Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Getting naked in Korea - yes me!

I know the title of this post sounds very scandalous. And precisely because of that I know this post is going to get more hits than any of my other posts. But nobody knows who's reading so go ahead and read on.

Public bath houses are part of the unique culture of Korea. For your and my edification, I Googled the history of Korean public bath houses. The first Korean public bath house was built in 1924 after the model of Japanese bath houses. Since it was built while Japan occupied Korea, and most likely under the direction of the Japanese leaders, there were far more Japanese customers than Korean. But as time went on, and after the Japanese left Korea in the mid-forties, Koreans continued and developed the bath house culture from a mere place of washing to a place of relaxation, entertainment, and grooming. You can now experience saunas in different temperature,watch TV, sing karaoke, get a facial, a massage, pedicure, manicure, eyelash extensions and other aesthetic services.

Today, the facility is usually divided into two major rooms: the sauna room and the actual bath house. The sauna room is co-ed because you are clothed and has a main space that has karaoke, TV, restaurants and different sauna rooms of different temperature. Some people go there to spend the night because it's open 24 hours and it's so cheap (only $5-8). It's a good place for backpackers to crash to save money.

The bath house is gender-specific and is also equipped with pools of different temperature. It also has showers and little sit-down places to scrub the dead skin off of your body. (Exfoliation is big in Korea)

I have always wanted to experience this new Korean bathhouse but didn't know if I could brave wearing just my birthday suit in public. (I am even shy about wearing my swim suit!)But today I decided that I could. So, my 6-feet-tall American friend Corinna and I went to the bath house this morning. The sauna part was great because we were clothed. Corinna didn't want to stay for the bath part because she didn't want to be stared at. (She is a head, shoulder, chest, and stomach taller than most Koreans.)

So, Corinna went home and I stayed and went into the bath house. I even lay on a table to get my dead skin exfoliated (not just our faces as we normally do but the whole shebang). Needless to say, I felt extremely vulnerable and exposed. So, no more body exfoliation by a stranger. But the whole bath part was doable and I would do it again.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

White Day resurrected!

My dear friend Sean (pronounced Shon not Shawn. He's from Australia.) read my previous post about my sad White Day. It pained his heart to its core. So, on Saturday, he presented me with a compensatory gift in the form of chocolate covered blueberries! Needless to say, I was one happy lass. Thank you, Sean for putting a smile on my face. :)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The mentality of a savior.

A few years ago I attended a conference sponsored by National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum in Los Angeles. One of the workshops I attended addressed the issues of sex slavery, human trafficking,and domestic violence occurring in Asia and to Asian women in the States and what we could do to detect and help these abused women. As we exchanged and discussed different ideas, the leader of the group said something profound that stayed with me ever since: We should not take on the mentality of a savior when we are helping these people.

Whenever we are faced with the sordid reality of abuse, poverty, or injustice, we automatically get on the pedestal of self-righteousness and take on the attitude of a savior. When we see dying children in Africa, or sexually abused women in Asia, or homeless children in Chicago, we say to ourselves 'Here are the victims and I must save them!' Our eyes tear up, we feel genuine compassion, and our hearts reach out to them. We congratulate ourselves for being so sensitive.

I believe that in the process of registering all these emotions we lose a part of ourselves to narcissism. There is a part of us that wants to do good because it makes us feel good and superior. We establish a currency with which we subjugate the victims with our high morality. If good will is used as a surrogate for Prozac, not only do we need less fortunate people to exist, we also lose the opportunity to see these people as our equals. We may unconsciously continue to debilitate them by taking on the role of a savior and reinforcing their sense of helplessness and vulnerability. We are not superior because we had better luck. We are only their partners helping them rebuild themselves. We acknowledge their inner worth and respect them as our equals--as our brothers and sisters in humanity so when they become whole, they can do the same for others.

What really disturbs me is the naivete of some people who visit foreign countries, especially Third World Countries, hand out some money, come back and tell their heroic tales and the unfortunate fate of those whom they helped. Behind these philanthropic stories I hear, "Look what I did for these poor people. Look what a good person I am." To me, helping these people were nothing but glorified camping trips that earned them a pat on the shoulder. Their compassion may have been genuine but the attitude of subtle arrogance and lack of respect and reverence for those who suffer perpetrate ignorance and a false sense of heroism. We are not heroes. We are only fellow travelers of life that were dealt a better hand.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Valentine's Day, White Day, and Black Day

Yesterday was White Day here in Korea. White Day is when boys give girls candy, chocolate, flowers, cards, love, affection, teddy-bears, kisses and blah, blah, blah none of which I got. Valentines Day in Korea is when girls do the same stuff for boys. Anyway, I had a crappy V-Day in America but I knew I had another chance in Korea! But, no. I usually get myself something though, like a bunch of tulips last year, and a butt load of candy and chocolate this year.

