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Posts Tagged ‘travel Korea’


On Wednesday of this week, Koreans celebrated their own version of Thanksgiving. Called Chuseok, it is the most important holiday of the year and combines a harvest festival with the vestiges of ancestor worship. There is also a great deal of booze involved.   

While Chuseok proper was on the 22nd, it’s a three-day break from work. And in my wife’s family, the visit to the tomb comes the day before Chuseok. So, on Tuesday, Ian and I joined two of KJ’s cousins, their wives and children, and my father-in-law on a visit to the tombs of his mother and father. Other families do this on the morning of Chuseok itself.   

A view of some of the tombs (burial mounds, really) at the graveyard where my father-in-law's parents are buried. You can also see some folks paying their respects.

A view of some of the tombs (burial mounds, really) at the graveyard where my father-in-law's parents are buried. You can also see some folks paying their respects.

 

While very few South Koreans actually still worship their ancestors, they continue to pay their respects to their parents and grandparents by trimming the grass and plants around their tombs and making offerings of food and makgeolli (a milky-white Korean rice wine). Then, everyone gets down on the ground and bows before the tombs. After this, it’s time to drink the makgeolli and eat the food. Kind of an interesting concept for a picnic really.   

Ian passing the time while we wait for one of KJ's cousins to arrive with his family. The pink Paul Frank outfit with blue trim is a gift from my wife's younger sister, who insists the outfit is unisex. I'm not entirely convinced, but what can you do?

Ian passing the time while we wait for one of KJ's cousins to arrive with his family. The pink Paul Frank outfit with blue trim is a gift from my wife's younger sister, who insists the outfit is unisex. I'm not entirely convinced, but what can you do?

 

KJ didn’t come with us to the tombs because there was cooking to do. And this being South Korea, cooking is women’s work, so she stayed behind to help her mother out. After we returned, the wives of the cousins pitched in as well to help get everything ready for the big day. We men did absolutely nothing to help. I might point out here that South Korea is a land of cutting-edge electronics and Fifties-era social mores.   

On the morning of Chuseok, we all got up very early and waited for my father-in-law’s elder brother to arrive from Busan. He’s a retired priest – actually a monsignor, which is even better, just below a bishop. In fact, he trained almost all of the priests currently active in the Busan area, I’m told.   

Well, if you’re Catholic, it’s pretty darned handy to have a priest in the family because you can have Mass without leaving the house. And that’s what we did. It’s part of the Lee family’s way of celebrating Chuseok – Mass first, bowing to photos of the patriarch’s parents and then eating breakfast. However, I should confess, that I missed the bulk of the Mass and all the bowing, because Ian just couldn’t stay still that long. Since I didn’t understand a word of what was being said anyway, it fell to me to take him outside and walk around in the rain.   

Now, there are some important differences between Korean Thanksgiving and North American Thanksgiving. One is that there isn’t just one big meal in the Korean version. There are three – breakfast, lunch and dinner – and they’re all the same. Each meal featured a bowl of rice; bulgogi (a marinated beef dish); Korean-style tempura; marinated squid; a variety of kimchis (fermented vegetable dishes); some other dishes I’ve forgotten about; and makgeolli. Yup, rice wine at about 7:30 in the morning. Lots of it, too.   

Lunch was the same, except it featured soju instead of makgeolli. Soju is basically the national drink of Korea. It’s a distilled beverage typically between 24 to 27 per cent alcohol, clear, slightly sweet and cheap as borscht. A 300 mL bottle costs about 60 cents in the supermarket. Not the greatest alcoholic beverage in the world, to be honest, but after about three shots you don’t even notice it tastes a bit like mouthwash.   

Dinner was also the same, except that the cast had changed. The cousins and their children had gone off now to visit the families of the wives and they were replaced by my father-in-law’s sister, her husband, their two sons, and KJ’s two sisters, their husbands and their kids. The booze changed, too. This time, it was Scotch. And lots of it.   

The menfolk sitting around enjoying Scotch while the womenfolk put the finishing touches on dinner and bring the food to the table.

