Saturday, February 28, 2009

2009 Travel Blogger Awards: Best Expat Blog

Vote for Eileen Smith's blog ---->

Vote Here:



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This is something I've noticed since firmly making the decision to move back to the States. In a lot of situations when I say I've decided to move home, instead of the usual response of wishing me well on my journey, I get a confession.

I think that's an interesting twist. I'm sure it's not exclusive to expats in Korea, but, being someone who has done a couple of big moves before, I know I've never experienced this. Maybe it's a feature that is present in other expat communities. I don't know, but if you have experiences like this with other ones, let me know. However, when I moved to San Francisco for law school, folks were supportive, wished me well and assured me I could come home to open arms. When I moved from San Francisco to Korea, in what I thought would be a year or two of adventure overseas, pretty much the same thing happened. I mostly had well-wishes from friends and family but sometimes there was concern as San Francisco to Korea is much further away than L.A. to San Francisco.

All-in-all when I move on, things are pretty standard. The Koreans I know provide the litmus test here. With them, it is heartfelt goodbyes, well-wishes and sincere promises to try to make our paths cross again. However, with some in the expat population something else is happening.

What I've noticed is I say I'm going and, depending on who I'm talking to, I end up getting a confession. The person will start telling me why they're staying and giving me tons upon tons of information that feels oddly inappropriate and, in some sense, insecure.

I've also gotten people launching into attacks of the foreign population here. I know I've made my quips about not missing certain types of people, but, I know that there are some I will miss. I've not made my dislike for some a secret; I have no love for particular types foreigners here. However, I do realize that people are here for a range of reasons. Some are bitter losers but others are new graduates looking for adventure and a way to put a dent in their student loan debt. There are also people who come here after raising kids to travel and live abroad for a bit. There are people here with some pretty impressive education credentials or pretty impressive life experiences who have a range of personal and professional reasons that they've chosen to be here. There are some who had or developed a deep love for some aspects of Korean culture and choose to stay.

It's a concentrated population for sure, but there is a spread that goes from pathetic to surprisingly impressive and inspiring. There are some unique and interesting stories with some. With others, not so much. However, what it comes down to with some of the odd responses is that I've gotten is the feeling that some feel that they're closer to the pathetic end of the spectrum and feel more trapped than anything. That's interesting but also sobering and sad.

Considering all the mess foreigners talk about Korea, what's also interesting is when I say I'm going someone tries to sell me on reasons to stay. These are often the very same people who just a few minutes before were talking mess about the frustrations that come with living in Korea. I've been here for a number of years. I KNOW both the pluses and minuses of living here as a foreigner. I guess that flip and hard sell is a particular strain of misery loves company. But that always has me thinking "wait, if it was so terrible last week or five minutes ago, what's changed and why are you trying to sell me on staying?" I'm known to be a pretty happy expat. I have my gripes and bad days, but I'm not one to go on an extended bitch-fest about life here. I've always known that when and if it became unbearable, I'd pack it up and move. However, we all know that doesn't represent everyone here.

The economy is another reason people give me to consider. While it is a concern, I think I'll be fine. I know the current economic situation is definitely stirring up fear. Actually, that's part of the problem, a loss of the public's confidence in the markets. Things in the States and worldwide are overwhelmingly intimidating. Korea is an export driven economy. No one is buying, so demand for goods has plummeted. The Korean won is weak, but, trust me, it's going to stay weak to make Korean products the better buy against its competitors. (I know there is more to it than that, but that's one feature of it.)

What that means for people earning Korean won is anyone who transfers money has taken a big pay cut. That's just a long-winded way of saying, the economy isn't really an issue because, even if I stayed, I'd be making less. I might as well go home and see how things go for me there. There will be tough economic times no matter what country I'm in.

Basically, it's time for me to go. The tug home started for me when I went home in early 2008. I had a great time being home. I went on an insanely fun cruise and visited places, like Manhattan, that I'd not been to in years. I'd never felt that sad having to leave and that made me realize something had changed. The same feeling happened when I was home in late 2008 for a friend's wedding.

