Sunday, October 31, 2021

Calling All 공부벌레 (Bookworms)! My Korean Book Recs

The word 공부벌레 (kongbu beolle) is a Korean expression that literally translates to "study nerd" but can generally refer to bookworms and nerds more generally. Of course, it was my nickname almost the entire time I've been in language training. (It's all my parents' fault, really. My mom took me to the library once a week when I was young, and throughout my whole life I watched my parents continue to read voraciously while raising us. Now my sister and I have become adults who devour books, too!) So anyway, as soon as my classmate at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) decided to start a book club for Korean language students I was excited to join.

Our book club was very low maintenance. Once a month, we would devote one lunch break to discussing the book we had all selected the previous month. (When the pandemic hit, we switched to virtual meetings on the weekends. And after we moved to Korea, we continued with weeknight dinners in person.) You didn't have to finish the book in order to attend, but one student would lead the meeting by asking questions, facilitating discussions, and providing snacks. The lead student would rotate each month depending on the book. I'm sure any long-term language class could easily do the same.

In case you're interested in what we read or you're thinking about picking one of these up for yourself, here are my brief thoughts on each book:

  • The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See: What a strong start to this book club! I had heard a few small references to Korea's famous Jeju Island and even the women divers known as the haenyeo (해녀) before, but I'll admit I didn't know much before reading this book. Set during Japanese occupation through the Korean War, this book wonderfully documents the intense realities of life for haenyeo women while exploring themes of loss, forgiveness, and suffering. To be honest, I had a hard time putting this book down. I laughed, I cried, and when I finished the book I sat and wondered what to do now that it was over. The author did an extraordinary amount of research to represent the historical and cultural context, but the beautifully written characters and heart-wrenching plot make this novel a true standout I would gladly recommend to anyone.
  • Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim: Given that this was an account of teaching North Korea's elite young men, it was a much fluffier read than I expected. The whole book club also agreed that it raised some serious ethical questions. I did learn some things about North Korea from reading the book, particularly about the education of youth and the differences in interactions with foreigners of different races. At the same time, the general consensus was that the book dwelt too much on what felt like superfluous details: the author's Brooklyn lover, detailed accounts of similar conversations, and so on. It wasn't my favorite book club read, but it's short enough you can breeze through pretty quickly if you don't have a lot of time to spare and want to peek through an often-shut window into North Korean society.
  • Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan by Frank Ahrens: What a title, right? This book was a fun read for so many reasons. I learned a lot about the car industry and Hyundai in particular despite having no baseline of knowledge (or too much interest) in cars generally. Also, the author was a spouse and EFM (Eligible Family Member) of someone working at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul who had never lived abroad before, so his observations about Korean culture and embassy life are interesting and full of humor.
  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang: I'm not going to sugar-coat it: I found this book quite disturbing. There's a surface-level story about one woman's choice to become vegetarian to the shock of everyone around her, but it's really an examination of the consequences of living life on one's own terms. That choice to be different causes everyone, even moreso in a collectivist environment, a lot of suffering and pain. But for the subject of the book, who is interestingly never the narrator, her rebellion also comes with a kind of freedom. I think folks who enjoyed the Academy Award-winning Parasite movie will also enjoy this thought-provoking and intense book, which also happens to be a very quick read.
  • In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers: Wow, this one was such an emotional read and I admit I shed a few tears by the time I finished. I was moved learning more about what this famous North Korean defector went through growing up under such extreme repression and horrifying circumstances that continued during her escape. This one definitely needs a content warning for sexual violence and suicide, but if those subjects aren't triggers for you then I would recommend this book. (Do note that Yeonmi Park has recently become very vocal in American politics, though, so be aware of that if you are interested in seeing what she's doing now.)
  • If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha: This was a quick read focusing on the lives of various fictional, modern Korean women told by a longtime CNN writer. I found the stories really powerful, with well-developed characters and a window into some of the more extreme characteristics of Korean women's experiences. This book tackles plastic surgery, room salons (i.e., escort parlors), demanding office culture, lookism, marriage, sex culture, and more through a narrative style that I personally enjoyed. I will add a content warning for suicide and miscarriage, but I found both to be portrayed respectfully, without too much detail.
  • Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo: This was the first (and only) time I read a full-length novel in Korean. It took me ages, but with plenty of time (and the help of a dictionary) I was able to do it and felt very accomplished afterward! This book is about an explicitly unremarkable woman who suddenly starts behaving strangely (similarly to the beginning of The Vegetarian). But over the course of this one regular everywoman's narrated life we can see all the normal yet insidious indignities that women in Korea and around the world experience and, frankly, are expected to put up with even in the modern age. There were so many passages where I just had to sit back and stew in my rage because I saw my own experiences even as an American woman reflected in Kim Ji-young over and over again. This book was cathartic for me and so many women and an important read for others who want to understand misogyny.
  • The Silence of Bones by June Hur: I absolutely loved this book! It was a YA (young adult) murder mystery but felt like a regular adult novel. This book is full of twists and turns and set in the Joseon period of Korea. The author did her historical research so well, and it shows: this is an immersive and delightful read that led to me reading a lot of Wikipedia articles about Korean history because I hungered for more information. The protagonist is also one of my favorite fiction leads of all time.
  • The Court Dancer by Shin Kyung-sook: It took me a while to get into this book because the main characters felt distant to me, but I really enjoyed the middle where the author expertly teases out the themes of Western colonialism and identity. The ending really shook me, but my heartbreak eventually deepened into appreciation for what I saw as the whole main character's story as an allegory for Korea. This book is heavy and at times distressing, but it adeptly uses a historical narrative to bring up questions and problems we're still grappling with today. And for that, I appreciated it.
  • Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-sook: I loved this book from the very beginning because of how complicated and messy the family dynamics were. Depending on the person, the understanding of the titular mom and the characters around her can vary widely. She can be saint or victim as well as a symbol of what is both good and bad in traditional society and family life in a changing world. This is definitely a good read for those who are into brooding literary fiction.
  • Almost American Girl by Robin Ha: This was the only graphic novel we read. It's a fantastic memoir for adults or older children that touches on the challenges faced by diaspora members, the relationships between parents and children, the pain of learning a new language and culture, bullying, body image, and so much more. Several of us cried at various moments while reading this story because it was so sweet and poignant and personal. I rooted so hard for the author and her mom and just felt so grateful that she was willing to share so much of her personal story. I'm sure plenty of people, especially young immigrants or third-culture kids, can relate. As unique as her specific experiences were, they resonated with common human emotions like rejection, shame, determination, joy, peace, and hope. I highly recommend this one!
  • The Nine-cloud Dream by Kim Man-jung: We read this book because it's considered one of the great classics of Korean literature. The novel weaves together political satire, Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, Chinese culture and history, and so much more. The most difficult part for me was the poor treatment of women throughout the book (i.e., they were primarily portrayed as sexual objects). The references were also a bit inaccessible for those of us without a background in Chinese literature, but I learned a lot about Korean and Chinese culture reading it.
  • Familiar Things by Hwang Sok-yoon: I adored this book. It had a dash of magical realism (including goblins of Korean folktale lore), incisive social, political, economic, and environmental commentary, and really well written and complex characters. This is the first book I've read in a very long time written from the perspective of a young boy that I found completely believable and enjoyable. I highly recommend this one, which I think will resonate for both people with and without knowledge of Korean society.
  • The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture by Euny Hong: I thought I would enjoy this book a lot more than I did. There are a few things that now seem outdated, such as the skepticism that kpop could succeed in the West, but that's to be expected given that the book was published in 2014. I was bothered by some of the inaccuracies (such as the dismissive synopsis of Korean classic movie Seopyeonje). This book might be a useful introduction to the Korean wave for someone without much prior knowledge of it, and it's written in a humorous voice that makes for a quick read. It compellingly describes the deep web of cooperation between government and industry that makes the Korean wave successful. At the same time, I would not recommend relying on this as one's sole source of information on the subject of Korean culture.
  • Fox Girl by Nora Okja Keller: I'm not sure there are two books on this list more different than The Birth of Korean Cool and Fox Girl, and I'm glad we didn't have another heavy one before this because this was one of the darkest novels I've ever read. This book needs all the trigger warnings: child abuse, violence, sexual assault, racism, abortion, and so much more. The characters have really stayed with me long after I put the book down, and I think their haunting stories push the reader to reflect on the impact of the historical U.S. military presence in South Korea, sex work, racial identity, poverty, and so much more. If you're looking for an emotionally powerful read that will force you to confront one of the darker sides of the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance and its legacy, this is the book for you.
  • Tower by Bae Myung-hoon: This was a fun and quirky science fiction read that kept me thinking long after I finished the book. It's a series of short stories set in a fictional skyscraper nation-state. The author has a degree in political science from the top university in Korea, and it shows in the creative ways he explores complex sociopolitical questions through his speculative fiction work. I recommend this one to folks who want to dip their toes in Korean science fiction and the more common short story collection style found in Korean literature.
  • Drifting House by Krys Lee: Y'all, this book was heavy and had very adult themes. I really liked a couple of the stories and one in particular that I found to be a very moving reflection on those left behind by Korea's drastic economic and social change. There were other stories and one in particular that were harrowing and haunting. We had a hard time even talking about that one in book club. I would recommend this short story collection to someone who wants to try contemporary, more highbrow literary fiction about Korea and Koreans.
  • The Hole: A Novel by Hye-young Pyun: I struggled with this book for a number of reasons. It's a thriller with several creative and disturbing elements, but it includes a lot of medical patient abuse that I found very difficult to read. I liked the complexity of the characters, especially the main character and how he develops over time. It was difficult to read about what happens to him - even when you can see the ending coming from a mile away.
  • My Brilliant Life by Ae-ran Kim: This was hands-down one of my favorite books I read in the whole book club. The voice of the main character is so tender and sensitive that it really moved me. The protagonist is a child who has a terminal illness but still retains so much agency and doesn't read like a victim. There were moments in this book where I gasped, laughed out loud, and cried - it was that powerful. I highly recommend this book to anyone with a soul.
  • Crying in H-Mart by Michelle Zauner: I'd heard so much about this book before reading it, from the flurry of media coverage to the recommendations from friends to the fawning praise in various mixed-race social media spaces I'm in (as the author is mixed white and Korean). I found some of the relationships in the book far more relatable than others, but I think the author really captured the feeling of young, sudden grief and the challenges of navigating the world with a complicated racial, social, and cultural identity. Zauner is a musician who performs under the name Japanese Breakfast, and despite the fact that I'd never heard her music before I enjoyed listening to her song "In Heaven" from Psychopomp, the album she wrote right after her mom died. They won't be to everyone's taste, but I suggest giving her book and her music a try!
  • The Plotters by Un-su Kim: It took me a while to get into this book but I was totally immersed after the first half. It contains a lot of philosophical observation and reflection on the individual and society and morality for a book that is nominally a thriller about an assassin. Although not all of my book club mates agreed, I thought the ending was absolutely masterful. This one is a great fit for anyone who loves the combination of suspenseful action and dramatic scenes with cerebral commentary and questions. I thought this was a wonderful book to end on, personally.

