Sunday, February 27, 2011

News from home

My Gram passed away on Friday night, Saturday morning my time in Korea.

A while back she was diagnosed with dementia which eventually progressed into full on Alzheimer's, roughly two years ago. From there we saw a pretty sharp decline in what she was capable of doing and for this past year she was living in an assisted living residence in their memory care unit. Then about three weeks ago she was sent to the hospital for one issue and her physical health took a turn. She wasn't eating and when they moved her to a nursing home she seemed, as my mom put it, to just be tired of fighting it all. When I checked my email early Saturday afternoon I saw a message from my brother letting me know that she had passed and that my parents and aunts and uncles were there with her when it happened.

I don't think it's necessary to describe how difficult it is to be seven thousand miles away from home when something like this happens. You can surely imagine that it's not an enviable position. Before I left though, I knew that realistically there was a chance that my Grammy would not be there anymore when I came back. The day before my flight, my mom and I went to visit her so that I could say goodbye and I was painfully aware that it might be the last time. She was so funny that day. We came in when she was getting her hair done and I knew by then that it was much harder for her to recognize people but she was happy to see us. We held her hands and my mom talked to her and she hummed and smiled happily. When she was in the chair for her cut she kept making these amusing faces that made the hairdresser laugh. We walked her upstairs after for lunch and one of her old lady friends called her over to a table to eat. I gave her a big hug and a kiss before I left.

What may be hardest about all this is that sad as wakes and funerals are, they give everyone a chance to tell all sorts of funny and sweet stories about the one who's gone and I find that makes everything a little easier to digest. My Gram was wacky and whenever someone came back from a visit and said, "Wanna here a Grammy story?" you knew it was going to be good. Maybe it'd be a story about how she bought sunglasses at Ocean State Job Lot and didn't realize until someone pointed it out that there were skulls and the WWE logo printed on the fronts of the lenses. Or about how she'd put a gift box of chocolates in the freezer one time only to pull them out later and discover they were actually steak knives. Or about how she was single-handedly ready to take down the US Postal Service for removing the public mailbox from her street.

I love that she became a nurse to help out during the war, though it ended before she could. And I love that she and my grandfather, who she lost sooner than any spouse should have to, were together since their early teens. Their wedding picture is one of my favorites. She has this huge, beautiful smile on her face and my Puppa just looks as though he can't believe he's lucky enough to have this woman on his arm. I love that she had a sweet tooth and always had a bag of Hershey kisses on the table when we came to visit. I love that as she got older she was always off on senior group trips and singing in their chorus. When my brother and I were little we'd do this song and dance for her that we learned in school. She loved singing and she got such a kick out of seeing us do that.

What she really loved though was just being with her family. First she was Mom, then Grammy, and then Greaty. The seven great-grandkids are little and it's too bad for them that they won't get to enjoy her crazy antics like us grandkids did growing up but even with things getting hard for her these past couple years you could tell she enjoyed them. She seemed happy just to watch them crawling and running around. And she always enjoyed being at the center of things at these family gatherings. On Christmas we'd set her up right in the thick of it and watch her open her presents and you could tell she enjoyed the hell out of that, Queen Gram.

Growing up at parties and stuff sometimes if you made eye contact with her across the room she'd give you a smile and then wink. It's something my mom does too. I remember once, maybe two years or so ago there was some kind of gathering at our house and she was sitting quietly, mostly just listening to everyone else talk because things were already getting hard for her to say and understand. She caught my eye though and winked and it seemed like this complete moment of clarity, like it was Grammy ten years younger. I'm really going to miss her.

Since I knew she wasn't doing well, I've been on edge expecting some sort of bad news. I've had a couple bad nights where I was sure something happened and I'd hustle down to check my email first thing. But  right before I woke up on Saturday something weird happened. I was dreaming and in the dream I found myself opening a door into a kitchen as a bunch of people were coming inside. It was sort of like when friends and relatives start arriving for a party; people had bags of food and were waving hi and going about setting things up. Then my Gram was there in this bright red turtleneck that I could totally see her wearing in real life. She seemed shorter than usual so I had to reach way down to give her a hug. She said, "Happy Birthday" and instead of saying "Thank you" for some reason I said "Happy Birthday" back. I remember thinking in the dream of the year she got me a birthday card that had a picture on the front of a little Native American girl with braided hair, dressed in traditional clothing. She'd said she bought the card because she thought it looked like me and I always found that funny. In the dream she hugged me a few more times, real good hugs, and said happy birthday again. I woke up after that and felt completely calm. Then I saw the email from my brother that we had lost her.

