Conversations With My Korean Teacher

(Credit: Jay P. Lee/Flickr)

Let’s face it, I am not really getting much better at speaking Korean, except when I’m drunk, when something magical happens and I just start full-on speaking Korean. Friend Alex witnessed this once and said it was rather disconcerting because before that, she had never once heard me utter a single phrase in Korean.

Despite my lack of progress, I still spend every Thursday afternoon with Lee Unkyung, the trusted private teacher to British, Australian and New Zealand diplomats, as well as a raft of foreign correspondents who have come through Seoul. I love Unkyung and count her among one of my closest Korean friends. She is the oldest of four daughters, so she knows what it’s like to deal with the sister dynamics she witnesses among my children each week. As my Korean has haltingly improved, our conversations about birth order and sister relationships have gotten (slightly) more nuanced.

She’s also a font of story ideas! Because we start each lesson with conversation practice, she ends up sharing interesting headlines or debates that are going on in Korean society that I often don’t know about yet. So helpful.

Today we talked about the standard Korean phrases that translate awkwardly into English, and vice versa. I often hear, “Have a good rest,” for example. Which seems odd as an English phrase. But she explained that 푹 쉬세요 (pook she-seh-yo) is something Koreans say to one another all the time. 

This happens in the reverse when you translate the English phrase “What do you think” into Korean, because in Korean, you don’t say “WHAT do you think” but instead “HOW do you think?” So she says it’s a dead giveaway that you’re translating an original English question from your mind when a speaker says “WHAT do you think” in Korean.

My favorite common Korean phrase is 마음에 들어요 (ma-oom-eh duhlauyo), which is understood to mean “it pleases me.” But if you want to be real literal about it, the phrase can translate as “It fits my heart exactly.” And what could be more lovely than that?

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State of the Women

When I was in the states this month I got the chance to meet with a lot of think tanky folks who have been sources and friends for years. One of the groups, Asia Society Policy Institute, even let me talk to young professionals for an event they do called AsiaX, which is supposed to a series of “less boring” talks. I opted to chat about something I wish I had more time to really delve into here, which is the state of women in South Korea and Japan. These are highly industrialized, future-oriented countries, who are holding themselves back because their women don’t have the full range of options in the economies as men do.

A K-Pop Boy Band Is A Tough Act To Follow

Speaking to some students.

A few weeks ago I received an invitation to “speak to some students and other young people,” to which I responded, okay, sure, because I try to say yes to events that involve young people. Pay it forward and all that. Little did I know until I got there this past week that it was a MAJOR PRODUCTION involving an audience of 4,000 people in a sports arena.

I am really grateful and relieved that they asked me to send in a slide deck before the Olympics onslaught so that by the eve of the forum, I didn’t have to prepare! My past self had already sent in some kind of deck that I could just generally follow when I took the stage. But man, what a crowd they had kickin’ in there.

It turns out many of the students had camped out overnight to catch the opening act, a K-pop group called Wanna One, a boy band put together on a reality TV show. You know, like O Town, or Danity Kane, the girl group P Diddy put together. Anyway, it was AFTER those boys, plus the Korean speedskater who won the first gold medal for South Korea in Pyeongchang, that the “anchor show” was programmed. That’s when a BBC documentarian, a CCTV anchor and I had to take turns giving short talks.

There really weren’t any parameters to the remarks except to help motivate young people about the profession, so I just riffed on my work here in Korea in a generally chronological order and ended with some tips on how to not suck in journalism. It felt pretty much like talking to a college class, except with simultaneous translation devices available for each audience member (like they have at the UN), much brighter lights, louder feedback from the sound system and hugeass screens to see yourself beamed at billboard size. (Newsflash: I do not lint brush myself often enough for giant high definition projection).

The craziest part was after the speech when I got swarmed by Koreans from the audience who wanted to take selfies together. This is so different from speaking in the US, where people usually come up to you afterward to challenge you on your remarks, trade business cards, see if you want to drink later, etc. These Koreans barely even spoke to me. They just held up their phones next to my face so we could squeeze in a shot together. I would say half of the selfies were normal and without filters, but the other half had Snapchat/Instgram like insta-face filters where we would be selfie-ing with animated hearts or our faces with auto-blush and auto-long lashes and such. It was sort of insane but also an incredible experience to see what young Korean selfie culture was like. Some people wanted to do the straight peace sign, others went for the pinched heart fingers, some just wanted a straight smiling selfie … so much variety. Kept me on my toes. Thanks, Korea!

