The Kimchi-ite: The Culture Shock Of South Korea

When I moved to South Korea, it was my first time in the country and I had no idea what to expect. Going from the airport to my new apartment, differences from my prior life slowly came into focus. Signs were now written in lines and circles I didn’t understand, brand new glass skyscrapers were poised next to traditional tile-roofed houses and all the cars were made by Hyundai. As I walked around my new neighborhood at 4 a.m. on a Wednesday recovering from jet lag, I was expecting to be alone on the streets. Instead, when I walked around there were plenty of people out in the city, eating and drinking at cafes, going to work, doing their shopping or just stumbling out of bars. This constant, 24-hour activity is something I haven’t seen anywhere else. As the sun came up, more and more people came to the streets. Crowds seemed to form everywhere and I would quickly learn that they are a big part of Korean life.

South Korea is a little larger than the state of Indiana but with eight times the people. About half of South Korea’s 50 million people live in the greater Seoul area, making it one of the biggest, most populated cities in the world. Subway cars overflow as people push their way in, which is when I learned that the Korean words for “excuse me” and “I’m sorry” are almost never spoken. Even when trying to get out of the city to do some hiking, crowds of thousands will be there too.

When moving to a foreign place, there are so many moments that you feel completely lost and worry that it will become overwhelming. Am I going to accidentally offend anyone due to our culture differences? Will I be able to make new friends? What if I get sick of eating kimchi everyday and just want some food from back home?

Soon, however, everything starts to feel normal and you realize that life isn’t really all that different. You still do laundry, McDonald’s is always around the corner and cash comes out of ATMs. There are still minor differences in daily life – you have to spend an hour online trying to find a translation of your washing machine, McDonald’s offers free delivery and you can transfer money directly to a friend’s bank account from an ATM – but it becomes difficult to imagine a life without these idiosyncrasies.

This constant flux of familiarity and strangeness is part of what makes life as an expatriate so exciting. Constantly experiencing new aspects of cultures, learning about different trains of thought, meeting interesting people, eating food that looks make believe and just constantly being surprised by the world.

[Photo credit: Jonathan Kramer]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Dreaming Of The Balkans From A ‘Tropical Paradise’

trinidad man lounging in hammockI might be the only person in human history to move from Macedonia to Trinidad. But in the peculiar world of the Foreign Service, unusual transitions across the globe are par for the course. I have Foreign Service friends who have recently moved from Ecuador to Poland, Paraguay to Bangladesh, Hungary to Zambia, and from the Philippines to Ireland. It’s a nomadic lifestyle, where Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) generally stay in each country for just 1-3 years and when they leave an obscure, hard-to-get-to post, they have to swallow the fact that they’ll leave behind some friends and colleagues they might never see again.
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Overseas tours are relatively short because the State Department doesn’t want FSOs to “go native” while overseas. The reality is that by the time you get comfortable in a place, it’s just about time to leave. This can be a good or bad thing depending on how much you like your post and where you’re headed next.homeless man in trinidadWhen I found out I was headed to Port of Spain, Trinidad, for my second assignment mid-way through my two year tour in Skopje, my Macedonian colleagues joked that I was soon going to be leading a Jimmy-Buffet-like life of leisure with warm breezes, cold, tropical drinks and long afternoons spent swaying in hammocks on a beach. But one of the senior-level FSOs at post knew better.

“I’d never bid on Trinidad,” he said. “You never want to get stuck in a country you can’t drive out of, unless it’s Australia or New Zealand.”

And I knew he was right, but there was nothing I could do. The first two tours for FSOs are “directed assignments” and I’d been directed to Port of Spain, after being told that spending two years in Skopje hadn’t given me enough “bidding equity” to go to any of the posts I’d bid on. I grew up in Buffalo and, although I like going to a beach on vacation, I’m not a tropical country guy.

But the Foreign Service is a bit like the military in that you pretty much have to go where they send you, so that’s how my wife and I found ourselves on a flight from Miami to Port of Spain eight years ago this month, on my 32nd birthday. Arriving at a new post in the Foreign Service is a singular experience that’s hard to relate to if you’ve never done it.

Someone meets you at the airport, usually a driver and a family that’s been assigned to be your social sponsor, and, in most cases, you’re taken to your new home. In some cases, a post might reach out to you before you’ve arrived to see what your housing preferences are – city versus suburbs, location versus commute, house or apartment, etc. But in many cases, they do not, and on this day I had no idea where “Bird” the Trini driver who’d come to pick us up was taking us.

prostitute in trinidad port of spainMy heart sank when I saw our depressing neighborhood and our tacky, cramped apartment. In Skopje, we had a beautiful, spacious apartment that was 5 minutes from the embassy. It wasn’t a pedestrian friendly city by any means, but you could walk just about anywhere in town. And if you didn’t want to walk, you could call a taxi that would arrive within five minutes and take you wherever you wanted to go for the equivalent of $1.

