Monday, April 4, 2011

Away and Under the Weather: Part 3

This is it. My final and, in my opinion, WORST illness-related experience abroad. It actually involves a few different illnesses and was spread out over at least a month. It was painful, exhausting, and just bizarre. Enjoy!

#1 It started with the flu...

It started with the flu. Nothing special, just the flu. When you live in another country AND work with children, you're going to get sick now and then. It was around this time of year (April) in 2007. I don't even remember how bad a flu it was. I probably had a fever, some body aches and a runny nose. That's usually what I get. I taught lessons through it (as usual) and it was over. I didn't need to go to the doctor until later.

The flu ended but the crap in my lungs never really went away. After a week or two of wheezing and coughing, I went to get checked out. At the hospital, I was shown around by my own English-speaking nurse to see two specialists and got an x-ray of my lungs. It cost less than US$50. (I miss Korea.) I had acute bronchitis. The flu had slightly inflamed my bronchial tubes and there was a little infection. They gave me antibiotics, pain pills, something for the mucus, and anti-inflammatory medicine.

Getting treated in Korea by western medicine is different than at home. Korean hospitals also treated people using eastern medicine and I took advantage of that more after this experience. Eastern medicine is about treating the delicate balance that exists in your body and allowing your body to function at its peak potential. Western medicine works more like a band aid. You're hurt here; fix here. Western medicine in Korea takes this metaphor even further. Sick? In pain? Appendages double in size? Okay! What can we do to patch you up and get you back to work?

On top of that, we really do blindly trust doctors a lot. Which is fine for the complicated stuff. But in Korea, you barely even know what medicine you're taking. They give me the list but there's a lot on there and it's hard to tell the pills apart. They prepare all the pills for you and separate them by dose in these long strips of vacuum sealed plastic baggies. Swallow the cocktail and get back to work. No need to wait for the effects to kick in.

I can tell you that I took my first baggie on a Wednesday night or Thursday morning. I remember that because by Friday I was calling the nurse and taking the only sick leave I ever took in 3 years in Korea.

I felt a little off on Thursday. Not sick, just off. So it took me (and my head teacher/neighbor who was walking home with me) completely by surprise when I randomly puked on the street Thursday night. I barely made it to the storm drain let alone even thinking about trying to find a toilet. Living abroad, I've had my share of food poisonings so the idea that my body was rejecting something was not foreign to me. But there was no food. It was like a hangover without the bliss of being an idiot the night before.

Since it wasn't food, I assumed pills and called the nurse. I stopped taking all of them since I didn't know which was which in my poison cocktail. I didn't feel any better the next day as I started to have stomach problems come out the other end. Great. And remember how I couldn't have sick days? That was especially true my first year when our numbers were already small and there were teachers fleeing the country in the middle of the night every other week. Fortunately, though, through some luck--and a lot of pity from my head teacher and principal who watched me try to teach my 4pm-7pm elementary class from a chair when I wasn't running to the bathroom--my head teacher had her second three-hour slot free and taught my 7pm-10pm middle school class.

So I went home and proceeded to have my worst weekend ever. I was supposed to be at a wedding. Instead, every three hours (like clockwork!) I crawled the three feet from my bed to the bathroom and then tried crawl back, dragging what was left of my tattered stomach on the floor. Eventually that was too much and I brought a pillow and blanket into the bathroom to sleep on the floor in between sessions. I didn't leave the house until Sunday afternoon. I limped across the street to get some saltines and electrolytes with some hope that I would be better before Monday.

And, surprisingly, I was. My stomach was convinced everything was out that it didn't like and it stopped trying to kill me. On Monday, I was exhausted, soar, and really cranky but I was mobile enough to go down the hill to my work. I settled in my chair to be a white-faced, native speaker in front of 15 Korean kids for 6 hours. The kids were extra nice and the next few days went fine. Although, it still amazes me that the kids never viewed this behavior as strange. I could not stand most of the time and could barely speak but I was still there. Even now in Hong Kong, I often teach while wearing a doctor's mask when I have a cough or runny nose, and I have some kids come to EVERY class in a mask. Sick? Wrap it, cover it up, take a pill. But do it at work.

In this case though, the pills were the problem. I talked to my mom on Skype later and she told me that it was probably the anti-inflammatory medicine. She used to work for a doctor and patients often called and complained of stomach problems when the doctor prescribed anti-inflammatory medicine. So that was it. The weekend was more than enough to learn my lesson. The body is connected, beware of pills, listen to your mother, work somewhere with sick days, bla, bla, bla... Teacher, finishee?? Anio.