The menfolk sitting around enjoying Scotch while the womenfolk put the finishing touches on dinner and bring the food to the table.

 

Once dinner was finished, it was time for the main event, which was the priest uncle giving KJ a stern lecture in front of everybody about how terrible it is that we’re traveling all over the place with a baby in tow when we should be buying a house or some such and being respectable people, instead of, in his words, being “worse than gypsies.” After he was done, my mother-in-law took a pretty good run at KJ, too. I’d been instructed by KJ in advance (we knew this was coming) not to say anything at all, so I went out for smoke breaks anytime the urge to spout off approached irresistible levels.   

And here is where Thanksgiving Korean style revealed itself to be essentially the same as Thanksgiving in Canada or the United States: It’s a time for family to travel sometimes great distances to get together for a big meal and to remember just how much they really piss one another off.   

Good times.

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Well, the time has come to say goodbye to Yangsan, our home in South Korea since March 24th. And now the real backpacking begins. Three-month stays in comfortable houses are a thing of the past for us. From now on, my wife, our baby and I will be moving about much more frequently and relying on one big backpack, two daypacks and a baby carrier. 

For a lot of parents, the above probably sounds like a nightmare. It’s difficult just to go grocery shopping with an 18-month-old toddler. What kind of crazy person would want to go backpacking with one? 

It’s a fair question, and I’m entirely open to the possibility that we are indeed nuts. I’ll be honest and let you know that it all does seem rather daunting now that we’re only nine or ten hours away from our train trip to Seoul and just two days away from our flight to our next country –  and the beginning of our “for real” backpacking tour. 

I’m also really excited, though. Most of the best times of my life have come while living out of a backpack and exploring foreign countries. I’ve never brought a baby along for the ride before, but our little guy is pretty resilient and seems to really enjoy new places, people and things. I have a feeling he’s going to be an excellent traveller. 

We've "simplified" our lives to this: a travel backpack, two daypacks, a baby carrier and Ian's teddy, Hudson Bear.

We've "simplified" our lives to this: a travel backpack, two daypacks, a baby carrier and Ian's teddy, Hudson Bear.

 

That’s not to say there won’t be difficulties. Of course there will be. There always are, but it’s the difficulties that give travelling a lot of its flavor. In fact, some of the hardest times I’ve had backpacking are some of my favorite memories. The weekend I was homeless in Munich, visiting a war zone in the former Yugoslavia, a broken-down car in the middle of the Australian Outback – these are all experiences which I am deeply grateful to have had. The first two profoundly affected my life. 

There are also all the other experiences which go along with travelling: the amazing people you meet, the extraordinary art you see, and all the new cultures you get to immerse yourself in and learn about. This is what my wife and I really want for our son. They say the first four years of life are the most important, and we’re operating on the theory that giving him such a stimulating start to life can only be a good thing. 

Or maybe we’re just crazy. Who knows? We’re about to find out. 

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Faithful readers of this blog are well aware that my level of proficiency in the Korean language is just slightly above non-existent and well short of pathetic. From my fumblings, I understand how difficult it is to learn another language and how amusing the attempt may be to native speakers.  

It is a soothing balm to my ego, then, to encounter so much broken English here in South Korea, on signs and T-shirts and what not. I’d like to share some of my favorites with you now. They range from simple (but amusing) spelling mistakes to odd grammar and finally to the surrealistically poetic.  

If you enjoy these, then you will definitely enjoy a website called www.engrish.com, the king of broken English websites.  

If you enjoyed "Dances with Wolves", you'll love "Dances with Lilies".

If you enjoyed "Dances with Wolves", you'll love "Dances with Lilies".

 

What's the difference between a shark and a sturgeon?

What's the difference between a shark and a sturgeon?

 

Experts on sturgeon are impressed by the range of formatting they exhibit.

Experts on sturgeon are impressed by the range of formatting they exhibit.

 

This has got to be the world's most upbeat and eager-to-please chain of convenience stores.

This has to be the world's most upbeat and eager-to-please chain of convenience stores.