In most career fields, you expect to have an upward trajectory in terms of income and living standards, but that isn’t always the case in the Foreign Service. You can find yourself going from a mansion one day to living in a hooch in Afghanistan the next, and your pay can go up or down dramatically depending on the hardship and cost of living ratings of each post and whether your spouse can find work.

Within a day or two of arriving in Port of Spain we were able to take stock of how our fortunes had fallen. Our apartment was smaller and much less nice than where we moved from and we were 30 minutes from the embassy in a downscale suburb where there was nothing of interest within walking distance and cabs might or might not arrive hours after you called them. My pay was reduced by more than 20% because Skopje improbably had more hardship and cost of living pay, and my wife’s pay had been cut in half because she went from a full time job in Skopje to a part time job in Trinidad.

woman in tobagoMoreover, the cost of living in Trinidad was far higher than Skopje and, though there were beaches about 30-45 minutes away, Port of Spain had a much higher crime rate and a city center that was both shabby and depressing, not to mention dangerous after dark. (V.S. Naipaul, a native of Trinidad, couldn’t wait to leave and seldom returned to visit once he left.) I liked the local people very much, but the city of Port of Spain? Not so much.

We also went from a post run with Swiss efficiency by a career diplomat to a completely dysfunctional post run by a college friend of George W. Bush, with, well Caribbean efficiency. (The Ambassador, like several other high-ranking W. appointees, was a fellow member of Skull and Bones, a secret society at Yale.) It was a post that people either loved or hated and, to be fair, there were indeed people who enjoyed the place.

For FSOs, bidding research is a serious issue. You try to gather all the intell you can on the jobs and places that appear on your bid lists. But the reality is that if you’re living in Bosnia or Mali, there’s only so much you can find out about what life is like in Mongolia, Paraguay or wherever. Sites like Real Post Reports are helpful for trying to get a feel for what a post will be like, but for many posts, like Port of Spain, you might find that the half the reviews say that a place is wonderful while the other half say that it’s awful.

And since the Foreign Service is a three-degrees of separation kind of institution, many people aren’t willing to share the negative aspects of a post with bidders unless they know the person well and trust them, for fear that people will find out that they bad-mouthed a post. The other mistake some people make in bidding, especially travelers like me, is using travel guidebooks to research countries.

The problem with this approach is that there are a lot of countries that are wonderful to visit but not so great to live in and vice versa. If I had arrived in Trinidad for a two-week vacation, my opinion of the place would have been totally different. Your perspective on a place changes depending on how long you’re supposed to be there.

We read “The Rough Guide to Trinidad & Tobago” while in the research stage of bidding and when I later brought this book to post, my local co-workers considered some of its advice laughable. For example, the book praised a tough area called Laventille as being the “beating heart” of the city but my co-workers told me that Laventille was so dangerous that even telephone repairmen and other municipal workers refused to go there.

The reality is that you never really know what a place will be like to live in until you actually go there, and a post is, in many ways, only what you make of it. In most occupations, if you like your job, your house and your overall situation, you simply stay put and enjoy it. But the Foreign Service is not like most careers, and there is no option to simply stay put and enjoy a good thing when you’ve got it.

Our mistake was dwelling on what we had in Skopje rather than just trying to make the best of the hand we’d been dealt in Trinidad. But shortly after we arrived at post, I got very sick and suddenly our complaints about Port of Spain were put in stark perspective. An illness can be both a curse and a blessing. For me, it made me realize that in life, you can lose a lot more than just a good job or a nice apartment, so you have to be grateful for what you have and forget about what’s gone.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service.”

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

Out-Of-State Moving Checklist: Tips For Relocating And How To Survive The Drive

stressAs I mentioned in a recent post, I’m currently en route moving from Seattle to Boulder, Colorado. This isn’t my first out-of-state relocation, by any means, and at this point, I’ve got it down to a science, after the movers haul away what I can’t cram into my car.

Because summer is peak moving season, I thought I’d share some tips with y’all to make your pre-move checklist and journey less painful. Even if you don’t have time to make a relaxing road trip out of it, there are still ways to fit in a bit of sightseeing or leisure time.

Before you move:

Reputable moving companies always offer free estimates (the cost is based on weight, so hold that yard sale before you make an appointment).

