Thursday, December 22, 2011

Ying-Yang: American Perspectives on Living in China

My life abroad started in 2009 with Alice Renouf and the Colorado China Council.  Every year she recruits several Americans to live and work as ESL teachers in China.  With each new teacher there are new adventures, experiences, and challenges.  Besides recruitment, Alice also plays a role in introducing the teachers to this very strange and chaotic country.  She has seen and heard it all as she tries to ease the transition to what is basically an alien planet.  Most of this communication is done through letters and e-mail, and this sometimes can lead to some interesting reading.

In Ying-Yang, Alice has collected some of the most interesting letters and e-mails going back to 1991.  As most people know China has gone through some serious changes in the past 20 years.  So if you have any interest in ever living in China I would say this is a must read before you go.  Or if you just want to know what the experience is like for a foreigner living in China, then this is the perfect book.

I was lucky enough that Alice chose two of my e-mails to be published in the book!  So now I want everyone to refer to me as Mr. Author Ryan Noll.  Haha, no I'm just kidding.  But seriously.  Author from now on.

Some of my friends must also be referred to as author now too.  This includes Eric Fish, Jennifer Bulmash, Whitney Rush, Catt Stearns, and Clio Goldsmith.  We will sign your copy if you ask nicely.

But in all seriousness I think it is wonderful that Alice and Mary E. Ryan-Maher put in the effort to turn these letters and e-mails in to a book.  Nobody knows the China experience as well as Alice.  Now I can open up this book and transport myself back to the streets of Nanjing.

Look on Amazon for a copy.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Three Phases of the Expat Experience

When I first arrived in South Korea they told me at the EPIK orientation that I would experience three phases during me time here.  These three phases are typical among young expats: Honeymoon, Negotiation, and Adjustment.  For the individual expat the degree and length at which they are experienced can differ, but most everybody goes through them at one point.

The Honeymoon Phase happens when one first arrives and the experience seems new, exciting, and romantic.  One can fall in love with the new foods, the cultural differences, the possibilities, and all there is to see.  This usually lasts for a few months.  For me I think it lasted about 9 months.  Way more than normal.  However, traveling is a great passion of mine, so I was extra excited.  When other people complained about their life in Korea I mostly brushed it off.  While I found some things ridiculous, I took it with a grain of salt.
Where Korea and I used to take baths.

The Negotiation Phase happens when the differences between the old and new culture become more apparent.  One can become annoyed with the differences.  Frustration, anxiety, and depression can set in.  I believe I started to slide in to this phase in the Summer, then I recognized it was happening after I came back to Korea from my Summer visit to the USA, and it really peaked after a number of shitty incidents in the beginning of this Fall.  I had been denied some things in Korea solely out of racism too many times in a span of a couple weeks and that's when I became what some people like to call "jaded".  I really didn't want to become jaded but it was just unavoidable.
Korea!  WTF!

Now finally, after being here for about 15 months, I'm starting to fall in to the Adjustment Phase.  The Adjustment Phase happens when one knows what to expect and the host country no longer seems new.  One becomes concerned with basic living again, and things become more "normal".  I might still be a little jaded and can understandably become frustrated, but now I mostly accept that some things are just going to be different.
Agree to disagree.  Now bump it.  Or shake.  Or awkward handshake.

To better illustrate how these phases work let me show you some examples and how my thoughts compared in each phase.

In Korea the students have to clean the school almost everyday after school.  There aren't really any janitors, so how clean the school is depends on the students.  The method for cleaning the bathroom consists of a hose, spraying the bathroom down with the water that comes out of the hose, and then letting the water drain on it's own.  No soap, no mops, no buckets.  Just hose.

Honeymoon Ryan: "Hey so the students clean the bathroom with a hose huh?  Just give it the ol' rinse down.  That seems sort of easy.  There's standing water on the floor and water dripping from the ceiling.  You kids are funny.  Oh well, gotta pee."