 

Very impressive indeed.

Very impressive indeed.

 

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Every country has its strange beliefs. A goodly number of Americans are convinced public health insurance is a Commie plot, many Japanese believe keeping a toy cat somewhere in their home is lucky, and the Scottish think haggis is food. Here in South Korea, a lot of folks believe in something called fan death.   

When I was teaching ESL back in Vancouver, I heard a lot about fan death. Basically, what many Koreans believe is that letting an electric fan run all night in a closed room can kill the people sleeping inside. This is why the electric fans here have timers that turn off these dangerous appliances automatically. People are very strongly encouraged to make sure they are set before going to sleep.   

Any time the topic of fan death would come up with my students, I tried to get them to explain to me how exactly an electric fan in a closed room could kill you while you slept. Some interesting explanations were offered.   

One theory is that keeping an electric fan on all night in a room with the door and windows closed can lead to suffocation. When asked how, students would explain that people suffocate because the fans move air away from them. When I pointed out that a fan moves as much air in your direction as it pushes away, they usually looked somewhat taken aback.   

Another theory I heard often is that electric fans give off carbon dioxide, which builds up to deadly levels in a closed room. Well, I see two problems with this one. First of all, you would need an airtight room for this to work. Then there is the fact that electric fans do not run on fuel and so do not produce carbon dioxide when in operation.   

Undeterred, some of my more creative and ardently committed students moved on to my favorite theory: that the blades of electric fans chop up oxygen molecules. Now, I’m just about the farthest thing from a physicist, but I am nonetheless pretty darn sure that the energy required to split apart oxygen molecules is higher than that generated by your typical household electric fan.   

Besides, all of these theories (and the many others I haven’t mentioned) also leave a couple interesting questions unanswered: Why do only sleeping people succumb to fan death? Why don’t wide awake people die as well?   

Unsafe at any speed.

Unsafe at any speed.

 

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Imagine an election campaign where you are phoned only once, where nobody knocks on your door and there are no attack ads on TV. A lot of people in the West would think, “Sounds great.” Well, not so fast. South Korean politicians have other ways of making sure folks know they’re running for office. And in the leadup to the provincial and municipal elections held here on Wednesday, they made darn sure voters did not forget them.          

Perhaps the main means of accomplishing this was through the use of what I call speechmobiles – something I’ve never seen before. The best way to describe them is with a thousand words worth of picture, so here you go:           

A speechmobile for one of the candidates parked by the side of a road in Busan.

A speechmobile for one of the candidates parked by the side of a road in Busan.

 

 These little things were absolutely everywhere in Yangsan and Busan during the election. And you definitely knew when they were in your neighborhood, because they had loudspeakers mounted on them – and they were turned all the way up to 11.          

Often, a candidate’s speechmobile would drive around with nobody in the back. However, it would blast out bits of his or her stump speech, as well as campaign songs praising either the candidate or the party.          

I was quite amused by the fact that one of the campaign songs was set to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It”, while another was set to the tune of “YMCA” by the Village People. A lot of other campaign tunes were set to old Korean pop songs that the older – more likely to vote – people would remember. Frequently, the speechmobile would have a few ajumas in the back, too, waving at all the folks as they drove by.          

Every now and then – and with greater frequency as Election Day neared – the candidate would be in the back of the speechmobile giving a rousing oration.          

A candidate giving a drive-by speech to all the cars and pedestrians on a busy street in Busan the day before the election.

A candidate giving a drive-by speech to all the cars and pedestrians on a busy street in Busan the day before the election.

 

The candidates were also out and about at all the various community events and festivals, just like back home. They would also hang out around churches on Sunday morning to greet worshippers as they filed in.          

The candidates were not the only ones working hard, however. The ajumas were out in force, too.          

Every time I entered or exited a subway station over the past several weeks, I would see a big group of ajumas all wearing their campaign uniforms and bowing to the riders. They would say something about how So-and-so was going to work hard for them. Usually, one of the ajumas was holding a portrait of their candidate.          

