Monday, December 26, 2011

Finding joy this Christmas

I have to admit that I prepared for this to be a difficult Christmas. Obviously after spending 4 Christmases apart from Carlos, I had to be excited to finally spend our FIRST Christmas as a married couple and our first Christmas as a family of three. Obviously those things were a big deal but as Christmas approached, they kept getting overshadowed by sadness of all that we'd be missing.

See, I am from a large, lively, mostly Italian-American family (mom's side), virtually all of which lives in Chicago, and except for one year with my Guatemalan family in New York, I have never in my 29 years spent a Christmas without them!! This means that Christmas has always involved multiple family events, piles of Italian beef, Italian sausage, mostaccioli, multiple pies, multiple Christmas trees, Christmas movies playing loudly on TVs all over the house, louder relatives having a good time, AND real cannoli to top it all off. Then let's add the fact that Carlos is from a Mexican family which causes Christmas to involve the following: at least 4 varieties of homemade tamales, homemade buñuelos (fried dough with sugar!), homemade ponche (think wassail or something, but also different), tons of family, loud music, dancing, and then at the end, Captain Morgan IN the ponche while dancing to the loud music with all the family. I know all this because our last year together in Chicago, we actually joined forces and attended ALL family parties, both his and mine, which was a super rigorous schedule that had us criss-crossing the Chicago metro region. We loved every moment.

OK, now that I've established that precedent, we'll review which of the above elements were present this our first Christmas in Korea: Um. None. OK maybe a little dancing, but that was just me and Carlos being silly and possibly scaring Lucas. There was no Italian food, there were no pies, there was one tiny Christmas tree that cost 3,000 won (maybe $2.50 or so) at Daiso, we never once turned on the TV, no relatives, no tamales, no buñuelos (although this was totally dumb, we absolutely could have made them and I definitely know how, we just forgot), no ponche (we're aiming to make a weak imitation for New Years), and no loud music (I kept being paranoid that I would bother the neighbors as I played Sinatra while cooking). 

And yet, this was a great Christmas. It was quiet, it was mellow, it was peaceful. Some things were difficult: we really struggled to invent our own traditions and navigate the challenge of celebrating Lucas' birthday on the 23rd without letting Christmas take over, maybe that will improve next year.  We had some obvious planning fails - we were going to attempt tamales but forgot to order enough corn masa from so those have to wait until New Years as well, possibly the Lunar New Year if the shipment takes too long. But overall, we were able to find joy in simplicity this Christmas. We didn't wrap presents - they stayed in their boxes from, and I just plopped bows on top of everything. We realized a tiny tree has its benefits - right around the time we fatigued from decorating, it was done! We were spontaneous ("Hey, let's make cinnamon rolls from scratch! OK!").  We randomly trimmed Lucas' hair - after months of refusing to get within 10 feet of a pair of scissors, he suddenly just gave in. We had time to just relax because there were absolutely no events to go to and nobody to celebrate with. We got the chance to Skype with our families, and opened gifts on Christmas Eve alongside my immediate family in Chicago. We were very blessed - they used GMarket to buy and send birthday and Christmas gifts to our house, it was awesome.

Not necessarily the way I would have chosen to celebrate Christmas, but it was meaningful nonetheless. Starting back at Thanksgiving time, I decided that we have to consciously choose to be joyful during these times of celebration and togetherness. It's very easy to feel the sadness over those who are missing, things that have changed, traditions that have fallen apart. But these holidays are not supposed to be about sadness, and especially once you have kids, it becomes clear how important it is to turn it around and find ways to make the festivities about rejoicing with what we have, finding the joy in the smaller things, and focusing on traditions (or creating new ones) that will make these holidays our own in our new circumstances. I think I started learning this as I began to cope with major holidays and events without Carlos, from our son's birth, to Christmas/New Years, to birthdays and anniversaries, to other people's weddings, and so on. Eventually I realized I had to stop making it about me and my sorrow, and start making it about enjoying the little time we have on Earth. So we tried our best this year and I'd say we succeeded.

Here are some images!

Skyping with my parents (who were up at 5:30am Chicago time) for Lucas' birthday. This cake and Bumblebee from Transformers were the only things Lucas requested.

Birthday Boy

The cake: from Paris Baguette. Strawberry as requested by Lucas.
The chocolate heart says "Sarang Haeyo", which means "I Love You".
Convenient, since this was a Christmas cake and we just removed the wreath and "Merry Christmas" decorations. ;)

Lucas and his birthday gifts: the much-anticipated Bumblebee, a firetruck puzzle from Daiso, and 타요 the Bus pillow (he does not watch this show but thought it was awesome anyway).

Here is a video of us singing, 3 people in Korea and 2 in Chicago:

Shopping at E-Mart. Lucas thought this display was the greatest thing ever. Obviously one of our biggest Christmas fails was not taking the time to go see some proper lights/Christmas displays in Seoul.

Our stockings, handmade by one of the aforementioned relatives. These were literally the first things I put in the suitcase when it was time to pack for Korea.

Christmas at home, courtesy of Daiso. Itty bitty tree: ₩3,000.  Ornaments: ₩2,000. Motorized train because little boy believes that no Christmas tree is complete without a train underneath: ₩3,000. Bows on presents: ₩2,000. Magic of Christmas in child's eyes: priceless.

Aftermath of Christmas. Lucas enjoys his gifts, including a Pororo car, an RC bulldozer, lots of play dough, and an imitation LEGO firefighter vehicle from Daiso. He was so caught up with this stuff that he didn't realize there was another box containing Optimus Prime in the bottom of his stocking, so we just let it be. We'll see when he notices. Here, he's enjoying one of our homemade cinnamon rolls.

Funny video of Lucas learning to operate the RC Bulldozer

So to everyone reading, please allow me to repeat the message I've been conveying to friends on Facebook:

I'm wishing that you will find some peace and joy this Christmas. Whether you're apart from your spouse, you're in a new country away from all your loved ones, your little ones are celebrating elsewhere (even another country), you've recently lost someone dear, or you're blessed to have all your loved ones together this year, I hope you'll be able to focus on the miracle of hope for the future that can bring us joy. I find peace knowing that Jesus' birth is the source of my hope, even if his birth in no way historically coincided with this commercialized, contrived winter holiday, but I digress... :) Merry Christmas, everyone!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011 (감사합니다!)

