Korean Summer 3: Connecting with Relatives

H with Min’s brother (Jakkun Appa) and mother (Halmoni).

We have just one week left before we are on the plane back to the U.S.  I am trying to savor my time with the people here that I love and who love my husband and children.

Visiting Korea is enjoyable and relaxing like a vacation in many ways, but world travel alone is not the reason we come here.  I lived here for three years, so I’ve already seen and done much of what I’d want from a “travel” experience.  Korea is where all of Min’s family still lives.  We have tried to cultivate the relationships between our children and their Korean family as much as possible.  When we are here, the main goal is to connect with family and friends.

Gomo Halmoni playing “airplane” with H.

Including this trip, Min has visited Korea five times since we moved to the U.S. in 2010 (once with J and once alone, so I’ve only come back 3 times).  We also hosted Halmoni and Gomo Halmoni (Min’s aunt, and one of my favorite people in the entire world) for a month in the U.S. when J was an infant.  In fact, the emotional pull of remaining connected with our Korean family through frequent visits has almost certainly contributed to our debt problem, though I don’t regret a single one of those trips.  This trip is bittersweet because we are committed to not incurring debt for anymore travel, including Korea*, so it will probably be at least three years (all consumer debt paid off and adequate savings accumulated) until any of us are able to return.

Something about this trip feels different in other ways, a kind of subtle emotional shift.  The heat has prevented us from enjoying many of the outdoor activities we love to do in Korea (hiking, temple visiting, sightseeing, festival-participating, etc.). More of my friends have moved away from Korea (or even just Daegu) and our old swing dance club is defunct as of June this year; those that are here are in a similar phase of life and busy with the demands of young children and in-laws.  We went downtown, and my favorite restaurants there are gone (replaced by what seem to be great places, but they aren’t “mine”).  While I’m visiting old haunts and enjoying the familiarity of this foreign culture, it doesn’t quite feel as much like a second home for me as it has in the past.

At the same time, Frederick feels more like home than ever after J’s first year of school, and my enjoyment of my new job.  Min even mentioned this feeling, though it is making him feel more anxious than me.  We love our home (new roof and all) and our life there.  We will always miss our friends and family in Korea and other parts of the world, but I feel happy thinking about spending the next 5, 10, or even 20 years in the same place.  I’ve never really felt quite that way before; I used to yearn for the life of the postmodern nomad.

I want to grow plants and keep routines and deepen my friendships and community ties in my chosen hometown.  I want my children to feel grounded in being from Frederick.  I still want to travel more (when out of debt, with my family), but I want to come home when I’m done.

* The declining health of a Korean family member has forced us to discuss possible emergency travel situations for Min alone; we are making plans to increase the emergency fund while paying down consumer debt to accommodate.  However, should the worst happen before we have the full amount, we will do what we can, even if it means a setback to our financial progress.

Book Review–The Year of Less

While traveling, I’ve set up a few posts to publish automatically in case I can’t always write from Korea.  Enjoy!

Ever since I moved to another country 7,000 miles from home with two suitcases and a cat, I have been intrigued with minimalism.  I really am happiest owning less stuff, doing fewer things, and consuming more mindfully.  However, I have a complex relationship with minimalism in practice, for more reasons than just the obvious: living with two children + husband makes minimalism quite challenging.  I’ll have to write a post about that someday.

Cait Flanders’s beautiful memoir, The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store, documenting her year-long shopping ban spoke to a deep, hidden, almost-forgotten part of my soul.  I have been following Cait as a blogger off and on over the years.  Her writing has always spoken to me for its honest, raw vulnerability and the purity of her blog as a space for sharing her thoughts and documenting her progress through life (rather than a creation to make money–as so many blogs are these days).  She has always been in this blogging thing because she is a writer.  Her craft is strong and this book was about much, much more than owning less stuff.