I got better and started to regale my friends with gross stories of the worst weekend ever. Around midweek, I decided that I was better enough to not cancel my rafting trip for the coming weekend. It was rafting in Korea, after all, which is only slightly more intense than floating down a lazy-river. It was mostly an excuse to drink somewhere else and also to watch a traditional Korean mask performance.

Rafting was scheduled for Sunday so we watched the mask dance on Saturday. It was in a very cool theatre-in-the-round, and--despite not understanding a word they were saying--it was really funny! There was an ajumma character which is always a riot and at one point a guy pretended to cut off the fake bull's penis. It was an outdoor theater, and it was really hot, so most people sat in the shaded section. About 30 of us came on the trip and showed up late so a few of us sat in the sun so we could watch from the front row.

It was really bright when I first stared down at my feet so I just thought I was seeing things. They felt a little strange and warm, but so did the rest of me. And I was wearing larger flip-flops so I wasn't uncomfortable. I felt a little stupid but I turned to my friend and said it anyway, "Do my feet look bigger to you?"

I'm not sure if she could see or if she was just a little worried about the question I just asked but we needed a closer look. We walked around the edge of the seating and went outside to where it was shaded and we could see better. And there they were: cankles. I grew cankles in an afternoon! There was a weird fluster next as three of my friends and I tried to figure out what to do for a case of instant-fat-feet. I lay down on the ground and elevated them, someone put a cold water bottle on them, but mostly we just poked them a lot as if we were suddenly going to able to diagnose the problem.

I freaked out for a while as they seemed to get bigger in the heat. Fortunately, they grew to certain size and stopped. They didn't hurt and I could walk. I didn't go to a doctor because I was where I usually was when stuff like this happens: in a village in a foreign country.

The play ended and after some shopping we all got on the buses to go back to the place we were staying. A few more people got to see my exciting new development. Most of the theories tossed around that day had to do with the bus going up and down the hills and something with altitude. I kept them elevated and took some allergy pills or something. I even went rafting the next day. (Seriously, easy rafting.) I just kept showing people my fat feet hoping someone could tell me what was happening to me.

Monday I went to work, fat feet and all. I got a kick out of freaking out the kids with my cankles. (It actually freaked out the other teachers and staff more.) They were still there a week later when my parents arrived in Korea. I'm sure it was a great sight for my mother, who hadn't seen me in nine months. Because that's what you want to see when your oldest child is all alone for the first time and on the other side of the world. That she's becoming deformed.

My dad made me sleep in his special airplane socks that are supposed to give you even circulation and they started to really go down. Mom cleaned my apartment which was not in an acceptable state (is it ever?). I took my first real vacation since I arrived in Korea and relaxed in Jeju-do. It took some time but they went back to normal and I was all better.

Finally, we sat down together with the Internet and tried to figure out why my feet blew up. (Mom is an experienced hiker and didn't buy the 'altitude' theory.) And there, at the bottom of the list, on some medical website under possible causes for swollen feet it said, "...may be caused by anti-inflammatory medicine."

So that was it. I got the flu which gave me bronchitis that led to the worst weekend of my life followed by one of the weirdest. The lesson for all this is very simple and not at all original: Stuff happens. I did what I was supposed to. I was sick so I went to the doctor. Usually that's the end. Take the pills, drink some liquids, all better. Only this time the pills poisoned me, my stomach tried to kill me, and my feet doubled in size. The good experience that came out of this was that the next time I was sick, I was really willing to try acupuncture and Korean traditional medicine. Also, I try not to suck down pills like candy. My feet are big enough already.

Unfortunately, I know this is not the end. Despite Hong Kong being more western than Korea and having more resources than Buenos Aires, I know it will happen again. You get sick, you fall down; drink your fluids, pick yourself up.

It's just different when you don't speak the language.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Away and Under the Weather: Part 2

My roommate completely lost her voice the other day and I got to take her to the doctor's office. That and some stern emails from family and friends have reminded me that I really need to write again. (Plus, who doesn't need free therapy now and again?!)

#3 They're coming to take you away...
I remember when I was younger and heard ambulance sirens, my dad always did the exact same thing. He would break out in a chorus of "They're coming to take you away! Ha ha, ho ho, hee, hee,..." Fortunately, that has never happened to me through the years. I have never been taken away to the hospital (or "funny farm") by ambulance and have never NEEDED such urgent care that I've had to be attended to by paramedics. But that may have happened in Buenos Aires...I'm not sure.