If you’ve had a good experience with a long-distance mover before, see if they have an affiliate in your new hometown; it also pays to check reviews and get a few other estimates before hiring a company.

Make a list of all accounts and the like that require address updates, and get it taken care of. Likewise, cancel/transfer utilities if necessary.

Tune up your car or get a full service; be sure to tell them you’re moving out-of-state and to perform a thorough road safety check that includes tire pressure and wear assessment and windshield wiper replacement (if needed).

Check your car emergency kit (you do have one, right?), and make sure you’ve got replacement oil of the correct weight, and windshield cleaner, as well as flares and jumper cables. And replace your spare tire if it’s more than 6 to 10 years of age or has been stored in extremely hot conditions.

If you have pets, make sure they’re up-to-date on rabies and other required vaccinations, and check on requirements in your new state. If they’re not good travelers (especially crucial for cats), you may need a sedative prescription from your vet; it’s a good idea for your furry friends to have a physical before you depart. And be sure to keep cats in a carrier in transit; trying to extricate a tabby from beneath your feet while flying down the highway is not fun, believe you me.movingGive your houseplants to a good home, or make sure they can fit in your car. Moving companies won’t transport them.

Update medical insurance if you have a PPO; most carriers have affiliate providers in other states, but you need to apply and qualify to get a good rate.

There’s usually a window in which your movers will arrive at your new home. Be sure to load anything essential to your existence in your car: basic cooking equipment, utensils, medication, etc. Also, pack valuables like passports, extra checks, tax records and other essential and/or private documents, just in case some of your belongings go missing during the move.

I’ve asked all of my previous movers what’s considered a proper gratuity. All of them have told me that while they never expect it, it’s very much appreciated, but so is buying them breakfast or lunch. Movers work long, hard hours, often for paltry pay. If your move is nearly bankrupting you, you’d be surprised how far a round of coffees and breakfast burritos go. And always offer to get them water or soft drinks while they’re working. You’ll find their gratitude is matched only by the extra care they take with your belongings.

En route
roadside attraction
Even if you have a new job to start the second you arrive, plan time for breaks. It’s hard to start work when you’re dead. By the same token, road fatigue really takes a toll. Don’t sleep in truck stops, the side of the road, or parking lots. Even if money is tight, spring for a cheap motel, or at least a campground, and get a good night’s sleep. It pays to make reservations if you’re traveling in isolated regions.

The worst thing about moving, in my opinion, is the deadly boredom of certain routes. I will do literally anything to avoid Interstate 80 through Nevada. Anything. Research beforehand, and try to plan routes with great scenery, or some redemptive attributes – even if it’s just a great roadhouse burger – to look forward to. For mapping, I love Rand McNally; don’t rely solely on GPS, which may not take road repairs and other delays and detours into account.

Keep an emergency stash of No-Doz or energy drinks in your glove compartment, but avoid driving if at all possible when exhausted. Even a 10-minute catnap can work wonders.

Avoid driving at night, and ladies, study up on what to do if you have a breakdown en route. Do not get into a stranger’s car, under any circumstances. Wait in your car with windows up and door locked until police or a tow truck arrive, and ask to see proof of credentials. A little caution is worth appearing a bit paranoid. Keep your cellphone charged, have an emergency roadside plan (if you don’t have AAA, many car insurance companies offer it, free of charge), and have a back-up plan if you don’t have phone service. Always let someone know your route,road estimated ETA, and where you plan to stop along the way (even if that plan changes).

Pack a jug of water and snacks to minimize unnecessary stops and to tide you over in the event of a breakdown or other delay.

Upon arrival
You’re likely to have a different set of movers offload your belongings. So yes, you’ll need to tip again, and up the ante accordingly, depending upon how far they’ve driven. A follow-up with the company’s office with praise or constructive criticism is always appreciated. If damage is incurred, be sure to fill out the paperwork before the movers depart; it’s also your responsibility to be there to check off that all of your items are delivered from their master list.

[Photo credits: stress; Flickr user bark; truck, Flickr user Scrap Pile; melon, Flickr user Tempesttea; road, Flickr user TheFriendlyFiend]

Tips for Packing and Moving

Sleeping In Seattle: The Consequences Of SAD

depressionI recently mentioned my somewhat reluctant decision to relocate from Seattle when the right opportunity presents itself (A job and nice one bedroom in Berkeley, North Oakland or Boulder anyone? Anyone?).

