Thursday, December 29, 2011

Malaysia, Truly Asia

Taiwan touch your heart, Korea sparkling, Incredible India, tourism boards around here have given their respective countries slogans to entice tourists to travel to places they may not otherwise think to visit. Malaysia wins the tourism award as Chris and I have been looking for an excuse to visit "Truly Asia" since we first saw their ads in Taiwan. So, when the holidays rolled around, we decided to escape Seoul's icy streets and introduce the girls to the South China Sea for their first Christmas.

The fam on our Christmas morning before we left

Meeting Santa

Enjoying the beach

Orangutan Reserve
The Always Popular BOGOs

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Minding Everyone's Business: Collectivism

They are everywhere: riding the subway, standing on street corners, scanning my groceries, driving my taxi. I cannot step foot out of my apartment without running into one. Who are they? People telling me my business. Where I come from, this is a serious no-no. Friends, let alone strangers, will be met with a harsh glance and a terse reply should they comment on my choice of food or attire. “Mind your own business,” is a phrase that we learn in our very early playground years and it sticks with us through adulthood. Living in a collectivist culture, however, has brought me to reflect about what exactly is my own business and what makes it so sacredly personal.

We noticed this phenomenon while living in Taiwan. People would come along and show us how to correctly stand in line or hold an umbrella. We learned when it was appropriate to wear gloves (answer: October through February) and when it was appropriate for women to wear high heels (answer: Every. Single. Day.) Sometimes this unsolicited advice was welcomed, sometimes it was fodder for comedic storytelling, but frankly sometimes it was simply annoying. Nonetheless, we learned to deal with it and recognize it as a part of our daily lives.

Fast forward to the arrival of babies last February. Everywhere we turned, Korean women were there with their wise counsel about what I should be doing better. Why aren’t the babies wearing socks right now? Where are their hats? That position is much too uncomfortable for them to sit, you should move them. That is not a good toy for them. Your babies are clearly too hot/too cold right now! You need to add/subtract clothes immediately. And the list goes on. People telling me my business. I have to admit that these comments often left my feathers a bit ruffled. Do you not think that I care about my babies’ welfare? Would I intentionally dress them inappropriately or give them something that was unsafe? Through my own cultural lenses, I perceived this unsolicited instruction as a personal affront to my ability to be a mother. However, after further reflection, I have come to the conclusion that this is not at all the case.

Having grown up in an individualist culture, I learned to value independence above all things. The more you can do on your own, the better person you are. At the other end of the spectrum, collectivists value what you can accomplish together, how well you all can excel by putting your heads together. Through this cultural lens, I can appreciate collectivist advice for what it is. Koreans don’t have the concept of minding their own business because no one has their own business. It is all “our business”. When Koreans offer their assistance on how my children should be dressed, it is not an attack on what I am doing wrong but rather a plea to be involved, even in this tiny way, in my and my family’s life. From that perspective, it is really pretty cool.

So, go ahead. Tell me my children should be wearing more clothes. Help me change their diapers. Give them snacks from your own diaper bag. But be ready, this American girl has a few opinions of her own.

Lucy enjoying the company of some women on the train

Lily getting passed around the subway

Lucy making friends in the local coffee shop

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dinner: Part 2

For those of you who follow our blog, you may remember a woeful post I wrote about a year ago lamenting the difficulties of procuring a decent meal in our then-new city. Perhaps it was because I was pregnant, hormonal, and constantly hungry but, cooking was the biggest culture shock that I experienced upon moving to Korea. For whatever reason, I suddenly felt lost without my Pillsbury crescent rolls and pre-bagged salads. I wandered the grocery aisles panic-stricken looking for something from my dinner arsenal: Bisquick, basil, buttermilk… and that’s just the B’s! Soy sauce, yes. Rice, most definitely. But, rice soaked in soy sauce doesn’t actually taste that great, no matter how you prepare it. Trust me. So, dinner for the first few months of our time here vacillated between spaghetti, stir fry, soup, and probably spaghetti again.

I used to love cooking. That love is probably more deeply rooted in my more passionate love for eating. When we lived in the States, I used to enjoy going to the grocery store and dreaming about what we might have for dinner. and frequented my browsing history. But, moving abroad changed that. Filled with recipes including boxed cake mix, canned soups and ready-made bread dough, searching for dinner options simply reminded me of everything I couldn’t find in my Korean grocery store.

