Archive for the ‘Home Life’ Category

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Because My Heart Is Island-Shaped

May 8, 2012

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As a Newfoundlander, I am a bit of a fraud. Living abroad, I tell long and rocky tales of the island that hangs off the East Coast of Canada. I talk of people riding snowmobiles to work, accents made up of English more olde than new, outport night skies like ink, moose as plentiful as the blackflies, and air so fresh, the smell of bedsheets taken in off the line could break your heart.

Those things are all true of my home. Newfoundland is an exotic, peculiar place. People do flatten their vowels and add fat, round “h” sounds where none are meant to be. You can wake up to moose in your back yard and bears in your cabin. The kitchen party is the heart of the culture where a set of musical spoons or a recitation is just as easily pulled out as a bottle of beer. There are places you can stand where the wind can make you fly, cliffs that are blacker and more treacherous than a sleeveen’s tongue.

And see? There I go again. So many years away have made me focus on the salty air and the half-Irish turns of phrase. I am fiercely proud of my identity as a Newfoundlander. I pull it out like a dare when I meet someone new.  The truth? If asked to ‘do” an accent, I need a fair amount of alcohol and concentration to even begin to get it right. I never had one. My mother grew up in a small community, and my dad has retired to one, but I grew up in a small city. I don’t know how to do a jig or snare a rabbit, there were people in my town I didn’t know, and I never had to snowshoe to class. The pulp and paper mill, the lifeblood of my hometown, made the air stinky and grey. We watched American cable imported from Bangor, Maine. Still, there were woods near enough by when you wanted to disappear and cry your way through a teenage heartache, there were plates of thinly sliced moosemeat fried in butter on birthdays and there was a gorgeous-in-the-sunset bay running right through the belly of it all that could set you to dreaming.

My fiction and poetry of late is full of the Newfoundland outport. Those are places I’ve visited, as exotic and novel to me as the black sand beaches on Bali or the frenetic streets of Ho Chi Min. I claim those tiny, colorful communities as my heritage, but they have never truly been part of me.

At least, I didn’t think so. The last couple of weeks have been a revelation.

I know now that our hearts are informed by the landscape on which they come into being. We are walking maps of where we come from, the topography is in our palms like lines of fate. You can travel as far as you like, redraw your boundaries a million times, but if you are born with a Newfoundland heart and try to force yourself to live in a block of concrete filled to busting with people, damage will be done.

My husband and I moved two weeks ago to a small town outside of Seoul. I take the train for over an hour to go to work and the nearest convenience store is a 30 minute walk away. We live in a house with a garden and trees. Yes, the garden is unmistakably Korean. The trees are low to the ground and there are little stone fertility symbols tucked under shrubs. It doesn’t matter. My heart needed trees. I didn’t realize how much I have denied the Newfoundlander in me by living in Seoul for so long. I feel suddenly full of breath. My God. For how long, had I been holding it?

I am writing this on the upstairs deck of the house. The sun is setting over a squat, lush mountain. I hear only the sound of the odd happy dog, the birds and the Cocteau Twins -the  noise I choose. And of course, the cows. Did I mention there are cows?

I sit here, the only white woman for miles, and I feel more at home here than in the middle of the expat neighborhood in Seoul. I am a Newfoundlander, see, every inch of me. I have ocean in my veins, and wildness in the soles of my feet. It is my birthright. Space and quiet are my natural way and I have never stopped looking for bears in the backyard. You can’t grow up in the middle of such a myth, and then expect to roll it up in your backpack as you board a plane, thinking it will fit. Make no wonder it has been coming out in my poetry and my barroom stories.

I’ve been leaking Newfoundland all over Asia for the past 15 years. That doesn’t mean I need to go back. I do need to respect my inner landscape, find more ways to feel my hair tangled by wind and my fingers soaked with water. I need a kitchen that will fit a party.  I need stars, not satellites. And I need to face the truth. I’m more of a Newfoundlander than I ever knew.

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Sick Kitty

August 18, 2011

UPDATE:

Thanks to all those who expressed concern for my little fuzzball. There is good news. Goguma seems to have gotten over whatever was causing the problem. It seems to have been something he swallowed causing irritation in the stomach lining, and wasn’t indicative of a bigger problem. The upside of this is that Goguma has had a complete physical, and is actually really healthy, especially for his age. He is still slowing down a bit and easily gets an upset stomach these days, but we are also experiencing a lot of heat here in Seoul which can be to blame. He is still under close watch, but I am finally starting to relax a bit. He may be furry and four-legged, but he is very much my baby. 🙂

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My poor little fur-baby, Goguma, started throwing up blood last night. So far, the vets can’t find the cause, and are hoping it’s just stomach irritation. However, I see quite a few vet visits and lots of cuddling sessions over the next few days. For that reason, I am throwing in the towel on the NaBloPoMo challenge.