While being away from the rest of the family and the comforting traditions on Thanksgiving can be so depressing, there are some benefits. One big one is that we can be totally flexible with how we celebrate and what traditions we carry on/invent.

So, our original Thanksgiving Day plan was to make our first trip to Costco for some essentials, and then cook dinner and have our own little Thanksgiving here in Korea. But the moment we set foot in Costco, we knew it was going to be no small trip. We ended up spending hours in there, and since Lucas was doing fine relaxing in the cart with an iPad, we decided to just skip the plans for dinner and instead do our Thanksgiving Dinner on Friday. Thus, our Thanksgiving meal was actually McDonald's, another rare delicacy from home. 

This means we were able to stock up on so many awesome and exciting things: cheese, sausage, AVOCADOES!, oatmeal, plus our Thanksgiving dessert. Costco is fun because all of the expats wander the store with these dazed looks, wide-eyed with huge grins on their faces, as if we'd all set foot into some sort of wonderful dream world. Trappings of home! Things we thought we might not taste again for another year or maybe more! Being in Korea is awesome, eating Korean food is great, but sometimes you just long for a little piece of home, and Costco is where you find it.

Anyway, tonight we will do our traditional Thanksgiving dinner and give thanks. We'll be roasting a chicken in our convection oven, baking some broccoli with parmesan, garlic, and olive oil (thank you, Dorothea, for the greatest broccoli recipe in history), doing some classic mashed potatoes, and then baking our Costco apple pie! Can't go overboard because it's just three of us and our fridge is not that big, but we will definitely be having a lovely Thanksgiving and eating well.

Here's the video message we sent to my family in Chicago. Due to the time difference, we were unable to Skype, so instead we made this video for them, in which we reported on the bounty we were fortunate to be able to afford at Costco (yes, our bank account is bruised today but our taste buds and tummies will thank us).

We wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving and hope you were able to celebrate and find a chance to be grateful.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Video Post - our first 3 months in Korea

Here is about 3 months' worth of video footage and possibly some previously unseen photos related to our new life in Korea. I finally strung them all together thanks to the wonders of iMovie. It's a bit on the long side, but hopefully it will give you a bit more of a taste of our life here. Everything here was shot either on an iPod, an iPad, or MacBook iSight camera (and a few random LG dumbphone camera shots, too).  So it’s pretty unprofessional, but I think it tells the story pretty decently. :) Glad we’ve finally reached this stop on our journey.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Bringing up Baby/ Korea

Lucas, excited about some live fish in front of a restaurant.
No need to visit an aquarium when you live in Korea. 
Raising a preschooler in Korea with two foreign parents. Not a lot about this online. There are tons of blogs and online resources out there about living in Korea as a foreigner. There are quite a few on raising kids in Korea, too, but they seem to relate to families where at least one parent is Korean. Obviously there are families here in Korea where both parents are foreigners (we've spotted a couple), but they just don't seem to be writing on blogs or anything. Maybe because parenting a foreign child in Korea means you JUST DON'T HAVE TIME!!!

So, until someone points us to some resources, here is our in-progress guide.

Things You Should Know About Raising a Young Child in Korea

(when neither parent is Korean)


Let's begin with the fact that, unless you've been granted immigrant or some very long-term status in Korea, getting a car is basically out of the question. This is the first vital way in which those one-Korean-parent families differ from ours. So first of all, your grocery runs and errands are done on foot with the subway and bus (or sometimes taxi) as your only means of transportation. For those who are used to this, it may not be as difficult. But for someone who had car access and no walkable stores both in the US and Mexico, it requires a whole paradigm shift. You can only purchase as much as you can carry while still having the ability to grab your preschooler out of the way of a speeding moto on the sidewalk, or out of his trajectory towards the boxes of live silkworms on the sidewalk near the street market. This requires more strategic thinking, shorter shopping runs, and a lot more hair-pulling.
No, Lucas, we're not supposed to play with those.
Now here, help me carry this bottle of red cooking wine. 
Squeezing in here with a kid and large canvas bag full of groceries = madness.
In the US, it seems the budget baby-supply business is booming, and you can always find bargains on everything from diapers to stroller systems, even brand-new. Here in Korea, like in Mexico, those deals don't seem to exist, at least not as readily as they do back home. In Mexico we had the mercadito, street market, where people often sold secondhand stuff for a little bit cheaper, and you could often find baby gear for better prices. Here, the street markets near our house only sell food, so we're left to find clothes and gear at the superstores like HomePlus and SaveZone, which do NOT have the greatest prices for these things. As I mentioned in a previous post, this was the biggest contributing factor to our decision to potty-train Lucas soon after we arrived. Even diaper prices are shocking when you're used to a $20 store-brand box from Target that can last an entire month.
Korean Huggies: 60 diapers for nearly $30 US.
AmazonMom members might pass out when they read this.

Lots of foreign teachers get together at night in places around Seoul. My recruiter who matched me with this job hosted an event where teachers came from all around the surrounding province. We've hardly had a chance to take part in any of these get-togethers because when your child is having a meltdown in the apartment at 5:30pm, it seems like a suicide mission to attempt an event an hour away by subway that will likely last until 10pm. Carlos has gotten a chance to go out and have dinner/watch soccer matches with some of his teammates from his soccer team, but Lucas is just not ready for that, and Itaewon (a popular sector of the city for foreigners) is not reliably family-friendly after dark. Being a parent here means missing out on a lot of the events that other foreigners are enjoying.
Itaewon Freedom doesn't mean the same thing when you have a preschooler in tow.

