Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Happy New Year
Monday, December 29, 2008
How to Sleep with a Woman
Tonight’s seminar is about how to most effectively share a bed space with your wife. I’m sure many of you, particularly you younger ones, came here to learn how to more effectively do, you know, that other thing, but that’s not what we’re teaching here. Should you ever figure the other thing out, I’m sure this topic will be worth your while to learn. I’m confidant that you’ll agree, but just in case, armed guards have locked this conference hall, and there will be no exiting until I’ve gotten my full 90 minutes.
Look to my right at the screen, which displays a scene from a major motion picture whose name I won’t divulge because of copyright reasons. Suffice to say, this is probably a romantic comedy starring a high-profiled actor and actress that millions twenty-something women have wanted to see together, to find out if they have “chemistry.”
This is one of the early scenes, in which this high-profiled couple is sleeping in the same bed, locked in a loving embrace to show how close they are. Now, let’s look at a later scene, which shows the same high-profile coupling, this time sleeping apart from one another due to some sort of tension. It may be caused by his insensitivity, the demands of his high-stress job, or a breakdown in Middle East peace talks. Whatever the case, movies like this do accurately illustrate one important rule, which is that all relationships experience tension, and that it’s probably a male’s fault.
One thing these movies may not capture quite so astutely is the sleeping positions and the reasons for them: The fact that a man and a woman are not sleeping in an embrace is not necessarily evidence of an emotional rift. They may, in fact, be very close and affectionate while awake, but the male in this case may be a light sleeper. As such, he needs plenty of space in order to get completely comfortable or to scratch whatever itch may occur in the hardest to reach regions of his back.
The woman he is sleeping beside probably will not understand. It has been proven though numerous field tests that, especially among newlyweds, she will pursue and possibly insist on a loving embrace. This male, even of the light sleeper variety, may be game at first until one day he realizes that his new bride is drifting away peacefully in the serenity of his arms, while he remains awake as much as hours later.
This causes him to realize that the only way he’s going to salvage his night’s rest is to untangle himself from her without waking her up. Botching this difficult maneuver has caused many males to find themselves in situations where affectionate snuggling was no longer an option to them even if they desired it.
One solution to this problem is to compromise with her, and go to sleep holding hands. This will probably not help the light-sleeping male zone out in earlier, but after she is asleep it will be considerably easier to extricate one’s hand from hers than to remove an arm that has long-since fallen asleep beneath her torso.
Another solution is to make a habit of going to bed later than her. This will make it easier for you to get into a position of comfortable rest without having to escape from your loving spouse’s grasp. The problem with this approach is two-fold.
First of all, if you make a habit of it she’s likely to catch on and you’ll have picked an entirely trivial source of tension generation, as opposed to working long hours or failing to institute Middle East peace. Secondly, it gives rise to the bedspread problem.
Any male who has ever shared a bed with a woman has almost certainly woken up to find that she has managed to coil all of the bed sheets and blankets around herself, leaving her husband with nothing except the blanket’s warranty tag. If you choose to go to bed later than her, you’ll find this process has already begun by the time you arrive.
If you attempt to use force to resolve the problem, by which I mean yanking your share of blankets back toward yourself, you’re likely to awaken her in a state of mind which will ensure that you find a much less comfortable piece of furniture in another room to sleep on from then on. A better choice is to tug at the blankets, lightly yet firmly. Eventually, her position will change, and relinquishing a greater share of the bedspread.
It’s either that, or go to sleep at the same time as her and attempt to negotiate your way through the pitfalls associated with snuggling. Now we’ll take some questions from the audience.
Q: What if your wife snores? Then what’s the best way to go to sleep?
A: You could try having her sleep with a tennis ball under the back of her nightshirt so that she’ll sleep on her side, rather than her back, thus reducing the severity of the snoring. You could try ear plugs. You could also listen to loud music on ear plugs until you go deaf.
Q: Does buying roses help?
A: As I’ve already explained, that’s not the topic of today’s seminar. But since you brought it up, be careful when buying roses, as they could lead to a greater insistence on snuggling.
