Tag Archives: Korea

The Squid Zone

20 Nov

Koreans love eating squid. They like it raw, cooked, fried, grilled, ground up into a little powder and drunk with hot water. But it’s only when you enter a soccer stadium and see the sign, written in English, that you realize… you’ve entered “The Squid Zone.”

I guess that’s a good metaphor for the “expatriate experience.” I only lived in Korea for a year, so compared to some of my friends, my knowledge of that country is limited… and now, twenty years old. My “two truths and a lie” is always, “I partied with a quarter million Koreans on New Years Eve 2000.” Also took me two hours to get back to my hotel afterwards because they closed the Metro at midnight.

I worked at Taejon Christian International School in Daejeon, which is about two hours south of Seoul. Again, with the high speed rail built for the World Cup (which I also missed), you might make it one hour.

I had the opportunity to watch a game between the Taejon Citizens(?) play… someone in the old stadium that had a statue commemorating the Independence Movement with a heroic Korean standing in 20’s clothes, holding a grenade in his hand. So… that’s different. Then I’m going to my seat and I see the “Squid Zone” sign–in English–and had that seared into my memory.

They didn’t sing the national anthem–they played it, everyone stood, but no one sang. The hype guy had the Republic of Korean flag painted on his face and carried a little cymbal that he dinged to pep up the crowd. I honestly don’t know if he was hired by the team or just did this for kicks. I remember that the Taejon team lost, not surprising, since they were down in the standings that year.

Taejon (or Daejeon, they changed the official transliteration after I left) was probably the best place I could live. It was a “small town” of a million people, but because it was so packed together in the mountain valley, I could walk to the other side of the city in half an hour. I could reach nature easily, even when surrounded by multi-story apartment buildings. I stripped naked for hot spring baths and could still eat Pizza Hut, but frankly, they had NO Mexican food. I craved Taco Bell when I got home.

I still prefer Korean ramen over Japanese–there was a ramen machine right outside my apartment. I loved being able to go to cafes and have omelets. Street vendors with corn dogs. PC-bongs (computer cafes) where you could play games when you wanted to get out of the house. And going to movie theaters to watch English movies with Korean subtitles. I danced in the streets of Seoul at the drum festival and watched Armed Forces TV.

I love travel–usually hated the jobs that allowed me to do it–but I was so happy to live a life less ordinary… if only for a few years. Have you been an ex-pat? What’s the first thing you discover about living in a new place? Let me know in the comments below.

Change Your Name, Change Your Life

31 Jul

There’s a saying among the expatriate community in Korea: “You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Kim, a Lee, or a Park.” So you would think there’s a lack of last names in Asia. The real reason is far more interesting.

I happened to pass a TV that was showing the LPGA tour. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. However, it showed the leader board and it showed the name of Jeongeun Lee #6… which having never watched ladies’ golf before struck me as rather bizarre, but not that unexpected. Turns out that even those she’s is the only Jeongeun Lee in the LPGA, in the Korean league, she was the 6th one, and established her brand as #6.

Twenty years ago, my first real job out of college was at Taejon Christian International School, an international boarding school in South Korea. It was actually a very nice place and I’ve gotten the impression that it has been getting nicer since I left. At the time, they hadn’t built the new dorm and school buildings, and there was a small woods (with houses) nearby in the land between it and the Hannam University.

This is where I ran into the fundamental problem of a lack of Korean names. I believe JeongEun means “grace,” which considering the massive Christian presence, doesn’t surprise me. I’ve run into several “Graces;” the habit among most international Korean students is that their family named their kids something that could be translated into English as well as Korean and mean precisely the same thing.

I love this statue in Daejeon – outside the soccer stadium.

As mentioned above, there’s mainly three last names, so to have six women named exactly the same in a pro sports league is not that surprising. This was not always the case. You can look back through Korean history and find all manner of last names.

Why the change? Because after being occupied by the Japanese for fifty years, the newly freed Koreans in 1945 had burned the official records. There was no paper trail to prove that you were who you said you were. So people started giving themselves royal names. Kim, Park, and Lee all dated back to the families of kings of a free and independent Korea. These peasants wanted to improve their life, so they changed their name. The only problem was that EVERYONE figured this out and did it roughly at the same time.

This is not that unusual. Many of the new Zionist settlers to Israel changed their name to something more Hebrew sounding to start a new life. I knew one friend whose ancestor moved to Yorktown, Virginia and took his wife’s name to forget his past. I knew one guy in college who changed his last name to Angel because… it sounded cool. (Angel was also a popular show on TV at that moment.)

Does changing your name really make that much of a difference in your life? Have you met people who did this? Ladies, did taking your husband’s last name (or not) lead to a change in how people perceived you? Let me know in the comments below?

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