The Curiosity!
While this can also be a major plus (see the Benefits section below), it can be a challenge for North Americans who are unaccustomed to it. You see, at least here in the Seoul metro region, Koreans are used to seeing foreigners out and about. But what they're NOT used to seeing is small foreign children out and about. Our little non-Korean preschooler is a tiny celebrity the moment he hits the street. Women and men, young and old, seem to come out of nowhere and swoop him up, hug him, kiss him, and/or gush about him in rapid Korean. I have discovered that Korean ladies who have reached grandma age all seem to have a supply of candy in their purses, and as soon as they see Lucas, they start offering it to him. If I try to politely decline (like after this scenario has played out several times in the day already), they look at me like I am one horrible, mean person. So I've learned to just accept it, and I'm sure Lucas has no complaints. What can be troubling to a Westerner is the proximity. In the US at least, infants and small kids tend to be protected from strangers and germs, and most US moms would be slightly horrified to have strange ladies grabbing their babies in public.
Just another day out with Lucas.
Conveniently 사탕,
satang or candy, was his first Korean word.

The Public Scrutiny
Meanwhile, any time we happen to experience a public parenting fail (example: Lucas decides to throw a toddler fit and lay down in the middle of a sidewalk because we're not stopping at Paris Baguette Cafe), there must be, BY LAW, an older Korean lady (A.K.A.아줌마, Ajumma) walking by to frown at us disapprovingly and perhaps even yell a few comments in Korean. Or he sits on the sidewalk, whining, because he doesn't want to walk anymore, and he doesn't appreciate our efforts to build walking endurance. Inevitably someone will come by and try to pick him up, as if maybe it just hadn't occurred to us that this is what he wants. In general, I feel like we're parenting in public and more subject to everyone else's analysis of our parenting skills, all the time. In the US, people may privately think critically about other people's parenting, and perhaps even talk about it behind their backs, but here they seem much more free to speak up about it to us (too bad we don't understand Korean yet) and even intervene. Although I don't generally care what other people think of my parenting practices, I do hate to be the obnoxious foreigner.
Ajummas, perched and ready to point out the foreigners' parenting failures


Other Kids
Having a preschooler means regular trips to the playground, where we have a chance to meet the most interesting little kids. Right on our own apartment complex playground, we've met some awesome little preschool and elementary kids, several of whom can shame my middle-schoolers with their conversational English. We're usually found right away by a little girl who is maybe 8 and her brother who I'd say is 5. They like to play with Lucas. The other day we passed them on the street as them got dropped off by the van from their Taekwondo school. The little girl waved and yelled, "Hi, Mimi!" Her brother then waved to Lucas and yelled, "Hi, Paco!" So we're all struggling with names a little bit....

Then there's a Kindergartener whose English blew me away. I asked her if she used to live in another country. She gave me a list, including Texas, Malaysia, and Singapore. Then she went and got her mom who explained the whole fascinating backstory. Seongnam has a more affluent, ritzy side full of families who travel and have lived in other countries. This is NOT that side, so it's always unusual to meet people here with experience outside Korea.

Another boy gets visibly frustrated with my inability to understand Korean, so he uses a stick in the sand to scratch out words in Korean, and then I use Google Translate to get an idea of what he's trying to communicate and perhaps find a response.

The Sidewalks 
This is one little aspect that I love. On most major sidewalks, and inside the transfer halls of most subway stations, these raised yellow grooves and dots are built right into the pavement. They're designed for the visually-impaired. The grooved lines continue for the full length of the sidewalk until an obstruction or intersection arrives, at which point you get a band of dots to signal caution. What non-parents probably don't realize is that this is an awesome way to teach a child to walk around a bit more independently. Although we hold Lucas' hand if it's crowded or there's anything dangerous, we can otherwise tell him to "just go straight on the yellow lines" and he happily walks until he comes to a dotted area, at which point he waits for us to proceed with him.
Photo from

People Approve of Harnesses!
When we go somewhere especially crowded, like the night we went to an international soccer match, we like to put on the monkey harness, just for a bit more peace of mind that he can't suddenly dart into a crowd and get lost. The first time we used it, I was concerned that people around us might disapprove that we've basically got our child on a leash (once again, obnoxious foreigner issues). But the moment we hit the street, people were gushing over it, giggling about how cute, poking their friends while pointing and smiling. Want to make your cute foreign kid even more of a novelty? Strap a monkey-shaped harness on their back.
Lucas calls him "Jack"

The Curiosity!
This can have its benefits, too. Where many foreigners seem to experience kind of a cold indifference from strangers on the street in Korea, we seem to get almost too much attention. Having a child with us means people are more comfortable to come up and start talking to us through their strained English conversation skills. They want to know where we're from, how old is Lucas, do we like Kimchi, what are we doing here. In addition, the freebies that come our way are astounding. Here's an example:
  • Pass the LG telecom service store. Outside is a display case which for reasons I can't explain, is full of little toy cars and planes along with promotional material about LG service. When the guy behind the display case sees Lucas, he smiles, reaches in and gives him one of the toy garbage trucks, says, "Do you like? Yes? Goodbye!"
  • Have a few encounters on the street with various passers-by smiling and exclaiming "Baby is very cute-ee!" from those who speak English,  or a barrage of other phrases in Korean, some of which we're beginning to recognize and understand. Perhaps another gift of candy.
  • Enter the mega-supermarket. Some ladies are selling these crisped rice cakes and other treats at the entrance. Upon seeing Lucas, they swarm him and we walk away with a bagful of treats they gave him.
  • Do our shopping as the fellow shoppers turn to look at us, stop, and smile to hear Lucas talking to us in English. Several say hello to us.
  • Stop at Baskin Robbins to treat Lucas for a successful shopping trip. The man working there adores Lucas and tries to spark up conversation with us in English, even as other customers wait to be served. We end up leaving with a free gift of a Baskin Robbins Lock&Lock pint container. Or another time, it was an entire gallon tub ("To keep his toys!" the man told us).  
  • Head to Lotteria (like McDonald's) for a quick meal. The girls behind the counter gush over Lucas and hand him a kid's meal toy even though he's just sharing adult menu items with us.
  • Get on the bus. It's crowded but right away, several ajummas offer their seats so that I can sit down with Lucas. This is the demographic most likely to fight to the death for those seats, but enter a mom with a kid, and suddenly everything changes.