It that’s all the questions you have, then our seminar is at its conclusion. For now, gentlemen, sleep well.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
The Black Belt of Courage
There are a few things the male ego considers optional, but how his ego would thrive if they were true of him. Chief among these options would be making the other men he interacts with aware that he could, using little more than his ring finger, put them in the hospital. It's not actually necessary for him to put such an ability to use, just for them to know he could.
Master Hong at the taekwondo institute where I used to train has such skills. Over lunch one Friday afternoon, he told me that he has a fifth-degree black belt in taekwondo, a third degree black belt in hapkido, another in judo and special certification in self-defense and bodyguarding. When I recounted this to my wife later that day, she said, "I think you should be careful around him."
One of the surest signs that he is capable of doing great damage with his hands and feet is his personality: He enjoys listening to Korean pop songs sung by teenage girls, and every time he calls me on the phone he says, "Hello, sir!" and then starts giggling. It takes a man seriously secure in his ability to inflict pain to act this goofy in public.
Despite several years of study in the United States (when I gave him my business card, he gave me one of the ones Arnold Schwarzenegger uses in his capacity as California's head of state; apparently he not only knew the Governator, but knew him well enough to have a collection of his business cards), one thing he had not mastered was English.
That's why he came to me. He sought a niche in the Korea's saturated market for martial arts studies (Let’s put the stereotype to rest right now: Not that every Korean is a master of the martial arts, but judging by the number of taekwondo institutes one sees on practically every block of every municipality in Korea, I'd say the ratio of martial arts masters to the total populace is about one in five).
His institute's name, "Han-Mi," may be translated into "Korea-America," and in his school he sought to impart English along with his martial art, so that not only would his students be able to say "I can put you in the hospital with just my ring finger," they'd be able to back it up. I was to assist him with teaching at his institute in Chuncheon every Friday, one of only two days I don't have to work in Seoul.
There was only one problem with my participation: I'd never studied a hint of martial arts in my life. Sure, as long as I can remember I have wanted the males in my vicinity to know that I could, if necessary, do them great physical damage. I never found the time, however, to study a means of causing them such harm, as I've been too busy with more literary or journalistic endeavors.
Happily, though, I am of greater than average height, and these endeavors have put me in contact with special classes of males, such as middle-aged journalists and graduate English majors, who have tended to make me feel pretty good about own physical capabilities. I might have some trouble if I ventured out of those circles, though.
Master Hong's solution to my inexperience was to toss in free taekwondo lessons every Friday before his students arrived. I spent one hour every week learning complex maneuvers (and fearing for my life for brief moments of time whenever he demonstrated how do these maneuvers in too-close a proximity to my face) which I was then supposed to be able to teach his students only hours later.
He even provided me with my own taekwondo outfit, plus a black belt with my name on it. If anyone asked about credentials, he usually told them that I was a first-degree black belt and then tried to change the subject.
All the while, he assured me that with private lessons I could actually be a black belt within a year. Then, he said, I could have my own institute in Korea where students would come to me and I could put them on the road to both English fluency and the ability to hospitalize their peers. There was only one problem with the plan; there’s no limit to what the human mind can forget in one week.
It might have worked out had I a place to practice, but neither a newspaper office or a subway are ideal places to practice punching and kicking routines, and these days those are the two places I tend to be when I’m awake. Eventually I had to find a way to tell Master Hong that we were going to have to postpone my participation in the taekwondo institute until I had more time to spare.
The question then becomes: How do you tell a man who can severely injure you with one of his smaller digits that you can no longer assist him? After all, maybe he only acted goofy in my presence because he never had a reason to be disappointed.
My advice is a) Do it over the phone, and b) have someone else relay the message, someone like your wife. Hey, she’s the one who told me I should be careful with him. Until I have enough time to become a living weapon, I plan to take her advice.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
The Korean-American Wedding Experience
When I got myself a Korean girlfriend, many asked me how it would be different. Between the different customs, the different tastes in food and the staggering difference in height, there certainly were complications now and then. I learned early on that both of our backgrounds had some wisdom to offer.
But when it came time to ask my Korean girlfriend to marry me, I was determined to do it the American way.
