Thursday, 10 May 2012

The Time / Friend Continuum

As I start my second year here, and brace myself for a second round of saying goodbye to friends leaving Korea, I've been thinking a lot about how making and maintaining friendships works differently for us ex-pats.

Back home, with no language barrier to overcome, I usually ended up befriending and socialising with most of my work colleagues, till my work and social life looked like a particularly cosy Venn diagram.
Here in Korea, with only two colleagues I can chat with easily in english, one of whom is a busy single mother, the two circles hardly overlap at all!

So evenings and weekends become my serious socialising time, allow me to illustrate:

  • Monday  -  this used to be my Korean class night, though now it's blessedly free, for casual meet ups and   laundry.  We'll see how long I can hold out for!
  • Tuesday - Breakfast in a coffee shop with Ms. Amused, as we try to do some writing and wrestle some semblance of order into our lives.   After work it's off to dinner with friends, or home for two hours before heading to yoga class at 9.
  •  Wednesday - Dinner Club!  This night is a life saver for ten or so of us Waygookin girls. We take turns hosting a pot luck dinner at our apartments and discuss everything from feminism in Korea to favourite cartoon theme songs.
  • Thursday - again, dinner with friends or sundry hair/nail/other appointments before yoga class at 9.
  • Friday - phone teaching has me finishing work late, then off to salsa class before meeting Ms.Amused for pizza and wine and a Thank God it's Friday celebration!
It doesn't seem so much, written out like that, but remember into this schedule I also need to cram: cooking, cleaning, laundry, paying bills, Skyping home, learning a foreign language, supporting a full blown Korean drama addiction........oh,yeah, and writing a blog!

Then there's the weekends - those two days which are held utterly sacrosanct by every ex-pat.
This is when we can get out and explore Korea, in carefully organised, bite size chunks.  These are the days for meeting the friends who live too far away or who work too late to see during the week. 
This is the time for trips to Seoul, Busan or any other city you fancy.      
Or, if we're staying in Ulsan, Ms.Amused and I get busy cooking up batches of curry, tuna pasta bake, Kimchi jjigae (korean kimchi stew) and other dishes which we can parcel up to feed us for the week.

Take such a busy timetable and mix it into the ex-pat experience and you will begin to understand the importance of the Time/Friend Continuum.
We are regularly meeting new people, both Koreans and fellow ex-pats, and the longer I am here, the more I find myself running them through a mental checklist before I will commit to spending time with them.

  1. Are they a good person? Can I hold an intelligent conversation with them?
  2. Where in the city do they live? Close to me or more like turn left at pluto? Will it, in the end, be a complete pain in the arse just trying to physically get to them?
  3. How long will they be in Korea for? Are they leaving in two months or two years?  (Just before Christmas I met a girl who was going back to the States the next day. Upon learning that it was just for vacation and that she would be back, I blurted out, "Oh good! I'll remember your name then!"  I DID remember her name, we became great friends and now I'll be very sad to bid farewell to her at the end of this month.)
  4. Can I shoehorn them into my existing schedule?  'Hey, wanna come to yoga class with me?!'
This probably seems very calculating, almost ruthless but it is for three good reasons:

ONE:  I already feel like I'm spinning plates....and doing it badly....trying to keep up with the friends I HAVE. So if I am going to start spinning an extra plate, it had better be worth it!

TWO:  Living so far from home, and for such a long time, your close friends become your de facto family.  Now, you can't choose the family you're born with, but if you don't select your surrogate family carefully and wisely, then you are nine kinds of stupid.
I had a sharp reminder of the importance of ex-pat families last week. One of my friends lost her grandmother, another was quite sick and yet another finished with her boyfriend.  Three very different problems, but all of them are times when you want your family around you.

THREE:  I am a damn good friend!  I will spend time with you. I will come see whatever performance, race or charity event you are taking part in. I will help organise your wedding or bring you chicken soup when you are ill.  I will help you study for your english exam or declutter your wardrobe.
Finally, after years of being a professional doormat, I am learning to surround myself only with friends who will also go the distance for me.

Disclaimer:  All of this must make me seem like such a picky little prig, but honestly, take a look at your own friends and you'll discover your own (possibly sub-conscious) check list.
Back home, with no ticking clock and a common language, if I met someone who, I don't know, didn't like Freddie Mercury, or thought that 'The Lord of the Rings' was for kids, I could afford to declare 'You are dead to me!'
But being part of the foreigner community here in Ulsan has actually broadened my friend horizons. 
I was always pretty open and tolerant about having friends of every religion and orientation, but now I'm learning to be that open and tolerant about music and movie tastes as well!  (much more difficult!)

Actually, no matter how tolerant I become, I could never be friends with someone who didn't love Freddie.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Spring has sprung and gone.


Spring has sprung!  The sap is rising, the weather is getting warmer and yours truly, dear readers, is high on life!

I'm also running around the place as busy as a blue-arsed fly - as we so eloquently put it back in the Auld Sod!
So while I have enough witty remarks and profound insights to fill six blog posts, God alone knows when I'll find the time to sit and type it.

So this following offering will be short, but hopefully sweet?


What fascinates and delights me about the change in the seasons is that the transistion happens so quickly and decisively.  As if even Mother Nature follows the Korean mantra of 'Bali, bali!!' (Quickly, quickly!)
You can almost.........almost set your watch by it.
Four weeks ago it was still cold enough that going anywhere without gloves was the height of folly.
Two days ago Ms.Amused came over to my place brandishing THREE mosquito bites.
(It's a little bit insane how irresistible they find her.)

This is an unending source of wonder to a girl from a country whose seasons bleed into each other like a red sock in a white wash!

It's very bemusing to us foreigners that one of the first topics of conversation with many Koreans is:
 "Korea has four seasons. Does your country have four seasons?"

Like most other mysteries we stumble across over here, once you start to scratch the surface, you quickly find the internal logic.

  • Unlike us Westerners, Korea is neighbourly with several countries which DON'T have four seasons. 
  • The change of seasons is still marked by large, important festivals here in Korea - in much the same way that the Celtic fire festivals of Lughnasa, Samhain and Bealtaine used to mark the seasons for us in Ireland.
  •  Most Koreans learn this phrase as a rote piece in English class.
And while I mention the rote learning - it may seem a tad random, but it's a damn sight more useful than some of the stuff I learnt in French class!
Exhibit A: "The hat of my aunt is on the table."
Now, I have an above average number of aunts, but this is still not a sentence I'mma gonna need a whole lot!!

And you know something else?
After being here for a full cycle of seasons, I'm getting pretty psyched about it myself.
Last Fall was the most perfect I have ever experienced anywhere - a textbook autumn it was- with crisp fresh mornings and warm sunny days filled with a glorious palette of colour.

Now we've just had our 'blink and you miss it' Spring. 
This is a season which I particularly adore because my earliest images of Asia came from novels and movies set in Japan - so naturally enough, cherry blossoms falling like snow flash me right back to my adolesence and my plans to conquer the world - only to snap back to reality and find, yep, I'm actually in Asia!

Tis heady stuff, I tell ya!!

So here we are, a scant few weeks later and already heading into summer.  The winter clothes have been packed away in vaccuum packed bags.  (This is essential, not just for saving space but to protect them from the killer humidity we're going to get in a few months.)
I have dug up the air con remote control and any day now I'll be buying my first watermelon popsicle!

This of course, is why Spring is such a cherished season here in Korea.  It is an astonishingly beautiful and gentle season, which doesn't last long, so it never gets taken for granted.