It was also common to see these ajuma armies standing at busy intersections and doing choreographed dance routines while singing their candidate’s song. Another popular campaigning spot for ajumas was in shopping malls.          

A bunch of ajumas getting the word out in a Busan shopping mall the day before the vote.

A bunch of ajumas getting the word out in a Busan shopping mall the day before the vote.

 

 In addition to the speechmobiles and the armies of ajumas, I was also interested in the fact that Election Day is a holiday in South Korea. To encourage turnout, everybody gets the day off work. Of course, human nature being what it is, many people simply take advantage of this bit of free time to sleep in and head out of town to do something fun instead of voting.          

For example, my younger sister-in-law and her husband took KJ, me, Ian and their son to a dinosaur theme park in Masan. Turnout on Election Day was about 56 per cent.          

Ian gets the heck out of the way of a dinosaur.

Ian gets the heck out of the way of a dinosaur.

 

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I’d like to show you some photos today of where we’ve been staying in South Korea these past couple months. Below are pictures of the in-laws’ house in Yangsan, as well as of some spots nearby. The first part of this visual tour will focus on places Ian enjoys visiting. Then I’ll really ramp up the excitement and show you where I smoke.     

This is the in-laws' house. In a country where most people live in small apartments, we're living large here in Yangsan.

This is the in-laws' house. In a country where most people live in small apartments, we're living large here in Yangsan.

The pots used by my mother-in-law to make kimchi, soy sauce, denjung and so on. You can also see the backyard dog, Samsunhee. Awesome dog. Ian enjoys petting her and walking around the pots.

The pots used by my mother-in-law to make kimchi, soy sauce, denjung and so on. You can also see the backyard dog, Samsunhee. Awesome dog. Ian enjoys petting her and walking around the pots.

Two of the four cows that Ian loves to visit every day. We always know when Ian wants to go outside, because he points to the front door and says, Moo! (Sometimes quite urgently.)

Two of the four cows that Ian loves to visit every day. We always know when Ian wants to go outside, because he points to the front door and says, Moo! (Sometimes quite urgently.)

This is a field right next to the cow's shed. Every now and then, the owner of the cows lets them run around here.

This is a field right next to the cow's shed. Every now and then, the owner of the cows lets them run around here.

I let Ian play on this quiet little street beside the cow farm once he's had enough of visiting the bovines. He's fascinated by all the storm sewer grates you see. He gets a kick out of watching the water flowing beneath and an even bigger kick dropping rocks through the grates. My task is to keep an eye out for cars.

I let Ian play on this quiet little street beside the cow farm once he's had enough of visiting the bovines. He's fascinated by all the storm sewer grates you see. He gets a kick out of watching the water flowing beneath and an even bigger kick dropping rocks through the grates. My task is to keep an eye out for cars.

After visiting the neighbor's cows and dropping rocks through the storm sewer grates on the adjoining street, Ian loves to visit these nearby rice paddies. Here he busies himself with the important task of dropping small rocks into the water.

After visiting the neighbor's cows and dropping rocks through the storm sewer grates on the adjoining street, Ian loves to visit these nearby rice paddies. Here he busies himself with the important task of dropping small rocks into the water.

After we're finished visiting the dog, the cows and the rice paddies, Ian and I head up this little lane that leads to the house. It also has storm sewer grates, which means Ian has more little rocks to drop.

After we're finished visiting the dog, the cows and the rice paddies, Ian and I head up this little lane that leads to the house. It also has storm sewer grates, which means Ian has more little rocks to drop.

This is my emergency smoking spot. It's where I smoke if my father-in-law is puttering about in his garden by my main smoking spot. This is where I received the packet of mineral salt I talked about in The Salt of the Earth.

This is my emergency smoking spot. It's where I smoke if my father-in-law is puttering about in his garden by my main smoking spot. This is where I received the packet of mineral salt I talked about in The Salt of the Earth.

This is my primary smoking spot. You can see my father-in-law's garden right below.

This is my primary smoking spot. You can see my father-in-law's garden right below.