These are all events that I suspect most foreigners without kids don't get to experience. Having Lucas with us really opens up an interesting world here.

Those are some observations of parenting in Korea that have formed over our first two months here. Anyone who has been there/done that, we'd appreciate your perspective!

Thursday, October 06, 2011

One month in Korea!

(A.K.A. the post where I will make heavy use of the past perfect tense)

It's been a month already! Sadly, we still don't have internet at home, so this has limited my online posting, but soon (hopefully this week) that will be set up. Here are some of the things that have happened in our first month in Korea:

We think we found a church. It was recommended by multiple friends. Not too far from home, but still takes about an hour to get there via subway. Hoping that we'll settle in and get connected there. By the way, churches are truly everywhere here. They almost all have a lit neon cross on top, so at night, when we look out our back window, we see lots of these dotting the streets between our apartment and the main boulevard.

flickr photo courtesy of taylorsloan
Carlos found a soccer team. He looked online, found a great team, and has been playing with them for a few weeks. It's an expat league, so most of the players are from the US, the UK, Spain, and Latin America, with a few Latin Americans of Korean descent. The guys communicate through a wild mix of English, Spanish, and Korean. The wives/girlfriends are really interesting people, and it's nice to get a chance to just hang out and freely speak English and Spanish.
Attempted action shot at Carlos' game in Incheon

As a result of said soccer team's matches, we have visited far-flung places from Incheon (which is actually a whole neighboring city of Seoul) and the far north-east corner of Seoul. We've also been to the western end of Seoul to visit the Seoul immigration office (twice). I've been to Suwon, another large neighbor city, for a professional development/training. We've explored Bundang, the more ritzy end of our city. We've been to Yongin, which is a smaller city outside Seongnam. However, we have yet to set foot in Itaewon or Hongdae, which are the major hubs for foreigners here, and which are situated right in the center of Seoul. It will inevitably happen soon, though, as homesickness starts to get the best of us.

We found a Mexican restaurant and it is really good (honest!). It's called Taco Rico and it's in Gangnam, another busy and foreigner-ized part of Seoul. The chef is from Tijuana and the food is for real. We've stopped there twice now, and would gladly do it more often if it were easier to get to. Although Korean food is great, we definitely miss the variety found in American and Mexican diets. Imported food products are expensive here, and a bit hard to find, so we're learning to Korean-ize a lot of our favorite dishes, but it's nice to get a taste of the outside world every now and then!
photo of awesome Taco Rico food from
We've visited Caribbean Bay (at Everland), which is the largest water park in South Korea. The recruiter who connected me to this job, and who I worked with extensively over the past year, was really eager to get our families together because her son is the same age as Lucas. So we met up at Caribbean Bay during a major holiday weekday . The boys were mostly unimpressed that we were inside this massive feat of human engineering. Then we found a little patch of sand, and the boys played intensely for over an hour with just the sand, their hands, and their small tubes of sunscreen while the adults took turns going into the fake tidal wave and getting pummeled by 8-ft walls of water. It was a great day.
Our first photo together in Korea
Seconds later, when Lucas was awake

We potty trained Lucas. No joke. Most people try to avoid having these things coincide with major life events (such as an international move). But one trip to the superstore for diapers and I could not deal with the price, nearly double what I'm used to paying in the US. So that was the last straw and long story short, Lucas doesn't use diapers anymore. I'm pretty amazed because I expected a much bigger battle. I'll admit that we went straight for candy bribery the first few days (we were that desperate, folks), and then eased that into a sticker chart which he exchanged for a new toy when filled. Now he's weaned from any external incentives and I'm rejoicing that we're free of diapers. I consider this a major accomplishment.

We've seen Avatar on TV. At least 4 times. One fortunate difference between network TV in Korea vs. Mexico is that here in Korea, they don't dub the movies they put on TV, they just subtitle them. Which means we've enjoyed the chance to catch up on a selection of the US movies we missed seeing in the 3+ years we lived apart/had a baby. However, when they debut a new movie on the TV networks, they play it constantly for at least a week. Also, they really seem to love Bruce Willis, Jason Statham, and Mark Wahlberg here. Not that I complain, but I think I'm starting to overdose on action thrillers.

I have become a middle school teacher. Also, all my experience and training with teaching ESL is being challenged. In the US, my students' English knowledge was much more likely to be influenced by friends, TV, and the everyday world, so my job was to help them acquire the academic language they needed for school. But here in Korea, virtually all of the English the kids know comes from school, so it's much more contrived, much more mechanical, and it's a whole new ballgame. They're already getting phonics, grammar, and reading instruction in English from their Korean teachers, so my job is basically to get them talking in English and make it fun. This is way harder than it initially sounds, especially when class sizes are in the low 40s and levels sometimes span all across the board. I have 23 classes, which translates to over 900 students, plus 3 hours of after-school English Conversation class every week. But the job itself is so much less stressful than any teaching job I had in the US, and I suspect my job is way less stressful than that of my Korean co-workers. I work with great people, by the way, who go out of their way to help, translate, explain, update, and most of all, communicate with me. Here are some photos from school, courtesy of the English teacher who preceded me because I've been terrible at taking photos thus far...

The classroom - that is a giant interactive TV screen in the front of the classroom.
For someone who never even worked with a SmartBoard in the US, this is a huge adjustment!

More of the classroom.
These pictures don't really convey the hugeness of the room, and there's a whole different side that isn't pictured.

The soccer field/track.
Carlos comes here after I get back from work so he can run and kick the ball around. Also, you can get a glimpse of the mountainous landscape up here.

So that's about it for now. Next time, hopefully we'll have some photos of our apartment.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Mission Accomplished

The Guerra family has finally arrived. We have lost all sense of time, we are slightly dazed, confused, and barely have any Korean won in our possession at the moment, but we are together. To everyone who prayed at different stages of this journey, THANK YOU!  I believe it's only by the grace of God that we made it to this point.

