Thursday, November 29, 2012

Coming soon: The Philippines

The colors of fall in Seoul 

Sorry it's been a couple weeks since my last update.  I try not to write unless I actually have something to say.  (posts that say "took the bus to work.  taught.  went home.  chilled.  slept.  repeat." would hardly be interesting).  Fortunately I have some good news to convey.

After a week of discussion with our bosses, we finally convinced them to let us take our vacations when when we wanted to take them.  Yes in Korea bosses often tell their employees when to take their vacations.  Fortunately since we're foreigners we're allowed to break social taboos and take our vacations when we want to.  Normally I try to abide by all the social norms here that I am aware of but taking my one week of winter vacation during the Christmas week (when they wanted us to take it) would have doubled our airfare and hotel costs.  Clearly this was unacceptable.

But after a few talks, our bosses were fine with us having our time off during the first week of February.  This gives us both an extra day off (thanks to Chinese New Year) and much cheaper rates.

And with that week we decided to go somewhere neither of us have been before, the Philippines.  Specifically we are going to the island of Siquijor.  Good luck pronouncing that (it helps if you say it with a Spanish accent).

The reason a Spanish accent is needed is that the Philippines was colonized by the Spanish and was in their possession for most of it's history.  In fact it was named in honor of King Phillip II of Spain.  Once the Spanish left, it fell under US control until after WWII when it became an independent nation.

The practical benefit to this history is that this gorgeous island country has many English speakers in it.  Combine that with extremely friendly residents and a good size beachfront hut for less than $40 a night (yes you read that right) and you've got a place I can't wait to go!!  Add a hammock and you have my idea of heaven (picture below).  Now comes the hard part.  The waiting.  But good things are worth waiting for :)

PS.  Siquijor is pronounced See-Key-Or with the Or rolled.

Click to view full size image
This is the beach hut we reserved.  Do you see why we're excited?

Monday, November 12, 2012

The little things that make adjusting to expat life challenging

Just so you know, these are more pictures from Seoul and have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of this post.  As always, don't forget to click on the pictures to see them full screen and feedback is appreciated.

If you're reading this, you know I've lived abroad for most of the past 3 years.  And I'm sure you think that this is a challenging thing to do.  But have you really thought about why it's challenging?  It's not the big changes (the different language, the unfamiliar location, the lack of friends and family nearby to support you).  You expect the big ones.  It's the little, day to day adjustments that can really make things tough.  What happens when the simplest tasks in our lives are no longer simple?

Changdeokgung Palace gate at dusk

A shrine in Gyeongbokgung Palace

I thought about this Friday as I got dinner and a haircut after work.  Both are simple activities.  Grab a menu and tell the waiter what you want.  Tell the barber how to cut your hair, then sit back and let them work.  Easy.  Not so overseas.

As I sat down for my haircut, I tried to describe it to the barber.  They didn't understand.  So I had to act out my haircut.  It was like playing the game Gestures, except if you lose you look like you were in a horrible accident with a weed whacker for the next month or two.  To be fair, it's hard for them too.  Especially for someone who only cuts one type of hair.  For a barber who only cuts straight, stiff hair, cutting softer wavy hair is shall we say, an exercise in improvisation.  I'm lucky my hair gets cut short (Vicky can't get her hair cut even if she wanted to) but it's still tough.  And once they nod understanding, you have to sit there and pray they actually do understand and aren't nodding just to be polite.

The throne room at Changdeokgung Palace

Ordering dinner is no easier.  As often as not, you are trying to read a menu written in a different script that looks like this ...

돼지 고기
Sometimes there are pictures.  Sometimes there aren't.  Sometimes there is a very rough English translation underneath.  Usually not.  And once you get your order in, it's not necessarily smooth sailing from there.  What if you need a side or condiment with your food.  Have you ever tried to mime 'salt'?

Without going into more detail, you can imagine what it's like to try taking a bus (think Inspector Clouseau levels of verbal clarity), go clothes shopping (wait i'm a size 105?!?), see a movie (alright Inglourious Basterds here we go.  wait half the movie is in other languages.  no problem.  we'll just read the subtitles that ....... oh man) or go to the grocery store (now i'm almost positive this is some kind of meat we're looking at).  To say these activities become more interesting is putting it mildly.

