protectionism or a simple case of discrimination (or both) depends on your perspective. But it seems clear that in an increasingly borderless world, some parties are still trying to hold the line.

They have, of course, left some channels of immigration open — notably to sheep shearers and ballet dancers (Guardian via FP Passport):

It is thought the changes will cut the level of skilled migration to Britain from outside Europe by between 30,000 and 70,000 people a year.

The main list of shortage areas identified by the group of labour market economists is headed by construction managers involved in multimillion-pound projects, civil and chemical engineers, medical consultants, maths and science teachers, and ships officers to staff a newly growing merchant navy.

It also includes unexpected occupations such as skilled ballet dancers and sheep shearers. The experts heard evidence from the Royal Ballet that very few British applicants had the required level of artistic excellence or aesthetics.

The other exception will enable a group of 500 Australian and New Zealand shearers who travel the world working on up to 400 sheep a day to continue to operate in Britain, where they shear 20% of the UK flock.

The MAC acknowledged that one way to address these shortage areas, aside from turning to “low-paid immigrant labour,” is to increase pay rates for those positions. Citing budgetary reasons, they said such a solution is off the table for now. Another answer might be to both raise wages and allow people from outside the EU to compete — leveling the playing field, allowing immigrants to improve their lot and potentially giving the economy a boost. That idea didn’t seem to occur to the committee.

Having just moved to a nation where the word “foreigner” is used in wide brush strokes and where finding work as an outsider in anything besides teaching English is often prohibitively difficult, I can perhaps say based on anecdotal evidence that such closed economic policies are not only the result of buried nativist tendencies (Korea for Koreans, Britain for the Brits) but have the effect of perpetuating such notions. A blunt example is Japan’s refusal to grant suffrage to the over 600,000 ethnic Koreans living in the island nation, many of whom are second or third generation — a policy that pokes at the still-gaping wound of colonial history.

If migrants, expats and other such folk are regulated out of having a full role in their adopted society, they are also shut out in more emotional ways. Tension bubbles, leaving rifts in a culture that could otherwise be rich in mingling hues. It is a backwards step in a globalising world, and one that Britain should consider carefully.

Journal Entries: In These Shoes

Map of Oregon, Vodka Tonic

Map of Oregon state. Seattle, September 2007

SEOUL, Sept. 3 (5:25 AM at our apartment) — I WOKE UP THIS MORNING thinking about the fact that it was almost exactly one year ago today that I was loading up the car and heading down to Portland. I’d just graduated from college and had spent the previous month both in LA visiting friends and up in Seattle riding my bicycle on familiar streets, absorbing all the places I had missed while living in Wisconsin. I was confused as to the direction of my life, but not so concerned as to yet feel anxious. Things, however messy and uncertain, felt free.

It seems funny now to think that on the other side of the world (indeed, as I pen these very words) my parents are driving down in the same direction I myself was headed all those months ago. They’ll stop for breakfast at the Country Cousin, as I did, and watch the fog sweep its misty fingertips over the coastal hills as they drive out along Sunset Highway. Their final stop is Cannon Beach  — also the last leg of my own West Coast journey, as Nick and I came full circle before returning home.

Strangely, I can’t help feeling a bit envious of my parents. Seoul is in its last throes of summer, still hot and cacophonous. I want to take my wife somewhere calm and beautiful, where the air is all seawater and pine.

What I remember most about the trip last September was that it was lended a sense of momentousness, though not by any artificial attempts to make it so. Big things were shifting all around us, and driving south gave Nick and I the escape — the distance — we needed to sort it all out and become ourselves. Those four weeks lasted months and years. I will never forget the sunset at Capitola.

I must admit that I wish I could recapture something from that time, hold it now as I struggle with a new kind of confusion and this adjustment to the working life. It seems painfully ironic that despite being halfway around the globe, my current experience in some ways feel less adventuresome than my time in Portland, Oregon. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of perspective. Either way, I could use a good road trip.

Continue reading ‘Journal Entries: In These Shoes’


photo by bweisner

SEOUL — IT ISN’T ALL PAPERWORK and vaccinations. For all the logistical hassle moving abroad entails, the greater struggle is indeed internal. It is grappling to understand one’s role in a society that does not necessarily welcome foreigners or their opinions. It is making rhyme and reason of a decision to leave home. And for the writer, it is connecting with the essence of a place; tapping into the pool of unfamiliar human energy so that it flows in ink and letters.

In his essay “The Discovery of What it Means to Be an American,” James Baldwin talks about writing as a process not only of self-discovery, but of comprehending one’s relationship with others. The sticking point, Baldwin argues, lies in our own social concept of ourselves. But travel, the removal of one’s self from ordinary circumstances, is the apollyon of our hindrances.

Having spent much of his later life in Paris, Baldwin draws upon the idea of status in Europe, and observes that he is unencumbered by notions of having to “make it” as a writer — or as anything else — in his adopted home. This is a feeling, he says, which allows him to connect more freely with the people he encounters:

This lack of what may roughly be called social paranoia causes the American writer in Europe to feel — almost certainly for the first time in his life — that he can reach out to everyone, that he is accessible to everyone and open to everything …

The writer is meeting in Europe people who are not American, whose sense of reality is entirely different from his own. They may love or hate or admire or fear or envy this country — they see it, in any case, from another point of view, and this forces the writer to reconsider many things he had always taken for granted. This reassessment, which can be very painful, is also very valuable.