View from my primary smoking spot #1

View from my primary smoking spot #1

View from my primary smoking spot #2

View from my primary smoking spot #2

View from my primary smoking spot #3. Just past my father-in-law's garden is the property of one of the neighbors. I still haven't decided if this is the world's smallest farm or a garden on steroids.

View from my primary smoking spot #3. Just past my father-in-law's garden is the property of one of the neighbors. I still haven't decided if this is the world's smallest farm or a garden on steroids.

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WARNING: This blog post ends with a really lame attempt at humor. You’ve been warned.     

I’m always surprised by the things I miss whenever I’m overseas. When I was 21 and backpacking around the world for a year, it was Old Dutch potato chips (click here if you’re not Canadian). When I was living in xenophobic Dublin from 1999 to 2000, it was Vancouver’s racial tolerance. Now that I’m in South Korea, I miss grass and strong coffee.     

When I say I miss grass, what I really mean is that I miss all the parks and playing fields that Vancouver and Victoria have. In Vancouver, especially, you don’t have to walk very far to find a nice big patch of grass. This is fantastic if you are the parent of a really energetic little kid like Ian.     

Back home, it was easy to find places where he could run and run and run until he was all tuckered out. If he fell down a hundred times, it didn’t matter. That soft cushy grass was no danger. And it was easy to keep him well away from cars.     

South Korea, by contrast, is unfortunately not greatly endowed when it comes to parks and playing fields. This is pretty understandable when you consider the twin facts of its small geographical size and relatively large population.     

South Korea is about the size of Portugal, but seventy per cent of the country is covered by mountains. This means that 46 million South Koreans and all the factories, farms, shops, roads, military bases, etc. are squeezed into a very small area. In a country this cramped, it’s no wonder there are nowhere near the number of parks and fields we take for granted back home.     

The lawn in front of the in-laws' house is nice, but our little guy needs a lot more space than just this.

The lawn in front of the in-laws' house is nice, but our little guy needs a lot more space than just this.

 

Coffee is another thing I miss – strong coffee. KJ and I are on a constant search for a nice French or Italian roast, but so far we have had no success. We’ve tried many of the cool little independent coffee shops, as well as the chains with interesting names such as “Angel in Us”. We’ve even tried Starbucks. You would think Starbucks in South Korea would offer a nice strong cup of coffee, but no. The strongest they’ve got here is what would pass for a medium roast back home.     

So there you have it. Those are the two things I miss. For the reasons mentioned above, I can accept the paucity of parks and playing fields in South Korea. I wish it weren’t so, but I can accept it. However, the total lack of strong coffee is not acceptable. I know the South Korean government has more pressing matters to attend to at present, but I do hope they will address this situation as soon as they have the time.     

There are quite simply no grounds for weak coffee.  

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Evangelical Protestants around the world have a well-earned reputation for working hard to win converts to their faith. Evangelical Protestants in Korea, however, put all the others to shame with their industriousness and marketing savvy.    

South Korea is enthusiastically capitalistic and intensely competitive. Just handing out a pamphlet and hoping people will come check out your church won’t cut it here. You need to generate some goodwill and build brand awareness, too, so the little groups that seem to be everywhere in this country also give out a variety of goodies.    

Candies are an item they hand out quite frequently – much to the delight of Ian and his future dentist. Another popular promo are little packets of tissues. But my all-time favorite is this packet of mineral salt:    

There are a wide range of uses for this mineral salt.

There are a wide range of uses for this mineral salt.

 

I received this quite randomly. One sunny afternoon, I popped out of the house for a cigarette. My customary smoking spot is right by my father-in-law’s garden and he happened to be there, tilling the soil and what not. Due to the intricate rules regarding age in South Korea, I had to go somewhere else to get my nicotine fix, so I went to the street in front of the house – which is really more like a lane, to be honest.    

Anyway, I’m quite glad I took this particular smoke break there, because after a couple of minutes a middle-aged guy and two ajumas came walking down the hill. The man was wearing a golden sash with a red cross at the top and a bunch of Korean writing. It was pretty obvious they were out spreading the Good News. Ever friendly, I gave a little bow and said “Ahnyoung hasayo” when they got near me.    

