One of my colleagues is a young Korean American woman who was explaining a Korean cultural concept to me the other day.  She said it was hard to find a word in English to explain this concept called Jung.  It refers to older Koreans who can appear to be very mean and unfriendly and then turn around and perform an act of kindness towards the very same person.  I was fascinated by this concept and sure enough the next day it presented itself. I went to the pool for my now regular swim.  I did what I always do, I paid my money, got my locker key, went to my locker and put on my suit, donned my bathing cap and goggles and then headed to the pool only to be stopped by a woman about my age who was yelling and wildly pointing at me.  I didn’t need to speak the language to understand by her expert pantomime that I needed to shower before entering the pool, something I hadn’t been doing.  This was not a simple rinse but a full on shower with bathing suit removed. She followed me into the showers yelling and demonstrating what she wanted me to do.  She seemed so angry as if I was personally insulting her.  I followed her instructions to the tee while several other women looked on, not wanting to interfere with my scolding.  After my swim I took my usual, now second, shower and headed into the locker room to get dressed.  The same woman who had scolded me was getting dressed.  Maybe she won’t notice me, I thought.  Fat chance of that!  She stared right at me and I wondered what I was now doing wrong, when she smiled, reached out and handed me a piece of hard candy that she insisted I eat. Jung, I understood the meaning.


I am having a ball in my Korean class, although I am the worst student in the class.  I assured my classmates, whom I really like, that I am a much better teacher than a student. They always greet me with a warm welcome when I arrive to class.  I noticed that a few of them often have a look of surprise.  I couldn’t figure it out but so much is lost in translation that I wrote it off as cultural differences.  This week after class I was waiting for Steve to finish his, more advanced, class, when a classmate from Nepal and one from India approached me and said.  “We so admire your vigor.”  YIKES!  I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what that meant so I just smiled.  The fellow from Nepal went on to say, “In our culture, old people think they can’t learn anything new and we are so impressed that you are coming to class and trying to learn a new language.” OLD PEOPLE?  Was he talking to me?  I knew there was a compliment in his words but I was too distracted about the fact that I’m old.  Maybe not by US standards but certainly by Indian and Nepali and, or sure, Korean standards.  What a moment! I thanked them for their “compliment” and luckily Steve came out of his class so I wished them a great weekend and hurried out of the building. 


When I decided to come on this adventure I knew I would be challenged in many ways.  I also knew that it would be an unforgettable journey.  It’s one thing to visit or even live for a while in another country. It’s entirely different to live and work overseas over sixty.  I think having some vigor, as my classmates suggested, is not such a bad idea, and a little Jung can’t hurt either. 

Stay in touch and I will too.Image



When I arrived in Korea, a friend of Steve’s who had gone back to the States left me a full- length mirror. She told Steve it was a magic mirror.  I set it up so I could see how I look in the morning before I head out the door. The first time I looked in the mirror, sure enough there was a much thinner version of me staring back.  This mirror is in fact, magic.  Now the trick is to convince myself that what I see in the mirror might be a true reflection.  I decided after a week of looking amazing and knowing the real truth of this magic mirror that I would go with the illusion and have a moment of joy each morning.  The mirror got me thinking about the other illusions we create, that before too long become real.  Steve mentioned to me the other night when I said I was really happy here that I might be in the honeymoon stage of my new life.  I tend to think it feels pretty good and I’m wondering why I would give up these great feelings for a heavy dose of reality.  I already know that I miss a good glass of wine and dinner at Fore Street.  I’ve moved on and I take great delight in the real cheddar cheese and Danish salami I pay a premium for at the supermarket.  I can learn to live with this.  Is it an illusion or not?

I started teaching this week and my students are young, naïve and eager.  If they see me on the street they giggle and try out their new English words.  “Hello, Teacher” When I’m with Steve and introduce him, the girls giggle even more.  It is so endearing.  I started a writing program that one of my new colleagues has used successfully.  I really do believe that in 14 weeks I can teach some students to let go of their shyness and write about things that matter to them.  Thank you Nicole and Eleanor for all the encouragement you gave me when I started writing. I am inspired to want to make a difference in the lives of these students.  Is this an illusion?  I sure hope not.