It's just interesting that these confessions reveal much more about the speakers than I suspect they realize. Many around me have made my imminent departure about them and make me feel like Oprah. Unfortunately, it's being an Oprah without the couch jumping celebrity confessions and the fat paycheck.


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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Blackberry in the house ;)

With one week to go, my Blackberry arrived :) I knew I'd get it today, so I went out and bought an 8GB micro SD card for it yesterday. It's charging now and I'll set it up later. Of course, no calls until I'm back home, but that's going to be in just a few days. Yeah!!!

I'm that much of a geek that I have to be plugged in when I touch down.

Update 1: I went to install the memory card I got for it and saw that it came with, get this, a 256MB card. Hahahahahahahahaha...256MB!!! Yes, I'm geeky enough that 256MB is laughably low memory for me.

The card I have comes with a regular sized SD adapter, so I put the tiny memory card in my camera as a backup.


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Monday, February 23, 2009

Last Shout Out to the Korean Medical System

Here I am at my hospital, Hanyang University Hospital. I'm going through a series of regular tests. Being an insulin dependent diabetic and having Graves' Disease (a thyroid disorder) means I've got more tests than usual to take on a yearly basis. I got here a few minutes late for my 9:40am OB/GYN appointment. But, in spite of running five minutes behind, it's been smooth sailing.

My OB/GYN was female, as I requested, and her English was pretty decent. She talked me through the exam and caught that I'd not had a mammogram in over five years. It was time for another one. The nurse sped me off to pay for the exam and then took me to the exam room. The exam tech was really friendly and was honest that it was going to hurt. It did. Ouch.

I have my final appointment with my endocrinologist tomorrow, so I had to go to give them what they needed for a bunch of lab tests. Then it was off to my scheduled eye exam. For those that don't know, diabetes wreaks havoc on your blood vessels, internal organs and also messes with your heart. That's why it's really important for diabetics to keep their blood sugars in as normal a range as possible. As a result, diabetics ought to do yearly eye exams. Not just the ones where you look at a chart but the unpleasant one that requires your pupils to be dilated. That way the doctor can literally get a good look inside to see if there is any diabetic retinopathy (eye damage from diabetes).

Right now, that's the phase I'm in. My pupils are dilating, and I've got to refocus every minute or so because I'm sitting here typing on my laptop.

So, for those that don't know, it's worth saying again. At least on the university hospital level, medical care here is modern, affordable and efficient. Like any system, there are frustrations and glitches. It's not perfect. I went to one clinic that really did cut corners to the point that all I did was walk in, say what I needed and walked out with a prescription. That's dangerous. Also, a lot of doctors here have a God-complex, so their listening skills aren't the greatest. They're not really used to a pro-active patient.. They're much more used to telling a patient what's wrong with them and not being questioned. In contrast, I'm the sort of person who gets out and does the research so I know a fair bit about the latest research regarding the two conditions I have. Those are the most irritating points, but there are doctors with God-complexes back home. At least here I can afford to see a doctor.

As a whole, the system is much easier to navigate and much more accessible in terms of cost. The worst thing would be communication issues. If you don't speak Korean, it can be a problem. If you speak Korean, it can be frustrating because almost everyone assumes you've got no clue. Today I had a doctor express pure shock that I could read her name in Hangul even though she could see from my chart that I'd been here for a few years. (I'm sorry but how dumb must a person be to not know how to read Korean after being here that long?) However, I've learned to just smile, realize they're doing their best and try not to take things at more than face value. It's worked well for me. I've blogged about having a scratched cornea and having excellent service. I've blogged about other positive experiences here as well. Being someone with experience in both the US and Korean health care systems, I've got to say Korea slays the US in terms of accessibility. When I was at Ewha, I didn't have the public health insurance card and I could afford to pay out of pocket for my medical exams, tests and medicines. I could never afford that out of pocket in the States for two years. I truly think the US system is a travesty. How can such a developed nation have so many people who don't have access to basic health care?