Naturally, they thought perhaps I spoke Korean and one of the ajumas said something to me. After I shrugged sheepishly and said “Mienhamnida”, the formal version of “I’m sorry”, they quickly realized this was not the case. The ajuma who spoke to me was kind enough to give me the packet of mineral salt, though, and I said “Kamasamnida”, which means “Thank you.” They carried on their way after that, which was pretty lucky for me, because I had nearly exhausted my Korean vocabulary by this point.    

As I finished my cigarette, I marvelled at the cleverness of this little promo. What a nice spin on that “salt of the earth” scripture, I thought. Then I went inside to find KJ so she could give me a translation.    

KJ told me that the front of the packet said the mineral salt inside was of the highest quality and had been featured on KBS1, a Korean network, as well as CBS. It also said that this top-notch mineral salt can be eaten, used as a facial scrub, or for a woman’s “special cleansing”.    

Versatile stuff.    

Having gone to church once or twice a week growing up, I was able to puzzle out the message on the back of the packet myself.    

Are you on the right road?

Are you on the right road?

 

What you see on the back is the standard stuff about two roads, one leading to the good place and the other leading to the bad place. There is a picture of the bad place, and it looks quite nasty. Everyone is all singed white and looking scared as the flames of hell rage out of control. The good place, I must say, looks a far sight better. Everyone there is dressed up nice and cheering as Jesus looks on benignly, serenaded by angels. The way to the good place is through prayer and faith – and going to church, of course.    

Oh, did I forget to mention that the front of the packet also says when you run out of this mineral salt, you can go to their church to get more? Now that’s marketing, people! 

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Koreans are fond of little kids. They are especially fond of cute ones and are fascinated with mixed-race children. Ian is cute and mixed race, which means going out with him here is a bit like being part of a movie star’s entourage.     

I’ve completely lost track of the number of times that we’ve entered a shop or a restaurant and heard people gasp when they see our little boy. Young women and school girls often squeal. Almost everybody stares.     

There was one time near Busan National University that is quite typical. KJ was getting her hair done and Ian and I were hanging out in the shopping district. We popped into McDonald’s to get a cheeseburger and the place went silent when we entered. Everybody was watching us and a few started going Ohhhhhhh and murmuring to each other. One young woman turned to her friends, held the tips of her index finger and thumb together and reported to them that Ian’s eyes are “like this!”     

Of course, I felt proud of my little guy, but I also really wished the other customers would stop staring. It’s a bit uncomfortable when you’re eating. It’s even more so when you’re holding a toddler on your lap with one hand and trying to feed him and yourself with the other, all the while making a big old mess. You’re not exactly at your glamorous best at such times. I know they weren’t staring at me – they were staring at Ian – but still.     

This sort of thing is also very common on the street, where Ian also attracts a considerable amount of attention and one of the many, many ways that Korea is different from North America manifests itself. In Korea, people feel absolutely free to come up to other people’s kids and tousle their hair, pinch their cheeks, hold their hands and even pick them up – without asking the parents. Since I’m not eating at these times, I really enjoy it. I think it’s great that Koreans are so affectionate towards kids.     

This is the face that stops Koreans in their tracks.

This is the face that stops Koreans in their tracks.

 

The other day, we were in Nampodong, which is a hip little area with a street full of trendy shops, cafes and restaurants that leads to a traditional Korean market occupying a warren of narrow lanes and alleys. In the market, KJ went into a clothing store to check out a sale. I stayed outside with Ian, parked his stroller right up against the curb and sat down to have a chat and keep him entertained.     

Just a few moments later, an ajashi (middle-aged guy, basically) came over and bent down to examine Ian. “Yepuda!” he said, which means “pretty!” He took Ian’s right hand and kissed it and spoke to the little guy in Korean. He kissed Ian’s hand again. Then Ian did something pretty entertaining. He pulled the ajashi’s hand to his mouth and kissed it. The ajashi laughed, so Ian did it again. And again.     

