family

The Koreas Call Hillary Clinton a "Funny Lady" & a "Role Model"

This week, Hillary Clinton made the news for her exchange of words with North Korea. After she likened North Korean leaders to "unruly children" whose antics should be ignored, they responded: “We cannot but regard Mrs. Clinton as a funny lady, as she likes to utter such rhetoric, unaware of the elementary etiquette in the international community,” the North Korean statement said. “Sometimes she looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping.” (New York Times) That's a harsh statement, especially compared to her visit to Seoul earlier this year.

In late February, she made a speech at Ewha Women's University, where she impressed the audience of a few thousand female students. After the appropriate applause for her equally appropriate speech on women's empowerment, there was a town hall-like Q&A session. She spent the hour answering personal questions about her upbringing, finding love, her family and balancing motherhood and her career, feeling a little "more like an advice columnist than a secretary of state" (New York Times). A couple weeks later, Clinton was voted as the most respected international role model for women by the school's freshman students.

The Star Said...

This is a story written by one of my Grade 1 (Grade 7 in North America) students for our annual English Speech Contest. I have copied it exactly as it was written, all errors included---but, impressively, there are very few. I not only liked the story and its theme of environmentalism, but she also performed it very well.

Have you ever heard a star talking? Well, I did and I want to talk about it. Are you ready? I’ll begin.

When I was six or seven, my family went to a beach for vacation. The beach was beautiful; soft sand, white waves, lovely trees nearby. We played there like anyone else. We swam and made sandcastles during the day. We ate delicious food and slept peacefully at night. It seemed a lovely and ordinary holiday.

However, it was different. My parents woke me up at midnight and piggybacked me to the shore. I didn’t realize anything except they were carrying me to some place until mom said,

“Sumin*, look up!”

Stars embroidered the sky’s black cloth. The lights dancing against the black, coal-like sky. I just stared at them in silence. The only think I could hear was the cool sound of the waves lapping.

We walked by the shore, using the star lights as our lanterns and the waves and background music. That stroll by the clean and silent beach is one of the happiest memories of my life.

After some years, my family and I visited the same beach again. I remembered the bright stars and beautiful beach. But, it had changed. The shore was dirty and even made dangerous by debris of glass bottles, Styrofoam plates and paper cups. People had thrown junk onto the beautiful pristine sand and ruined it! I cursed an hoped those people never come to that beach again.

At that moment, I heard someone say,

“Who did you blame? Look at the sky and see how beautiful it is, just as in the past, But look at that shore, all ruined and dirty. While this shore was getting dirtier, what were you doing? Look. The skies, where human hands can’t reach, are the same as ever but the place where human hands have reached has been ruined.

Who was it that said this? There was no one at the shore except me. There was only a star staring at me. Yes, it was a star that just spoken to me.

“Who did I blame? Is it wrong to blame those people? “I wanted to answer the star’s question, but I couldn’t answer. I had done nothing for the beach. Does this mean that someone who has done nothing is the same as those people who made the Earth dirty?

That was it. I am the same as them. Sometimes I littered anywhere even though there were trashcans nearby. I was a part of the mess, even a small amount on this Earth made me complicit.

Now I realized the true meaning of the star’s words and felt remorse.

I made a promise in my heart, to clean up after the places where I stayed. Even now, when I go back home from institutes late at night, I stare at the star of Seoul in silence and believe it was the star who spoke to me. I try to keep the promise I made long ago with the star.

I hope you try to listen to the stars an promise them,

“I will help too.”

-------------- * Name has been changed

Out of Asia: A Family Vacation in Scotland

At the end of the school year, I had the opportunity to visit my family in Scotland, where my sister lives. It was my first time leaving Asia in almost a year, and as such, I had one rule for the week: no rice.