I miss the small window of time when I was truly happy being single. I thought I had reached some kind of nirvana. Although I feel in my gut that this is a time for me to be single and concentrate on what's important to me right now, it would be nice to have a quasi-boyfriend to hang out with every now and then.

But until then, I will be eating black noodles on Black Day (kind of like single-awareness day) on April 14.


There is not a direct translation for the word "ajumma" in English but it is used to describe a married woman who lets herself go doing housework. It's not equivalent to "ma'am" because it denotes no particular respect. Maybe, "senora" in Spanish but "ajumma" has a more persistent, stickier subtext like the taste of Korean pepper paste. I am posting a visual aid for further clarification.

The opposite of "ajumma" is "agassi." An "agassi" is an unmarried woman whose business is to look good, young and cultured. Here is another visual aid I found on Google image.

I secretly rejoiced when my married Korean friends would tell stories about how they were called an "ajumma" at a store. Now that I am at an age where it is kosher for my relatives to bluntly ask "Why aren't you married yet?", "When are you going to get married?", "Don't be so picky!" it gives me greater reason to rejoice in their "ajumma-ness." It is at times like this when my hands and feet are tied and am ambushed with questions regarding my inability to get hitched, I think about my ajumma friends and smile (internally). After all, I am still an agassi.

Or so I thought. Last Friday, I went to the immigration office and heard someone calling out, "Ajumma!" I looked around for an ajumma but she couldn't be found so I kept walking. He called out "Ajumma!" again and tapped on my shoulder. He said, "Ajumma, I hope you make a lot of money." I went blank for a few seconds. When my cognitive faculties returned, I thought,"Why is he calling me Ajumma, and why is he telling me to make a lot of money?"

Apparently, there are a lot of Chinese-Koreans (*ethnically Korean, nationally Chinese) who come to the immigration office to get a work visa. He mistook me for a poor Chinese-Korean ajumma looking for work. I wasn't sure how that happened so I went home and thoroughly analyzed my look. I concluded that it was my short permed hair that I gathered in a ponytail. (He did call me Ajumma from behind.) I am just going to chalk it up to the fact that he did not see me from the front because I am still a spring chicken agassi ready to conquer the world!

*A lot of people confuse the meaning of ethnicity and nationality. Let me take a moment to clear up the confusion. Ethnicity is based on the original country from which one can claim her heritage. Nationality is based on the country of citizenship one belongs to. For example, I am ethnically Korean, but nationally American.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The mystery of the subway lady

So, I talked to my aunt about my encounter with the lady who refused to take my seat on the subway. She explained that when younger people offer their seats to older people, the older people sometimes refuse because the younger people here lead such stressful, busy lives working or studying that they want them to be able to rest a bit when they can. So, the lady probably didn't want to take away my opportunity to sit and rest. I really hope that is the case.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Fashion and school

Today was the second week of class. I dressed up a little more than last week although I didn't wear heels. I haven't dressed up like this for school since my first year at Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. (Most of you don't know this but once upon a time, I was an aspiring fashion designer.) It's work to have to dress up like this.

Toward the end of my first year at FIDM, I remember feeling so fed up with the commercial, materialistic side of fashion that I decided to go on strike. I stopped wearing make-up, put my hair in a pony-tail, wore jeans, big baggy shirts, and sneakers. I boycotted my own closet. I went to school like this every day among students who patented their looks with a pride of an artist. I was making a statement against excess, materialism, and commercialism. I was embracing my own version of Waldenian transcendentalism in the middle of Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, nobody knew what I was doing. They probably thought the stress and pressure of the business were getting to me as I became increasingly ratty. (I remember a lecturer doing a double take as he passed by me.) Too bad my intentions didn't translate. I left fashion school after that quarter and never looked back.

I am not against looking good but having to dress up to keep up with the Kims, Lees and Parks is not my cup of tea. So, this whole thing about dressing up for school to fit in is going down the drain starting next week. But before this day is over, I must say I am looking pretty dang good right now.

The subway and old people

After spending time with church friends, I got on the subway train to go back home. I sat down and this older lady came rushing in and looked around for a seat but they were all taken. So, I got up and offered her my seat but she adamantly refused and walked away from me. My first thought was, "Oh, man...was she not old?" I thought I offended her by implying that she was too old to be standing. I felt really embarrassed. From now on, I am not going to offer my seat unless he/she has undeniably, indubitably, unquestionably fossilized into a walking relic.

