In Korean culture, it is tradition to hold a housewarming party when one has moved (Jipdeuli /집들이). The expats adopted this tradition and have invited their team members once they’ve settled into their new homes. Team sizes vary from as small as 4 to more than 24, and Chris’s is one of the larger at 18. We held our party on July 4 since had we been in the States, we would have been doing something with friends. And we had a typical American cookout with bratwurst, hotdogs, homemade potato salad, homemade baked beans, a coleslaw salad, watermelon, brownies, and ice cream. And beer. And Soju. Lots of beer and Soju.
We held the party on a weeknight because there are a few team members who travel to Seoul every weekend. They have families there – including spouses and children. I don’t know how I would manage being around my spouse only 48 hours per week. The drive itself is fairly arduous because so many Koreans travel to Seoul on the weekend, and those who don’t travel there already live there. The traffic is very heavy. I traveled that way from here on a Tuesday morning, and the traffic was an issue at a couple points. This is a very populated country with not a lot of land mass. Other team members go elsewhere to be with family, so a weeknight seemed to be the best option.
Another tradition here is to bring a gift when invited to someone’s home – especially when attending a housewarming. We would have liked to say no gifts, but I think that would be insulting. Common presents are toilet paper and dish and laundry soap as those items were real luxuries for many years. However, Chris’s team is pretty young. They brought us a gorgeous plant that signifies fortune. They also brought us a mug and tumbler, some wine, and a gorgeous rice cake from a bakery.
The team gift fortune plant
Rice cake with frosting flowers
We played some games as was suggested by others. In the States, they probably would not have gone over very well but were a huge success here.
Moving a cookie from forehead to mouth with no hands game
Balancing balloons with one hand game
More balloon balancing. Best played after some of the beer.
We also had a “White Elephant” kind of gift exchange, which was very foreign to the guests. Opening gifts in front of others is unusual as well as stealing them, but they seemed to have fun with it. Chris was very proud of developing a beer pong game with a Roomba. He also substituted Soju shots. Soju is made in South Korea and is a very strong rice-based alcohol beverage that varies from 16-50% alcohol by volume.
The white elephant gifts and team
Soju Pong with Roomba
The host playing Soju Pong
The host worked hard on this set-up
The best part of the evening for me was just interacting. Koreans seem to be very curious and direct. They are kind and generous and funny. Unlike Americans, though, they seem much more interested in listening than talking. They ask questions – sometimes somewhat philosophical questions – and listen for your answer. They will also tell you that you need to get more exercise or lose weight without hesitation. And it isn’t at all offensive. It’s very matter-of-fact and kind of cracks me up. Someone told us you could feel insulted on a daily basis if you let yourself, but none of it is meant to offend. I like it. Nothing has ever seemed to be about being “better looking” but, instead, about being healthier. I did get a little defensive regarding my dogs though. A. Molly is not overweight. And B. Both of them are ancient. I want to see how active Mr. Lee is when he’s 98 years old!
Molly and Sophie joining the party
Pre-party, and the help is sleeping on the job
Regarding the dogs, they are considered large here. And they aren’t used to being around 20 people in their home. They did great though, and none of the team seemed uncomfortable after the initial introductions. I hope someone in the group decides they’ll be willing to dog-sit in the future so we can go away for a weekend. They can stay at the house, and we’ll pay them. We’re just a short bike ride or bus ride from the office, and most of the team members live in a company dorm on the weekdays. It would probably be nice to get away.
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.
Last night as we were hanging curtain rods, a flying giant got into the house. I thought it was a hummingbird and worried it was going to bash itself to death. After seeing there was no beak, I thought it was a giant bee. I went into a slight panic, and the dogs got the heck out of the house. It finally landed, and we saw that it was a huge moth-like creature: A moth the size of a hummingbird. Wikepedia does list a “Hummingbird Hawk-Moth” (Macroglossum stellatarum) that has been known to live in these parts. We captured it in a trash can and released it outside. This is just one of already many encounters with unfamiliar insects.
I tend to say our house is a spider factory, which is okay because it is also a fly and mosquito factory. The spiders can have at it with the latter two. The ones I’ve seen in the house are small, thick, and brown. They’re easy to catch and to relocate. Outside, the yard and garden are filled with larger spiders that are pretty shy. And I’ve seen a couple of beautiful caterpillars. But those flies and mosquitoes are another story. I will transport wasps to the outdoors. I will pick up worms to try to prevent them from burning up on the pavement. I love lots of living critters. But flies and mosquitoes are not my friends. Because I have two “large” dogs in a small yard, there are a lot of flies. And Sacheon is doing its 1970s best to control the mosquitoes, but judging from the bites I wake up with each morning, the mosquitoes are winning.