I've mentioned that I'm not a particularly a spiritual person but I shared that dream because it reminds me of something my Gram told me once. In high school I had an assignment to ask three people about whether or not they believed in ghosts. When I asked my Gram this question she told me about a dream she had once, right after my Puppa died. His death was very sudden and she said that in her dream he was there and that he said to her, "It's okay. It's okay". She said she felt better after that dream.

I'm not saying one thing or another about what I think my dream meant or that it matters that I dreamed it within the hour of her passing. All I know is that being away right now is extremely difficult and that hearing those words, no matter where they came from, remind me that even after a loss, things can be okay again.

Sending my love and hugs to those of you at home. She was such a big character and I know we'll all miss her. Rest easy now Grammy Grace.

And thanks for all the stories.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Your friendly neighborhood apothecary

Over the weekend I was out and, as often happens in crowds, I was bumped into and proceeded to lose my balance and fall. Not a bad fall, just awkward really and I had both hands free to stop it from being anything more than an embarrassing moment. I dusted myself off and went on my merry way but come Monday I began noticing that my right wrist was feeling awfully sore. Tuesday it felt about the same but last night when I crawled into bed it was really starting to bother me so this morning I googled "wrist sprain" and ran down the list of symptoms. Turns out that pain, swelling, and warmth on the sore area are all things your body brings to a sprained wrist party. Since it didn't feel so bad to warrant a visit to a doctor (which would require actually figuring out how to swing that) I put some ice on it then headed to the store before work to look for a wrist bandage.

I wandered around for a while trying to find the medical stuff aisle and finally found a little area with a few boxes of band-aids and some first aid kits. The kits had ace bandages but I didn't want to have to buy the entire kit and I couldn't find any other aisle that seemed promising. So I did the next best thing and headed to the pharmacy.
(I don't actually have a picture of a pharmacy here yet so I borrowed this from Google. The big 약 you see though is pretty much the universal symbol for a pharmacy here so if you're ever in need just pop into a store that has that on the window)

I love Korean pharmacies. You can find them everywhere, sometimes two or three to a single street, and most of the grocery/department stores have a pharmacy. I've been to the pharmacy at the local Lotte Mart several times now and it's always been a positive experience. Once I went looking for a certain medication and brought a sheet of paper that said, "Do you have [medication]?" written out in English, Korean, and phonetic Korean. I tried saying it in Korean to the pharmacist first but then she looked at the paper, laughed to herself over my phonetic Korean and brought out exactly what I was looking for. She even told me to just bring back the same box each time I need that medication just to make it easier.

Another time I went when my lips were crazy chapped and I asked the pharmacist, in really bad Korean, "Do you have something for lips?" and basically just gesticulated at my mouth. He showed me a bunch of different chap sticks and was patient with me while I tried explaining that I needed something stronger. That's when he hooked me up with that Uriage chap stick which pretty much saved my life until I was able to track down some Vaseline.

So when I went today for my wrist I found a whole bunch of wrist/knee/elbow type bandages right by the counter. The wrist bandages come in small, medium, and large so I picked up a medium and asked the pharmacist if she thought it'd be right for me. She immediately pulled it out of the box for me to try on and then suggested I see if the small would fit better. She let me try that one on too, made sure I was happy and comfortable with it, and rang it up.

For a foreigner who doesn't have a regular doctor and just needs to get some medicine now and again, Korean pharmacies are pretty great. The pharmacists at the ones I've been to so far are very friendly and helpful and experienced in deciphering weird foreigner charades. One of my co-workers gets car sick a lot so if we're taking a bus or a long taxi ride she grabs some motion sickness meds beforehand. She goes inside and more or less just charades being sick in a car and immediately they hand over a little bottle that's the perfect amount for her needs. Some of the bigger pharmacies have blood pressure monitors and most of them also carry other items like contact lens solution and toothpaste, similar to the states.

Probably the biggest reason to love Korean pharmacies though is that medicine here is often cheaper than back home and some medicines that you would need a prescription for in the states you can get here just by asking. Birth control for instance is available at Korean pharmacies without a prescription and with some brands you can buy a monthly pack for as low as ₩6,000 (less than $6). That's pretty amazing considering that most women in the US are spending anywhere from $10 to $50 a month on birth control, and that's only if they have insurance to pick up the rest! Not to mention that in order to get that prescription to begin with you need to visit your doctor first, where the price tag shoots up when you add on a co-pay and the cost of any exams necessary prior to walking out with that slip. I don't have any sort of exhaustive list of which medications you can get without a prescription but there's a good chance if you give the pharmacy a shot first before heading to the doctor's you might just get lucky.