It was nice to have the family all together, even it was only for a week. Occasions like this are very rare with my family as two of four kids live abroad. It was also nice to escape the heat and humidity of Korean summers; drive on roads without traffic jams (and on the left side!); breathe some fresh, pollution-free air; and be mistaken for a local.

flowerpots everywhere added colour to an otherwise dreary landscape

flowerpots everywhere added colour to an otherwise dreary landscape

rooftops and rolling hills

rooftops and rolling hills

harbour
harbour
making a phone call

making a phone call

bagpiper playing at a train station

bagpiper playing at a train station

castle at Loch Ness

castle at Loch Ness

Remember When: The Joy of Reminiscing

vietnam with brock.jpg

My last day in Vietnam was spent walking around the city by myself, as my brother's flight took off almost a full day before mine. As soon as I woke up on my last morning in Ho Cho Minh City and saw my brother wasn't there, I realized how much I liked having family around.

I feel that having a friend or family member with me on my travels validates my experiences, so when I go home after it's all over, I know someone will remember something the same way I do. It means I can say, "Hey, I remember in Vietnam when..." and someone can actually say yes. It brings my two worlds together so I know I was doing something real, it wasn't just a dream, my experiences aren't lost in some black hole somewhere only I can find.

Before moving to Korea, I lived for a year in Ghana, West Africa. Halfway through that adventure, my older sister came to travel around the country with me for two weeks. We hustled our way over the whole country, hitting up national parks, beaches, cities, barseverything we could possibly squeeze into fifteen days. She saw my residence at the university, she met my new friends, she ate the food, she rode in a trotro. Now, when I feel the urge to talk about Ghanaian anything, I know I can talk to my sister and she'll laugh and say she remembers, too.

Sure, new friends met abroad are always available for those reminiscing moments. "Remember when we..." "Remember the time..." And I can write about my experiences for anyone who cares to read about them, and I can (hopefully) describe the experiences well enough to make people feel like they were there with me.

But there, really, is nothing like a sister standing right there beside you as you look at the elephants drinking from the watering hole in Mole National Park, or a brother resting on the lounge chair next to you on a junk in Halong Bay, or a good friend from Ghana living in Seoul and spending her weekends with you and your new friends.

Choosing a Vacation Spot: Vietnam

Between the end of the school year in Korea and start of winter English camps in January, I found myself with two empty weeks and a world of opportunities. My younger brother decided he would rather backpack with me than show up for the first week of second semester classes at university, so we made plans to meet somewhere in Asia and backpack for two weeks together.

Two weeks with a family member may be daunting for a lot of people, but not for my family. We’re veterans of the good ol’ family road trip. Every summer growing up, you’d find the six of us in our Suburban driving somewhere in North America, watching the beautiful scenery go by. We’re no stranger to driving 12+ hours a day or sleeping in the car so we could make it as far as possible across the wide continent.

What I love most about our family vacations is that they’re never planned, never scheduled. I remember one summer in particular, when we had the truck and trailer all packed up with our clothing collections, multiple coolers (for easy access to snacks and cold drinks), a variety of cassettes, a mini-library, and maps for every state and province. We were ready. We backed out of the driveway, headed down our country road, and drove on the highway for a full sixty seconds before pulling into a truck stop. We ordered a plate of fries to share. East or west? We just couldn’t decide. After all the fries were gone, we hit the road, eastward bound. Only a couple hours into the journey, Mom requested we turn ourselves around and head west towards her beloved Rocky Mountains. So we did. For us, travelling is about the journey, not just the destination.

Just like that trip, my brother and I had trouble deciding on a destination. Our first choice, Thailand, proved to be too popular and I had trouble locating plane tickets. Knowing little about anywhere in Asia, other than fragments from TV and movies, we decided any country could provide a great adventure for us. Scenes of Vietnam from Magnum, P.I. and Forrest Gump—along with an availability of plane tickets from both Seoul and Toronto—guided us to this gorgeous country.

My First Korean Christmas

It’s a Christmas tradition in my family to go for a drive around town on Christmas Eve to admire the colourful lights. Here in Seoul, I went on many walks around the city for several weeks leading up to the Big Day, hunting for festive displays of glowing lights. I found them.