With that said, I'm not looking forward to wandering back into the morass that is the US medical system, especially in this crap economy. However, it comes with going home and having two chronic conditions to manage. The fact is, I can't avoid it even if I wanted to.


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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Crap That I'll Miss: Responsive and Pro-active Utility Companies (and the ease of paying your bills)

Okay, I've not been blogging at all. There is a good reason. I'M MOVING!

However, I have been collecting these things in my head. However, I've got to write this one right now. Why?

Yesterday I needed to make a phone call back home to track down my landlord in San Francisco. I picked up my home phone, called the number and waited for an answer, NOTHING.

Okay, it's not a rush really, so I went on to something else. I tried another number later in the day, nothing. Now this is weird.

So I use my cell phone to call my home phone and it's not ringing and my fax machine isn't ringing either.

Hmmmmmmmmm...did I forget to pay my bill? Nope. But now it's after business hours.

I call Korea Telecom (KT) at 9:07am this morning. I told them that my phone was dead. She took my cell phone number, checked it from her end and called me back at 9:11am. They're also my ISP, so she asked me if my Internet service was up and running. I told her that was fine. She then said she'd send someone out between 10am and 11:30am today.

Usually, I can live with that but today I'm scheduled to be on the radio at 11:30am. I tell her this and she says she'll see what she can do. I get a phone call from a KT repairman at 9:24am. He says he's en route.

He shows up a few minutes later, checks everything, finds a cord that's been snapped, replaces it and my phone is ready to go at around 9:47am. I know this because that's around the time I start playing around on Facebook again and that's the time I started writing this.

So just to summarize: It was less than one hour from my first phone call to KT to a working home phone.

Layer this on top of a week ago when KT was calling me to install a new fiber cable modem. I think they're laying the ground work to upgrade speed across the country to 1 GBPS by 2012. I'll be returning to a country that's just figured out that it's a good idea to install broadband lines throughout the nation.

On top of that, I just pay my bills on the Internet with bank transfers to an account designated just for me (so that when I pay KT knows I've made a payment and credits my account immediately).


When I go home there is no way I'll see that high level of service. That makes me sad.

Bye bye efficient utility service:


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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Ebony, Jet and Black World/Negro Digest Magazines Now Online!

This is so massively cool.

As a child, I loved glossy magazines. I particularly loved it when my mother bought and later subscribed to magazines like Ebony and Jet. Because it does resonate when you see people like yourself on the covers, in the stories and in the ads. Granted, sometimes the marketing is retarded, but the fact is they're marketing to you.

Johnson Publishing is a black-owned company that is based in Chicago, Illinois. It was founded in 1942 by John H. Johnson when he started a magazine called Negro Digest. The company is still in operation today and they still publish both Ebony and Jet magazines too. They also have offices across the States and abroad in London and Paris.

Now what's cool is Johnson Publishing partnered with Google Books to digitize all the issues of these magazines. Prior to that the only source for finding on clippings was at a Flickr site*.

I've clicked around and, I've got to say, I was just so happy to see these magazines digitized. It's a great resource. I say that because not only are there blacks who need to learn their history, there are people of other races who have no real concept of the black experience in the context of history.

Who can forget this wonderful writer?

Another story I heard just over the weekend was a young white lady, who was being completely sincere, asked a black journalist why didn't black women vote when women got the vote in 1920. This journalist had to explain that black women didn't get the vote in 1871 and furthermore:
1965 - The Voting Rights Act

After blacks were granted the right to vote in 1871, literacy requirements, physical violence, property destruction, hiding the polls and economic pressures still kept many blacks from voting, particularly in the South. In some states, a voter could vote in primary elections only if his grandfather had been able to vote in primaries; other states only allowed whites to vote in the primaries. In the largely Democratic South, these laws prevented descendants of slaves from having an effective vote. The Voting Rights Act was enacted in direct response to the Civil Rights movement. The act bans literacy tests and provides federal enforcement of voter registration and voting rights.
The fact is, while it was on the books, black people couldn't vote.