Unless my arm is actually falling off or I go into a sugar coma from eating the tub of Funfetti frosting that just arrived in my care package from home, I pretty much plan on relying on the pharmacy for all my medicinal needs. So if you're in Korea and you get a headache, run out of sleeping pills from home, or your life starts turning into one of those Pepto Bismol commercials, get thee to a 약 and start playing charades. It will be cheap and worth it.

Trivia of the Day:  Modo Island is a small island in Jindo County, South Jeolla province, South Korea, just off the southwest corner of the Korean peninsula. The tide-related sea level variations result in a local phenomenon (a "Moses Miracle") when a land pass 2.9 km long and 10–40 meters wide opens for an hour between Modo and Jindo islands. The event occurs approximately twice a year, around April-June. It had long been celebrated in a local festival called "Jindo's Sea Way", but was largely unknown to the world until 1975, when the French ambassador Pierre Randi described the phenomenon in a French newspaper. Nowadays, nearly half a million foreign and local tourists attend the event annually. It is accompanied by local festivals which include Ganggangsuwollae (Korean traditional circle dance), Ssitkim-gut (a shaman ritual, consoling the souls of the dead), Deul Norae (traditional farmers songs), Manga (burial ceremony songs), Jindo dog show, Buknori (drum performance) and fireworks.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Adventures in Taipei: Part III

I find that living in Korea, some weeks are harder than others to be away from home. These past two weeks or so have been this way but now that I've officially reached the three month mark here, and with a fresh new term just a week away, it's getting better. It's a big milestone I think, having made it 1/4 of the way through. The weather is getting warmer, there will be new classes with new ruffians to keep me on my toes, and I'm awaiting a package from home. All good things.

So here are the last pictures from my trip to Taiwan. I wanted to get them up sooner but alas, you never can predict when those weird, hermit-like funks are going to hit. I'm behind on sharing some other experiences and pictures though so hopefully after this entry it'll be back to more consistent posts!

Our last day in Taipei we had two things on our agenda that we definitely wanted to hit: Taipei 101 and the Jade Market. Since it was a short walk from our hostel our first stop of the day was Taipei 101.
With 101 floors, Taipei 101 is the second tallest building in the world and my new favorite skyscraper (I don't actually have an old favorite but who's keeping track?). It's gorgeously designed to resemble bamboo, something that is both strong and flexible. It's in an area of the city that apparently was the last to be developed so it stands alone. It was very cool to travel around to different parts of the city and look up and see it off in the distance all by its lonesome.

The best thing about Taipei 101 though is that unlike most skyscrapers it's not boring. Sure it's pretty to look at but it also has a lot going on inside. There's a huge food court, where we grabbed an early lunch, and a grocery store attached that has an assortment of foods you can't find in Korea. I nearly died when I laid eyes on a bag of Harvest Cheddar Sun Chips. I also bought some spices that I haven't been able to track down here as well as a jar of Nutella which I think my fairy godmother must've sent because it happened to be February 5th, which every calendar will obviously tell you is World Nutella Day, the most delicious of all days. It was fate.

Above the food court and grocery store is a fancy schmancy mall with the kind of stores that don't play about how expensive they are and put a picture of Vladimir Putin next to a bedazzled watch just to emphasize how much you will not be able to afford it. So we bypassed these stores and went to the 5th floor to purchase tickets for the observatory.
It shoots you up to the top crazy fast.
In addition to the great view there was also a lot of Taiwanese history spread throughout the observatory. There were candid photographs of all sorts of people and events and they didn't gloss it over either. There was one awful photo of a father who after losing custody of his daughter was standing on a bridge threatening to kill them both. She was screaming and you could see blood on his arm and a knife in his hand. It was shocking to see but I don't think any country gains from pretending it's perfect and I respect that they show both the good and the bad.
Taipei 101 also has this enormous tuned mass damper which protects the building against vibrations and earthquakes and such.
After the observatory we went back to the 5th floor where they were getting ready to choose the numbers for the Lottery.
I was already loving Taipei 101 but it officially got me when I stepped into the Page One bookstore on the 4th floor. Naturally there were a lot of books in Mandarin but there was also a huge selection of English books, many of them new. There were children's books, biographies, comics, you name it.

For once though I actually wasn't on the prowl for English books. See after buying the first five Harry Potter books in the British editions when I went to London (HBP was in hardcover and TDH wasn't out yet) I decided that each time I visit a foreign country I'm going to buy their versions too. Of course when it came to it I couldn't justify actually spilling that much money on the Taiwanese editions since unlike the British versions they really will just be novelty since I can't read them at all. So I bought only the first one and Heather suggested that the next country I visit I buy the next in the series and so on. I am however going to buy the entire Korean set because they're not expensive and even though I won't understand 99.9% of it, I can read Korean and will be able to amuse myself by picking out random spells and Quidditch terms here and there.