There’s certainly no shortage of electric, exciting lights in Seoul, especially at top spots like City Hall and Cheonggye Stream. Sidewalks, malls, banks, subway stations—cheerful decorations, the festive spirit, and melodious choruses of “Last Christmas” are everywhere. Even without the glistening white snow and sub-zero winter temperatures, it sure feels like Christmas time.

Because there is a huge proportion of Christians in South Korea, Christmas is celebrated as a religious holiday. It’s different from the gift-giving, family-oriented holiday elsewhere.

As we were all craving family, friends, and turkey on Christmas Day, my expat friends and I headed to the Hilton for a buffet feast. We devoured lamb, beef, seafood, turkey (of course), fruit, salads, and desserts; drank Cass and wine; and enjoyed each other’s company. Here, we’re each other’s family.

My First Chuseok

I was unsure of what to expect when Ms. Cho, a music teacher at my school, picked me up at 9 in the morning to bring me to her brother's place. She wanted to help me celebrate my first Chuseok. Chuseok, the Korean version of Thanksgiving, happens during the full moon in autumn. It’s a time to remember one’s dead ancestors and get together with family. And since it happens over a five-day long weekend, there’s lots of celebration.

We drove to her brother’s apartment and relaxed with some other women in the family until the boys showed up. I was disappointed to see that no one except for one small child was wearing the beautiful traditional hanbok for the holidays.

child wearing Hanbok for Chuseok

child wearing Hanbok for Chuseok

They all placed the food on the table according to what seemed to be a diagram cut from the newspaper, perhaps something titled ‘How to Set a Table for a Chuseok Ceremony’. Like any Korean meal, there were a lot of dishes and the display covered the whole table.

Then they placed framed pictures of their dead parents on the buffet table against the wall in between two large cream-coloured candles. Once the food was placed properly, the children of the pictured ancestors, as well as their spouses and children, took turns bowing to the pictures. First, a tea-like drink was poured into a silver bowl on the floor in front of three incense candles. It took three tips to pour the tea into the bowl. Then the child or family would bow down, with their head to the floor, twice. This was followed by the Catholic cross fingered across their chests. 

Next, stapled booklets were handed out to each of the adults, covered with Hangeul I couldn’t decipher. One of the elder sons seemed to lead the reading, but the other joined in with choral readings and some singing every once in a while. Again, it was a mix of Korean tradition and Catholic additions.

Finally: the candles were blown out, tables were spilt apart, food was divided into multiple bowls, chopsticks and spoons were handed out, and people were told to sit down to eat. I skipped the kimchi and fish and dined on beef, rice, soup broth, and veggies instead.

After, we drank some tea and coffee and chatted. Some families left, but I stayed and chatted with a grandson who has lived in America for half his life but is back in Korea now to do his mandatory two year military service. We had some Korean TV show playing in the background, and I kept glancing at it and imagining I could understand what was going on.

By 2 in the afternoon, the time had come to visit the ancestors’ graves. We packed up the food and headed for the cars. I was sleepy and I knew a nap was inevitable. Very soon after we hit the streets and the bumper-to-bumper Chuseok traffic, I drifted off. I slept for a good chunk of the two hour drive to the mountains. When we got there, I was lucky to find that Ms. Cho had some extra sneakers because apparently it’s a steep walk up the mountain to the gravesite. After switching my footwear, I hiked up to their mother’s grave. (Apparently their father’s was located somewhere else.) It was a beautiful location—almost hidden amongst the trees. I wouldn’t have known it was a graveyard if I hadn’t been led into it.

They poured some soju on the grave as a sort of libation. We spread blankets out and set up the grill. Leftovers from our late breakfast or lunch were set out for this mid-afternoon snack/early supper. We enjoyed the meal and chatted for a while—or rather, they chatted while I got lost in my own thoughts. Part of the conversation that was interpreted for me went something like this:

“In the Cho family, the women’s face is very ugly.”

“Not beautiful.”

“All the women look the same.”

“Yes, all very ugly.”

“But their personality is very good.”

At first I was unsure of whether to laugh or not, but I took my cues from them and let out a giggle. They were being silly and so I let myself enjoy it.

Being with family over the holidays—no matter whose family or what holiday it is—is always a pleasure.