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On Liz Plank’s Pod… To Talk Gender Issues

Spoke with Vox’s Liz Plank about the boxes women in my region are forced to fit into and the consequences and questions that flow from that. Thanks Liz and producers, for having me on!

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On Risk

Things feel like they’re getting dodgier on the Korean peninsula given so much talk about military options rather than diplomatic ones for ending the nuclear standoff with North Korea. Friend Ben and I were chatting about this and he got philosophical when I asked him whether he thinks I should leave. The response ended up being rather poetic, now that I look at the way the lines broke:

hard to say
if you leave
you’re safe
but
on the other hand
what is risk?
you face it every day in one form or another
crossing the street
climbing a stepstool to change a light bulb
eating

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“Love” Motels

Cards strewn all over the street feature numbers to call for a lady.

We were walking home from dinner one night when Friend Mike picked up a glossy, full-color business card with a woman’s gigantic posterior on it and a phone number. As we continued walking, it was clear that was just one of many cards like that which had rained on the street.

Upon more investigation (read: asking more experienced Korea dwellers), it turns out we live pretty close to an area with many “love motels,” which are hotels you can rent for an hour at a time. Many young South Koreans who still live with their parents use these as a place to hook it up, but they would also be convenient for entrepreneurial exchanges, I assume.

At one party a few weeks ago, a group of us started talking about these cards and how the women you get probably do not look like the ones advertised on the business cards. That’s when one of my Korean-speaking American friends called up the number. There wasn’t a long exchange, so the main things we learned were logistics and pricing.

You book a room, then tell the service where it is. The woman will show up at the love motel at the appointed time and location, and you must pay the equivalent of $150 per hour. There was no elaboration as to what you can do with your hour, so presumably it depends on the professional who is sent to you. There have been other advertisements around that use the Korean “tteok” or “dok” (depending on how you want to romanize) to describe these ladies … Dok is the word for a white, doughy rice cake. I’m not sure if that’s the reason why they’re called dok girls, but this is the kind of question I still have about the ol’ love motel sex business.

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Happy First Birthday, Isabel Rock!

They say it is my birthday (Cake cake cake cake cake cake)

They say it is my birthday (Cake cake cake cake cake cake). Photo by Just September

While Isa isn’t Korean, she WAS born in Seoul last summer, so we followed Korean tradition and did a doljabi ceremony for her.

Isa selects from a destiny platter.

Isa selects from a destiny platter.

Under the tradition, the one-year old gets a “destiny table” of items to choose from that align with various professions — stethoscope, computer mouse, pencil, money, etc. She went for the microphone without hesitation. But then followed up with her second choice, a gavel.

With her microphone.

With her microphone.

Following American tradition, there was an incident with fire and cake, in which she straight up took her hand and grabbed the flame. Mistakes were made.

Whoops. She recovered after touching fire.

Whoops. She recovered after touching fire.

Isa is my second daughter and as many of you know, she’s a rainbow baby, born after two miscarriages in a row. She’s been a superpower sunshine since she was born — the smiliest, snuggliest and sweetest blessing. We love her goofy tendencies: putting her full face into everything she wants to investigate (like the cats) and sniff them violently like Mary Katherine Gallagher, her ravenous appetite but shockingly slow eating, her growl and her laugh (which is a combined laugh-growl), and her obsession with putting items around her neck — necklaces, purses, headphones. Mostly headphones. We love you, Isa. You truly rock.

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Jeju Island: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Do Again

An offering on my breakfast buffet. Jeju Island, I'll be back.

An offering on my breakfast buffet. Jeju Island, I’ll be back.

Right now it’s Tuesday morning and my infant daughter is off in slumberland, freeing me up to write about Jeju Island, which the Koreans say is the “Hawaii of Korea.” There ARE some things it has in common with Hawaii, like natural beauty and parts of the island so untouched that four way intersections have no stop signs or traffic lights, leaving you to your own devices.

Go team.

Go team.

I saw a UFO themed restaurant. I saw a waterfall without water falling. I saw a beach where everyone took off their shoes and lined them up on the boardwalk before stepping onto the sand. I tried a burger concoction that was a foot tall. I smelled fresh Jeju black pork on the barbecue grill, before quickly eating that, too. I visited a three-story Hello Kitty museum made complete with a Hello Kitty family portrait. I passed horses milling about near the highway. I went to a completely empty theme park the size and scale a large city zoo. The place called itself ‘Psyche World’ until it changed its name to something equally puzzling: Ecopia. There was a butterfly exhibit with only three butterflies. There was a giant castle displaying a jewel museum with likely fake but famous jewels, like that blue one from Titanic that the old lady dropped into the ocean in the end. There was the promise of the ‘CSI EXPERIENCE: JEJU.’ There was an empty concert park with futuristic white seating in the grass, next to a display of two crocodiles. There was vastness in the emptiness. Store clerks and ticket punchers appeared when we walked past, but if you went back five minutes later, they were gone.