Twice in the two weeks I’ve been in the house a large fogging truck has driven through the neighborhood. This is the small-town method of mosquito control: Kerosene and pesticide fogging. These trucks are very noisy, and the smell precedes their arrival. I thought it was a helicopter that was possibly dumping fuel. I didn’t grow up running after these trucks, which is apparently a fond memory for many. If you look it up, there are more claims that it is harmless than there are claims that it is not. However, the taste of kerosene in my throat for hours didn’t taste harmless. I hope the fog also kills centipedes because fairly quickly after moving in, I encountered a large one of those on the back porch. I had some trash and bags of dog food out there, and I think it was feasting. Just one word from me to sum up the incident: Gross! The dog food has been moved inside, and I’ve littered the porch with moth balls and other insect irritants.
South Korea, or the Republic of Korea as is its official name, is almost an island. It borders only North Korea and otherwise is surrounded by the East Sea, the East China Sea, and the Yellow Sea. Its climate is temperate and has four distinct seasons, with the summer being hot and humid. Because Sacheon is very far south, it is more temperate than Seoul. The heat and humidity from all that ocean makes for lots of creepy crawlies. Maybe I could have researched this a little more before the move, but it wouldn’t have changed anything. I feel I was destined to be here.
The people here have made the best of the insect world. There’s a long history of insect-eating (entomophagy). Beondegi is a popular snack and is boiled silk worm pupae. Crickets and mealworms come fried as well as ground into powder forms and are also popular. I don’t know about the worms, but I’ll eat a cricket over a sea cucumber. Much of the insect trade relates to feeding livestock, but it is a growing industry for human food production. It makes sense to me although doesn’t get my salivary glands moving. My adventures in eating haven’t gone past bibimbap, kimchi, bulgogi, and naengmyeon. But that’s another story.
What happens when an angry white female lets the light back in.
I have been amazingly content since arriving in Korea. In spite of a different language and alphabet and being away from all the comforts of home, I am at peace. Which makes me wonder every so often what’s wrong. I know it should be the other way: One wonders what’s wrong when one is down. But I’ve lived the last two years with overwhelming sadness. The survival instinct allows us to function and push things to the backs of our minds, but my dad’s terminal diagnosis and then death seem to have caused me to be so very tired (I took naps almost every day), irritable (I was frustrated with about 90% of life), and negative (I found fault with about 90% of life). To say I was unhappy does not cover it.
Life here is difficult. I have not found anything easy. Not much English is spoken (which is fine because there’s not much Korean spoken in English-speaking countries). Traffic signs, roads, names, and numbering are very different. Even one’s appliances (like the microwave, for instance) have Hangul instructions. Many food items have an English name printed on the packaging, but all the ingredients and instructions are in Hangul. We’re also living with the contents of six suitcases in a 300-square-foot room. But I am happy.
What happened to me? I haven’t had the opportunity to grieve my loss. Maybe I grieved while my dad was living. I lived in a state of frustration and lost my kindness, patience, and acceptance. More than anything, I was so tired. I have yet to take a nap here and have had plenty of opportunities. I tried once but was unable. There were days in the States when I woke up at 8 a.m. and was ready to go back to sleep by 10:30 a.m. I averaged over nine hours of sleep. Now I don’t want to miss anything – even just sitting quietly by myself. It is pleasurable.
I have been a little nervous a couple times on the road and have witnessed some dangerous maneuvers, but I’ve not become angry. What I’ve learned from my driving experience is that moving into available space in a lane, no matter how small, is not considered cutting another driver off. If there is room, drivers move into it. When I’ve needed to move over, I’ve almost always been allowed. People warned me not to immediately go when a light turns green because a green light does not mean a clear road, and that is true. People told me to watch out for busses and trucks as they move where they need to go whether or not the road is clear. Also true. I’ve also discovered that lanes suddenly turn into turn-only lanes out of nowhere. Taxis will stop on a drivable lane and block dozens of cars (always). No one seems to have the right-of-way when merging. And, yet, I am okay with all of this.
