By Maggie Velasquez-Choi

Don’t Have a Cow –

June 4th,2008

Demonstrations are a common thing in South Korea. It seems that the college students don’t have anything else to do except go to the streets, picket, chant, and throw Molotov cocktails at the police. Of course, there are other people of varying ages but most are college-age students.
The big and loud thing these days is the demonstrations against the resumption of importing U.S. beef. They claim that U.S. beef is a risk to the public health due to the probability that mad cow disease could be present in the imported meat and infect an unsuspecting consumer. The new Korean president had already agreed to opening up shipments again but asked for a halt again as these demonstrations are getting out of hand in this country. The media don’t help either. That’s what is mostly in the news here.

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I asked my husband, Tom, why these protestors don’t just keep to themselves and allow the import of the meat. They can choose to not buy it and allow other Koreans to buy it and eat it at their own risk. Tom said it’s because American beef is cheaper than Australian beef and Korean beef and even if we purchase at the market or order at the restaurant “safe” beef (Korean or Australian) the store/restaurant owner could very likely serve us American beef (since it’s cheaper for him to purchase) and claim that it’s Korean or Australian.
It’s not even most Koreans that are against the imports but a relatively few squeaking wheels can make it sound like it’s the whole country. The media need to give us more than just the coverage of the demonstrations and show how low the risk is.
Since I live in a suburb I haven’t seen these demonstrations in the capital city of Seoul, but I’ve been there, done that. I used to live in the campus of a university where I taught in Seoul. I needed to run through the main entrance to the school as fast as I could or I might get caught in the crossfire of the students throwing Molotov cocktails at the riot police and the police spraying tear gas. I was too late once running out of the campus and I could barely stand and breathe to catch a taxi in the street. Later, in the cab I couldn’t talk because I was gasping for breath and I could barely open my eyes due to the searing pain. It took a few minutes for me to get back to normal. I was mad as heck complaining to the taxi driver about the silly things the students protest about. He just laughed at me.
As for me, I hope the imports resume ASAP. I’m getting tired of eating fish since beef is so darn expensive here.

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The high cost of Living
May 28th, 2008

– I received a package today from my Guymon brother, Antonio. It contained some of the products from my shopping list that I emailed him of things that I can’t get in Korea and I suffer without. The groceries in the box totaled about $100 but the 30 pound box cost him $111 in postage. I excitedly tore it open and was happy to see my replacement bags for the Diaper Genie, Comet and Scrubbing Bubbles for the bathroom. My mother-in-law had never seen the lentils that were also included. It just goes to show that lentils are almost non-existent in Korea, not because people are too poor to buy them, but because Koreans don’t like their taste. It’s the same thing in America. I don’t see seaweed nor squid in the typical grocery store because most Americans wouldn’t buy it anyway. Another item in the box was my bag of pinto beans. The pinto beans I use here in Korea are $7 a pound and they are old, dark and brittle. The next thing was the bag of long grain rice. My mother-in-law said that she used to see it in Korea when she was a little girl but they don’t sell it anymore because Koreans don’t like it. Koreans only eat sticky rice but I can’t use sticky rice to make any of the recipes that I find on the net now that I’m trying to cook seriously for Andy. She said that Koreans don’t like the long grain rice because you can’t hold it with your chopsticks except for a few grains at a time. Now the sticky rice is another story. You can pick up the whole ball of rice from your bowl with your chopsticks if you so choose. Most of the rest of Asia eats the American type, long grain rice. In China, I noticed that the Chinese don’t necessarily pick up two or three grains of rice with their chopsticks. They pick up the bowl and shovel the rice into their mouths with the chopsticks.

We’ve all heard the news of the ever-rising price of rice and other foods. I researched the reasons for the rising price of rice and grains. I found four main reasons for the increase in prices. They are:

(1). The new prosperity of some nations, especially in Asia, more people are eating beef and other meats. This new demand of food displaces land and water formerly used to raise rice and other crops, thus lowering the supply of rice and other grains. That same piece of land used to feed many people a meal of rice but now it only feeds a few people a bit of beef (or other meat).

(2).This year many Asian countries suffered weather-related catastrophes that wiped out their crops.

(3). President Bush’s call to produce ethanol fuel many farmers around the world, (and especially in Brazil), are planting corn and selling it for ethanol, taking corn and it’s many uses from our dinner plates.

(4). People have been hoarding rice because they are afraid of not having enough or not being able to afford it in the future or they are business-minded and want as much rice as possible to resell it later when the price goes up. A percieved lack of rice creates a vicious cycle of panic that distorts the true supply and demand balance.