This giant playground was empty so I found the single plastic lawn chair on the grounds and plopped down to breastfeed Isa.

This giant playground was empty so I found the single plastic lawn chair on the grounds and plopped down to breastfeed Isa.

I have learned that if you travel with the kind of friends who will agree to go to a weird place like Jeju Island with you on a week’s notice, you will undoubtedly have a great time, despite feeling like you’re in a vortex. They are the Yau family, who are also American expats in Seoul who also arrived here in March. Who also happen to have a preschooler and an infant. When it came to kid supplies like diapers, water bottles and sunscreen, as Joe Yau said, “There’s so many built in redundancies this way.

The island is a place frequented by Chinese travelers. So many that  he rich ones are now scooping up thousands of square meters of the island itself.

The people who don’t frequent Jeju island are people who speak English. The eight of us spent the four day weekend speaking ‘hand Korean,’ which is generally just wildly gesticulating and getting responses we couldn’t understand, until the point the Korean speakers simply throw their arms into a giant X formation, which is the loudest silent rejection I’ve come to know in Korea. Since the GPS navigator was similarly in Korean only, a hotel employee had to come out to our car each morning and program in a destination for us and we crossed our fingers we’d wind up somewhere discernable. Considering many streets don’t even have names down there, it was a wonder we had a navigation device at all.

Here’s the thing. To me, vacation explorations are not just respites from routine but a chance to make yourself purposely uncomfortable or weirded out a little. It’s in those situations you learn and grow and laugh. There is so much laughter in the absurdity of a place like Jeju Island. We survived. Neigh, we thrived.

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That Time We Had A Baby In South Korea

Early Thursday morning, I awoke suspecting something was … off. It was exactly a week before Hu-Stiles #2: Electric Boogaloo’s due date, and my inability to go back to sleep indicated maybe I was in labor. When actual contractions came on around 4am (just like with Eva), I called my mom, who wasn’t supposed to arrive from Taipei until Saturday, and told her I wanted her to get on a plane ASAP. Spouse Stiles started his husband-coaching and labor was ON, man. Contractions were getting moderate, but nothing I couldn’t handle while also getting Eva ready for school.

By about 8am, things were getting uncomfortable, and my Korean birthing center’s midwife wanted us to go ahead and go in because second babies tend to come faster (Teaser: This was NOT the case for me). We dropped Eva off at school along with my Dad, who is town for babysitting help, so he could take charge of picking her up later.

Now that we are home as a family of four, I can blog about the experience!

A Birth in Korea: Stray Observations

We chose Mediflower, a natural birthing center in Seoul’s Gangnam district, because I like things as un-medicalized as possible and Eva was born without any pain interventions to great results for mom/baby, so we wanted a repeat experience, if possible. Medical interventions during labor & delivery actually tend to be high in South Korea, which has a higher C-section rate than the U.S., even. So we really had to find a place that wasn’t going to take the control of the birth out of my hands.

That said, the experience wasn’t completely Western.

Take off your shoes. The center makes you take off your shoes, like any Korean home, upon entrance. They offer a wide array of slippers at the center entrance but each labor and delivery room had a slipper rack, too.

The slipper rack in our labor and delivery room.

The slipper rack in our labor and delivery room.

There’s an obsessive focus on meal time and meals. (This is not a complaint.) My midwife Suyeon, or “Su,” checked us in and immediately presented us a menu for lunch, even though I was already six centimeters dilated. If you’ve given birth in an American hospital, that is not a point they let you chow down, if they let you eat at all. You can choose Western style meals or the Korean meals, which feature lots of banchan and some sort of main soup, stew or noodle dish. My spouse Stiles chose Korean. I went with a cheeseburger, which I had to eat between contractions and just after laboring in the tub for awhile.

Lunchtime during labor! Cheeseburger between contractions.

Lunchtime during labor! Cheeseburger between contractions.

Koreans believe Miyeokguk is the elixir of life. At the hospital/birthing center, Miyeokguk is available at every meal. It is seaweed soup, and Korean moms who abide by the traditional “confinement month” or “sitting month” after having a baby basically have to eat this every day, nonstop, to help in recovery and to get milk flowing for baby. Seaweed is an alkaline food which helps with pH balance and it’s full of iodine, which the Koreans say you need for getting your lady parts healed. I like it well enough, but I can see how you could easily get sick of it.