Back in 2005, the spring semester (fall for Argentina) of my Junior Year at Purdue, I studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina! This is where I first got the itch to travel (despite the following two stories). I lived with a middle-aged couple, Norberto and Luisa, whom I loved. Luisa spoke three languages (none of them English) and Norberto only spoke Spanish (and a few English words that he would yell out on occasion when he thought of them like "jacket!" or "fifteen!"). So I was able to practice my Spanish a lot which, as it turned out, was worse than I thought. I had more than a few language barriers. This was also the first time I was learning how to be a foreigner! (I really hope I've gotten better at it.) And the thing you learn as a foreigner (and I've said this before) it's called culture SHOCK for a reason: you never know where and when cultural differences will strike.

My semester didn't end until July but Purdue's ended in May, so I was blessed to have my sister and one of my best friends come down to visit me! Unfortunately, I got sick during a few days of their two weeks there so I didn't go with them to visit Iguazu Falls up north. I had a sore throat with white dots and a sinus infection. This is not a life or death ailment. I broke out my "common sense" treatment that I learned from home and was going to get better so I could hang out with my sister and friend when they got back. I took some over-the-counter meds, drank lots of warm liquids and went home as soon as classes were done to take a nap at 4 or 5 in the afternoon. Pills, fluids, rest...right?

The problem with "common sense" is that when you leave your own country, YOUR "common sense" is not so common anymore. It becomes "foreign sense" and the locals will need to use THEIR "common sense" to help you. I got home and Luisa noticed I was not well. (Of course she noticed right away, I loved her, such a mom!) I had been there for a few months so I was able to stumble through an explanation of my symptoms and told her I was going to rest. She mentioned something about the doctor's but I told her I was too tired to go and that I would rest first and maybe go later if I was still sick. If this were happening to me NOW, I would know to go into a little more details about my American-style plans to get better. But I was tired and went to my room to pass out. And all Luisa heard me say was that I was too tired and sick to go to the doctor's office.

I woke up two hours later to Luisa knocking on my door followed by what looked like two EMTs rushing into my room with their emergency kit. I sat up a little too dumbstruck to speak in English, let alone Spanish, and they started to examine me. Out came scopes and flashlights, they lifted my shirt to check my lungs, asked me questions about my symptoms (most of this was answered by Luisa faster than I could comprehend the question), wrote something down on a prescription pad and then left.

Luisa was about halfway through describing how much it cost and what medicine I had to take when I burst into tears. Luisa stared at me absolutely confused as I tried to explain in sobbing Spanish that I wasn't dying and didn't understand why she called for an ambulance! (Of course, I hadn't actually seen an ambulance but I just assumed that one had shown up, sirens blaring, while I was sleeping.) It was common sense! You don't call for an emergency unless there is an ACTUAL emergency. When I was a kid, I was taught that you weren't supposed to call 911 unless you were dying, unconscious (or on your way), or at least had some your insides on the outside.

But no, my "foreign sense" was getting in the way. After lots of tears and slow Spanish (on both ends, thank you Luisa), I finally understood that paramedics had NOT been called for my sinus infection and sore throat. In Buenos Aires, there are private medically trained people (I still have no idea if they were doctors or nurses or something else) who make house calls. It took me a while to get this since my idea of a doctor who makes house calls only comes from the movies, as well as my idea of paramedics rushing in to give medical attention. Since there were two young people in jumpsuits and not an old man with a leather satchel, in my eyes I was about to get into trouble for dialing 911 with no actual emergency. So then I explained to Luisa why I was acting like a blubbering five-year-old and things started to get better.

There's no real moral to this story or lesson learned that I "won't do again". It's just one of those events that help make all future culture shocks a little less shocking.

#2 Left with a Temperature, Came Back with a Sling

It's always funny in cartoons when someone gets hurt because usually multiple things will happen at once. Homer hits himself in the eye with a hammer and then falls through the roof, probably landing on the only cactus in the house. It's less funny when it happens in real life and to you.

Bless her, I had the sweetest host-mom you could get. I was often sick in Buenos Aires and not always adjusting well being abroad for the first time. She always made sure I was ok and helped me with what I needed. So she was a little worried when I woke up to go on a weekend trip organized by my program with a fever. It was at 38 which didn't seem bad to me (I was told normal was 37). I was still getting used to Celsius and didn't realize that one degree put me up over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Anyway, I really wanted to go on this trip, six hours out of the city, on a bus, to the country... We were going to stay in cabins in the woods, go horseback riding, biking, and see some rock that turns around on its own. I got on the bus kind of proud that I was going to just push through my little bug and not let it spoil my weekend.