What was so powerful for me in Cait’s book was what I have noticed in my own work on gaining financial control of my life: the similarities between consumerism and addiction (hers: alcohol and food, mine: mostly just food, though I do have addictive tendencies in several aspects of my life) as ways to cope with emotions and problems that are uncomfortable, rather than addressing the source of the discomfort.  During Cait’s year long ban on shopping, she faces some intense challenges in her personal life that test her resolve in ways she had not anticipated.  Without the crutch of shopping, she has to sit with the feelings of loss and grief.

In fact, her book made me reflect profoundly enough on my own life that one of my personal “commandments” is inspired by this book and my pursuit of debt freedom and health: Satisfy the real need.  I am most vulnerable to eating something unhealthy or purchasing something I don’t really need or want when I have an unmet need that feels unbearable in the moment.  I often don’t need chocolate–I need to eat.  I don’t need to purchase new clothes–I need to feel confident in my new job.  I don’t need to pay lots of money for someone to fix my broken window screen–I need to trust that I can learn the skills to make that simple repair myself.

Note: Cait’s latest post indicates that she is stepping away from blogging for a moment.  I wish her the best and can’t wait to see what comes from her writing next!  In the meantime, I highly recommend her memoir!

Disclosure:  This post contains affiliate links.  I only recommend services and products that I use.

Korean Summer 2: Sibling Bonds

When I first arrived a week ago, after missing my kids for the three prior weeks, I was struck by how very, very American (in the ‘Muricah kind of way) they seemed in a foreign country.  They were loud and exuberant when other kids were more shy and retiring; they were grumpy about adults correcting their manners and became almost belligerent about properly greeting their halmoni (grandmother); and they required peanut butter sandwiches and hot dogs almost daily.  I was horrified.  I mentioned it to Min, but he just laughed and said that they were just kids.  I relaxed a little and realized he was right.  And, of course, my children are American; why would I expect them to be otherwise?  But their “outsider”-ness has remained something I notice and contemplate on this trip.

Working side by side at an interactive art installation at the gallery opening we attended for a friend.

My children have transformed into really excellent playmates while in Korea.  Today on the playground, they were making up a story about the different colored areas on the pavement (red was lava, blue was water, etc.), running and jumping and swimming around–throwing in sharks and random objects and whatever else, and it struck my heart:

This is the summer I wanted for them.  A summer where they are imaginative and close and take joy in their relationship outside of competing for parental resources.

H doesn’t just follow J around, doing whatever he says, she contributes and objects with shocking independence.  J genuinely values her companionship, not just tolerates it with annoyed beneficence because Mommy said to play nice.  Don’t get me wrong, they still squabble and quickly get under each others’ skin in that way only siblings can, but there is a shift.

They are a team.

Something developmental is happening (I noticed this tendency to play together more for the last six months), but I think the trip has significantly contributed to this pleasant development in the following ways:

  • H was without Mommy for three weeks in a row for the first time ever.  This develops independence and deepens her relationships with the people she is near.
  • Korean kids are still in school, so almost none are around to play with during the weekdays (only babies and toddlers).  They have to play with each other or by themselves.
  • They have fewer toys here than at home, and what toys they have are new and different.  The experiences they have while traveling inspire creativity in them, just as they do in adults.
  • Finally, the way they stand out in Korea makes them more like each other than like the other kids around them.  For example, while they speak Korean, they are more comfortable and deft with English and most Korean kids don’t even try to speak Korean with them.  They are close because they share a powerful cultural connection in a strange situation.