Negotiation Ryan:   "IDIOTS!!  How much piss, poo, and snot particles are in this standing water right now?  DUMB IDIOTS!!  My slippers are getting wet.  Even the #@$&ing handle is soaked.  SOAP!  If you're going to clean a room where bodily fluids are abundant you use soap!  You clean a birdhouse with a hose!  $&#*@ING SOAP!!  USE IT!!  Water has dripped on my shoulder and I hate this place."

Adjustment Ryan:  "Ok they're still doing the spray down technique.  Just going to pee and try not to touch anything.  Yes, it is very wet."

There is a tradition in Korea of being as silent as possible on public transportation.  I don't know why but on buses and trains you just don't really get above a whisper if you're speaking at all.  Naturally for us foreigners it is very awkward to be sitting in silence for a long period of time with your friends.  There is going to be talking.  There just is.  Sometimes this talking is too loud (this is often associated with alcohol) but usually it is at a respectable volume.  Most of the time it is politely tolerated but once in a while a Korean will straight up shush the pants off of you.  Being shushed can be an unsettling experience when you don't see it coming.

Honeymoon Ryan:  "Wow, ok... um I didn't think we were being loud at all.  But we'll turn it down I guess.  Sorry.  A little bit.  Not really, but it's your country and I respect that.  Anyways..."

Negotiation Ryan:  "Oh no you didn't grandpa!  I DO NOT appreciate that shush you just threw at me!  I did not deserve that shush and you sir are the most hated person in my world right now.  I hate you.  The more I think about it the more I think I hate you.  WHO SHUSHES?  I choose to rudely ignore your request.  In fact, if you shush again you will have declared war and I rain fire down upon you!"  Or something like this:

Adjustment Ryan:  "Ah whatever, ya ya ya, fine ok.  Go back to being miserable now."

So the best thing to do is take the good with the bad.  While some things are still unacceptable, especially the racist stuff, I don't mind it as much anymore.  Korea is Korea.  And overall I still enjoy my time here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Whole Lot of Lanterns: Jinju Lantern Festival

In 1592 the Japanese were invading Korea, as the Japanese tended to do in that period of time.  One of the most epic battles occurred in Jinju, the site of the today's Jinju Lantern Festival.  There's a large fortress on the banks of the Nam river, the river that cuts through the middle of the city.  The Japanese were determined to take the fortress but the Koreans didn't approve of that idea.  The Koreans were outnumbered but had recently acquired a couple hundred arquebuses.  Oh, what's an arquebus?  It might sound like an oriental attack bird but it's actually a muzzle-loaded rifle that was known to pierce steel-plated armor at close range.  So with their new guns the Koreans were able to hold off the Japanese who were trying to scale the walls of the fortress.  I forgot to mention the Koreans also had cannons that shot giant arrows.
Attack our fortress?  Ok, we'll shoot this giant arrow at your face.

The defending Koreans also filled the river with lanterns to prevent the Japanese from wading across the river to the fortress.  All of these defenses proved effective and the Koreans were able to hold off the Japanese and saved their fortress.  However, the next year the Japanese came back, probably pissed off now, and successfully took the fortress after ten bloody days of battle.  The survivors sent lanterns down the river to remember the dead and as a symbol of hope for peace in Korea.  The tradition of sending lanterns down the river continues today.

The tradition has lost any humbleness that once existed and is now a spectacle.  I read that there were over 50,000 lanterns at this year's festival.  They came in all shapes and sizes.  From a small Spongebob to a giant fire breathing dragon that actually breathed real life fire.  We were not the only ones that wanted to view the array of lanterns.  We had to fight the largest crowds I've seen anywhere in Korea along with several power outages.  However, we actually had one brief peaceful moment when we made our own lantern with our respective wishes attached and sent it on its way down a lantern filled river.  

Enjoy some pictures:
Some large lanterns out there.

Pretty Bird

I think this is from some cartoon or something.
From some other cartoon.

Whatcha ya got there Santa?


Reenacting Japan vs. Korea.

Caroline's idea of a chair.