I'm a long way from my previous home (over 5000 miles away to be specific)

The good news is, I view these daily challenges as adventures.  For me they spice up otherwise ordinary days and keep my daily routine from becoming routine.  I actually miss them when I'm in the US.  It's all .... too easy.  Where's the fun of having to act out your dessert order?  Where's the challenge of getting lost twice on your way from the airport to your hotel?  It's so much more satisfying to succeed when success isn't a given.

And if what i'm saying sounds like your idea of a good time, then I'm probably worried about you.  But maybe you're cut out to be an expat too.

PS.  If you're curious what the Korean words I wrote earlier were, they are beef, chicken and pork.
PPS.  Give yourself a bonus point and a pat on the back if you understood the Pink Panther reference.

Part of the garden of Changdeokgung Palace

What are you doing reading this???  Look at the pretty leaves and colors

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


Boy that was a great trip to Seoul!  Vicky and I .....

You:  "Hey wait a minute!!  When did you go to Seoul??"
Me:  "This past weekend."
You:  "Wait wait wait!  Why haven't I heard about this in your previous updates?"
Me:  "Because Vicky and I decided we wanted to go on short notice."
You:  "Define 'short notice'."
Me:  "About 2 days before we actually left."
You:  "Ah.  That explains a lot.  Carry on."

As I was saying, we had a great time in Seoul.  We decided on an impromptu trip earlier in the week when we realized that  A) the weather is still nice right now but won't be for much longer  B) the fall foliage is looking lovely and could produce some truly impressive scenery  C) this would be one of our few remaining chances to see Seoul before April-May  D) we REALLY missed American food!

The entrance gate to Gyeongbokgung

A closeup of the gate and the guards

So with those motivations (mostly D) we got tickets a couple days ahead of time, packed extremely lightly (as in half of one of those sack backpacks light) and flew out early Saturday morning.  The weather Saturday was absolutely gorgeous!  Sunny and clear.  A perfect day to go out and see the sights.  And that we did.  We arrived in Seoul around 9:45 and headed straight for Gyeongbokgung, the main palace of the city.  We wondered around staying in general proximity to the English tour but mostly doing our own thing.

We had to split off to see things like this

The changing of the guards, Korean-style

After about 2 hours of exploring we headed for the most exciting part of the weekend, On The Border!!!  After months without Mexican food it was like manna from heaven!  After lunch and a quick stop to secure a hostel for the night, we headed for the 2nd biggest palace in the city, Changdoekgung.  We were hoping to see the secret garden behind the palace but it was closed when we arrived.  Which turned out to be a blessing in disguise since in wondering around the grounds outside we found even more spectacular pictures of the changing of the seasons.

This is just one of many Changdeokgung pictures

 These girls came up to us as we were heading into the palace and asked us to take a survey for a school project.  Naturally we said yes, helped them, then posed for pictures together.  We even had a request from a random Chinese woman to pose for a picture.  Not with her.  She just wanted a picture of Vicky and I.

After the sun set on us there we headed for the foreigner district and a huge plate of BBQ Ribs (have i mentioned we were excited about the food?).  After an great meal (and getting to watch an NBA game while eating no less) we headed for our final stop of the day, Seoul Tower.  The hike up was rough on our sore feet but the view was breath-taking and well worth it.  After that it was finally time to head back and get some sleep.

Seoul Tower at night 

The next morning the weather wasn't nearly as nice, opting for cloudy, windy and cold (aka horrible picture weather).  Fortunately we had planned for this and spent the day eating more of the food we so desperately missed (Subway, apple pie and more Mexican food), finding excellent coffee for Vicky and exploring a large outdoor shopping district.  We even bought a few small things.  After the frantic activity of the day before, a more relaxed exploratory day was just what we needed.  Amazingly we caught a 6:30 flight home and arrived back the day after we left with plenty of time to relax before going to work the next afternoon.

One tiny part of a city of 25 million people

Overall a wildly successful trip to Seoul and a great first mini-vacation together for Vicky and I.  It really makes me look forward to future trips with her.  In the past when I used to travel all over the place I always wished for someone to share those experiences with.  Thanks to Vicky, I don't think that way anymore.  Now i'm just counting my blessings.