Then another ajashi came over and shook Ian’s hand while the first one pinched his cheek. Ian shook hands with the second ajashi a couple of times and then realized this was a good way to meet people and make friends. So he started holding out his hand to random people passing by who all had a good chuckle as they shook it. By the time KJ came out of the shop, there were about a dozen people all crowded around Ian. I even noticed an ajashi taking Ian’s picture on his cellphone.     

After KJ exchanged pleasantries with a couple of the members of Ian’s fan club, we carried on and checked out the rest of the market. About an hour later, we passed by the same spot. KJ wanted to buy a dress she had looked at before. Again, I stayed outside with Ian.     

An ajuma who had a stand in the middle of the narrow little street said something to KJ when she came out. “He must be sick of people,” she said. “He’s such a beautiful baby so people are always coming up to him. He must get tired of it.”     

Luckily, Ian is a very social little fellow and he isn’t sick of people in the least. He seems to really enjoy the attention and all the opportunities it brings for him to interact with people. And I’m grateful to be in a place where random strangers routinely show such kindness and warmth to my son, in the process giving me a pretty good idea of what it must be like to hang out with a movie star. 

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The combatants in the mostly low-grade conflict entering its eighth week here in Yangsan don’t even qualify as flyweights. In one corner is So-min “Rhymes with So Mean” Kim, the four-year-old daughter of my older sister-in-law. So-min stands 41 inches tall and weighs in at 36.5 pounds. In the other corner is my pride and joy, Ian “Monkey” Melland, who is 16 months old, 35 inches tall and tilts the scales at a whopping 26 pounds.      

This is clearly a mismatch.      

My father- and mother-in-law live with my wife’s older sister Kyung-mi, her husband and So-min. For the first couple days after KJ and I moved in with our little guy, So-min tolerated Ian fairly well. But then the novelty wore off and she began to resent the tiny interloper who kept touching her stuff, playing with her toys and – worst of all – receiving warmth and affection from her grandparents and parents.      

On about our third day here, So-min decided it was time to show Ian his proper place by giving him a good shove that sent him right down on his keister. The first point had been scored by So-min – but at a cost. Her sneak attack was roundly condemned and she got a good scolding from her mom.      

So-min adjusted her tactics and limited herself for a while to simply ripping any toy Ian was playing with out of his hands – even if it was his own toy. A favorite maneuver of So-min’s is to grab a toy from Ian and if he begins playing with another toy to grab that one as well. It’s not uncommon to see her suddenly standing in the living room clutching about five or six toys that she has confiscated.      

Unfortunately, clear limits and consistent discipline are lacking in So-min’s life. Her parents both work, and between their commute and the long hours typical in South Korea, they don’t have a lot of time with So-min during the week. They let her get away with a lot, because they don’t want to spend what little time they have with her ragging her out, I guess. KJ’s parents let her get away with a lot, too, because they’re old and simply lack the stamina to keep up with a little kid.      

So-min quickly realized that generally my wife and I were the only ones who were going to scold her. This emboldened her and she suddenly began to slap at Ian’s hands, take things from him and push him around with abandon. She would stare unblinkingly at us and nod her head when we told her what she did was wrong, but then she’d go right back at it. So-min scored point after point after point while our little guy was completely shut out.      

So-min scores a point.

So-min scores a point.

 

What So-min didn’t know, though, is that Ian has phenomenal grip strength and that he bites like a crocodile. He is also extraordinarily persistent and has an innate grasp of tactics.      

Finally, after a couple weeks of being bullied and feeling increasingly frustrated, Ian reached his limit. One evening, after being pushed a couple times and having several toys snatched away, Ian saw his chance to score a point. And by God he took it.      

So-min was sitting on the couch with Harabaji (Korean for grandfather). They were sharing a peaceful little moment and suddenly Ian got a gleam in his eye. He quietly walked over to the couch and clambered up beside the two of them. So-min gave him a little push and that was it. In a flash, Ian had grabbed both of So-min’s pigtails and was yanking on them with all of his might. He’s very strong for a toddler and you could see and hear that So-min was in some pain. KJ rushed over and pried the pigtails out of Ian’s hands – which took a few moments.      