Some lanterns were not as classy as others:

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Japan is Delicious

They're next door neighbors.
Over Korean Thanksgiving we hopped on a ferry from Busan to Fukuoka, Japan.  We were only there for two and a half days and stayed in the city, so I only experienced a tiny corner of Japan.  From what I can tell in that short trip is that Japan has some of the best food anybody will ever eat!  There isn't anything really special to do in Fukuoka except eat and drink, and we over indulged in both areas.  Actually, besides a large sitting Buddha and a couple hours at the beach, I can only remember eating and drinking.

You think you've eaten ramen.  Back in those days when you were a poor alcoholic in college most of your meals consisted of a 27 cent package of ramen and a can of Natural Light.  Then you graduate from school, earn some money, and never look back at those boxes of ramen that could feed you for a week.  Well it turns out Fukuoka is the ramen capital of the entire freaking world and their ramen costs about nine dollars for a whole meal of it.  If you know how to use a calculator that's over a 3,000% increase in price!  Also, that's about how much better it is.  Don't ask me how they do it, but best ramen I've ever had in life: check.
Caroline slurps her ramen.
Next thing we ate was sushi.  I know you've probably already thought about how the best sushi is in Japan because it originates from there and all that.  So it's not a crazy concept that Japan has the best sushi in the world, but it's hard to imagine just how ridiculously good it is.  It was like the first time I heard the sweet sounds of Led Zeppelin, I couldn't believe something could be that good!  I will never forget the first sushi I ate in Japan.  It was simply a piece of salmon, some wasabi, and a ball of rice that I picked off a conveyer belt.  Sushi will never be the same to me.  From now on I'm that annoying guy that states how the sushi is not as good as the sushi I ate in Japan that one time.  Best sushi ever: check.
There's heaven on that plate.

The last thing we had to try in Fukuoka was to eat at a yatai, or a mobile food stall.  As the sun goes down these food stalls start setting up near the river and in downtown.  It features a cook surrounded by about a dozen stools and a bar that wraps around the grill.  It's kind of like one of those restaurants in America where they cook the food in front of you but it's outside and much smaller.  When we found out the cook did tempura we had him deep fry everything he had.  We actually ate all of his mushrooms.  It was addicting!  It was like someone spiked the oil with crack.  Then the cook put a pot of saki on the grill and served it to us hot.  Let me highly recommend that.  The best food stall I have ever eaten at: check.

The Master

Happy Customers

Good stuff right there.

Japan was a great visit but its only downfall is that it's damn expensive.  You could easily blow hundreds of dollars in a weekend without doing anything very extravagant.  I will be back so I can at least taste that sushi one more time, but it's best to visit Japan in small doses.  Unless you look in your bathroom and your toilet is made of gold, just visit Japan for a few days at a time.  However, arguably the best food I've eaten in Asia: check.

More pictures from Fukuoka to feast your eyes on:

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Difficult Decisions for an Expat

So I'm back in America for a few weeks and I'm really happy to be here.  Before landing in Kansas City I got the privilege of stopping in two of America's best cities, San Francisco and Denver.  South Korea's cities are decidedly ugly.  The rest of South Korea is beautiful but the cities look like someone glued Legos to a landscape painting.  It's just row after row of white 18 story apartment blocks.  I understand South Korea has a high population density and needs to build upwards, but the rectangular communist uniformity of the building architecture is unimaginative and boring.  So it was a relief to see the wonderful architecture of San Francisco and the wide open spaces with the Rocky Mountains in the background in Denver.  Furthermore, it's great to eat Western food again, understand what people are saying, think logically, and reunite with friends and family.
Hooray Gwangju!  Because it's all the same type!
Anyway, this is not a love letter to America but about the decisions to leave it.  So after a few weeks visit home, I'm moving back to South Korea to teach for another year.  The hardest part about the life of an expat is not learning a new language or realizing that the new currency isn't monopoly money, but the hardest part is saying goodbye to your homeland.  The thing is that teaching abroad is a commitment.  Most good teaching jobs require a year long contract.  So that means you'll miss weddings, reunions, connections with friends, tailgating, and anything else that happens in a year.  So after two years abroad, why am I insane enough to put myself through saying goodbye again?