When I hear my colleagues complain about how “busy” they are, I have to hold myself back from laughing out loud.  I teach 4 classes, twice a week for 75 minutes each. That’s 10 hours a week.  When you add in planning time, meetings with students and faculty meetings  it still brings it up to less than a full time job.  My busiest days are Tuesdays and Fridays when I have 3 classes.  I have no classes before noon and I end by 6 each night.  I teach one class on Wednesday and one on Thursday.  Now, in fairness, many of my colleagues teach more classes but in my book busy is when you work 10-12 hour days and sleep in strange hotels and try to explain to your two young children why you can’t be at their lacrosse or baseball game. But I digress from Illusions.

When I lived in Israel I was always surprised by the fact that Israelis follow almost no rules except two that I was aware of.  They sit in their assigned seats in the movies and they only cross the street when the light changes, no jaywalking.  I could never figure that out since they are blatant rule breakers about everything else, big and small.  Here in Korea, I notice that Koreans are very polite, they seem to follow the rules and want to help and be accommodating to others.  So, where do they break the rules?  The minute they get behind the wheel of a car, many with dark tinted windows, all bets are off. Somehow Koreans have the illusion that once they’re behind the wheel of their car no one knows who they are and that anonymity allows for uncontrolled reckless driving.  There are cross walks everywhere, especially on the campus, and I learned very quickly that they are meaningless for the driver.  There is no daydreaming when walking or biking and no living in the illusion that all Koreans are polite and accommodating once they are in their cars.

I started taking Korean classes three nights a week.  I showed up to the class a few minutes late trying to find the room and realizing that somehow my name had been dropped from the roster.  I entered a room filled with young graduate students.  The teacher, a young Korean woman who spoke very little English, was beginning the introductions.  She asked each of us to give our name, what we did, where we’re from and our age.  OUR AGE? What could that possibly have to do with learning Korean?  Clearly I was old enough to be the mother, and in some cases, grandmother of many of these students.  The introductions began on the opposite side of the U-shaped table.  One after the other the students told their stories. They were from Viet Nam, Napal, India, and China.  All graduate students,they are mostly doctoral candidates that were required to take Korean and pass the course.  Then Peter from Austria introduced himself; he’s a professor, teaching piano in the music department.  By the time it got to me I introduced myself and simply said I was old.  Everyone laughed and we quickly moved on.  The teacher announced that both Marsha and Peter do not have to pass the class or even take the exams if we don’t want to. Professors are exempt.  What a relief!  I remembered very quickly how hard it is to learn a new language.  I realized that I can hardly remember the names of people I’ve met dozens of times, let alone a language that uses letters that look like symbols, seems to have no punctuation, capitals or paragraphs.

Last week Steve and I were told by the University that someone was coming to our apartment to check for an alleged leak from our veranda to the apartment below us. Our washing machine is on the veranda.  When the two men arrived Steve tried to explain that he has not seen any sign of water since he came a year ago.  The men spent a few minutes looking at the veranda and didn’t do anything.  They left and a few days later we were informed that they were coming back to replace the tile floor to fix the alleged leak.  It would take a week between removing the old tiles, setting the cement and replacing the tiles.  It turns out that a new colleague of ours lives below us, so I asked if he was experiencing any water leaking.  He said, not a drop.  He was also told that he would be inconvenienced for a week since they would be replacing his ceiling.  All this for some illusion of a problem.  I’m sure something was lost in translation but we are now getting a new tiled floor and our neighbor gets a new ceiling and we have solved a problem that may not have existed.  One of life’s amazing moments.

I bought a used bike from a doctoral candidate who said he was too busy to ride anymore.  I love my “new” bike and I started riding to school.  Life is good.  I treasure my time with Steve and am slowly and cautiously making friends.  There is so much to see and do that Steve and I could fill our time together and alone. I love waking up each morning next to Steve and going to bed next to him each night.  No illusion there.

I came here for an adventure and an adventure I am having.  Each day brings something new.Image

Stay in touch and I will too.

