Chris and I are one of approximately sixty American families coming to South Korea as part of a work partnership. Expats were here before us and continue to come after us. It feels a little like college for me. I went out-of-state (back when that was kind of affordable) and knew no one. The experience was exciting, offering limitless opportunity and the chance to reinvent oneself. Upper classmen were there to show us freshman the ropes, and we had the chance to make many new friends. Being part of this group has provided so many opportunities already at making friends. The day-to-day living has a multitude of lessons, joys, and trials. The “upper classmen” and the locals here are always ready to help. There’s a glaring difference, though, between this experience and college: No gossip. I haven’t heard anyone gossip or speak negatively about others. Not once. This isn’t a popularity contest. The goal seems to be to help everyone be happy and comfortable. If you need help, you just need to ask.
There is also a genuine lack of negativity. People speak matter-of-factly: Communication is hard. It’s very humid. There are giant bugs. Things are more expensive. Traffic is a fact of life. You need to go to at least two grocery stores to get what you need. Peanut M&Ms don’t really exist here. But what a life! So much is a short drive or flight away. Want to go to the beach? It’s 20 minutes away. Want to go to the mountains? Walk out your door. Want to enjoy your stay? Just look around you and experience this magical land.
After we arrived, we met a couple of veterans who helped with many tips as well as taking us to some great restaurants. A week later, we made friends with another couple who had just arrived. A few days after that, I met some veterans who immediately offered assistance, invitations, and phone numbers. This was so helpful because a few days later I needed to get Sophie to a veterinarian. One of my new friends let me know her veterinarian information and then offered to go with me because (I’m not complaining) nothing is easy to find here. The parking for the veterinarian was literally on the sidewalk. I would not have known what to do by myself.
We also joined this new friend and a small group at the beach with our various dogs. It’s a quick drive to Namildae Beach, but because South Korea only shares a 160 mile border with North Korea, much of the country is a short drive to a beach. It was a lovely day. My very old pups have been in many bodies of water, but they’d never been in the ocean. I write a lot about these dogs of mine, and that won’t change. I adore them, and I had always wanted to see them walk on a beach. We lounged around a small outdoor café afterward. Many Koreans are, in fact, afraid of larger dogs. But most were laughing as they avoided the pups. The teenagers and young kids wanted to pet the dogs or get selfies, so Molly is probably famous on someone’s Facebook page besides mine.
A couple days later, I had the opportunity to meet many new friends when a group of us went to the Skyline Luge in Tongyeong. There are only six of these in the world – in Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, and Korea. We rode a chair lift up a mountain and steered a cart down. It was a great deal of fun and also a bargain. The kids in our group might have outnumbered the adults. As someone without kids, it is always a real treat for me to be able to spend time with them, watching their joy and laughter and energy.
Over the weekend, Chris and I went with one of his coworker friends to an arboretum. It was lovely and seemed to have a lot of historical information as well, but it was all in Hangul. This friend obtained a degree from the University of Kansas, which is also my alma mater (Rock Chalk, Jayhawk!). I asked him if he had difficulty adjusting to the topography in Kansas – especially western Kansas. South Korea is 70 percent uplands and mountains. He said there was everything in western Kansas. He had met many Koreans who lived in Kansas City who had never seen the Flint Hills or much of anything past Topeka. He told them one can visit mountains, lakes, rivers, and flowers throughout the world, but one sees one’s life in western Kansas. It is everything. This was profound to me. And when he told people, they listened. They went. Westerners don’t do that. Someone tries to correct misconceptions, and we ignore them. It was a simple but impactful story. I think you really need to know natives to know a country. I’m very grateful that Chris’s coworkers have embraced him.
I ventured on my own to IKEA, which is outside of Seoul. It’s an almost 4-hour drive from where I am, and then there’s the shopping experience itself. I had an overflowing cart full of things when I got to the place where one orders the large furniture and delivery. I found out I had to get the lamps I needed myself. (IKEA is the place for lamps. Koreans seem to use a lot of overhead lighting, and lamps are really expensive and in limited selection elsewhere.) I paid for my overflowing cart, feeling only mild embarrassment at the huge number of items I had, and took all of this stuff to the car. Then I went back through the IKEA maze and loaded up another full, overflowing cart with lamps. It doesn’t take much. The carts aren’t really conducive to larger items. There were a couple storage items I would have liked to get, but that would have required a third trip, and that was not happening. I wouldn’t consider IKEA shopping fun in any sense of the word and hope I don’t have to return, but it’s a really good place to get pretty inexpensive furniture, and we needed dressers. I had reached my tolerance limit on stacks of clothes on the floor. It had to be done. I had also planned to make a Costco run since there was one very close, but I skipped it. The whole IKEA “adventure” and drive took 12 hours. (And I didn’t stop to eat. Maybe at some point I’ll blog about my 40-hour experience to Grand Teton National Park existing solely on Cheezits and Tootsie Rolls. I’m not always good about self-care.)
After the IKEA trip, there was, of course, the delivery of the items and then the assembly of said items. I think Chris and I could now put together an IKEA dresser while blindfolded. But the house is now finally open for business! Unfortunately, having everything put away meant I had no more excuses and had to clean it. I could run a vacuum and scrub toilets and sinks daily, but I don’t usually do floors. However, because of the climate, there aren’t carpets here. They would rot away. So the floors are hardwood, tile, and linoleum. That means mopping and scrubbing. And because people take off their shoes before coming into their homes, it’s important to keep the floors reasonably clean. So, yeah, I need to get over my floor-cleaning aversion. I’m also not a fan of dusting, but with the windows open and the Mongolian dust flowing down from China, floor cleaning and dusting are the priorities.
It’s traditional here, once settled, to have the Korean team over to one’s home for a housewarming party (jibdeuli – 집들이). Ours will be on the Fourth of July. We can’t hold it on a weekend night because many team members go to Seoul where their parents and/or spouses live. They stay here during the work-week. We’re at about 17 guests at this point, which I’d consider pretty large. Of course, this did mean another trip to Costco, and this time I selected the closest one, which is in Busan. Busan is the second-largest city in Korea, located in the southeast corner of the country, and it is really pretty. As is the norm, even on a Monday morning, the traffic was heavy in the city. However, we are now set to serve hotdogs, bratwursts, sausages, baked beans, coleslaw, potato salad, watermelon, cookies, brownies, and ice cream. I don’t mind cooking, and I LOVE to feed people. I just hope the folks will enjoy fairly traditional American cookout food.