While my move was precipitated by a layoff in February, I’ve known for a year that a relocation was necessary, regardless of my affection for my adopted city – despite my beautiful, relatively affordable apartment just two blocks from Lake Union and my peaceful, tree-lined neighborhood full of pretty houses brimming with gardens and backyard chickens. Even though I can walk everywhere, crime is virtually nonexistent and my landlord rocks.

The real reason I’m leaving Seattle is because I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and arthritis (due to a bizarre infectious disease acquired in Ecuador three years ago). SAD is thought to result from a shift in the body’s circadian rhythms, due to changes in sunlight patterns (think of how certain mammals hibernate in winter). Shorter, darker days also increase the amount of melatonin, a hormone linked to the regulation of sleep and waking, released by the pineal gland. Perhaps my being a Southern California native is to blame (although I’m officially a resident of Colorado…it’s complicated, I know).
seasonal affective disorderIt took me a long time to commit to a move to the Pacific Northwest, despite my love of the region, because I was concerned about the climate. But, like many before me, I was seduced by a record-breaking Seattle summer three years ago when the temperature soared into the upper 80s and the sky remained a clear, vivid blue. The job prospects appeared promising and an incredible sublet fell into my lap. I was in Seattle for the weekend for work and a month later, I was living there. It was like I’d hijacked myself.

My friend Chris has lived in Seattle since 1994. We were hanging out during my visit when I announced I was going to move. “It’s not usually like this,” he cautioned. I was busy gaping at Mt. Rainier in the distance.

He didn’t lie. I’ve been waiting for the weather to be like that ever since. I was filled with anticipatory dread before my first winter, which is why I’d initially only committed to a sublet. It turned out to be the mildest winter Seattle had seen in years, causing me to mock the locals I’d met. “Just wait,” they told me ominously (for a different viewpoint, check out my Gadling colleague Pam Mandel’s ode to Seattle winters, here).

The last two winters – which have been harsh, even by Seattle standards – have kicked my ass. It’s not the “snow” we’ve gotten; I love snow. But Colorado averages 300 days of sunshine a year, and it has a tolerable, dry cold. Seattle cold seeps into the bones, and summer is a negligible term for most of that season. I actually didn’t realize I had post-infectious arthritis until two years ago, when the Fourth of July dawned wet and dismal, and my joints felt like they’d entered their golden years overnight.

Since then, I’ve experienced varying intensities of arthralgia in my hands and knees as well as low-level to serious fatigue. As a runner, this was problematic and my depression increased because I had turned from physically active, adventurous outdoor fanatic to couch potato. I often required daily naps, which wracked me with guilt.

Not until last summer, while visiting my former home of Boulder, Colorado, did I fully realize the impact Seattle was having on my physical and mental health. On my first morning, to quote a SAD-suffering friend, I felt like “someone had turned the world’s lights back on.” I marveled at the sunshine and warm air. I shocked myself by effortlessly doing a three-mile run – the first half uphill. Every day, I stayed outside until sunset. My arthritis had vanished. I felt like me, again: the spaz who can’t stand to be indoors when the sun is shining. I was productive and active and a much, much happier person. I had the same experience while in northern Chile in August.

I returned to Seattle and wham! I morphed into the worst of the seven dwarfs again: sleepy, grumpy and lazy. Work circumstances forced me to postpone a move, and it seemed like every day it was either pissing rain or the sky was low and leaden. I had difficulty concentrating on work, and was irritable and overemotional. Desperate, I sought the care of an excellent psychiatrist, who combined talk therapy with antidepressants.sun

While getting laid off sucked, it was also a strange relief. The one thing tying me to Seattle was gone. The thought of leaving is disappointing, but life is too short to live embedded in the couch. The economy is picking up in the Bay Area and I’ve had some very promising job leads.

It’s hard to admit that the color of the sky exerts such influence over your mood. However, I’m not alone; according to Mental Health America, three out of four SAD sufferers are women.

My advice: the sooner you admit it, the sooner you can get on with living. Whether you require phototherapy, antidepressants, extra Vitamin D, counseling, acupuncture, warm-weather vacations, or relocation, the bottom line is that SAD is very real and can have a devastating impact upon your quality of life as well as your personal and professional relationships and career. And, like a romance that’s not quite right, it’s not worth sticking it out. Me? I’ve decided that Seattle is ideal for the occasional weekend fling.

Signs you may be suffering from SAD (these symptoms are most likely to occur in winter, but some forms of SAD do occur during the summer)

  • Inability to concentrate or increase in irritability
  • Feelings of sadness, unhappiness, or restlessness
  • Fatigue and/or lethargy
  • Anxiety
  • Increase in appetite/weight gain
  • Social withdrawal
  • Increase in sleep and daytime sleepiness
  • Loss of interest in work and activities you once enjoyed

Where to get help:

Talk to your health care provider, who can refer you to a specialist. For additional information and support, check out the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SADA) website.