This Korean book club was a fantastic, low-pressure opportunity to learn more about Korean culture, history, and literature. As you can see, we had a diverse range of books to read, and I got so much more out of the book thanks to the insights and opinions of my friends than I would've ever discovered on my own. If you've never read a book by a Korean author, make sure you give one of these books a try!

Friday, October 22, 2021

Smith Mountain Lake, Great Country Farms, and Fall in Virginia

In the blink of an eye, my time in Virginia came and went. I'm already missing my loved ones back home, but I'd be lying if I didn't say I always look forward to returning to my own bed and schedule. One of the biggest reasons we decided to travel home was because my little sister is getting married next year! We got to meet her wonderful fiancé for the first time and I planned a bachelorette getaway for the bridal party.

We went wedding dress shopping where my sister found the perfect dress and then left straight from there with the bridal party on a long drive to Goodview, Virginia for the weekend. We stayed in a stunning Airbnb right on the water of Smith Mountain Lake. I quickly established myself as the early bird of the group, failing to stay up past 11pm both nights we were there while everyone else kept partying. The upside was I had two very peaceful mornings where I got to watch the sunrise over the water. We relaxed around the house, played games, and some of our group went kayaking and canoeing on the lake.

After enjoying Smith Mountain Lake for the weekend, we drove back home and spent time with my mom. She kept us well fed during our stay in Virginia and even had a new fall tablescape out for one of our dinners together. Isn't it beautiful?

We spent another day hanging out with my sister and her fiancé. It was so fun to get to know him better! We took advantage of the season and visited Great Country Farms in Bluemont, Virginia. They had farm animals (which my sister, a serious animal lover, was very excited to pet and feed), food, hot apple cider, a pick-your-own-pumpkin patch, a putt-putt (i.e. mini-golf) course, an impressive corn maze filled with fun facts about sustainable agriculture, and more.

M and I snapped a selfie in front of a beautiful sunflower field next to the pumpkin patch, but I didn't realize until we got home that I forgot to get a picture of all four of us! Do you ever have so much fun that you completely forget to take a photo to save for later?