That might seem astounding to you, but the reality is the onus is on minorities to learn the history of the majority and not the other way around. There are people on both sides of the spectrum who fall short and there are others who make an effort and excel. This is a resource that can help people who make an effort.

Having these magazines digitized is one way to reverse that. So check them out but also spread the word and let people know these are now available online.



Black World/Negro Digest

So, explore, have at it and enjoy!

Oh, and for those who might wander onto my blog and ask the incredibly obtuse question "Why isn't there a White World or Caucasian Digest?" let me refer you to something I blogged a couple of years ago: Rachel's Tavern: Why There is a BET and There isn't a WET

BTW, there are other magazines that focus on black issues and history like Black Enterprise, which is geared towards black businesses, and, one I subscribe to, American Legacy, their catch phrase is "know your history".

I haven't mentioned them all, so if you've got a favorite you want to talk about, post a comment.

*I can't locate the link now, but when I do, I'll link it.


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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Groove Korea, Feb. 2009 - DJ Vadim Interview and Obama Op-ed

As you can see, there is a really good reason I don't blog as much as I used to. I'm writing all the time, which is great, but leaves me less motivated to opine here.

Here are two pieces that I wrote for this month's edition of the Groove Korea magazine. One is an interview with DJ Vadim from One Self. They performed in Seoul this past weekend at the Lotte Hotel in Myeongdong. The other is an op-ed piece the editor wanted me to write about President Obama.

The last I checked, Groove Korea's website wasn't up, so here are my two pieces for you to read. I had a chance to talk to the editor and, indeed, the Groove Korea site is once again live.

However, it's a good magazine and they've got a few interesting articles. If you're in Seoul they're easy to find in restaurants and bars in the Yongsangu area of the city. That includes Itaewon, Haebangchon (the HBC) and Hannam areas of the city.


Q&A with DJ Vadim of One Self:

one self - dj vadim - groove korea (february 2009)0001

Obama Generation?
obama generation (op-ed) - groove korea - february 20090001

Type rest of the post here


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Monday, February 2, 2009

[Regina Walton's Expat Interviews] Judaism in Korea

My time here is rapidly winding down and I think of these religion pieces as a contribution to the well being of expats living here in Seoul. I say Seoul because, unfortunately, all of my interviewees thus far are Seoul-based and have Seoul-based congregations.

Here is part four: Judaism in Korea

This is the fourth part in a series looking into religion in Korea. The first objective is to give expatriates a springboard from which to develop spiritually. Feature articles have examined Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and will examine Islam and Sikhism. - Ed.

When you think of religion in Korea, Judaism does not exactly spring to mind.

But over the last decade especially, Seoul has seen demand for Jewish products and food rise, and in 2008 the Chabad House opened in the Itaewon district of Seoul.

This was a significant event for Judaism in Korea. There are quite a few Christian and Muslim services available to foreigners, but there was nothing for Jews.

If you weren't associated with the military and you're Jewish, you had had to arrange for someone to sign you in to a U.S. military on base.

Chabad House opened in Seoul in April 2008, and they offer services to help Jews living in or visiting Seoul.

Like other religions, there are different strains of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Chabad-Lubavich is Orthodox. It was founded in Russia in the 18th century and is now based in Brooklyn, New York. In the 1950s they started to send shluchim, or missionaries, around the world in order to reach as many Jews as possible. Currently, Chabad-Lubavich has over 3,000 centers worldwide.

I had a chance to meet with Rabbi Osher Litzman at his home to ask him a few questions about Chabad House and how the transition has been for him, his wife and their family.