It is true, in as much a metaphorical sense as in very real terms of distance, that the Han is far from the Seine. But despite the wide cultural gap between Europe and East Asia, Baldwin’s words seem to hold as true in Seoul as they do anywhere outside of the borders of the United States. For American writers abroad, it may be that before we can begin to dig under the skin of a new home, we must shake of the constraints and perceptions that bound us in our old one.

We start by abandoning the titles offered by cash-earning occupations, and embracing our role as simple observers on the outside. And slowly the stories of the city arise in whispers and in laughter. And as we scribble away, slowly we too become a part of the narrative.

This Week’s Wandering News

It’s been a long time since This Week’s has run, but in an attempt to — once again — get things into a normal rhythm here at TDT, we’re bringing it back. This week we lead with another disheartening tidbit about fakery at the Olympic Games.

  • Remember the ethnic minorities? They were fake too, says Foreign Policy blog Passport. Linking to a piece printed in Britain’s Telegraph, FP says the boys and girls who supposedly represented China’s 56 ethnic minorities in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics were, in fact, all Han Chinese.
  • Canadian writer-gone-English-teacher Joel McConvey posts a witty piece of booze-laden journalism about expat bars from his corner of the world in Jeju-do, South Korea. He deftly observes that the most memorable foreigner-filled watering holes are those that foster a “sense of limbo, wherein the bar’s palpable detachment from the surrounding geography and the norms of both the society in which it exists and that which it strives to emulate mirrors that of its transient patrons.”
  • Despite food prices being on the rise, people are still Buying into ‘organic,’ ‘natural,’ ‘local,’ writes IHT journalist Aline Sullivan. From the under-the-bridge farmers markets to the aisles of Whole Foods, foodies from Orange County to Britain are putting their money where their mouth is.
  • The Head of the House Homeland Security Committee has labeled TSA screener testing ‘a waste’, according to USA Today. Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) was reportedly pretty peeved when he found out that no follow-up examinations were being made after personnel failed to discover guns and other contraband that made it through the screening process. “You have a system that’s supposed to strengthen airport security, but you don’t use the results of the tests to do exactly what you’re doing the tests for,” he said. “It’s obviously a waste of money.”
  • And last Sunday, the Independent‘s Gap Year Guide took readers to the scorched New Mexico desert to show them How to be a modern day Mowgli. Or at least, how they can volunteer at a wolf sanctuary, hopefully without getting bitten.

Working Sitting Down: Sweating in the City, But Barely Moving

SEOUL — RUSH HOUR SUBWAY CARS here are more like subterranean body movers than modes of rapid transit. Even the youngest salary men and women on the early AM trains look as though their sparks are smoldering in the drenching summer humidity. Heavy heads bob sleepily, plugged into devices feeding them music and news. Everyone seems a bit faint.

In my shirt and tie, I attempt mentally to set myself apart as an observer of the collective exhaustion that grips this city’s modern workers, rather than a victim of it. But I too can feel the sitting-down-ness of my job taking its toll — my energy being stolen by hours spent in front of the computer, evaporating with the electric hum.

It isn’t that my work is boring; it’s quite engaging and often stressful. But as synapses fire off and thoughts zip across my humble amount of gray matter, my body enjoys no such kinetic employment. I ride elevators and take subways. And then I sit. And type. And when the day is done and I’m tired of sitting and typing and thinking, I sleep. Lying down.

For someone who used to get by doing jobs that required physical hustle — barista, short order chef, waiter — and who would ride his bike to work and school even on the most unforgiving of Wisconsin days, adjusting to the relative lassitude of this new life has been awkward, unwelcome. And it is not without consequences on my creativity. While my senses are inundated daily by Seoul’s heaving humanness, I feel disconnected from nature — from my own legs and lungs — and perhaps less in touch with my own imagination.

I think I need to climb a mountain. One of the most uniquely beautiful aspects of this city is its lush craggy peaks, which tower far above a skyline of neon and glass. Even the most salty Seoullites recognize the need reconvene with Gaia; old men here head off on weekend hikes, following their calisthenics with cups of rice wine. And citizens of all walks, once they reach the mountain’s top, will often let forth with an unbridled Yaaah-ho! And thus one of the faceless millions makes himself heard.

However cathartic such an ascent may prove, I feel that activity needs to be a more regular part of my life, and of the life of this city. Don’t get me wrong: South Koreans are an active people — by great strides more energetic than their average American counterparts — and Seoul has made vast improvements to be accommodating to pedestrians, if not cyclists. But long workdays and a sprawling metropolis mean the majority of folks are working themselves to the point of mental exhaustion, heading out for drinks and food, and then being carried back to their apartments via one of the many arteries that snake through the city’s underground.

Though there are brave souls out there making the commute on two wheels, I’m hesitant to plunge headlong onto these deathly streets. Those I do see wheeling by are usually straddling beefy mountain bikes; whistles dangle from their mouths ready to shrill should a taxi leap out of line.

Several weeks from now, this city will observe “A Day without Cars” — or more accurately, a day where a few lanes will be closed for a few miles for cyclists to parade back and forth. But at least public transportation will be free until 9 AM. That should liven things up; nothing like a little competition for space to cause some commotion on the train.

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