As in any part of the world, labor and delivery is not a walk in the park. I just had to accept that this was going to be a long day, and that contractions get more painful and intense and the breaks in between them get shorter until you face the daunting part of pushing out a small human. At one point between contractions I tried bouncing on the ol’ ab ball and this started an impromptu singing of R. Kelly’s “Ignition Remix” (key part includes ‘Bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce’). This was fun until it got a contraction going again. I knew Matty was being especially forgiving while I was in labor because he usually doesn’t ever let me sing in front of him, ESPECIALLY not Ignition Remix.

The shorter rope can be lowered to your preference.

The shorter rope can be lowered to your preference.

The tub and rope setup was pretty handy. Every two rooms share a water birthing tub with these 50 Shades of Gray-looking ropes to hang onto. You can dim the lights and work your way through the contractions, or even deliver in the tub. I just used the tub to get through contractions and got in and out of it a few times during labor day. It felt nice but I wanted to move around too much to stay in there for baby.

My mom made it before the typhoon. Mom wasn’t scheduled to arrive until Saturday, but I didn’t think I could go through with the pain of delivering a baby naturally without my mom being with me for the birth. She got on one of the only flights from Taipei to Seoul left (and among the last before they started canceling them in anticipation of Typhoon Chanhom), and made it to the birthing center with TWENTY MINUTES to spare. I was pushing, despairing and at the ultimate nadir of the labor process by the time she got there. It’s pretty amazing that the baby took her sweet time and didn’t make her appearance until her Oma (grandma) was by my side.

After the hospital staff encouraged me to eat dinner (BECAUSE OF COURSE THEY DID), Isabel arrived at 7:12pm Thursday night at a healthy 8lbs, 4oz and 21 inches long. I shared a quick pic on social media, returned some emails and then went to bed for the night. Mom roomed-in with us so she did the overnight rocking and diaper changing when Isa fussed and I nursed the baby a few times while half-asleep.

Isabel made it! This is before she was even wiped off, so uh, sorry she looks kinda gross.

Isabel made it! This is before she was even wiped off, so uh, sorry she looks kinda gross.

The next morning I awoke to a living nightmare that was also hilarious. Remember how the water birthing tub is shared between two rooms? A laboring mom checked in next door while we were sleeping. I awoke Friday to the sound of what I thought was a slaughterhouse, but really, it was just the final moments of a water birth. Seriously, it was like the cows in Fast Food Nation. Mom and I started cracking up just hearing this ordeal because we really thought this woman was not going to survive, much less deliver a baby. I was flooded with memories of delivering Isa the night before and I shuddered at the thought. After a few really awkward and terrifying moments only HEARING what was behind door #2, we heard a baby crying. She did it!*

The lactation consultant was so pro that she seemed like a North Korean Olympics Coach. Before checking out, Isa got her first bath and I got a lactation consultation from an elite North Korean soldier. I mean, a South Korean lactation specialist. She was a bigger-framed lady, tough and stern and scary with her style. She could only coach me through a translator so we went through this elaborate dance of her jerking me around on the bed and squeezing my boobs and contorting the baby’s mouth and jaw to show me the ultimate positions for breast feeding. I was so bewildered that I’m not sure I got much out of it. But baby seems to be eating enough, so far. Her older sister loves her.

Eva and Isa's first photo together.

Eva and Isa’s first photo together.

Isa got two birth certificates, one in each language. Next week she must go to the U.S. Embassy to declare herself as a U.S. citizen born abroad and to get her passport. The photo will be good for five years, which is going to be pretty funny.

*My mom later tried to tell me, in the nicest way possible, that if I thought the woman-next-door sounded bleak, that I sounded way scarier while delivering Isabel. I hope that’s not true…

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Please Stay In Touch

We drove our Nissan up to my great-uncle’s and left it there in Potomac, Maryland, then took an Uber to the airport to make the great trek to South Korea. It was a trek indeed, as it included a false start: the first leg of our journey to San Francisco was canceled due to mechanical errors, plane de-icing taking too long, and timed-out pilots after we were forced to sit on the runway at Dulles for six hours. Pretty miserable. It didn’t make the next two days easy, in which we actually did fly to San Francisco and then on to Seoul’s Incheon Airport. But we are here now.

Since my life in Korea is largely for work, I’ll be blogging a lot at my new work-Tumblr, Elise Goes East. Please follow along and send me any suggestions. The posts will also be available on my public facing Facebook page. So those are two places you can easily reach me. Email or Kakao Talk (EliseHu00) are also methods.

I hope you come and visit.

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