On the bus, I started to realize that I wasn't really feeling better. We got to the campsite and settled into cabins with our friends. I probably looked about as good as I felt so it was recommended to me that I rest a bit once we got there. The rock doesn't even turn by itself anymore so I wasn't missing much. For the next activity, we had a choice of which day to participate. The group was big so half would ride bikes that day and horseback ride the next, and vice versa. I loved both but hadn't been horseback riding for about 10 years and was really excited about going again! I didn't want to let my illness spoil that one so I put it off until the next day and went biking. Spoiler alert: I didn't go horseback riding.

Thanks to an energetic and adventurous grandfather, I've been cycling long distance since I was 12. But I was always on roads, on a road bike, with tires so skinny that you had to be careful not to hit a pebble, let alone a pothole. The bikes we went on this time were mountain bikes. Big tires. I was a little wobbly at first, not used to it, but then I really got into it! It was fun to hit the bumps and climb over rocks. I had a lot of friends back in the Purdue cycling club that I watched for years do cool things on mountain bikes and I wanted to try a few! So when I got to the top of a hill, I wanted to fly down. And I did. Really.

I don't completely remember the sequence of events because it was a while ago and happened kind of fast. Basically, I told everyone to go ahead of me so I could go fast down without hitting anyone. (Safety first.) I hit a rock or a log, a hole, or any combination thereof; the handlebars made a sharp turn, the bike stopped, and I didn't. I remember sitting up and actually smiling (thank you adrenaline) while someone picked rocks out of my elbow and washed it off with their water bottle. Someone got a towel and then I was riding back to town in a truck with a make-shift sling.

Let me emphasize that I was going back to town, not city, town. It was six hours away from the big city; there was no hospital, just a local clinic. Fortunately, the director of the program, Andrea, was with me by now and had taken so much pity on me that I was allowed to speak to her in English. It wasn't until he was examining me that I even remembered that I had temperature. So he cleaned me up but really making me better took a little more work. Apparently, I had a temperature because I had an infection! (I can't remember if it was in my nose or my throat. Like I said, I was sick a LOT in Buenos Aires.) I needed antibiotics. First of all, the clinic didn't carry antibiotics so he had to write me a prescription. Second, when I got the prescription filled across town (just a few stores down), it was not a bottle of pills but something taped in Styrofoam. Andrea explained that we had to take it back to the clinic so the doctor could give me the antibiotics. Yep, penicillin shot in the ass, after which Andrea had to help me pull my pants back up since I only had one working arm. It wasn't one of my high moments as a study abroad student or representative of my country. He told me to rest when I got back to the cabins. So that took care of the illness, on to the injury!

Fortunately, I didn't break anything in my arm, but I injured a tendon and it needed to be help up for a week or so. The other thing the clinic didn't have was slings! The doctor cleaned me up then pointed down the road to a clothes shop that sold "paƱuelos" (a giant handkerchief that acted as a scarf, very popular in Argentinean fashion) and told me to buy one so I could make a sling.

When I saw my friends again, the adrenaline had worn off, the fever had kicked in, and I was wearing a hot pink sling. I barely sampled some amazing campfire wine that night then went to bed. The next day when I should have been horseback riding, I was sleeping off my fever alone in the cabin. It was cold but I kept having to open the windows due to hot flashes and from being so sick that I actually smelled.

After a 6 hour bus ride home (I felt bad for anyone sitting near me), I went home to see Luisa's, "My poor daughter, what will we do with you?" expression and then went to bed. I wore the sling for a week and nursed a bruise that covered half my left thigh. I still have a scar on my elbow and my right arm doesn't extend completely anymore.

And yet, knowing what I know now, I still would have gotten on the bus.

The final one is coming! I promise not to put it off for as long as I did this one. Then maybe I'll actually write something current!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Away and Under the Weather: Part 1

The end of this month will mark my six months in Hong Kong!! And there is one culture shock that I haven't had to deal with yet here...until now. I finally got sick in Hong Kong. It's just a run-of-the-mill flu, but it's painful and it really sucks when it's in another country. Being sick here, though, is actually not so bad. I am allowed to take sick days if I really need them and if I do need to go to the doctor's I can look up where to go (in English!) on the Internet. I have not always been so lucky though and getting through the last few days I've had to remind myself that this is not the worst I've ever experienced.

I have been very fortunate that I have never contracted any truly foreign disease, broken anything, or fell into a fire pit while drunkenly trying to hurdle it (which happened at least once a summer to someone in Korea). However, I have had plenty of normal mishaps and illnesses that are a little more interesting (in retrospect) since they happened abroad. Here are my top (or maybe bottom) five.

#5 New Year's Resolution: Work Somewhere with Sick Days

This is actually two stories but they're related. My first two New Year's in Korea did not go so well. I learned a lesson from both experiences. Unfortunately, it was the exact same lesson that just didn't stick the first time.