Many men in Korea simply ask the parents’ permission, set a date and never have to get down on one knee, except when trying to convince their brides to buy a less expensive dress. I, on the other hand, told myself: This is a once (hopefully) in a lifetime event. The local way is so undramatic, and the American way is so … Hollywood.
And as any Korean could tell you, Hollywood is America.
So, on the one-year anniversary of when Catherine and I started seeing each other, I told her I wanted to go to the top of the mountain where we first ate instant noodles together (it’s not everyone’s idea of romance, but not everyone lives on a teacher’s salary) and looked out over the city of Chuncheon.
At the top of the mountain that night, I produced a small box, which I gave to her, and which she opened to find … another small box. After looking at it for some time to find out how it opened, she looked in to see the ring I’d spent a not-insignificant portion of my teacher’s salary on.
By now I was on one knee, and I asked her to marry me. Her response was swift.
“I … I got you this pen!” she said, and produce an ornate-looking writing utensil, probably an expensive one that is gifted to many an aspiring author. As pens go, it was nice.
“Oh, thanks,” I said.
“I’m gonna cry!” she replied, looking at the ring again.
“It would be good if you said yes now,” I advised. I didn’t doubt her reply, but figured it was best we be clear for sake of formality.
“Oh, okay … yes,” she answered, and I had myself a Korean fiancée. There would be no more questions about when we’d take the next step. No more doubts about how she’d respond to the freshly popped question. No more need to buy expensive jewelry, at least until a double-digit anniversary came around.
All of these are good things. But with them came the need to plan a wedding, a daunting task for a man in any country.
In the year that followed, I got a good look at all of the different wedding options available to us. My bride-to-be was, like me, 28, and in Korea members of the same high school or university class tend to be very tight knit. Twenty-eight happens to be a very popular age for marriage, and Catherine happens to have been the president of both her high school and university classes, meaning that she’d gotten to know a lot of people over the years.
All these ingredients added up to one recipe: We’d be invited to a lot of weddings that year. About weekly, in fact. Catherine always went, since they were all her friends, coworkers, family members or friends’ family members’ coworkers, and going with them would ensure that they attended our ceremony later. Occasionally I had to work weekends or got sick, but in instances when I couldn’t be that lucky I went along.
The positive aspect of this schedule is that it gave me an idea of the kind of wedding options available to us. The less-positive aspect is that near-weekly attendance at the weddings of people you don’t know very well is enough to give any man an allergy to carnations, organ music, flash photography and the color white.
But during the experience I came to understand something about Korea; namely, that weddings are a big business here. Anyone who can read the Korean language will spot an untold number of buildings in every municipality in the country with a sign that says “wedding hall.” (I don’t mean the Korean translation of “wedding hall”; I mean the Korean characters are used to form the sound “we-ding hol.”)
These are buildings which, unlike churches, cater specifically to weddings and their receptions afterwards. Every weekend, wedding processions may be seen at one of these halls, usually for a Western-style wedding. A framed picture of the new couple stands in the lobby for all to see prior to the ceremony. If one should venture outside into the lobby near the end of the ceremony, he or she is likely to see the framed picture of the even newer couple getting married in the next hour; it may be a once in a lifetime event for them, but for the wedding hall it’s not even once that afternoon.
Getting With the Program
I went to enough Western-style weddings during that year to eventually memorize the program: The groom would stand near the entrance of the room, then walk toward the front and bow to the minister. Then, the bridal march would play and she would join the groom at the front. The minister would then say a bunch of things I couldn’t understand, someone would sing a ballad I also couldn’t comprehend, and then the bride and groom would take pictures with everyone who bothered to show up.
I had these details committed to memory even though we didn’t always hang around to see them. Depending on the closeness of their relationship, there would be times when we’d stay just long enough for Catherine to get a beforehand pic with the bride and/or groom, donate some money to the Help the New Couple Pay off Their Wedding Debt Fund, and then we ate.
The fact that so many weddings are taking place here, and that so many guests are attending for no reason other than courtesy does not seem lost on wedding hall operators, most of who serve the reception dinner throughout the actual ceremony.