On this last point, it was similar to the instant bonding of the expat community in Korea.  When I lived here (2007-2010), a common discussion among English speaking foreigners living in the country was how rare we were (less than 2% of the population of Korean is ethnically non-Korean), so those of us with white or brown skin were gawked at like celebrities in our neighborhoods.  I mostly found this amusing (like when one shocked middle school boy exited the subway in front of me, pointed, and said “David Beckham!”), but there were times it ranged from embarrassing (I bought my birth control far from my local neighborhood, where literally everyone knew who I was and where I worked and lived) to freaky (being followed for blocks by men who wouldn’t take “no” for a “coffee” invitation, if you catch my drift).  Some expats would be driven mad by the attention to waegukin (foreigners) and retaliate with bitter anger at Korean culture–often while still dating Korean people.  At the time I thought they were overreacting, but now I realize–they probably felt extremely lonely.  Their bonding over their “hatred” of the host culture was probably more desperation and sadness than the small-minded bigotry (as I once saw it).

I think my children are experiencing the above to a smaller degree.  They have family here, so they have greater insider status, but none of that family are young children and no one else treats them like Koreans.  (And being treated like Korean children is sometimes no picnic–J and H have both recoiled at relatives manhandling them to fix something about their appearance or manners without asking permission first.)

I wonder how they will recall this summer in their memories as they get older.  I hope (as a mother hopes) that if they remember nothing else, they’ll remember their friendship.

Korean Summer 1: Asan Trip

Living as an international, bi-cultural family is rich and rewarding.  However, one major challenge is that our family is spread about 7,000 miles apart across two continents and an ocean or so.  Video calling is great, but there is really no substitute for spending time with people you love and building those relationships organically.  Furthermore, J and H are bilingual, but their Korean language exposure is basically limited to their father–who is great at teaching them, but it’s not the same as immersion.  We try to travel to Korea as often as we can for those reasons, but it is quite expensive and time consuming.

This summer, Min took J and H to Korea in late June.  I joined them a few weeks later.  With our commitment to repairing our finances, this will probably be our last trip to Korea for at least a couple years.  While we are focusing on frugal travel practice, we are taking advantage of our time here to bond with friends, explore a different culture, and enjoy different experiences.  I will blog about some of those experiences here.

J and H with their new friends.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, we rented a van with another family (Min’s close friend, wife, and two daughters) to travel to Asan, a small coastal city famous for hot springs and for being a place where Admiral Yi Sun-sin lived for a time.

We spent most of the first day at a lovely water park, Paradise Dogo Spa. The kids loved the variety of pools, slides, and activities. Given how crazy hot it has been in Daegu (the city where we are staying), it was very refreshing to spend most of a day swimming.  Going on a random weekday when most Korean students were still in school meant that the park was not crowded.  I learned that J is a crazy daredevil about water slides and wave pools, like the younger daughter of the family we were with.  H passed out on the floor of the bathroom from exhaustion as we were preparing to leave.  It was amazing!

Model of a turtle ship with the dragon head (hiding a fire cannon) in the museum.

The second day, we decided to go to Hyunchungsa, a temple dedicated to Admiral Yi (the picture above is of the old temple).  Admiral Yi is one of the most beloved figures of Korean history.  In the late 1500s, Japan attacked Korea (as it was wont to do periodically), and Admiral Yi gained fame by improving the design of a kind of war ship called a Turtle Ship because it could tuck all the extra bits behind its heavily armored hull and smash other boats like a battering ram while suffering very little damage.

Battle configurations for Yi’s ships.

I knew that part already, but I was very impressed with the other reason for his hero worship status as a military genius–his impressive tactical strategies.  The display included extensive details from his personal diary where he designed formations that lured the enemy into a small area where the Yi’s Turtle Ships could circle around and destroy the enemy force with shocking efficiency.

It was scorching hot, so we only explored a small part of the beautiful temple grounds, but luckily the air-conditioned museum had lots of fascinating pieces from Admiral Yi’s diary and other artifacts.  There was also an animated 4D movie demonstrating how the ships and attack strategies worked in real life battles.  H loved it, declaring “Let’s watch that again!”  J was very impressed with the strategy involved and the engineering of the boats (and, of course, the famous swords).

Along the trip, we also indulged in some of my favorite Korean tasty treats–rest stop fried potatoes, spicy tofu soup (sundubu jjigae), roasted fish (seonsangui), and sushi buffet (chobap)! Yum!