"Chabad is a home away from home for every Jew, whatever his or her background." When asked what Chabad House provides for people in need, Litzman answered, "You can come talk to a Rabbi, get kosher food, get religious materials for the holidays, participate in events, practice Judaism and learn more. This is all about having one place to come, to feel more connected and to meet other Jews."

Rabbi Osher Litzman (right), from Israel, is the Jewish leader of the Jewish community of Korea. Pierre Cohen-Aknine is originally from France and has been living in Korea for the last 27 years. [Photo by Jung-keun Song]

Litzman then explained the current schedule for Jewish services: "We have services every Friday night, every Saturday morning and afternoon, and on holidays. Sometimes we have services during the weekday as well." The schedule can be found at Chabad of Korea website (

They are also establishing other regular events, like the Tefillin Club, which is a place for men to come, enjoy and relax and have kosher food. They meet on the first Sunday of each month at the Seoul Cigar Club.

They also have a similar gathering for women. The women's gathering is based on the Jewish calendar and is scheduled near Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the Jewish month.

Litzman added that there are plans in the works to create regular activities for children.

So what exactly does "kosher" mean? "Kosher means that the production of the food has been supervised and does not violate Jewish dietary laws," said Litzman.

He then explained that people who are in search of kosher food in Korea are lucky because Costco actually stocks many kosher food items. "(On) kosher (foods) there is a symbol that means that someone inspected the manufacturing process and found it in accordance to Jewish dietary laws ... Korea is blessed with Costco. Costco has many kosher products except for milk, cheese products and meat.

"We produce kosher cheese ourselves, but it is still a problem to obtain kosher meat. We have to find a good solution for that."

When asked to describe Chabad's regular congregation he said, "Every week we find at least one more Jew. Hanukkah was two weeks ago and it was a wonderful time. Many new people came to the event we had in front of the Hamilton Hotel. People saw us building the Menorah."

Right now there isn't a demand for it, but the rabbi did not rule out the possibility of a Chabad House one day opening in a location outside Seoul. "Well, there are not many Jewish people who come here to tour. This is most likely because there are no kosher options here.

"In Beijing, they have a kosher restaurant. In Thailand they have kosher restaurants. All over the world they have kosher restaurants, but not here. We just opened. There are direct flights between Israel and Korea, but I think we've had fewer than ten tourists since we opened."

He explained that most people they work with are here as expatriates. Also, "(we) have business people coming in from all over the world. All of them have said that they would not stay here for the weekend if we were not here."

The response from the Jewish community has been both positive and strong. "The request for us to come was from the community ... Many Jews that live and work here didn't have a place to pray for Yom Kippur."

Now that Chabad is here, Rabbi Litzman can help Jewish families become more observant. "Now people have the opportunity. We have a family that decided to keep kosher. We kosherized their kitchen."

He then went on to describe how Jews in Seoul are now able to follow Jewish traditions more easily now that they are here. "Another (member has decided) to put on the Tefillin, leather boxes which contain biblical verses and are very important for prayer rituals every day - not only one, but a few. Some people bought Tefillin and some people had it before and now they're using it.

We are giving people Mezuzot." Mezuzot are hand-written biblical verses put on doorways that he described as not only Biblically commanded, but also a kind of method Jews use for home security.

"People are getting books and we have lecturers." These lectures usually occur at the same time as the Friday and Saturday services. "We are about to establish a library. We want to open a Jewish library here in Korea. We are requesting donations for books."

In terms of upcoming special events, he mentioned that they will be bringing in rabbis from other locations in Asia and from around the world.

"Korea is the best place to live. You get a taste of everything. You can feel that you live in America sometimes. You have modern technology and a nice subway. (It's) better than New York even.

"Wonderful people live here. We have gotten so much help from so many people and they didn't want a penny."

For more information on kosher meals, synagogue services or classes please go to the Chabad-Lubavich Korea website:

For information on the Tefillin Club go to

Here is an Adobe Acrobat version. Enjoy!


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