That said, I will definitely be posting at least once a week, usually on Sundays, so please come back.

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The shorthand of culture

October 31, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I was having coffee with my husband in our living room. As I was looking through my news headlines, I said to my husband, ” Oh, look at that… Tom Bosley died.”
“Who?”
” Tom Bosley. You know? Happy Days? The Fonz? AAAAYYYYY!”, I said, pantomiming pulling a comb out of my jeans pocket, pulling up the collar of my motorcycle jacket and giving the double thumbs up, hoping to somehow trigger a memory in my husband which he had never had.
” Didn’t you guys have Happy Days?”, I asked.
” Sometimes, happy, but not because of combing our hair”, he answered.
At that point I gave up trying to explain who poor Tom Bosley was, and added his name to the column of things which don’t belong in our marriage.

When you marry someone from another culture, one of the things you must be willing to sacrifice is cultural shorthand. Koreans have words for concepts that don’t even exist in English. Bong ( my husband ) can use those words anywhere in his life, and have instant understanding – except at home. If he drops one of those words at home, it usually will involve a one-hour history lesson, a bottle of wine and a game of charades before I start to understand the weight that the word carries.

The good side of all this, is that it keeps things fresh. We have been together more than 10 years. He may not yet know about my obsession with Duran Duran when I was fourteen. That could take a 3-hour dinner at a barbecue restaurant and two bottles of soju to explain.

Yet, for someone who has grown up in a totally different culture, my husband “gets” me on a level so deep, it transcends everything else. When we met, his English was still a smidge above basic. That first night, we met in a bar. As we stood trying to talk over the music, he told me he was a jazz musician. I said, ” I’m sorry…I don’t know much about jazz. ” He was silent for a few too many beats, trying to put together what he wanted to say. Then he looked at me and said, ” You are jazz”. I decided at that moment that anyone who saw me that way was Mr. Right. Ironically, the concept of “Mr. Right” is also in the column of cultural shorthand that doesn’t translate.

This December, I will be bringing my husband home for his first real Christmas. Christmas is celebrated here in Korea – in a very different way. Christmas Eve here is a date or party night. Everyone buys cakes and goes out to get drunk. Perhaps not so different from home after all? Yet, it is a recent holiday with little emotion surrounding it. For us North Americans, Christmas holds so much – family, memories, romance, hopes, pressure, stress, warmth and tradition. It can never be just another day.

In the early days of our relationship, I tried to recreate a Christmas back home. I would buy a turkey at the Black Market shops ( where you can buy items smuggled out of the US army base at triple the normal price.) I would play Bing Crosby and decorate a small artificial tree. I would make desperate phonecalls home for gravy instructions. Through all of this, Bong would humour me, and try to play along. I could see it in his eyes, though. None of these things meant anything to him, except that he understood they meant something to me. No napkin drawings or hand gestures could possibly communicate the feelings that Christmas evokes. Eventually, I gave up trying to recreate an empty shell of a holiday that I left behind when I moved here. The best Christmas Bong and I shared was when I stopped trying, and we went to the horse races. Like everything else in our marriage, we are at our best when we meet in the middle to create something just for us.

Last Christmas day, we went to a friend’s bar to drink and have dinner – Korean traditional alcohol and pasta. I called my parents to wish them a Merry Christmas – because of the time difference, I had no choice but to call while I was in the bar. It might have been the warming effects of the Andong Soju I was drinking, or it might have been the fact that a gorgeous unexpected snow had begun to fall, but I found myself on the phone for hours while my husband chatted with his friend. I was missing home. I was missing my culture. When I hung up, my husband said, ” Why don’t we go next Christmas?”. Again, he ” got” me on a level beyond the shorthand of culture.

So, this Christmas, we are going to my home to celebrate. I don’t expect he will totally understand, but I’m hoping a little of the feeling will seep into his skin and warm him to the tradition – become part of him. At least, the next Christmas after, when I mention stockings or shortbreads , he won’t need a one-act play to understand what they mean to me. He and I will have a shorthand.