New Year's Eve of 2006-2007, I made it through a nice buffet dinner by the beach but not to the midnight countdown. I could tell I was getting sick and went home. I had been a little sick (mostly from hangovers) before in Korea but nothing I couldn't handle since I didn't have to be at work until about 3:00pm. I loved that part of my job. The downside? No holidays or sick days. And I mean it. I worked every Western Holiday and most Korean Holidays. On the two days of the year we did get off for absolutely mandatory Korean holidays, we made those up on weekends. And as for the sick days, when you are hired from another country (over the phone) mainly for being a native-speaker, it's because they don't have many just hanging around. And I worked for the rare company that didn't have Korean co-teachers in the classroom. For the first year or two in Korea, there was no one to replace us if we got sick. So we were politely told that we don't have sick days. The reality of this didn't really hit me until that first week of 2007.

And it wasn't just me that was sick. Four of our five teachers were sick that week. I was shaking with chills and fever for two or three days, living on pain medication. One of the other teachers was leaving his classroom every few hours to puke. And another teacher seemed to have contracted both our strains of the flu simultaneously. This was the week we realized our lack of time off. We worked December 31st and January a school. We all taught sitting in chairs with our winter coats, hats and scarves. We were obviously sick and the kids didn't really bat an eye. It was expected that we would still be there. Oh how I missed the Western work ethic...

The next new year went on much better. I made it through midnight with a good crowd of people at a house party near my own house. I was getting a little drunk but not New-Year's-quality wasted. I was feeling very spirited as well since my friends made some homemade eggnog. Thank you Canadians!! At least, I felt that way until the next morning. I know what a hangover feels like, and I know when it's more than just a hangover. This was more. And I knew exactly what the "more" was: raw eggs. I was so in the spirit and grateful for something that resembled home (I don't even drink eggnog at home!) that I had two glasses. In a usual hangover, my head hurts so much, it tells my stomach what to do. I had that going on a little but my stomach was doing flips all on it's own too, and way more often than any normal hangover I've ever had. And so I had to tell myself again, so maybe it would stick, work somewhere with sick days.

#4 Korean Remedy: Stop Talking So Much

No one really knows why they get TMJ. It could be long term stress or you could have bit an apple wrong once. Any which way it happened, my jaw started popping on one side a few months after being in Korea. I ignored it like an idiot and eventually couldn't open my mouth wide enough to put two fingers in between my teeth. Around the same time that my mouth locked up I had a cold brewing as well with a pretty sore throat. That was enough sick for me to finally bring myself to go to the hospital.

Someone told me about a hospital that had one English speaking nurse for the whole hospital. (It sounds bad but there wasn't a huge demand and it meant that I was guided around the hospital the whole time.) She was a really nice nurse and I got to know her well over the years. I went back many times after that for acupuncture which is cheap and common in Korea. (That leads to whole other stories about med students, needles, and traditional Eastern sludge medicine.) The nurse took me around to all the doctors I needed except the Dentist for my jaw. Apparently, the local expert on TMJ had offices just down the street and I could go there (alone) after I was done at the hospital. First, though, the doctors needed to look at my infected throat and yet I couldn't open my mouth. And so I cursed my stupidity and procrastination as they shoved a scope down my nose and I watched my throat open and close on the video monitor next to my bed. Will I ever learn?

I found the dentist's office, opened the sliding door, and the first thing I notice is the shoe rack next to the door with a nice array of slippers to choose. Oh, Korea. Take your shoes off at home, restaurants, and now the dentist's office. The girls at the counter looked at me like I was the first Waegook (foreigner) they'd seen walk through that door. This may have even been true. But I knew what to do by now in situations like this one. I just handed them my ARC (Alien Registration Card, got to love the honesty) and sat down. They seemed quite pleased about this.

Fortunately, most doctors, most places you will go will have to know some English because some of their textbooks in medical school were in English and/or English proficiently is a requirement to get in since med schools have high standards. I actually got to see one of those textbooks because it was the best way this Dentist could explain what had happened to my jaw. And it didn't look like a med school textbook. It looked like a book written at a high school science level. Between that and some pretty pictures, I sussed out that the cartilage between my jawbones had actually popped out and the two bones were rubbing together. This was just the imagery I needed to forget about the tube down the nose. At this point, his wife, who was the other dentist at the Bubu ChiKwa (literally "Couple Dentist"), was finished with a patient and came over. She spoke much more English than her husband and was actually thrilled to be practicing. What a great day for them.