The trip
Lucas and I did pretty well on our 14-hour direct flight from Chicago to Seoul. All I can say is Korean Air is fantastic. The food, the service, and the amenities were all top-notch for economy-class seats. On my personal media player, I managed to watch three movies (Thor, Fast Five, and most of Adjustment Bureau). This is also basically the number of non-children's releases I've seen since Lucas was born, so that was exciting. Lucas slept for most of the flight and I got some sleep as well. Lucas was awesome on the plane, played happily in his seat, ate his snacks in between meals, and made me proud. The harder part was after arrival at the airport in Seoul (4:00am local time). We breezed through immigration and customs and then had to chill with the luggage for about an hour and a half until the luggage storage could open and I could store our 4 suitcases. After that I was able to walk around with Lucas and we explored the entirety of Seoul Incheon airport. They have some lovely gardens, and we enjoyed that, but after several hours, we were maxxed out. Those were some difficult final hours waiting for Carlos as my patience and energy wore thin and Lucas' crankiness level grew. 8 total hours for me and Lucas in the airport. It was an amazing relief to finally see Carlos emerge from the arrival hall doors. He says his 30-hr travel day went just as expected, no complications, and he met some interesting people on his flights. Fortunately for us, all of his luggage miraculously survived the trek from Mexico City to Tijuana to Tokyo to Seoul. Unfortunately for some of his flight-mates, theirs didn't. Again, we appreciate the prayers on that front so thank you!

What an exhausting blur that was. Our hired van-taxi driver was waiting for Carlos' flight to land. The moment I had greeted Carlos, he whisked us out the door to the van and we spent a surreal 1.5-hr ride just enjoying being together for the first time in a  almost exactly a year. Carlos gave Lucas some lovely origami creations that were made for Lucas by a little girl on the Tijuana-Tokyo flight. Lucas plalyed happily and then slept for the rest of the ride. We were delivered to our apartment, which is on the 5th floor with no elevator, but home nonetheless. A hired cleaning lady was in the process of deep-cleaning it when we arrived, and Lucas pleaded to go down to the playground in front of our apartment building, so he happily went there with Carlos while I stayed at the apartment waiting for my Korean co-teachers to arrive and get me oriented. They showed up soon after that and told us that the cleaning was going to require several more hours, so they suggested that we all head over to the air-conditioned school. We were super exhausted and not thinking clearly, so we went ahead with this idea even though we hadn't even had a chance to open our suitcases and wash up or anything.

Of course, those familiar with how things work in Korean schools will know what comes next. There we are, grubby and sweaty, all of us 48+ hours since our last shower and about as long since our last period of decent sleep. And suddenly we're being introduced to my principal, assistant principal, and a host of other teachers and administrators.

But it gets better. After 2 hours touring the school and meeting people, and a quick stop at the nearest store to get some food staples, I was informed that in the eventing would be a special dinner for all the teachers, to honor both the exiting teachers and the new ones. We were all invited. We were slightly taken aback due to our level of exhaustion, but OK, we thought. Let's just get showered, changed, and washed up and we'll go. Then Carlos spoke through with some sanity and said probably he and Lucas should stay home because Lucas was starting to run out of steam. Which was an excellent point. So I figured I'd shower quickly and go. Then they told me there was no time, I had to leave IMMEDIATELY. Shocked, I quickly informed Lucas that I would be leaving for awhile and he'd be staying with Daddy, I dug out a diaper and pajamas, and told Carlos, "good luck". And that, my friends is how I went to this special dinner wearing the same clothing I had been wearing since I left Chicago on Monday night.

As I walked away from the apartment, I heard Lucas crying and I started regretting my decision, but I also knew Carlos had been doing really well with him and the little guy was probably just tired. I was directed to the principal's car, and off we went to some (seemingly far-off) locale for the dinner, which was delicious, huge, and full of all sorts of Korean staples. I loved all of it and only wished that Carlos and Lucas could be enjoying this instead of the basic noodles we had purchased at the store earlier.

Once again, those of you who have done the Korea teaching thing can probably predict the next step, which is that once we had all eaten, I was asked to stand up and introduce myself to the entire staff.  I actually was mentally prepared for this but when the time came, I was so beyond tired that I could hardly eke out a polite greeting, but hopefully they understood. Everyone kept saying I looked tired. You think?

The Apartment
I arrived back at our new home after dark. I found Lucas and Carlos totally passed out on the bed. Lucas was clean, diapered, and was clutching the new toys Carlos had brought for him (Spiderman, Batman, two Ironmen, and a fully-functional Batmobile!). Carlos woke up and said the cleaning lady was stayed and cleaned for a very long time, and that he and Lucas actually fell asleep before she had even left. He also eased my conscience by letting me know that Lucas only cried through his bath and then was fine until he fell asleep.

I finally got to explore the apartment at this time. We'll post pictures later. It's old, but perfect for our family. We have a kitchen featuring all the essentials including microwave, toaster oven, new fridge, stove, rice cooker, and lots of utensils. We have a small room that works as a cleaning supply closet and contains our washing machine (still need someone to explain how to use it, everything is in Korean). We have a large bedroom with a Queen-size bed, desk, TV, fan, and our favorite: air conditioner! There's a second bedroom that includes an armoire for our clothes, some shelving, ironing board and lots of space for Lucas to play. Then we also have a back patio totally screened-in that has a lot of racks for us to hang our clothes to dry. The neighborhood is full of apartment buildings, lots of kids, but it's partway up a mountain and very quiet. We have small general stores right on our street, and the bus that gets us to the subway into Seoul and everything else runs right along our street. It is home and we all like it.

We all woke up at 4:30 am. If anyone knows the members of my family, this is astounding. Utterly amazing. We lay in bed for about 15 minutes trying to figure out what to do, and then we all just got up and had breakfast and started our day. Carlos and I saw the sunrise. I'm pretty sure the only time we've ever seen a sunrise together, it was because we were up too late. So this was a morning for the record books. Let's pray jet lag works in our favor, we can adjust a few hours forward and then suddenly all be morning people. Whoa.