It was hard to say goodbye to Virginia and friends and family, but I'm sure we'll be back before we know it. (After all, our Korea tour is already halfway over!) I'm glad I got to spend at least a little part of my favorite season at home with some of the people I love most.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

A Gorgeous Weekend in Georgia

That's right, we're back in the United States (just for a few weeks of vacation)! We had two weddings and a bachelorette party to attend all around the same time, so we decided to make the trip despite the pandemic - especially since we are thankfully both fully vaccinated against COVID-19. We packed tons of masks and hand sanitizer, grabbed our recent negative COVID test results (mandatory for both entering the United States and entering Korea right now), and made our way to Incheon Airport.

When we arrived in Korea, everything was such a blur that we couldn't appreciate just how fantastic the airport is. This time we enjoyed the experience much more. Everything was efficient and comfortable, and we saw some special things, too. For example, there was a Korean cultural center with a woman providing live music on a traditional instrument called the Gayageum (yes, the same one I tried playing before). There was also an adorable robot milling around seeing if it could be helpful to any passengers on their way. It spoke several languages and seemed like it had a lot of AI-driven functions.

After a long plane journey sitting next to someone who blasted her upbeat music so loud through her headphones we could hear every song the whole flight (and a brief bout of intense stress at a possible leaving behind of our suitcases that turned out to be a false alarm), we finally landed in Atlanta. M was determined that our rental car be a Tesla, so we climbed into our Model S for the weekend and got to our hotel in Calhoun, Georgia around midnight. I could probably do a whole blog post on the differences between COVID-19 mitigation in the United States and South Korea, but that was by far the biggest reverse culture shock I experienced. In Korea, not wearing a mask in public - even if you're outside and fully vaccinated - can cost you a hefty fine and a confrontation with public health enforcers. Even at the airport in the United States, many travelers were unmasked (even while not eating or drinking) or did not wear their masks properly. Once we got to Calhoun, some folks gave us the stink eye for wearing masks, but having just gotten off an international flight and crossed three airports we were probably protecting them even more than protecting us. One of our friends told us that the local vaccination rate for even one COVID-19 shot was only 25%, so I'll admit that lack of community protection against the transmission we'd taken for granted in Seoul was a bit stressful.

We took extra precautions as a result, and that included me forgoing the chance to attend one of my favorite attractions in my whole home country: The World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta. Many of my friends and coworkers know my deep love for coke products and The World of Coca-Cola in particular. I went there once as part of a high school trip and fell in love with the place. Years later, I dragged M back to Georgia as part of an American South road trip to experience the magic of The World of Coca-Cola with me, and I am unashamed to admit I shed a few tears of joy that it was just as magical as I'd remembered from my teenage years. This time, though, we made the tough call to skip it: they have no vaccination requirement and the whole attraction is indoors. That was more risk than I was willing to take, so the most "Georgia" thing we did was eat lots and lots of barbecue (pictured above).

The real reason we went to Georgia was for my friend C's wedding. C was the roommate of one of my best friends from high school and college, L. I'd gotten to know C's fiancee (then-girlfriend) B when we were together in the groom's party for L, and they are truly a perfect match. It was wonderful to come to C's hometown and see him and B married on his grandparents' stunning estate (which I confirmed had thankfully not been a slave plantation after one of my colleagues thoughtfully asked). The couple had so many personal touches, from signature cocktails for them and their two cats to a sweet ceremony officiated by a dear friend to a full Southern barbecue dinner in the spirit of the venue.

I think my favorite part, though, was an epic private fireworks show we could all watch from the house's steps. It was a perfectly clear night full of stars above and fireflies below, with the explosions of fireworks lighting up the sky in golds, greens, and reds. Of course, M took the opportunity to play around with my Pixel smartphone camera modes, including Night Sight (for astrophotography that actually captures stars) and Top Shot (a feature that uses AI to determine where during your video the best shots are and suggests them as still frame photos to separate).

The next morning we joined the same friends from the wedding for brunch with a Waffle House Food Truck outside the family home of C's parents. We were so busy stuffing our faces that I forgot to take a photo of the food truck, but I did snap a pic of an awesome room inside the house with wet signatures of all presidents of the United States, collected by my friend's grandfather throughout his life. The older ones were purchased, but many of the more recent presidents had signed personal letters or other documents specifically for my friend's family. (This Barack Obama signature is from a personal letter to the family in 2014.) How cool is that?