"You should come when the jaw is popping, the dentist can make a splint to fix it. Now it's bad, maybe you need surgery." Great, thanks for the guilt trip and terrifying possibility in the same breath. "He tries to put back first manual." Manual? Not a splint but not surgery? Exactly how do you pull the jaw apart enough to put the cartilage back "manually"? I figured this one out as it was happening. That piece of cartilage wants to be between the jawbones so if you separate them, hopefully it will just pop back in on its own. How do you separate them? The dentist sticks his thumb into the patients mouth and grabs the lower jaw. Then through a few quick moves in different directions, tries to dislocate the jaw just enough to allow the piece to pop back in there. In retrospect, I'm glad I didn't have to go through the anticipation of knowing what he was about to do. The idea would have probably been worse than it actually was.

"The doctor did a good job, no surgery." Did he just dislocate my jaw? "We make you a splint now. You come back every month to adjust the splint." Which all turned out to be over $800. "The doctor gives you a list of foods not to eat." No cuttlefish, no problem there. "And you need to stop talking."

"Um, I'm a teacher, it's my job to talk."

"Stop talking so much."


More stories to come! My current sickness is catching up with me and I need to sleep.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Serenity of an Ex-Pat

Today is a culture shock day. Actually, it's a little bit of a culture shock week. Step one is now complete! I have recognised why I feel like crap and will now work it out through writing. Here we go...

Even for us non-religious types, now is a good time to remember the serenity prayer:

God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.

The only problem here is that you're not asking for the "intelligence" or "common sense" to know the difference between the changeable and unchangeable. You are asking for wisdom; something that comes with time and experience. And while many things are universal, many things that you don't think of are not, and your wisdom isn't always transferable. In a new culture, all that "wisdom" you have stored to deal with everyday annoyances gets challenged in ways that are not just difficult but seem ridiculous as a way to be challenged. It's like telling a runner, "Ok, you know we're going to make your hurtles higher, but we're also making them 'S' shaped with a pit of pickles on the other side." Yes, people will be speaking a different language, staring at you, and offering you food that you would prefer to eat blindfolded. But why can't you find painkillers at the convenience store, why aren't the trash bags with all the cleaning supplies in the grocery store like they're supposed to be, and why is the naked pow-wow of old women eating hard-boiled eggs in the locker room?!?

Most of those things actually refer to stuff I dealt with in Korea. I am in Hong Kong now which is a huge step towards the Western world compared to where I was before. But even though most people speak English and I'm not the only white person the locals have seen this month (in fact, the "locals" here are often white), I am still in a new culture and am therefore occasionally still shocked. And even though this is my third foreign country and am working on four years of experience in new cultures, I still don't handle the culture shock all that well.

Yesterday was my day off. I was tired and wanted to relax around my apartment, watch TV on my computer and celebrate my new refrigerator by cooking some dishes I wouldn't have to throw away when there were leftovers. Mission accomplished; I cooked, I watched, I relaxed, and I didn't leave the apartment. This is a bad move. Staring at a screen all day in a sealed apartment will give you a headache. Hong Kong extreme pressure systems, pollution, and the jack hammer in my office building that followed me from classroom to classroom the next day don't make headaches any better. When you're at home, you know where to go to get headache medicine (assuming you don't already have some at home like you should) and you know which kind to take based on years of experience and your mom telling you, "No, take the other one, you haven't had any food and that's more for sinus pain." You are wise and know how to take care of yourself.

But the headache came on too late last night and I didn't know if anything close would be open. I didn't have any on hand because when you move from one country to another, you don't rent a U-haul; you take your clothes, a few reminders of home, and pray you don't get charged for excess baggage. So instead of finding pain killers, I just ignored it and went to sleep. Here is one of those wisdoms that actually is universal: If you ignore a problem, it just comes back a bigger pain then before. Not only did I wake up with the same headache, but now I have to get ready for the day and try to find a place that sells pain killers before going to work. I found some but they weren't so much the best painkillers for the job, but the box with the most English that fit the profile. I made it over the 'S' hurtle but definitely stepped in the pickles.

Case in point number 2 for "don't ignore a problem you would normally fix with ease" is my dead roommate, Mr. Flying Cockroach. A few days ago I saw my first cockroach inside my apartment. Very common in Hong Kong but I decided to ignore that it would be a problem for me. I was debated on trying to kill it--even though it was high enough to fall on my head if I hit it wrong--when it took off flying and did a little spin around the room before landing in the same spot. That was it, too new, too foreign, close the door, pillows to seal the bottom, he'll be gone by morning. And he was. I whipped up some homemade roach killer and set it in the room, but that was the only proactive thing I did to get rid of him.