Though most of the weddings we attended were Western-style, there were a couple of other kinds. There was the traditional ceremony, in which the bride and groom underwent the traditional marriage rites of a royal couple during their country’s Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910 A.D.). There was also a Catholic ceremony, complete with Latin rites, which when taking place in Korea has the distinction of being in two languages I can’t understand.
Observing these different styles, Catherine and I decided that we’d go the Korean way – as the traditional Korean wedding. This, we decided, would be more memorable for us, unforgettable for those in attendance, and, most romantic of all, cost about one-tenth that of the Western style ceremony. My heart swells in reminiscence.
The money that was spent was used to reserve our place in the venue of our choice – the courtyard of the Korean War Memorial in Seoul – on the Sunday afternoon of Aug. 31, acquire hanbok, or traditional Korean garb for us and my parents, pay for our honeymoon suite and then our honeymoon itself. The traditional wedding was the least expensive option available at the time (though I never did look into getting two plane tickets to Vegas) but it still took about 1 million won (a figure that was equivalent to $1,000 sometime before the word “bailout” became quite so popular) out of this English teacher’s salary every month from January to August.
But the money paid for an experience unlike any I could’ve gotten in America. We were both dressed in royal colors; black and red for me, red, blue and black for her. Fitting for a royal ceremony, attendants guided both of us onto carts, carried us across the courtyard and ushered us through our procedures (the last was especially helpful, as there had been no rehearsal). Every non-Korean in attendance, and a few of the natives, said they’d never seen anything like it.
And I had never felt anything like it. Yes, the shoes and the hat they gave me hurt like the dickens because they were designed for someone half a foot shorter than me, and sure I had to figure out what the attendants were telling me to do based on their hand gestures and facial expressions. But those things, along with special outfits, rites and the crowds of family, friends and complete strangers – those there to visit the memorial and happened to catch a wedding in the process – contributed toward making the experience more memorable.
And that’s how this American got a Korean wife. A lifetime of questions remain for us: Which country to live in later in life, which language to speak at home, which cultural identity we want for our kids, etc. Neither culture has all the answers, so we’ll respond to each one on a case-by-case basis.
I like our track record so far.
South Korean Lawmakers Brawl
Saturday, December 13, 2008
This American Needs Fluids
For the American living overseas, however, most of these disparate food groups have one thing in common: They may inflict a beating upon the American’s digestive system on a somewhat regular basis.
For all the American knows, it has nothing to do with the food itself. Said American’s internal organs and/or immune system’s may be the party at fault. True, one may have only found oneself reliving the contents the previous day’s dinner in the most unpleasant of manners possible only once a decade or so in his/her country of origin, and since going abroad it may have happened pretty much on an annual basis, but never let this American be accused of rushing to judgment.
The culpable food may come in any manner of shapes or sizes, but is typically animal-based (you win this round, vegetarians!). It also can take anywhere from 12 hours (if it’s some manner of local cuisine) to 30 minutes (if it comes from McDonalds) for it take effect, but the effect is usually the same. At first there’s a sudden, rather urgent need to venture toward the gender-specific room one finds appropriate. This will get one’s attention, but not set off any alarm bells; it’s not like that sort of thing has never happen to this American while he/she were in his/her hometown.
The return of that rather urgent need within a half-hour may trigger a sense of alarm, though. If not, the third critical requirement in about an hour’s time ought to impress this American that something is really, really not right. If the American is working at the time, he/she she should not hesitate; this situation is not going to get better and they really need some quality alone.
One may be embarrassed to discuss this situation with one’s peers or superiors at work, but no matter what culture one finds oneself in, this is one experience no one wants to partake of vicariously. They will not hesitate to grant you a day, or however many one needs off*.
The American in question may feel guilty at this point because he or she has cleared his or her schedule for the remainder of the day. He or she shouldn’t, because even if what’s been experienced so far hasn’t been so bad, trust this American, spending eight hours behind a desk is certainly preferable to what’s ahead. The best possible likelihood is a day or so of more of the same, after which the American will be so dehydrated that his or her face will have lost much of its usual color and a two-day diet of water, porridge and tasteless medicine will be necessary.