And this morning I'm at work as of 8:30 am. I'm currently enjoying my first "free period" and I don't have to actually teach until Monday. I'll be learning the ropes and getting things ready today.

Also during the day the English teacher who I am replacing will hopefully be meeting up with Carlos and Lucas to show them around and help Carlos exchange a load of dollars into won, plus possibly find a place where we can use our US debit cards until we have Korean bank accounts. He speaks Korean pretty well, so it will be helpful for Carlos to have a navigator today while we get set up.

And that is that for now. We are just so surreally happy to be all together in a country where we all have legal status to reside! It's incredible.

So thanks again for your prayers, and we look forward to all the great stories we'll have to tell.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Here we go...

We leave for Korea at midnight. I've carefully arranged mine and Lucas' lives into 2 large and 2 medium suitcases and that should last us the whole year.

Now all we need is prayer. For those of you willing to stand in the gap for us, here are some of the biggest concerns:

Health. Particularly Lucas who seems to have come down with a cold. Not fun for flying, so pray it goes away fast.

Smooth travel. Especially for Carlos who has two connections and 30 hours total travel time on his journey from Mexico to Korea.

Safety for our belongings. I know they're just earthly possessions and they don't matter, but life without our stuff would be so much more difficult. Carlos' airline in particular is notorious for losing luggage. Pray it all gets to Korea with us.

Sanity. For all of us. Carlos has a nearly 10-hour layover after the first leg of his trip, in a tiny airport where there's hardly anything to do. I will be arriving to Seoul a full 7 hours ahead of him and will need to entertain myself and Lucas inside the airport until Carlos arrives and our transportation comes to get us. Not to mention the bit where I fly across the Pacific for 14 hours with a preschooler.

Energy. After all this traveling, we will have a night to sleep/deal with jet lag and then first thing the next morning our new life begins, with me heading to school and Carlos caring for Lucas for the first time ever.

Wisdom. For me and Carlos. Not only will we be encountering brand-new challenges in our new roles as foreign English Teacher (me) and teacher to a preschooler (Carlos), but we'll also be learning the ropes all over again as a married couple. We have not lived together for about 3 years. The challenges of resuming a normal married life are going to be immense.

Community. We're fortunate that we'll have each other, but that doesn't mean we're not going to get lonely. Pray that we can find a good church and meaningful activities where we can socialize and build strong friendships. Including Lucas. Yesterday he was engaged in a lengthy conversation with a potato he found in the pantry. I kid you not.

OK, the next update should happen from Korea! Can't wait...

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

We are moving to South Korea

We've been kinda cryptic about our upcoming plans, but now that everything's official, it's time to announce it clearly. Yes, we are moving to South Korea. I've been hired through the Korean government to teach English at a public middle school in Seongnam, which is a city of about 1 million people (9th largest in the republic), just a 45-minute trip from Seoul, roughly. Carlos will stay home with Lucas and teach him all the important stuff in life. We will be together.

The position includes a furnished one-bedroom apartment (for those who have taught in Korea, you know that one bedroom is a big deal!), which is located about 5 minutes' walking distance from the school, and which has a park across the street.

My contract starts September 1, but I'm pretty sure we'll be heading there a bit in advance, so we'll straighten out those details soon. I'm very excited about this position because when I interviewed with the school, they were especially on board with me bringing a family, which isn't typical for these government teaching positions. I was praying a lot for the right position and this is very much an answer to those prayers.

South Korea is the plan for the years until Lucas reaches school age. At that point, hopefully the final step in our plan will be complete, but until that stage of the plan is more fully secured, it's safest to refrain from discussing it.

So, I want to thank everyone who has been praying and encouraging us as we headed towards this goal.

To my Korean-American friends who have spent time in Korea, and to all my friends who have taught English there, I especially would appreciate any advice you are willing to offer.

To everyone else, we need your prayers that all the details between here and there will work out. Visas are especially a source of stress, as Carlos and Lucas' visas are dependent on mine and I'm still not confident whether we'll all be able to enter Korea together as residents. So please pray that the paperwork all goes smoothly and we don't have to spend too much time, if any, apart. Also pray for peace. Although we've been preparing for this for about a year, it's still very painful to finally give up on the dream of creating a life in the US, and saying goodbye to so many loved ones is truly heartbreaking.
So, the upcoming weeks will bring my final goodbyes to the country I love. I am truly devastated to be leaving the US this time, knowing that from now on, I will only be back to visit. But if I must leave, at least I know we will be in one truly remarkable place, and we'll be there together.

Although this is about Seoul rather than Seongnam, this is a great video for getting excited about moving to South Korea. (I love the folk anthem used in the background)

Seoul Time Lapse 2011 from Oh Choong Young on Vimeo.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

il mio panino al prosciutto e formaggio

I go 6 months without posting and now I do two posts in two days. This isn't likely to be a regular occurrence, but the holiday weekend gave me some time to ponder and write.

This weekend the New York Daily News published an article about three wonderful bloggers I've come to know well through our shared struggle in balancing immigration and international relocation for the sake of a marriage: Emily Cruz (The Real Housewife of Ciudad Juarez), Giselle Stern Hernandez (The Deportee's Wife) and Cheryl Arredondo (Us, After America).

The moment the article went online, the comments section predictably filled with the usual hate and ignorance that you see any time one of our stories is published. I became well-acquainted with this rhetoric one year ago when my family's story published in the Chicago Tribune. The best advice is to not even bother reading the comments section, and I normally follow that advice because truly, nothing healthy or productive can come of doing so. And I haven't read the comments on this weekend's article, but I'll take everyone else's word for it that this one offered an even more ridiculous spread than the usual, including the allegation that the US citizen wives of inadmissible foreigners are too pathetic to find an American guy and desperate enough to marry anything that comes their way, even a "ham sandwich".

After Emily crafted a great response to these comments, "25 Things I Love About My Ham Sandwich", Corin at Corin in Exile suggested that more of us follow Emily's lead and post about why our spouses are worth every drastic decision we've made. So here we go -- here are my reasons why Carlos is worth every day of agony, every tear, every expensive flight, and every life-altering decision:

  1. For one of our very first dates, he brought over a copy of La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful) which we watched in Italian, and through which he introduced me to the magic of Roberto Benigni movies. Later he introduced me to Johnny Stecchino, which has got to be the world's most hilarious, under-recognized film ever.