Blending In


Several years ago I went to a conference in Seattle as part of a project I was working on related to the LGBT community.  The conference was conducted by an organization called Out and Equal and I was probably one of a handful of straight allies at the conference of more than a 1000 participants.  I could and did blend right in.  I looked like many of the women attendees and it was my choice to self-disclose my sexual orientation.  It was a very humbling experience to think about “coming out” to a group of LGBT participants that I was hanging out with.  This was an amazing experience that raised my awareness to new heights. To appear to fit in and blend just based on appearances.

Everywhere I go in this friendly country people stare at me.  It’s not because they somehow recognize me and are searching for my name, it’s because I look so different and there is absolutely no blending.

It’s not often that a 63 year old, 5’8” curly haired blond with lots of opinions and a big deep voice blends in anywhere.   Here, in Korea, I am once again being given an experience in humility. You might imagine what it’s like for me in a country where there are very few foreigners and even in a room filled with 60 of my new colleagues, all expats, I still somehow don’t blend.  Amongst my new colleagues, I’m sure the description is something like  “You know, the tall older women with the curly blond hair”  or “You know, Steve’s wife, the older woman.” I am by far one of, if not the, oldest faculty member. There are advantages to this inability to blend.  For one thing it’s easier for people to remember me, I suppose this could also be a down side.  I tend not to notice the age difference until the conversation turns to their parents and they mention celebrating a mother or father’s 60thor even 50th birthday.  I also notice my age when I walk by a mirror and do a double take wondering what my mother is doing here in Korea.  I have this same startling feeling in the states. Life is funny that way, what we see out of our eyes has no relation to what other’s see when they look back.

Recently, I began swimming in preparation for my triathlon. This experience is giving me another wonderful example of not blending in but at the same time being welcomed for my difference.  I showed up at the pool for the second time, still not sure of all the rules.  I wore my bathing suit under my clothes thinking that would make the transition into the pool easier.  The very helpful woman at the front desk took my 3000won (about $3.00) in exchange for a locker room key.  She smiled and acknowledged that she remembered me from my first visit, when I came in the wrong door and ended up in the high school girls’ locker room.  I’m sure that all of those naked high school girls getting in their suits for swimming won’t forget me.  I went into the correct locker room this time, found my locker and took my clothes off, put on my bathing cap and goggles and made my way to the pool.  It seemed that everything stopped for a moment while the swimmers readjusted themselves to my presence.  I picked a lane, hopped in and started swimming.  25 minutes later I made my way back to the locker room.  By now the shower room was filled with several varieties of naked Korean women.  Some tall, some short, fat, thin, large breasts, small breasts, young girls with their mothers, all showering.  I took my place among the group and showered while everyone looked my way without any concern of staring.  I’m sure they were wondering what this foreigner was doing here.  Several women approached me while I was getting dressed and asked if I spoke Korean.  I politely smiled, glad for the direct acknowledgement and they smiled as well.  Not knowing the language keeps me distant from so many situations.  I keep forging ahead and I assume that when these women keep seeing me again and again we will develop a sort of friendship of smiles and nods.  When I asked some of my colleagues if they have ever gone swimming, several of them said they weren’t comfortable and didn’t feel welcome.  I suppose I could have gone that route, but instead, I’ll take the lesson in humility and experience the feelings of learning to be present without blending in.

On another note, Steve and I are asked all the time if we plan to move to a larger apartment.  We have a one bedroom that Steve had last year and a generous stipend I receive for not moving to a larger place.  Our plan is to use that money for our travel budget while we’re here.  After 32 years together we know how to move quietly between each other.  A young couple, colleagues of ours, just moved in together and asked us about our space.  They have a 3-bedroom apartment and were wondering how we did it with such a small amount of space.  I replied that they needed the space in order to have that relationship and after 32 years space comes from different sources.  We blend together in so many ways.

Our life is filled with adventure, each day bringing something new and exciting.  The food is wonderful and we mix it up with a few treats from home, cheese, chocolate and wine.  I’m running and swimming and looking for a used bike to buy.  Without a car we walk everywhere and public transportation is wonderful.  I know that  as long as we’re here there will be no blending, but what I do know is that each day I feel more at home and what I see through my eyes brings a comfort and solace that feels great.  I guess blending in is overrated and as a friend said to me right before I left. “Life starts at the end of your comfort zone.”  Let the adventure continue.

Stay in touch and I’ll do the same.