Korean road trips are great fun.  When I lived in Korea (2007-2010), I frequently enjoyed this kind of trip, but with kids you see all of it in a new way.  The enjoyment of this experience is an awesome reminder of why I am so interested in pursuing my financial goals.  Our family is happiest when it engages with this kind of experience–building great friendships, learning about history, enjoying physical activity.  This is worth giving up some less fulfilling spending and getting out of debt.

Book Review: Broke Millennial

While traveling, I’ve set up a few posts to publish automatically in case I can’t always write from Korea.  Enjoy!

I can’t believe it took me this long to read Broke Millennial: Stop Scraping By and Get Your Financial Life Together by Erin Lowry!  It’s a great book–especially for people who are just starting to put together their financial know-how.

This is the book about personal finance I will give my younger sister for Christmas.

Unlike me, she does not find personal finance very exciting to read about, but she is at a point in her life she is interested in learning how to get better with money.  Lowry breaks it down in fun (though occasionally gimmicky), clear ways.  She has tons of research sources (both from published books and interviews) and honors the reality that everyone’s situation and goals are different.  Many other personal finance books with her same audience (people in their 20s and early 30s) do not do as complete a job of addressing the details of credit cars, students loans, and budgeting strategies (along with other topics).  It’s a great book by a great writer!

My only minor negative?  The title.  It kept me from reading the book/website for a long time because I’m just outside of the “millennial” age range (and have a lot of #feelings about the characteristics attributed to that group and media directed specifically for their consumption).  But to be fair, I’m not a millennial, so I’m not really qualified to comment on the appeal of this book.

Every time I have come across Erin Lowry’s writing or video advice through another financial website, I admired her ability to frame complex financial steps in clear, palatable ways without diminishing or flattening the content. So while the name of her blog, Broke Millennial, made me hesitate, I couldn’t ignore the high quality of her work.  Eventually, I gave the book a shot, and I’m so glad I did!

Lowry’s book reminds me in tone and comprehensiveness to my own first educational text about personal finance, The Motley Fool: You Have More Than You Think – The Foolish Guide to Personal Finance, which I wrote about in my Reading Recommendations page.

If you feel like you want to know more about personal finance for young adults or have a millennial in your life that you love (looking at you parents of teens, teachers, etc.), read this book.  Heck, even if you just love a good story or two, Lowry’s vignettes from her childhood and discussions of merging her finances with her partner are worth it!  I even learned a bit about some of the more recent info about student loans and post-recession-recovery banking regulations.

Disclosure:  This post contains affiliate links.  I only recommend services and products that I use.

Challenge Day Twenty One: Reflections

Today is the final day of a three week (21 Day) challenge to myself to better align my habits, actions, and life with my values.  I didn’t set up too many difficult rules for myself at the start other than to do one thing intentionally, each day, that aligns better with my best self and write about what I did each day on the blog.  I picked up a few followers and some friends/family started reading my writing (hi everyone!), so it helped me feel a bit less lonely while I was missing my family.  Thanks for those who stuck with me!

I also planned to abstain from grocery shopping, entertainment spending, and utility costs during this time.  I mostly did, although I did spend a bit on some unplanned dining out (like 3 times) and bought salsa to use up some chips.

Not everything went according to plan, but I stuck with the challenge and am surprised and impressed by my accomplishments.  Overall, I learned a lot about myself, dealt with many emotionally challenging situations that I might have treated with food or splurging in the past, participated in a record amount of physical activity, writing, and reading in this amount of time, and spent about $1,000 LESS during this period than in the 21 days before the challenge (while 3 members of our family were on vacation, no less).  It is amazing what you can accomplish over a focused period, even if the day to day has errors and lapses.

Tomorrow, I hop a plane to Korea and reconnect to my family.  The blog will go back to posts when I feel like posting.  However, I will carry the lessons I’ve learned from this challenge and the habit adjustments I’ve made into my life.  I feel more at peace, focused, and fulfilled.  That matters.