So, as my headache is really taking shape last night while video-chatting with my mom (from staring at the screen more, I love you Mom!), my lazy-ass method of dealing with something I don't want to learn to deal with comes back to attack me, literally. I almost gave my mom a heart-attack when I look off to a part of the room she can't see and start screaming bloody-murder. Mr. Flying Cockroach has decided that he wants to leave his room and share in the common area and is now flying at my head. Once I tell Mom that I am not being attacked by a home invader, I look back to see that my scream has sent him back in the room. This time, I even do a half-ass job of ignoring him. I closed the door but didn't put the pillows at the bottom. Five minutes later, Mom is asking why I'm screaming again as he comes in from under the door. I, of course, fly to the other side of the room, determined not to hang out with my new roommate. But he's headed for my bedroom, this guy has balls. Mom is still on skype giving me helpful advice like, "Kill it, KILL IT!" or telling me I should spray him with roach killer I don't have because I was in denial that I would even have roaches, let alone ones that fly and want to hang out with me. I finally work up the adrenaline to attack him and after after 5 minutes of failed tennis shoe torpedoes and discombobulating whacks with a broom ("Kill it, KILL IT!"), I finally hit him a few times with the hard part of the broom and take him directly to the hallway trash. RIP Mr. Flying Cockroach.

I'm too tired and already have enough of a headache that I won't prepare myself lunch for tomorrow (more ignoring), go to bed, and wake up with my still present headache and no medicine. I pick up my mail, a beautiful announcement for my friend's wedding that I can't attend back home. I get to work and the jack hammer follows me from room to room until I decide to have lunch early to run errands. Errands that I can't run because I left my ATM card at home. And since I didn't make lunch, I need spend what little cash I have on lunch. All pretty menial stuff that adds up to a stressful couple days in a foreign environment. So now I propose the Ex-Pat's Serenity Poem with apologies to whoever wrote the first one:

I must find the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Wisdom to see the things that I can change,
and the Courage to learn the difference all over again.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Things I've learned living/teaching in Busan, South Korea

In just a few weeks, I will have been in Korea for three years. I am leaving soon and along with looking at a consolidation of my finances, gathering together (and reducing) my wardrobe, and getting ready for my next tip-toe-print in the world, I want to analyze what I've learned--either directly or indirectly--from my time in Busan.

So, here (in no particular order) is what I've learned in Korea:

Pink is not just for girls and gay men.

Ajumas (old women) can and will be your greatest ally or worst enemy. Approach with caution or avoid eye contact.

Baseball is just better when you can bring in your own alcohol and wear an orange trash bag on your head.

The mechanical pencil was the worst idea ever and obviously not invented by an elementary school teacher.

You can put kimchi on everything.

There is a time when all of Dad's dumb jokes come in handy.

There are things you SHOULD NOT put kimchi on.

The most versatile game ever invented is 'rock, paper, scissors'.

Americans should savor every moment they have with good cheese.

Fashion is whatever you want it to be if you already look different than everyone around you.

Most English vocabulary can be explained using hand motions and/or a reference to Harry Potter.

Americans are not the only ones who think repeating something in a louder voice is going to magically make you understand what they're saying.

Adding ice to coffee somehow makes it more expensive.

Karaoke and soju make us all equals.

Construction can be done overnight if you only hire men over 50.

Not all well-being food is actually good for you.

You do not need to use correct English grammar when making a t-shirt, advertisement, or government document.

'Nightclub' and 'Department Store' are universal words while 'hospital' is not.

Kids, en masse, can learn American History and remember it, just not necessarily American kids.

It must really suck sometimes to be a Russian woman.

There is no limit to the number of pictures a Korean girl can take of herself. No limit.

I have a big head and big feet but it's OK because I'm tall, white, and have big eyes.

Shrimp have heads.

Getting a Queen and three in Texas hold'em is called a 'gay waiter'.

A Korean child is more helpful than any trained cell phone technician.

The word 'dong' is universally funny.

Korean men will eat just about anything if you tell them it will help their stamina.

I am not smarter than a fifth grader.

The ridiculous idea of consuming American beef is more important that the goings on of North Korea's nuclear arms program.

There is something inside that dies between elementary school and middle school, unless you start talking about boy bands.

The capital of Canada is Ottawa.

Even after three years, watching people spit is still really gross.

Westerners may go to great lengths to get a tan, but Koreans will go even farther to be white.

Kids can share with one another, every day, with every kid in class.

There's a whole country where Starbucks, Costco, and Outback Steakhouse are the classiest places in town.

K-pop survives on choreographed dances and guys that look like girls.

Everyone should use scissors to cut their meat, it's just simpler.

Giving children perms is wrong and just the most adorable thing ever.

Beds are an unnecessary luxury.