I don’t yet understand the driving violation system, though. Korea has moving camera zones that calculate speed and mail offenders tickets. These cameras calculate your speed from point A to point B (with cameras at point A and point B), so drivers speed madly out of the zones and then brake to slow down between these zones. The zones seem to be everywhere. The fastest speed I’ve seen is just 100km on the highway (that’s only 62mph. I’m used to up to 80mph on those wide open roads in west Texas). Chris reminded me it’s a small country, so I’m accepting. There are also these camera vehicles that take pictures of cars parked in no-parking areas and mail offenders tickets. Parking is in desperately short supply here and doesn’t always seem logical. Places that are okay on weekends are not okay on weekdays. People park on sidewalks. I will need to figure it all out. What is so brilliant about all of this is there is no need for police officers cruising around to catch violators. It seems very efficient.
I feel a little claustrophobic when I really look at our living space because of its unavoidable disarray. There is stuff everywhere. The wonderful thing, though, is the staff. They are incredibly, exceptionally, amazingly nice. The housekeepers check on me if I’m in to see if I want the room cleaned. When I say it isn’t necessary, they offer to come in and clear the trash and give me whatever I may need. The dining room staff welcomes me and automatically brings me my favorite coffee. The front desk staff asks me about my day and checks on me. Even the parking lot attendant praises my parking. Haha! I will miss them.
Which brings me to parking when one actually finds a space. Everyone backs into parking spaces because that’s the only way to get out of them. Passengers are often let out before parking as they may not be able to get out once parked. Side mirrors are retracted. Usually there are only inches to spare on each side once parked. I thank whoever invented backup cameras because otherwise I would be driving around for hours trying to find parking space. Cars all have little foam bumpers on the doors so that they can be opened as much as possible without scraping them. We’ve decided on a Kia Soul for our car as anything bigger is beyond my ability (plus Souls are so cute!).
I’ve heard that Sacheon (pronounced SATCH-on) and Jinju (pronounced Chin-choo) are not highly desirable places to live in the scheme of Korea. Sacheon is more rural. The “downtown” seems a bit run-down. But it is peaceful. I love the farmland. The land here is either a road, a building, or farmland. Even tiny areas have crops. People are toiling away at them throughout the day. By my standards, Jinju is beautiful. The river running through the town is flanked by greenspace and walkways. The parks are lovely. Everywhere around these cities are hiking trails. Mountains abound. Right now in this moment, I love it. I absolutely love it here. I cannot believe my fortune at having this experience. I ache at being so far away from my mother (that’s a blog itself as well). I adore her. But I am so glad to be here.
This move seems to have helped me in ways I didn’t expect. In two days, we will have possession of our new home, and I look forward to drinking my coffee in the yard and feeling the sun on my face. I look forward to the peace and will welcome the feelings that need to come. I’m meeting wonderful people who are very nice to me. I feel certain I will leave here in 2-3 years with many new friends. But I also look forward to time alone to meditate and just be in the here and now.
“Joyful, joyful, joyful,
as only dogs know how to be happy
with only the autonomy
of their shameless spirit.”
I love my husband and also appreciate the convenience of sending out my laundry, but living in 300-square feet for multiple weeks with another human being is testing my endurance. Chris pointed out that we plan to travel the US in a camper upon our return, but I brushed off that fact. While it is mainly the space, it isn’t just the space. I like to cook. I like having a refrigerator and its contents (and a microwave. Why oh why does this place not include a microwave?). I like being able to stay up later than Chris without waking him. And, of course, I miss my stuff. We were able to ship 2400 pounds of our things which should arrive on the day we move into our new home. In that shipment are two of the world’s greatest pillows as well as various comforts from home. And, what I miss the most and anxiously, excitedly, and longingly await, is the arrival of the pups!
Korea is not the most dog-friendly country, although it has come a very long way in the last couple of decades. The history of eating dogs goes back millennia, although this is losing popularity. Dreadful stories abound on the Internet, though, including those from 2017. While it horrifies me on a personal level, I consider my cow consumption and try to temper my judgment. However, I’ve heard that lost pets have been gathered and sold for such purposes, so my dogs’ days of romping off leash are over. That’s okay because their days of romping seem to be over. They are some very old bitches.