  2. For the entirety of our 4-year dating relationship, he drove 40 minutes in each direction at least once a week so we could see each other. A lesser man would have balked at the vehicle mileage resulting from this relationship.

  3. Despite the fact that I spent the majority of pregnancy in a separate country from him, he did all he could to make me comfortable when I was with him. He remembered the horrible morning sickness I experienced during my first trimester, and when I went to visit in my 4th month or so, I discovered the fridge loaded with ginger ale that he had searched far and wide to find in Monterrey.

  4. One summer, I was enjoying a fabulous internship with the Chicago Public Schools. It was only partly a teaching practicum, and mostly it involved a concerted recruiting effort to sell the awesome city of Chicago to a bunch of future teachers. While I was busy making new friends, exploring new places, and having a general good time, Carlos was working a grueling night-shift job while he saved some money to pay off his car and build the bank account that would carry us through our first year of marriage. Yet he still came to visit me and go out during his free days, even though he was visibly exhausted.

  5. He thought nothing of jumping on the Blue Line with me and heading to the Desi corridor on Devon Avenue for whatever Indian or Pakistani food struck our fancy.

  6. He joined me in developing a love for Joy Yee's, both the Chinatown and Naperville locations. And Pompei restaurant, both the Little Italy and Oakbrook Terrace locations.

  7. He proposed to me over cappuccino at Pompei in Oakbrook Terrace. He knew exactly what I would like: simple, laid back, genuine.

  8. He knows my tastes in fashion and jewelry. My engagement/wedding ring is a sapphire surrounded by tiny diamonds and it's perfect. The Princess Diana/Kate Middleton ring but after/before it was a fad.

  9. He can go to the mercadito and walk out with two pairs of dress pants, a pair of running shoes, and a still-unworn Givenchy shirt for less than $20 US. He has an impeccable sense of both style and a bargain.

  10. When I took Lucas to Mexico for the first time, Carlos did not waste a moment, and immediately strapped our son into the Baby Björn carrier to take him for a walk. During any subsequent visit, he steps right in and takes the role of Lucas' father as if there hadn't been months of international separation in between.

  11. He can jump right into a new activity or job, learn it quickly, and rapidly start to excel in it.

  12. In the later years of dating and the beginning of our marriage, Carlos endured weeks on end where we were physically in the same room but rarely had a chance to even talk due to the demanding lesson plans, grading, and class prep that my new career in teaching required. Even knowing that this could be our reality for a long time if I remained a teacher, he stayed with me!

  13. He learned how to drive on snowy, icy, icky Chicago streets, and it never bothered him.

  14. Carlos still remembers fondly some of the funny moments he spent with my extended family here in Chicago and he used to drive all the way out for endless family gatherings, even though gatherings of this frequency were not a familiar concept for him.

  15. He loves geography and can easily identify more countries, cities, and languages on the planet than I can.

  16. He mastered the English language so well that he teaches ME about a lot of its features now.

  17. Whenever we travel somewhere new, he not only can quickly pick up the daily essentials in the language, but he immediately gains a sense of colloquial terms, accents, intonation, and expressions.

  18. My nerdy side does not bother him, and he kindly joins me in watching Star Wars, Star Trek, and even Futurama. And then proceeds to join me in discussing various aspects of these films/shows.

  19. He cooks together with me. And is much more inventive than I am with flavors and ingredients.

  20. He is great with technology. He solves computer problems by scouring the internet until he finds a solution. He knows what he's talking about.

  21. He cares for his dogs in a way that most people in Mexico don't. He recognizes them as much more than a security device for the house; to him they are companions, and he is always aware of their needs and well-being.

  22. He is a patient and respectful English teacher even when his students struggle mightily and have been written off as hopeless by other teachers. He is inventive and constantly finds new ways to make the English language accessible to his students.

  23. Despite the fact that we have gone as many as 11 months without seeing each other in these challenging years after our marriage, and despite the fact that opportunities to be unfaithful present themselves all the time, he does not give up, and continues to steadfastly await our future together.

  24. He supports my dreams, even if he feels we're too old to dream. He is willing to make any changes, no matter how drastic, to accomplish them.

  25. He will move anywhere to ensure our family's ultimate happiness, even if it entails a completely foreign language and culture that we've never been exposed to before.

So in summary, I did not wind up with Carlos because he was the only guy who would go out with me/respect me/care for me/whatever. That was not even remotely the case. I wound up with Carlos because he does all that but he also fascinates me, challenges me, supports me, and expands my world. I married him because nothing could be more amazing than building a future together. It's not necessarily because he's Mexican, although that part of his heritage does have an effect on who he is. If any typical American citizen met the above description, I could have married him. But the one who fell into my world was Carlos, and I am grateful to be his wife.

Why I'm still unabashedly proud to be born in the USA

Today is a day of conflict for many families like mine. On the one hand, we're surrounded by parades, festivals, flags and all the symbolism reminding us to be proud of and celebrate our great country. On the other hand, we're weary from the daily and very undignified struggle of having our nuclear family unit split up into different countries as a result of our our own country's policies and legal values.

Our families are put through exceptionally miserable challenges due to unjust laws that were passed, after all, by legislative representatives of the American people. And more recently, various elected officials have started passing legislation that is not only questionable under the constitution, but thoroughly misguided and fundamentally based in racism and xenophobia. Finally, many news sources spread a huge amount of rhetoric that really does have its base in hate, ignorance, willful misinformation, and lies. This is the stuff that gets the most attention, because as Emily Guzman said one time, "Crazy gets attention". Unfortunately, because crazy gets attention, it gets a lot of the votes, too.

Despite the agony that my family is going through right now, I don't believe US immigration laws were made with punishing US citizen families in mind. I don't think US immigration laws were made with US citizen families in mind at all, and that is the problem. The immigration laws of 1996, the ones that have a thousands of families suffering under 5-year, 10-year, and lifetime bans, were really a hodge-podge of ideas and policies that ultimately got united under one big, messy, inconsistent, arbitrary, and unbending mass of legislation.