If an ajuma thinks you're pregnant on the subway, just go with it. It's the only way to get a seat sometimes.

Always carry tissues or 200 won.

Kids have the most finely tuned sense of what is fair.

While I'm sure there are many more things I have learned, I have to get up in the morning and learn some more for 13 hours. Peace go (or stay) with you. Annyeong!

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Introducing/Convincing Myself

I spent the entire way home from work tonight thinking of things to say. Quotes passed through my head, both from students and famous people. There are so many things I can say!! Why haven't I started this before now?!? I walked through my door, stuck some laundry in, changed out of my frumpy teacher clothes, and sat down in my fake-leather chair. And then I started to set up my brand new Blogger blog and remembered why: "What is the title of your blog?", "Would you like to import an existing Blogger blog using our import blog tool?", "Did you really think you would understand any of this or that anyone would be interested in what you had to say?" But despite my self-doubt, I sit here and I blog; whatever that means.

I decided that for my first blogging adventure I would do something that may get me to blog again. While introducing myself to the void that is the Internet, I will try to convince the Internet people (mainly myself) why I should put my thoughts, ideas, and experiences out there for all to see. Don't skip to the end; I'll give you a hint. I'm doing it for me.

The title of my blog (which I finally chose myself after trying to wimp out and have my sister choose for me) is actually a little misleading. I am not a SWF looking for a good time in the personals. In fact, based on how I know I write, I REALLY hope I don't get a date out of this. But I thought it gave a decent introduction to me. My name is Laura and I live in Busan, South Korea. My Western age is 25, my Korean age is 26 but my birthday is so close to the beginning of the year that I would have gone to school with the rest of the students who are now 27. So here I am: Laura, Busan, 25-27.

Now, if I actually get around to putting a picture of myself up on here, you may notice that I'm not Korean. Or if you were reading this and were amazed by the English level of someone living in Korea, don't give up hope yet, I'm working on their English. I have been teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in Busan for about two and a half years. (Why? That's a whole other blog post...) I am really from Indiana, USA and graduated from Purdue University. Now, I teach elementary and middle school Korean students from a whole variety of English levels. I live close to the beach, use public transportation, have both foreign and korean friends, and (now) have a nice apartment. I love my job. Some people tell me I shouldn't, but I do. But like I said, that's a whole other bog post.

Ok, enough of the simple introduction crap. I need to starting arguing with myself now or I may go to bed and all this could be an unrealized whim! Well, Madam Internet the interviewer, I believe I will be an excellent addition to your team of bloggers for many reasons. I am a very experienced writer. I was a writing composition tutor for my university's writing lab for almost three years and I enjoyed helping budding freshman write their physics lab reports and English 100 essays on which family member they admired the most. I teach Writing TOEFL prep here in Korea where I teach middle schools how to construct nearly mathematically rigid five-paragraph essays about the same few dozen topics that may appear on a standardized test. No, no...there's some creativity. I drew the line when my company suggested that I get the students to memorize entire essays. Uh, yeah, I teach a higher level class as well. It's called Master's Writing. No, unfortunately I don't have a Master's degree. But I teach them to be creative and we read essays by great American authors! My own writing experience??? You mean outside of University?? That's what the blogging is for, right? (Yikes, I'm really glad I already have a job.)

As it may suggest above, it has occured to me that I would like to be a writer. You know, like the people who get paid for it. Apparently, though, some people start writing without the money and then they get better and they find jobs later. I'm already 25-27 and I'm just catching onto this. Am I too late?!? My doubt (head) says yes but my gut (actual midsection that wants to sit around with the computer instead of going to the gym) says that this is the hobby for the future (paid) writer in me. I realize that I may also have to choose what kind of writing I want to be paid for, but I'll get there if I actually ever leave South Korea.

All this aside...if I never live up the title of true blogger or if I decide to take up pearl diving instead of writing or myself, sister and mother are the only ones to ever read my posts, if nothing else comes from this directionless least it'll be free therapy. I work with children and many people with whom I don't share a first language; it has been a great feat for me to learn to order pizza over the phone. It should be self-explanatory WHY I need minor therapy. HOW blogging gives me therapy is by letting me vent. Great citizens of the Internet void, lend me your ear to chew!! I think faster and process better when I'm talking to someone. You don't even have to talk back. In fact, I'm not even sure if they have that feature on here or how it would work. Um, doctor, help....?!?

So, really, I'm doing this for me. I'd like to think that I am imparting some great wisdom or insight on the people of the internet who read this (Hi Mom!), but I am wise enough to know better. Plus, when I admit that I'm doing something for selfish reasons it makes me feel less selfish about it.

Ahhh, I feel better, thanks.

Blogger out.