Before we left Calhoun, we took some time to visit a few sites safely outdoors. The first stop was a rock garden located behind the local Seventh-day Adventist church. Since 2007, a man named Dewitt Boyd "Old Dog" (and later his wife) assembled beautiful rock and shell replicas of castles, villages, and iconic buildings surrounded by beautiful flowers as a place to celebrate art and facilitate prayer and contemplation. I was blown away by this sculpture of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, complete with stained glass windows!

Then, we visited the historic site and park of New Echota, previous capital of the Cherokee Nation and the place where the infamous Trail of Tears began. It was a particularly meaningful stop this weekend as the first Indigenous Peoples' Day recognized by the President of the United States. At New Echota, we learned about the lives of Cherokees in the 1800s, which encompassed a diverse range of experiences. Some Native Americans resisted colonial expansion and fought to maintain their sovereignty and culture, while others assimilated. The New Echota sites were beautifully maintained, though I was disappointed at some of the euphemisms used in the explanatory texts. For example, the brochure we were given mentioned the New Echota tavern had a takeout window to serve "those whom the Innkeeper did not allow inside." I had to ask a staff member to confirm that included slaves of African descent owned by Native American farmers in New Echota.

There were many impressively reconstructed buildings and artifacts, including the building and press from the first Native American printed paper (The Cherokee Phoenix) in Cherokee, the first Native American written language. I was pleasantly surprised at how critical of the United States government the historical accounts were, particularly in the small museum portion of the site. It is clear that the United States repeatedly violated Native American sovereignty, even when indigenous peoples acted perfectly in accordance with signed treaties and within U.S. institutions. Two examples that stuck with me were the 1832 Worcester v. Georgia Supreme Court case and the 1835 Treaty of New Echota.

In Worcester v. Georgia, even though the Supreme Court ruled in the Cherokees' favor and affirmed that Native American nations were "distinct, independent political communities retaining their original natural rights", U.S. President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the ruling. The 1835 Treaty of New Echota, which relinquished enormous amounts of Cherokee land, was signed by a few Cherokee leaders but was never approved by the council mandated in the nation's governing documents. (The council meetinghouse is pictured below.) In fact, the majority of Cherokees opposed the treaty and the Cherokee signers were eventually assassinated. Although it was legally illegitimate, the U.S. Congress ratified the treaty, which laid the groundwork for the Trail of Tears on which over 4,000 Cherokees died.

We must not forget the darker side of our history for many reasons. We must not repeat the mistakes and betrayals previously committed. But crucially, we must also acknowledge past wrongs and take concrete action to mitigate the harm that continues from the decisions of our ancestors - whether they be biological predecessors or just people whose legacy we personally benefit from today. A good place to start is to learn more about the history of indigenous people wherever you live and then listen to indigenous people today when they advocate for policies or steps we can take to make things better.

With that, our weekend in Georgia went by in a flash. We left with reflective minds, warm hearts, and full bellies - we couldn't have asked for more. Congrats to B and C, and we look forward to returning to the Peach State again someday!

Saturday, October 2, 2021

I Voted Absentee! Did You?

I just sent in my absentee ballot! Just because we live overseas doesn't mean we lack a home. And voting is one way we can advocate for things that matter to us back home: what policies are getting tabled or implemented, how our taxes are being spent, the way local schools are being run, and more. I love exercising my democratic right to vote, one that many around the world wish they had and advocate for every day.

A lot of folks don't vote unless there's a presidential election happening, and plenty of people don't vote at all. But I love voting every year! Votes make a difference, especially in smaller, local elections where fewer people turn out to the polls. As a Foreign Service Officer, I am bound by the Hatch Act - which limits some of my political expression. So although you won't see me out here campaigning for specific parties or candidates, I will make it a point to make my voice heard by voting and by encouraging other people to vote.

I personally find absentee voting so much more convenient than voting in person. That way, I can vote on my own time and don't have to worry about traffic or lines or party reps right outside the polling station trying to hand me pre-filled sample ballots. In my home state of Virginia, they allow people to vote absentee as long as you request the mail-in ballot in advance.

I also know from personal experience that they have safeguards in place to prevent voter fraud. One time, I went to a polling station in person because I never received a ballot. They confirmed at the polling station that I was sent an absentee ballot but it must have gotten lost in the mail. I had to fill out a provisional ballot in person that would be voided if my mail-in ballot were ever found completed and included in the tally. From what I saw, they take election security seriously!

Are you registered to vote? If not, go to now and sign up to vote in this year's elections! You can also see if your state allows absentee voting by mail on Ballotpedia, which also lists whether an excuse for absentee voting is required. Regardless of your political leanings or party membership, I hope you take the time to register and vote! The future of our country is up to us.