Finding housing that would accept dogs limited our choices, but we were able to find a lovely house in Sacheon that has an enclosed yard as well as porch and upstairs patio. We had looked forward to the ease of apartment living in the city of Jinju, where one can walk out one’s door for a coffee or bowl of bibimbap. The expat apartments in Jinju are ultra-modern, probably very energy-efficient, and, I believe, near the beautiful Nam river. Living there would also come with having to take the dogs via elevator to some green space a few times a day to relieve themselves. As they are large by Korean standards and one is pretty grumpy, they would have frightened a lot of people. Check with me in several months, but I am looking forward to gardening, mowing the grass, watering the flowers, and cleaning all 2300-square feet of our palatial Korean palace. I also look forward to fewer noises causing Sophie, my black pup, to bark.
I have learned very quickly to take what one reads with a grain of salt (so don’t take my word as gold either!). I’ve seen multiple dogs as pets. Our new landlord had a hilariously cantankerous and rather mangy mutt with her who was at least as large as mine. I’d also read that Koreans consider cats “deliverers of bad fortune” but I’ve seen several cats roaming freely and happily, not in any danger of harm other than from erratic drivers. There is also pet grooming and boarding in ample supply, although it certainly isn’t like back in the States. But, really, nothing here is like back in the States. Which is the point of this adventure – what makes it so exotic.
Our dogs should arrive on June 2. They leave the States on May 31, but May 31 is actually June 1 here – a fact that still kind of messes with my mind. They also have a longer route as they will be flying Lufthansa which has pressurized and temperature-controlled services for pet transport and which will stop in Europe for a 6-hour layover where they’ll be exercised and fed.
I realize some readers may consider my dog relationship excessive and/or dull. I did not have the opportunity to have children. I understand people with children find those of us stating our pets are our children to be infuriating. I know that if it came to saving a child or saving one of my pups, I wouldn’t hesitate to save the child. I can differentiate. But I did not have children, and these dogs are as close as it gets for me. I adore them. Life would have been ten-thousand times easier without them here. My sister volunteered to take our older one. But I made a commitment. It is not okay to leave a pet when they become an inconvenience. My dogs love me, and I torture myself with thoughts that they believe they’ve been abandoned. When they arrive, I will lay on the ground and let them climb all over me and lick me to their hearts’ content. And I will beg them for their forgiveness. (Treats may help. I think they will love squid, which is plentiful and comes fresh, frozen, fried, boiled, dried like jerky, and in the form of potato chips. Food will be another entry.)
We are not animals. I swear.
The castle awaits!
She found a spot to rest as the furniture was leaving. (Pre-move)
She sneaks onto the bed right in front of you. (pre-move)
It all starts with the idea, right? How did the biggest decisions you’ve ever made get started? Listen for the message, and live without regret.
I’m on day 15 living out of a small hotel room. Before moving to Korea, I was in a two-room hotel in Fort Worth Texas with my husband (Chris) and two dogs (Molly and Sophie). Getting the dogs on their first elevator, getting them to poop outside in a new place, getting them over the fear of all the turmoil, and getting them to stop barking at every noise were the smallest challenges. Now I’m in a single-room hotel with my husband in Sacheon, Korea, with our six suitcases worth of stuff, anxiously awaiting the delivery of my precious pups and the move to our home for the next two to three years. How did I get here?
On my 50th birthday, Chris proposed to me at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado. We’d been together 3 years and had gone through the formal process to be informally married (it’s a real thing in Texas) for some practical reasons, but this was the real deal. Back at the hotel, I quickly called my parents to tell them. And then I got punched in the gut: My dad said he’d been diagnosed with metastatic cancer. He was terminal. In a matter of days I quit my job and began driving from Texas to California every 2-3 months for visits. I needed to spend time with him and my mom. And for the next 17 months, that’s what I did.
The experience of losing a parent is its own blog entry. But it leads me to now. In January, as my dad was in increasingly poor health, Chris mentioned an opportunity to work in Korea. He was going to get more information. And in February, after my dad died, I was 100% in. Leaving my mom behind hurts my heart in unbelievable ways, but this beautiful man I married (another blog entry) told me I could visit as much as I wanted. So that’s how I find myself living in this very small room hoping and praying and wishing and begging that my very old dogs survive the separation without thinking they’ve been abandoned and make the flight okay. They’ll be here no later than June 2. That’s 10 days. We can do this!
I hope to share my journey through these writings which might on occasion include some practical information for anyone considering taking on something similar. I’m new to this, but I enjoy writing and have friends who’ve expressed interest in my experience. So here we go. Thanks for joining me
The old broads back at home
Try lugging THAT around multiple airports!
Yes, the spoiled Americans got to come over in Business Class!