Sunday, Sunday, Sunday

I went to an English speaking branch in Seoul today. It's called a branch but it's really a size of a huge ward (about 300 members). My friend Jody attended that branch with her family while she was here so she introduced me to her friend and the branch president via Facebook. So,I got in touch with Elise who gave me directions to Church and introduced me to Heather Willoughby, an ethnomusicologist who was teaching at E-Hwa University specializing in Korean music!!! How cool is that? We are having lunch next week to talk "ethno." I am pretty excited.

After Church, I met a group of single adults who were going to "Feasting with Friends" for dinner. (Feasting with Friends is a dinner group that meets once a month on Sundays to get better acquainted with people in the ward. This group, however, meets every Sunday.)There were a whole lot of young single adults in the branch. We met at a couple missionary's apartment and the place was brimming with female competitors vying for the blood of stripling lads clad in suits. (I am just kidding but the ratio of male to female was about 1:10. The shortage of men must be a global epidemic. Seriously, where are you, Men?!?!)

Most of the single adults came to Korea to teach English. I met people from South Africa, Australia, Ireland (he converted to Mormonism in Korea! Funny, eh?) and of course, the United States. Because there is only one English speaking ward that covers a big chunk of Korea, most people travel an average of 1.5 hours to get to Church. It took me 2 hours to get there from where I am right now. Sean lives in Daejun and it takes him close to 3 hours to get to Church. That's 6 hours round-trip! It was really fun to meet everyone and finally make some friends. It's funny how I felt more at home with a bunch of white Americans than I felt with a subway full of my own people. Maybe it was because of the comfort of knowing that we share the same faith. Or maybe I am more comfortable with white Americans because that's what I am familiar with, and whom I grew up with even though I was always an ethnic minority. Maybe, I am uncomfortable not being an ethnic minority. Who knows? Maybe, it's all of the above.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Top 5 things so far

1. Amazing customer service. I needed to get a new pair of pants hemmed. So my mom's friend called the tailor to come to her house, take the measurements, take the pants to his shop, do the work and bring it back the same day all for 6 bucks! No tips. Just 6 bucks. We didn't even have to leave the house! I could get used to this.

2. Politeness is everything. I went shopping a few days ago at a fancy department store. The sales people were extremely nice and polite, almost servilely complaisant. We got there late and when it was time to close, they put on this goodbye song on the speakers (kind of like "So long, farewell" from "The Sound of Music."). At first, I didn't register that it was telling us to leave. Then I noticed that all the sales people were lined up in straight lines and were chanting "Thank you for coming. Goodbye" along with the song playing in the speakers and bowed in 90 degrees. I felt a little uncomfortable but it was interesting.

3. Respect and consideration for the elderly. Before I left America, I went to a DMV office to take care of something. I was sitting in the 4th row when an old lady with a walker came looking for a seat. She asked this lady if there were seats for the handicapped but they were all taken. Only to the left of her was a boy maybe 16, 17 sitting comfortably in his chair just listening to her obvious plight. I was too far behind to do anything so I just stared really hard at the back of his head as if my will could physically kick him out of his seat. If stares could produce laser beams, they would have burned through the back of his head, through his skull and popped his eyeballs out of their sockets! In Korea, he would have been shot. Respect and consideration for the elderly is deeply rooted in the consciousness of the Korean people.

4. High-rise apartments. It's the only way to house 49 million people in a country that's the size of Southern California.

5. Advanced technology. People watch t.v. on their cellphones in the subway trains and on the bus.You can also buy stuff in the vending machine with your cellphone. Most of the apartments are equipped with an intercom system with a screen so you know who is ringing the bell from inside the house.

Seoul National University

I am auditing the History of Korean Music at Seoul National University. I emailed the professor who is teaching the class to get permission and she emailed back and told me to read the text book as much as I could before class started. So, I got the book yesterday and started my first academic reading in Korean. Between the state of wakefulness and sleep, I understood maybe 30% of what I read. I was so frustrated!!! I will have to become best friends with the Korean-English dictionary.

So, today was the first day of class. I felt a little out of place because most people knew each other and were chatting away about their vacation in Japan, their new plastic surgery, their recent mole removal, their BFs and stuff. I was told that college students in Korea really dress up to go to school and it's true! Most of them were wearing heels. I am not sure if I can bring myself to assimilate to that kind of fashion culture. Maybe if there were hot guys but there were all girls including the professor. Plus even if there were guys, I would be about 10 years older than them. Anyway, while I was surveying the general atmosphere and dynamics among students, Dr. Kwon came in and passed out the syllabus and explained the course and ended the class early. It wasn't all that eventful but I was a little worried about all the stuff I didn't know. I talked to Dr. Kwon after class and she said she'll introduce me to people who are studying ethnomusicology so I wouldn't feel so lost. I was relieved that she was so nice. Lecture starts next week. Wish me luck!


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