After Taipei 101 we dropped our purchases off at the hostel and headed out to find the Jade Market. It's weirdly located under a freeway in what looks like a parking garage but it was actually pretty cool. Sort of like a flea market except everyone was selling jewelry and tea pots and fat little Buddhas.
I bought one of those adorable little teapots similar to the ones shown above except not those particular ones because they were too expensive. I ended up at a table where two old fellas were selling things and spent a while looking over the different designs. Sometimes old people are awesome and these guys were so friendly. When I finally decided on one I asked for the price and the guy told me 1,000 (roughly $35) and I pulled a face and was like, "Hmmm, 1,000-?" and he said, "Okay, okay 900". I talked him down! I was so proud of myself! Honestly they were probably overcharging me anyway but I felt pretty good about my newfound haggling skills. 

As the one guy was wrapping up the teapot his buddy asked me what I was doing there and I explained about teaching in Korea. He asked where I'm from originally and I said, "Massachusetts. Boston?" and he was like, "Ah Boston! Kennedys!". Friendly old folk are great. 
It's hard to see but I posted that picture above because on the lower left side you can see this little beagle who was the biggest sweetheart. She was just wandering around the market and I stopped to pet her about five times and she was eating it up. At one point one of the sellers turned in his chair to give her stomach a good pat and laughed and said, "Too fat!" which was true but aww she was so cute.

I'm bringing this up because as a dog person Taiwan was awesome. In Korea I don't see dogs too frequently and when I do they're either those little toy dogs or huskies. I swear it's like one or the other. Minis or huskies and that's it. But we saw loads of dogs in Taiwan, everything from beagles to retrievers to mutts. We went into this one family run store and they had a huge, old golden retriever that looked like Shadow from Homeward Bound. How could I not love a city that loves dogs so much?

And on an unrelated note because I wasn't sure where else to bring it up, something else I really loved about Taiwan was the fashion sense. There was such a variety and everyone seemed to be happily rocking their own style. I don't mean to keep comparing Taiwan with Korea but here I've noticed that when it comes to fashion Koreans seem to be really self-conscious. It's sort of like when you go to an American college campus and see four out of five girls wearing leggings, Ugg boots, and a North Face sweatshirt. Nobody wants to stand out and wear something different. Wintertime in Korea means the majority of girls are wearing short shorts with tights underneath and platform heels or sneakers if they're still in school. The boys all wear the same Adidas pants with those matching poofy black coats. The hairstyles are nearly identical and, at least with the little kids, they're all wearing the exact same glasses.

Sure I saw a few similar trends happening in Taiwan but I didn't feel like I was walking past the same person a hundred times in a row. Fashion in Taipei seemed much more relaxed and open. I liked that a lot.

We spent the rest of the day just sort of wandering through the shopping districts again. We wanted to get dinner and hang out at the biggest night market but it was absurdly packed so we found a less crowded shopping spot and ended the night there. The next morning we caught a cab to the airport and after getting through security waited for our flight to board in the first class lounge. It wasn't quite as nice as Incheon's but this lounge had Oreo's and pound cake mmm.
The return flight was smooth sailing and then we took a bus from the airport back to Yeonsu. It was such a nice trip. We were able to see a lot but I felt well rested coming home too. And it helped that I speed cleaned my apartment right before we left. There's nothing like coming home to clean laundry and a sink sans dirty dishes. 

I still have some pictures from over the course of the three days that I wanted to share which I think add to the overall glimpse of Taipei that I got and they're pretty self explanatory so here there are, a random mix:
And so ends my trip recap. I highly recommend visiting Taipei if you ever have the chance. There are lots of English teachers there and from what I experienced it seems like a great place to be. My top three recommendations for things to do in Taipei would be the Taipei Zoo, Taipei 101, and Kiwi Gourmet Burgers. Get yourself a blue cheese burger and a chocolate peanut butter smoothie. Life doesn't get too much better than that.

Trivia of the Day: Taipei was founded in the early 18th century and became an important center for overseas trade in the 19th century. The Qing Dynasty in China, made Taipei the provincial capital of Taiwan in 1886. When the Japanese acquired Taiwan in 1895 after the First Sino-Japanese War, they retained Taipei as the capital of the island, and also advanced an extensive urban planning in Taipei. The Republic of China took over the island in 1945 following Japanese surrender. After losing Mainland China to the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War, the ruling Kuomintang resettled the ROC government to Taiwan and declared Taipei the provisional capital of the Republic of China in December 1949