Notes Near the End of Year Two

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This month I’m participating in NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. So in addition to the writing, editing, and other desk monkey duties I have five days a week at work, I’ve been writing almost 2,000 words of fiction a day in hopes of completing a 50,000 word draft. Now, of all the excuses I’ve dished out on this blog for my light contributions, this one is one I’m actually proud of.

Today I sat through a mind-numbing all-day workshop that was 100% in Korean. I had, in accordance with the structure of this meeting, absolutely nothing to present or contribute. I occasionally tuned in to listen to 35 second chunks of things I can 35% understand. So, I took this time to think about some things that characterized my life in Korea in this second year. The good, and mostly, the challenging. Without further ado:

(As usual, I never put these in order of importance, but in the order I can remember them.)

1) I am still unable to get through a Korean meal without refilling my metal thimble cup full of water several times. (Water is typically drunk at the end of a Korean meal, not during.) Will my palette acclimate in year three? Or is this for good?

2) Last year I lived outside of Seoul. I now live in the thick of things, most especially the pollution. My boyfriend, older and wiser as he is, gave me a website for checking air quality, and I do check it regularly. I will say there are some good days. But. I’m physically affected by this more than I want to admit. I get moderately annoying “eye attacks” as I call them where my eyes will start uncontrollably watering for about five to 10 minutes at a time. These happen inside and outside. If I pay attention, I can taste sour air on bad days. In Ilsan, I exercised outside frequently. Now due to less accessibility to open spaces and pollution, I’ve stopped altogether. I exercise in an indoor basement gym 40 seconds from my apartment.

3) My knowledge and understanding of Korean language and culture has increased by roughly 800%. Regular immersion has made an impact. I could name scores of Korean cultural practices, norms, “things” –none of which I knew a year ago. I can parse sentences, I can even speak some. I’ve gotten a grasp of Korean slang thanks to boozy outings with colleagues and an intimate interaction with Korean mobile stickers. Language remains a huge barrier still, and some days I still feel brought to my knees by how insurmountable a barrier it feels, and how much it truly is. But, my improvement spites time and resources, my biggest enemies in learning the language. And here’s the part that makes it one of the best things on the list: it’s so much fun. Each new cultural nugget and fun slang word delights me, I take it home to share with my boyfriend like an oyster pearl. This is one of the best reasons why people live abroad.

4) Nationalism will find you, startle you and perturb you anywhere you go on this earth. And petty nationalism, at that.

5) The spiciest Korean food there is cannot yet prep my palette for the enigmatic heat of Thai food.

6) Seoul is filled with lots of beautiful, new, state of the art architecture. AND it’s filled with slews of rickety, hastily made, structural garbage that can scare the living daylights out of me. This has also been a horribly tragic year for safety in South Korea.

7) This was the year I started regularly reading Korean news (in English). It’s like the news anywhere: sensationally pessimistic, leaves you with more questions than answers. A significant difference is that Samsung is written about more than President Obama and Kim Kardashian are COMBINED in the west. American media likes to educate moms and stock brokers about the crazy words the kids are saying these days on their cell phones in their lifestyle sections. The English media in Korea is laser-focused on educating foreigners about Korean side dishes.

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