[Photo credits:girl, Flickr user Meredith_Farmer; clouds, Flickr user CoreBurn;sun, Flickr user Warm 'n Fuzzy]

Home Moving Tips

Five things I’ll miss about Madrid (and four things I won’t)

MadridAfter six years of living part-time in Madrid, my family and I are moving to Santander, a port in northern Spain. Leaving a European capital of three million people for a regional city of less than 200,000 is going to be a big change.

Santander is in Cantabria, part of the rainy northern part of the country commonly called Green Spain. Stay turned for articles about this often overlooked region and its amazing mountains and coastline. I’m especially looking forward to having a beach a short walk from my house. I’ve never lived by the sea before. . .New York City doesn’t count!

Anytime I move, there’s always mixed feelings. I’m a bit tired of Madrid, but there are many advantages to living there. Besides my friends, here are five things I’ll miss:

Culture
With three major art museums, dozens of smaller ones, several Renaissance churches, and countless art galleries, Madrid is an art-lover’s dream. Film lovers will want to check out the Cine Doré, an elegant old movie theater showing art films and old classics for only 2.50 euros ($3.50). It’s a cheap and entertaining night out.

Nightlife
Madrid is one of the best places in the world for nightlife. When friend and fellow author Claudia Gray came to visit, she was blown away by the number and variety of bars, nightclubs, and late-night restaurants, and she’s lived in NYC, New Orleans, and Chicago. I can’t go out on a juerga (pub crawl) without finding at least one new place I want to visit again. Malasaña and Lavapiés are my two favorite barrios.

My mother-in-law’s cooking
I lucked out in the mother-in-law department. She’s never nosy, never bossy, and she’s an awesome cook. Foodies say that home cooking is always the best, and I have to agree. I’ll miss those Sunday lunches!

Hiking in the Sierra de Guadarrama
While the hiking in the Cantabrian Mountains with their green valleys, rugged peaks, and countless caves is going to be better than anything I’ve had in Madrid, I’ll miss hiking with the folks at Hiking in the Community of Madrid. This organization was founded by two expats who have written a guidebook to the Guadarrama mountains near Madrid and other special spots. Their mixed Spanish/expat group outings are a great way for visitors to try something different and meet some locals.

Bar Bukowski
There are places that become your own. Sadly, the economic crisis has closed most of Madrid my favorites down. My favorite literary cafe, favorite bagel shop, favorite arthouse cinema, and favorite video store all shut in the past year. This makes it easier for me to leave. Yet I will miss Bar Bukowski, with their friendly staff, their readings every Wednesday and Sunday, their micropress of poetry and short story chapbooks, and their overly generous mixed drinks. There is only one Bar Bukowski, and it ain’t in Santander.

%Gallery-132872%Not everything is rosy in the Spanish capital, however, and there are at least five things I won’t miss at all.

Pijos
The nouveau riche of any country are annoying, and Madrid has a whole lot of them. They’re the pijos and pijas, and they are ruining this country with their overspending, overbuilding, and risky speculation. Living in an ancient and rich culture, all these overly dressed idiots can talk about is perfume, handbags, manbags, and cars. And of course how much they spent on them. Growing up in the U.S. I developed a healthy disrespect for the aristocracy, but after several years in Europe I’ll take a clueless, cultured blueblood over a grasping, superficial pijo any day.

My apartment
Because of the pijos, housing prices in Madrid have skyrocketed in the past few years. Despite being a two-income family with only one child, we can only afford a two-bedroom apartment. It’s in a decent barrio, but it’s a cramped, bunkerish little place. We’ll be able to afford a much larger place in Santander. If we sold our Madrid apartment and moved to my part-time home of Columbia, Missouri, we could buy an antebellum brick house with more space than we need!

The dog shit minefield
Dogs have become trendy here in recent years, but cleaning up after them certainly hasn’t. Walking in Madrid requires constant vigilance to avoid the regular droppings scattered across the sidewalk.

Urban living
There are a lot of pluses to living in a big city, and a hell of a lot of minuses. I want open space. I like living in a place I can walk out of. I don’t want my son thinking trees grow from holes in the sidewalk. Santander is much closer to nature, with mountains and the sea in constant view. That’s how we’re meant to live.

Have you been to northern Spain? If you have any recommendations I’d love to hear about them in the comments section!

[Photo courtesy Greenwich Photography via flickr]