If you want to see any particular day’s events, here is a list of each day and what I wrote about/did on that day:

  1. Netflix Deleted
  2. Decluttering Round One
  3. Read a Whole Book in a Day
  4. Exercise Streak
  5. Adulting and Illness
  6. “Reading” to the Kids
  7. On Wanting to Quit and Decluttering Mentally
  8. Unexpected Niece Fun Day
  9. Solo Hike
  10. Internet Fast
  11. Fireman’s Carnival
  12. My “Commandments”
  13. American Trails
  14. Chana Masala
  15. Reflecting On Blogging
  16. Frederick Swing Dance
  17. Preparations
  18. Shock and Grief
  19. Volunteering
  20. Connections
  21. Reflections (no link–that’s this post, silly!)

Challenge Day Twenty: Connections

Why is it that sometimes the things we are most afraid to do, are the things we need to do the most?

In late December, one of my closest friends and colleagues, Jessica Bowers, suffered a traumatic brain injury when she fell down a flight of stairs.  It was a terrible, random, life-altering accident.  It’s hard to look back at that time because for a few weeks, we weren’t sure she’d survive.  She did, but she’s still dealing with a host of medical problems and limited abilities.

I’ve been struggling with being unable to communicate with my friend as we once did; mourning the loss of our friendship, even though my friend is still here and fighting for her recovery.  We used to speak daily, go out for coffee/wine once or twice a month, and exchange witty commentary on Facebook.  We spoke about being parents of young children (her son just turned 4), great literature, and political injustice. She is a lively spirit with a wonderful sense of humor (see the bumper stickers from her previous car above), a musician and teacher, and a wonderful mother.  Her new limitations and staying in a rehab facility almost an hour away have made it difficult to visit.

The ugly truth is that while visiting Jess is inconvenient for my busy life, that is an excuse.  The real reason I have only visited her once is that her condition is emotionally draining for me.    I love my friend.  I want to comfort her and support her, but I allow my fear of feeling awkward and inadequate stop me from doing what I could to help.  I know how lonely and sad she must be, how important it is for her to see friendly faces, and how much greater the loss is her to her and her family than it is to me, but I am a selfish, timid, weak human being most of the time.  I am trying to change these things about myself I don’t like.

Today, two friends and I made the trip out to visit with Jess.  She was tired, but she roused herself and reached for each of our hands.  We read her a story written by a student who wanted to be sure she got the story.  She mouthed, “How are you?” and refused to let go of our hands and looked us in the eyes as we talked about life, students, friends, and how much we miss her.  She smiled a few times when we talked about Frederick and people we all love.  It was very emotional; I’m so glad we could make the trip.

It was hard.  I’m probably still going to struggle to give Jess as much as she’s given me through her friendship.

I had a vision last week, while I was walking around downtown Frederick for an outdoor art festival with music in the sunshine, of Jess–perhaps a year from now, further along her recovery, and present with her family and friends for this experience.  She would love it so much.  I will keep holding to that.

Tomorrow’s Challenge: Final Day, Reflections

Challenge Day Nineteen: Volunteering

“We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” –Winston Churchill

An important part of my identity is in helping others and giving back to the community.  I feel most grounded and whole when I am in positions where I assist individuals and organizations in need.  Especially right now as we are focused on reigning in our spending, I feel the urge to give more of my time.  I’ve been helping out at my son’s school more in the last few months, but I felt a strong urge to get back to volunteering regularly with a community organization.  During this challenge, I’ve been doing all the groundwork necessary to set up a volunteer schedule for myself for when I return from Korea.

For many years while I was teaching, my “side hustle” (or second job, as they used to call it when I first had one) was working at crisis/suicide hotlines, answering phones.  I began as a volunteer at first, but quickly ended up being hired part time.  I even took a break from teaching for a year to work full time as Volunteer Supervisor for a hotline.  There is a great satisfaction for me in this difficult work.