But then, slowly but surely, something began to happen. Really, it started with my mom’s visit when the babies came. She would go down to the same grocery store whose name had become synonymous with anxiety for me and come back able to prepare a variety of delicious meals, not one of them spaghetti. So that inspired me to experiment. I started to ask around and see what other ladies put on their tables and what recipes worked for them. I wasn’t too surprised to learn that, instead of Pillsbury and Bisquick, most ladies’ recipe boxes were filled with recipes that actually included flour and yeast. The words “from scratch” had always carried an imposing connotation for me. Anything made at home had to have taken hours of laborious measuring, kneading and mixing to produce the pristine final product that grandmothers around the world would be proud of. But, I decided to give it a go. A good friend offered a bread recipe that promised to be easy and versatile. You know what? It was easy! I was inspired. What else do I need from my American grocer that I can make here? Bread, done. Pie crust? A cinch. Cake and icing? Simple. Buttermilk… well, okay that one didn’t turn out as well but at least I tried. I even went so far as to try my hand at home made puffed pastry last weekend. I don’t think I am selling the recipe to Pepperidge Farm any time soon but it did the trick.

I am happy to say that has once again reached the top ten browsing history and the kitchen has returned to its former glory of “happy place”. A happy kitchen means happy bellies. Happy bellies means a happy family. In conclusion, homemade bread = happiness.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Believer

Let’s face it. Koreans are not exactly known for their cuisine. Maybe it is their northern climate that freezes out fresh produce. Maybe it is the obsession with spice that has deadened most Koreans’ taste buds leaving them apathetic toward more subtle flavors. Or maybe it is that Korean food requires one to acquire an appreciation for its culinary diamonds in the rough. More recently, I have found myself leaning to the last of these three possibilities.

Koreans don’t help their cause of becoming world renowned chefs when they describe their national dish. Ask any Korean what food best defines their country and they will undoubtedly tell you kimchi. Kimchi is everywhere. As ubiquitous as salt on the American table, kimchi serves as an appetizer, side dish and a seasoning agent all rolled into one. You literally will not have a single meal without the obligatory kimchi accompaniment. If this food is so popular, you ask, why haven’t I had it? Well, I’ll tell you.

The reason kimchi hasn’t gained quite as much popularity in non-Korean circles is because of what it is. Developed as an attempt to preserve produce to eat throughout the long winter, kimchi is cabbage that has been put in a pot and left to ferment in a special sauce. To ensure that your breath will indeed be deadly after consuming it, the kimchi has also been heavily spiced giving it a bright red color. Interested? Yeah, neither was I. Let's be honest, it was a bit too reminiscent of stinky tofu. When we lived in Taiwan we had a few Korean students whose parents made kimchi and brought it to the teachers. I figured that if there was any time I would like kimchi it would be when it was homemade by a Korean. I didn’t like it. In fact, I pretty much hated it.

Fast-forward to moving here and Chris and I felt obliged to try it again. My reaction, still hated it. Chris’ reaction, actually really liked it. He began to pick and choose our Korean restaurants by their quality of kimchi. He even began to crave kimchi and I went so far as to stock up some kimchi in our very own refrigerator. All the while, Chris keeps telling me that I will come around and start enjoying this national treasure. I insisted that I would not, Sam I am, I will not like your cole slaw gone bad!

But, last night, something happened. We went out to a Korean restaurant and I thought I would give it one more go. Not so bad. Maybe one more bite… and one more. Before I knew it, I was actually eating and enjoying kimchi. This sparked a conversation amongst our friends about kimchi and taste preferences. “I like it when it is more fresh and crunchy!” “Not me, I like it when it is soft and chewy.” “I like it when it makes my whole mouth tingle!” “My favorite is the radish kimchi.” “Mine is the cucumber kimchi!”

Here we are, a bunch of foreigners hanging out in a restaurant in Seoul debating the subtleties of kimchi spices and fermentation. Not a conversation I ever expected to have before moving abroad. But, there you have it. My name is Ashley and I like kimchi.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

BOGO Update

Last Sunday, we celebrated the BOGO's eight month "birthday". And by celebrate, I mean Chris took them to a local cafe and I flew nine hours back to Seoul from Dubai. It was a grand celebration indeed. They did receive gifts from the Middle East, however, and I like to think that they enjoy them. No, eight months isn't that big of a deal but for those of you who haven't seen the little buggers for a while, I thought I would show them off a bit.

Opening gifts

Going for a stroll (Can you find Lily?)

Getting passed around the subway

Getting into trouble

Lily hanging out with Mom

Lucy hanging out with Dad

As for milestones, Lily is an expert crawler and pulls up on everything that will hold her (and some things that won't). Lucy just joined her sister in the world of mobility and can army crawl with the best of them. Lucy's grin will soon be taking shape as the first tooth finally made its debut this week. Milestones for Mom and Dad: Mom spent her first weekend away from the babies and Dad held down the fort by himself (with the help of some dear friends along the way). Big steps all around!