1.  Escape - A friend of mine once said that most expats are running from something, looking for something, or a combination of the both.  I've made a nice little scale to help you get the idea of what I mean.
Reasons most people become an expat.

Most people are somewhere in the middle of the scale, but there are those who are at either extreme.  (You know who you are creepies.)  When I decided to move to China in 2009 I was more on the "running away" side of the scale.  After I graduated college I had a full time job with benefits, an apartment, a truck, and a girlfriend.  I suddenly realized I was in the beginning stages of settling down.  Life was becoming too routine and I was too young.  I clearly wasn't ready for it and that's when I had what many people call a quarter life crisis.  The best cure was to travel.  After a year in China I hopped over to the "looking for something" side of the scale.  I didn't feel like I got all I wanted from China because I lived in a crappy area and China had it's problems that led to stress.  (Overpopulation, pollution, low quality of life, bad internet, low pay, babies pooping on the street.)  I stilled seriously enjoyed my time there but I needed to look for something that would be an upgrade in living conditions.  Answer: South Korea.  I love living in South Korea and found all I was looking for.  So why renew for another year?

2.) Travel - So I know living abroad seems like traveling, but it's really only traveling for a little bit at the beginning.  Then you get settled, start working regularly, and it becomes a home away from home.  However, I discovered another way to travel while living abroad: backpacking.  Backpacking involves putting everything into a large backpack, traveling all over by bus and train, and staying in cheap accommodation like hostels.  In my opinion it's the cheapest and most fun way to travel.  I've done the backpacking thing over winter breaks, but only for a few weeks each time.  So while I was in Malaysia last winter I spent a night talking to some guys who were in the middle of a year long backpacking journey.  The next day I was flying back to South Korea when it hit me like a predator drone: I want to go backpacking for an extended vacation!  I don't have the money now, but this next year in South Korea all of my focus is on traveling after my contract ends in August 2012.  I'm going to try to stretch my savings for at least 300 days.  So far I'm planning on going to Nepal, India, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand.  The good thing about backpacking is that I don't have to plan too far ahead!
Put it on your back!
3.) Anxiety - So I've explained how I jumped over to the "looking for something" side of the scale, but I'm still doing a little running away.  Truth is that I'm in no hurry to move back to America.  I'm afraid of looking for a job in America.  The economy and job market sucks.  I'm afraid of not finding something for a long time and I'm afraid of getting a job that I will hate.  So instead I'm going to delay my inevitable return for almost two more years.  I'm going to save money doing something I like and then use those savings to accomplish a dream.  It's a difficult decision, but I can't think of another time in my life I'll be able to do something like this.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Amazing Sand Art in Busan

Last month we went on an extended weekend to South Korea's second largest city Busan.  The main attraction in Busan is Haeundae Beach.  It's a long strip of sand that separates the city from the ocean.  At any time there are thousands of people testing the limits of personal space on the beach.  There was a plethora of activity when we were there, but luckily it wasn't as bad as the picture below.  Yeah, that's what happens when it's peak beach season in Korea.  
The Sea of Humanity
When we went some of the activities included a sand volleyball tournament, parades with robots, an unexpected air show, sand surfing, and most importantly, meals that featured Mexican food.  However, the main attraction was the Haeundae Sand Festival.  Slogans included "Experience Sand", "Feel Sand", and "Enjoy Sand."  I made sure to do all three those things and I also checked out the amazing sand art.  So I thought I would post some pictures of the sand art that I found most impressive.
Our theme for the festival: Fairy tales.

Sand Castles: A Classic

The Sword in the Stone

An artist at work.   
Look at the attention to detail on the b-b-b....back fins.  I mean back fins.


Represent Kansas!

Also, this picture of a child swimming in a bow tie and a pirate ship.

And my first experience in sand boarding!  Kowabunga!