When I had H and was still finishing my graduate work, I pulled back from working two jobs and volunteering, but have always missed the outreach and helping aspect of answering crisis calls.  I decided it was important for me to return as a volunteer to the hotline where I worked.  Tonight, I shadowed and signed all the final forms that will allow me to be scheduled again when I return.

I’m excited to renew my work.  I feel like an important part of myself that had been put on hold for awhile is awakening.

Tomorrow’s Challenge: Connecting with a friend…

Challenge Day Eighteen: Shock and Grief

Today did not go as planned.  Letting the feelings come…

The last time I heard his voice, he was laughing, but I don’t remember the last words he said to me.  Because they were the normal, cheery pleasantries of a Monday morning, important but not particular.  I didn’t expect to have to remember.

This is not how it goes.  You don’t wake up in the morning and go to work and greet your wonderful co-workers as usual, talking weekends and summer lightness, and then have one of them drop dead of a heart attack in the middle of the morning.  That happens to other people, not to you, not to your colleague, your friend.

You see the ambulances and fire trucks pull away and the hushed voices as you return from a meeting.  You go to the room where there will be an update.  There are tissues on the tables and everyone is somber and before the grief counselors even join you and your coworkers in the room, you already know.

“He didn’t make it.”

Those words, you will remember.

And the image of your friend blurs with the last time you saw your father.  His lifeless body, tube still in his mouth, so small, so without laughter.  Not your father at all. Not anymore.

Not for the first time, you wish you’d convinced your mother to have a funeral so that the coworkers and friends who loved him as I love my friend, could have said goodbye.  The raw shock of mortality jars with the meeting room.  Everyone is crying and asking each other if they are ok, but no one is really ok.  He was here, just two hours ago, fully alive.  And now, not.

Your instincts (what you really, really want to do):

  • Leave–escape somehow so that you can avoid the memory and the pain
  • Eat–stuff your body full so you will not feel the emptiness inside
  • Spend–don’t go home to the empty house, go to the restaurant
  • Isolate–keep your feelings in; others are hurting more than you and their pain is more important
  • Shut down–do nothing, cry, avoid, avoid, sleep

What you do instead:

  • Talk to co-workers, family, friends, and write this–share the vulnerability
  • Persist–finish what you can at work, even if you aren’t very productive
  • Eat a (mostly) healthy meal as planned, at home
  • Read a good book for a bit of escape
  • Dance at your exercise class as planned, punch out the pain with the boxing.

You don’t feel any better, really, but at least you don’t feel worse.

After all, your favorite thing about him was the little joy he brought by showing up with a smile every day and a kind word.  Being light is not as easy as it seems, but it is the least I can do to try.

Tomorrow’s Challenge: Get Back Up and Try Again

Challenge Day Seventeen: Preparations

Getting the house ready for the roofers this week, finishing my cleaning/organizing tasks, and meeting with our house/cat-sitter made today busy.  However, I like the productive feeling I got from carefully planning this week’s food use to minimize waste and airing all the sheets/blankets so everything will be fresh when we come back from Korea.  I even cleaned out the cars of the accumulated junk.  Even with a midday niece visit, I got a lot done.

No wonder I’m so tired!

I’m especially proud of how I’m sticking to my entertainment budget and no grocery shopping, even with some temptations.  I’ve also been making plans for the final few days of this challenge that were quite unthinkable in the beginning because of how stuck I’ve been on autopilot.  I’m amazed at how this focus–even though it’s not clearly delineated, specific, or lengthy compared to many blogger challenges–has brought me awareness and helped me work through the ways discomfort often takes me away from my true values.

I am so happy I’ll see my family before the week is out!

Tomorrow’s Challenge: Final Food Prep for Travel (This didn’t happen–I scrambled last minute to do it later), instead a friend and co-worker died suddenly

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...