A less fortunate likelihood is that nausea, a much less embarrassing but far more discomforting symptom than the first, will take place. The act(s) one thinks of when he/she thinks of nausea is not the worst aspect of this symptom; what’s much worse is the 60-90 minutes of merely feeling it, and knowing that the act is coming. The American will probably spend all 60 to 90 of these minutes thinking something like the following: Maybe commencing with this action will bring the uneasiness in my stomach to a prompt conclusion. Or, maybe it will carry on until my stomach is sore, I can’t move and I’m praying for death.
By this point, these two symptoms put together will probably leave said American so drained that many hours of intravenous fluids are required. While living abroad, there are two ways to prepare for this possibility: the first is to have a friend you can contact about giving you a lift to the hospital, and who can speak the language required to restore your vital nutrients.
The other option, the one this American prefers, is to cut out the middle man completely and just marry someone already working in that country’s health services profession. That way, one can get the intravenous fluids one needs from home, while his/her medically inclined spouse spoon feeds him/her the rice porridge and supplies him/her with a phone for sending text messages to understanding colleagues about his or his condition.
One can take this American’s word for it that such people will be there. Traveling abroad can lead not only to new job opportunities, but will also introduce one to an untold number of good people who may serve as understanding colleagues or even medically inclined spouses.
With all this to gain, spending one day a year praying for death isn’t to high a price to pay, is it?
*Just a warning for those who, like this American, live and work in Korea: Korean people are often embarrassed to see people kiss, or to discuss sexual matters in public. One thing that does not seem to bother them in the least is discussing bodily functions. If one describes the above problem to his/her Korean supervisor, the supervisor might very well announce something like the following to the rest of the staff: “Okay, everyone, Robert has to take the day off because he has diarrhea!” You ought to prepare yourself for this.)
Sunday, December 07, 2008
Learning Korean: Easier Said...
Today I received confirmation from the Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute: Starting Aug. 23, I’m going to Korea for a year! It’ll be my first experience living abroad. I’ve heard that most languages in Asia are extremely difficult to learn, so I don’t expect to become fluent. Even so, today I’ll order some software from Rosetta Stone that’s supposed to be effective in teaching the basics. That way, when I arrive I won’t be completely clueless.
Aug. 17, 2005
It took awhile, but my software program finally arrived, and I got to look at it today. I wanted to learn a bit before I leave next week, and I was hoping the program would teach some basic things like “hello” and “thank you.” Instead, it’s got pictures, pronounces the word or phrase indicated in the picture, and shows what the word looks like in the Korean writing system. Some words like “woman” and “dog” might be useful, but why do I need to know how to say “elephant” or “The boy is on top of the picnic table?”
Furthermore, this program doesn’t teach how to use or even read the alphabet. Apparently, this letter shaped like an “L” actually makes an “N” sound and the backwards “F” sounds like “K.” Otherwise, it’s awfully complicated. I just hope I pick up some of it after I arrive.
Jan. 2, 2006
I’ve been teaching in Suncheon for four months now, and now I know “thank you” “hello” and “middle-aged woman.” But that’s about all I can say, so my New Year’s resolution is to find someone who can give me lessons. I don’t expect to achieve fluency while I’m here, just a little more to help me get by.
Feb. 23, 2006
The student who was giving me lessons during her winter vacation has gone back to her university in Seoul. Before she left, she helped me learn the 19 consonants. Unfortunately, there are also 21 vowels, with at least two of them expressing variations of the “o” sound, two that say “eh” and about a half-dozen that express something beginning with “w.”
At least she taught me how to say important phrases, like “Where’s the restroom?” and “I can’t speak Korean.” No doubt I’ll get practice with those.
Sept. 21, 2006
After I took my two-month break, I’m glad the SDA institute sent me to Chuncheon. The secretary here is a certified Korean teacher. She knows a systematic way of teaching the alphabet and I think I’ve got it down now. Catherine, my new girlfriend says that she can already see a difference in my abilities. I think I’ll stay here awhile longer to see what else I can learn.
Jan. 15, 2007
My New Year’s resolution was to buckle down and study harder, but I teach seven hours a day, and when I’m not teaching or preparing lessons I can hardly stay out of bed. I know the alphabet but I can’t understand anything anybody says. Maybe it’s just not meant to be.