One point for Ian.      

As soon as KJ had freed So-min’s pigtails from Ian’s grip, however, he lunged for her bangs and pulled down hard, really hard. So-min was in absolute shock and looking a little the worse for wear by the time KJ was able to rescue her again. Her glasses were askew and hair was sticking out all over the place.      

Two points for Ian.      

Harabaji was having a pretty good chuckle over this, but everybody else was making lots of noises to indicate shock, concern and disapproval. KJ and I scolded Ian and told him what he did was bad, it’s wrong to pull people’s hair and he better apologize to So-min, etc. But I have to say, our reprimands were half-hearted. We don’t want to raise a brawler and we’d prefer that Ian not get into fights, but deep down we were proud of him for standing up for himself. To be really honest, we felt like So-min had it coming. Judging by the warmth with which Harabaji was looking at his little grandson, he apparently thought so, too.      

You can just feel the love, can't you?

You can just feel the love, can't you?

 

A night or two after this, So-min went over the top. Ian was sitting on Harabaji’s lap and she went over to sit down next to them. Suddenly, she grabbed Ian’s face from behind and pulled his head back hard. Harabaji tried to stop her, but she did it again.      

KJ and I lost it and some family drama ensued. In the aftermath of this, KJ and I seriously considered moving out. We didn’t leave in the end, but we have had a strict policy of never leaving Ian and So-min alone together ever since that night. We watch So-min like hawks.      

So-min kept things pretty low-key for the next couple days – some toy snatching and the odd swat at Ian’s grabby little hands, but nothing too bad. Then, one morning in the kitchen, she decided it would be fun to put Ian in a headlock. Big mistake. Big, big, big mistake!      

I was standing right there when it happened, and I was about to snap at So-min and move her arm away from Ian’s throat. The poor little guy’s face showed that he was both surprised and unsure of how to escape from his predicament, and I had just had it with So-min by this point. But before I could make a move to end things, Ian looked down at So-min’s forearm, opened his mouth wide and chomped down with all of his mandibular might.      

I mentioned earlier that Ian bites like a crocodile. Of course that’s an exaggeration, but not much of one. It really hurts when he bites us, so you can imagine how much it hurt So-min. Once again, she looked completely shocked and her little eyes were filled with tears. Once I separated them, she started crying.      

KJ gave Ian a perfunctory “Don’t bite, Ian. That’s bad.” Then she examined her niece’s arm. For the sake of appearances, I also told Ian biting was bad as I carried him to our bedroom and closed the door. What I was really thinking was, “Good job.”      

This sort of thing has become routine now. Only once has So-min done anything as bad as the night she pulled back on Ian’s head. She punched him one morning, but I put the fear of God in her right away. It’s just been pushing and hand-swatting and taunting since. And, of course, she has continued to rack up the points while little Ian just scores just a point or two here and there.      

Ian’s last point was quite the shocker, though. On Saturday night, KJ was with Ian in her parents’ room. Kyung-mi was giving So-min a bath in the ensuite. Now, Ian loves bare skin. So when Kyung-mi brought out her butt-naked little girl, Ian got up and started to walk on over.      

“Grab him! Grab him!” Kyung-mi cried out to my wife, but KJ couldn’t be bothered and did nothing to stop him.      

Ian reached out to touch So-min’s tummy. She pinched his arm. He reached out again to touch her tummy. She pinched his arm again. Then, suddenly, Ian surprised the entire family by slapping So-min in the face.      

Everybody laughed except Kyung-mi – and, of course, So-min. Even KJ’s mom laughed, and she’s very biased towards So-min.      

I hate to say it, but I was really proud of Ian when I heard about this. He’s about a hundred points behind and he’ll never catch up to So-min, but it’s for this very reason that the points he does score are just so deeply satisfying. It’s a bit like watching an Ewok take on a Storm Trooper. You can’t help but cheer for the little guy. 

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