I think when the laws have ripped you from your country, it's easy to harbor resentment towards that country. In fact, it's probably essential to sanity and survival to see the best in your new home and recognize all the great reasons why you're there. But I disagree with the bashing of our birth country, because this blindly ignores all the amazing reasons why we're so privileged to be citizens of the country that the rest of the world is (sometimes literally) dying to get into.

I still have faith in my home country, even though I will soon be among its exiles. And I don't believe I am just being overly optimistic and naïve. Granted, my reality is set in Illinois, which detractors complain has become the most "unauthorized immigrant-friendly state". Here, people of half a dozen races and ethnic origins, including middle-class white people, can all live together happily in regular little suburban neighborhoods and gladly help each other out anytime they can (and I speak from personal experience on that). I went to a university where the Muslim students gathered to pray in the major commons area at noon while the Jewish and Catholic students held meetings nearby, and we all worked together seamlessly on projects and studies in class and often joined each other for meals during break times. I enjoyed free times watching my husband play on teams with guys who had almost no common language except broken English and soccer. I worship at church where dozens of languages are commonly spoken in the lobby and where multi-national, multi-ethnic, and multi-racial families are everywhere. I live in a country where a person can still arrive with practically nothing, and through a lot of hard work, they can not only acquire a vehicle, but even a home!

The US stands alone in its amazing range of diversity in background, culture, and experience. Few countries in this world are attempting to educate (for free) such a vast percentage of the population. The freedoms we have, while sometimes obnoxiously limited or challenged, still surpass the freedoms most people in our spouse's countries have. But above all, the potential for upward movement, even in the oppressed sectors of the US, is inspiring. And in the US, you don't have to worry greatly that achieving a comfortable middle-class lifestyle or becoming a successful business owner will cause your family to become a target from the evildoers (i.e. drug cartels) seeking financial gain through physical threats to those who are making even the slightest gains in society.

When you're forced to become a foreigner in a new country, and you see what poor opportunities exist for your own native-born spouse there, and when you take into account the struggles one must face just to become nominally successful in that country, you realize that the US is an awesome country that is in need of a serious attitude adjustment. 

I know that the US is becoming a toxic place for unauthorized immigrants. But having lived among illegal immigrants in several other developed nations around the world, I have seen that even our unauthorized immigrants are treated better than many of the legal immigrants in other countries.  I haven't spent a lot of time in other countries, but from those that I have visited, I can say without a question that the US is a much better place for an illegal immigrant than the other places I've been. In Europe, it's nearly impossible for illegal immigrants to rent or even finance anything, and their children are not privileged to birthright citizenship. In Mexico, illegal immigrants, particularly the most common ones from Central and South America, are not only despised and mocked, but incredibly exploited and abused, and recently 72 of them were found in a mass grave in northern Mexico.

No, the US is not blameless, and yes, the US has done some shameful and atrocious things and absolutely, some of its citizens do a total disgrace to the honor of being called a US citizen. But I believe that ultimately, the people in this country stand for justice. Someday the blinders will come off and the present issues will become yet another scar in the US' pained past as we heal towards a better future, welcoming even more people as members of our society than we ever have in our history.

We have a long way to go. But the US will always be home to me, and I dream that one day my family will be able to return to it.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Dusting off the cobwebs around here...

Maybe it's been a little too long since my last post, huh? I don't get how all those mommy bloggers do it. I can barely get a few ideas strung together before I'm asked to fix a broken helicopter, read a big trucks book, or replay some scenes from Toy Story or Curious George. For example, this post was actually written over a period of 7 different sessions.

What have we been doing? There was a trip to Mexico in September shortly after my last post. Even though that was many months ago, it's probably a good starting place as I try to get back into the blogging game.

I live for moments like these:

Our visit coincided with Mexico's historic bicentennial independence celebration. Although hysteria over potential cartel violence managed to keep us from going to any public events, we did get to enjoy the festivities from home, and from various small-scale celebrations during the week. Everywhere we went, people were selling flags, horns, and other festive paraphernalia.

Because no celebration of Mexican independence is complete without a tambor (drum) featuring John Cena

When we visited in April, this was what we had to deal with on the way to the airport to return to Chicago:

One thing you learn about Monterrey after living there for a few months is that the place has NO DRAINAGE. Not only does the city struggle with a dense, clay soil that leaves nowhere for rainwater to sink in (thanks to my friend Dorothea for pointing that out to me), but the problem is exacerbated by really bad drainage systems around the city as well. Monterrey is notorious for the situation created in 1988 when Hurricane Gilbert caused the Rio Santa Catarina to overflow, leaving more than 100 people dead. Although strides have been made to create more pathways for water to run off, it's still a bad situation. Within 10 minutes of moderate rainfall, you already have running water in the streets. After 2 hours, small cars dare not venture out there. After a full day of rain, only the largest of vehicles has a fighting chance against the water that is several feet deep at many intersections, and wherever the road crosses a creek, there is a pretty treacherous current.

So this time, in September, we experienced an equally devastating inundation in the days before our departure, but we assumed that with several hours of lead time (for a trip that ordinarily takes 15 minutes), we would be OK. Carlos expertly got through flooded roads and highway entrances that had me closing my eyes and praying for safety. Finally it seemed we were clear of the flooding and just a few minutes from the airport. However, now some unprecedented blockage put an 8-lane highway at a complete standstill for hours, and Lucas and I absolutely missed our flight. So did the hundreds of other air passengers trying to leave the city that morning. Fortunately, we were able to secure a place on another flight and said our dreaded goodbyes.

Evidently Lucas thought he was saying goodbye to me at the airport
Since then, we've been working on a new plan that will hopefully lead to a promising future in a new country/countries. I might blog on that a bit later, but for now, let's just say that we're still in the planning and development phases for that pursuit. We have high hopes that our Destination Paradise on Earth does exist and we'll all get there together.