March 3, 2007
The SDA institute has transferred me to the central office in Seoul so I can help with textbook development. It’s two hours away from Catherine, but now my evenings are free and I can study more!
Sept. 2, 2007
I asked Catherine to marry me this past week and she said yes. The wedding will probably be next year about this time, so I have one year to really study the language. Fortunately, the program at Seoul National University takes about one year to complete. I start tomorrow.
I hope this works, because I’ve tried every Easy Korean book in stores, every software program, and every private tutoring option available to me. The only thing I haven’t tried is going to a class, so let’s hope I’m not throwing my money away.
Nov. 8, 2007
I was worried about the final test in Level 1 at SNU, but it was really easy. Some of the other students wondered how I learned so many of the vocabulary words in our textbook, but all I did was take my four-color pen and write them over and over until I knew what they meant and exactly how they were spelled. I still have to learn the different tenses and some more words before I can consistently understand people, but now I feel like I’m progressing! Maybe fluency isn’t out of my reach after all!
Jan. 15, 2008
Today, one of the older women in the textbook office was telling a story to the rest of the office in Korean. Since I didn’t understand her, another of my co-workers, a Korean-American, had to explain it to me in English. The older woman, apparently unaware of the hundreds of dollars worth I’ve spent on classes and textbooks, and the two-three hours I usually spend per day memorizing words and grammar rules, looked at me and said, “You should learn Korean.” People should be careful who they say that to, lest they get attacked with a four-color pen.
May 25, 2008
The good news is that I’ve been hired to work at The Korea Herald, an English-language newspaper that will allow me to return to the career I love. The bad news is that I won’t be able to finish the program at SNU as the hours for its classes don’t work with my new schedule. Maybe I can arrange something after my wedding in August, but for now it’s back to self-study.
Dec. 3, 2008
Tonight one of my wife’s friends gave me a lift from The Herald to Chuncheon, where my wife and I live. His English is even more stunted than my Korean, so I practiced talking to him for about an hour. I’ve been studying on my two-hour train ride home to Chuncheon most nights, but it was still hard to talk to him. I had to turn to my cell phone’s Korean-English dictionary pretty often.
It occurred to me that I need that kind of practice regularly if I’m to attain fluency. But who will practice with me? If I did that with Catherine we’d never be able to talk about anything important. Korean people usually want to practice English when they talk to foreigners. So many people write into The Herald advising foreigners to learn Korean so that they’ll get along better here.
Every time I read that, I want to track those people down and ask them, “Are you willing to practice with us so we can learn?” It’s probably better that I don’t, however; if they say no, I might end up stabbing them with a four-color pen.
Friday, December 05, 2008
12 Weeks and Counting
We got a look at the baby inside her, and found out that it weighs 72 grams. I saw it's head, and we listened to its heart beating for a little while. Ever since I found out that Catherine was pregnant, I've been thinking much in the same way as before, in terms of my hopes, dreams, etc., not realizing that I'm about to bring a new person into the world, or at least not acting like anything has changed. I expected hearing the heart beat and seeing the baby would make this all sink in and reduce me to 200 pounds of blubbering sentimentality.
Nothing like that happens, though. Seeing the baby and learning of the progress it has made only brings back the feeling I had when I found out she was pregnant in the first place; I smile a lot, get excited and think of all the opportunities ahead. I suppose it's a good thing I can look at it this way, but why am I not more impressed by the responsibility ahead of me?
Anyway, the baby should be due in mid-June, and in a couple of months we should find out its gender. I will give it an English name and Catherine will choose a Korean name for it. I don't know what she has in mind, but if its a girl I'm pretty sure I'll name it Camille Jean, and if its a boy it'll be Daniel James or Daniel Ryan. I think I'll ask my parents to choose which boy's name they prefer.
Hopefully later I can scan the ultrasound pics we got at the hospital today, but they weren't the best; the shapes were blurry and you can't really see that it's a baby or even a head. Still, I want to give you an idea of what we're looking at.
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
Korea and Japan
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