Prices are going up everywhere. I read that a man in India was complaining that it now cost 20 cents ( U.S. dollars) a pound to buy rice. This isn’t much until we realize what percentage of a family’s household income goes toward food and other basic necessities. In America, people are complaining and starting to tighten their belts. Yet, most Americans still spend a much smaller percentage of their income on food and necessities.

The typical American spends less than 10% of disposable income on food. Indians spend 40% of their income on food. In Korea it’s about 15%. (Korea’s per capita income is about the same as the Panhandle’s.) Gasoline here is about $7 dollars a gallon. Rice is about a dollar a pound. I don’t keep up with the price of beef. The last time I checked the price was $30 dollars a pound for Korean-raised beef. We don’t eat much beef, period. We buy one package from Costco once a month and it lasts us all month. We use it sparingly to flavor foods.

Our families in America and Korea are still in good shape, thank God, but I feel for families that are suffering from this change.

I read that some American school cafeterias can’t work with the same budget of years past. Also, some world food programs won’t be able to feed the thousands of children that they’ve been feeding.

This “crisis” may be a blessing in disguise to propel us to get back to basics: read and keep The Word of God, put an earnest effort into doing His will (working hard and living and removing the fluff in our lives) and sharing our blessings (includes food, money and elbow grease) with those around us.


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Immigration Tails Tales –

May14th 2008

We finally finished with the paperwork of selling our Arlington, Texas house. It was a bittersweet moment. The paperwork processing stretched into weeks mostly because corrections were needed on both sides of the pond and, with our being outside of the country, e-mails would take 24 hours to get answered because we sleep during American bankers’ hours (your 9-5 = my 11pm – 7 am). Finally our papers were good enough to be notarized at the American Embassy in Seoul. We couldn’t use a Korean lawyer to notarize because they need the paperwork (21 pages) to be translated to Korean by a professional translator. Not happening.

Unlike the U.S., where almost anybody can qualify to be a notary public, only lawyers are allowed to be notary publics here, as in most of the rest of the world, including Mexico, which is how some unscrupulous people dupe Mexican illegal aliens in the U.S. out of their money. These public notaries will put up a sign on their office window announcing “notario publico certificado” knowing that it will make the Mexicans think that they’re lawyers. The undocumented workers will come to their office and pay huge fees to have the “lawyer” help them with their legalizing documentation. The results might be okay since it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do most of the paperwork, but many times things turn disastrous because there might be some serious problems that need the right legal advice. Many times the notary public doesn’t do all the necessary paperwork and leaves the “clients” in limbo for years as they wait on their green card (legal residence visa) to come in the mail. If these con artists get reported to the police they have a good argument “I didn’t tell them I was a lawyer, they just thought I was since in Mexico only lawyers can be public notaries. So the word on the street, on the airwaves and on the net to Mexicans is: Don’t think that a “notario publico” in the U.S. is necessarily a lawyer.

Well, where was I? Oh, yes, so, our paperwork was stamped by the American public notary at the Embassy on our second and final trip there. I’m just thankful that we didn’t have to wait in the long line of people that wound around the embassy walls. We have the privilege of going through the “citizens’ services” entrance. I felt pity on the Korean wannabe immigrants in the long line. I know what it’s like to wait, hope, fear and need. In the early 70’s my father had paid a goodly sum of money to a “lawyer” in El Paso to help us get our green cards. Years passed and nothing happened. Then we got word (and a newspaper clipping) that he had been arrested for passing himself off as a lawyer. No, he hadn’t processed our paperwork. So, we applied again through another source. Then in 1981 we got the call to go to Monterrey, Mexico for our interviews and processing. My dad was a nervous wreck. The detailed procedures had to be done just right. We’d awaken at 3:30 a.m. to go camp out at the already long American consulate line (it closed at 10am and most of the waiting people would be turned away). Later, upon being told what else we needed to do we’d race all over the hot, humid city in taxis to get the right pictures here, the right stamp there, the right letter here… then wake up early again the next morning camp out again in the line for the most-feared U.S. Consulate interview. With one stamp, the American consulate worker had the power to approve or reject our application. Well, the consulate approved of us and we got our green cards. It was one of my father’s happiest days. Of course, years later we all took our citizenship tests and passed.

Another time that I waited in these immigration lines was when my husband, Tom, was waiting for his green card. We had applied two years before (I did all the paperwork, no need for lawyers) but hadn’t heard anything. We needed to know what was happening. What was his status? Calls to the immigration office were only answered by automated service and it didn’t offer what we needed. The Internet, at that time, didn’t have the handy “make an appointment to chat with a representative on-line” program that it has now. Soooooo, our only option was to get up early and get in that long line outside the immigration office in Dallas to try to get our foot in the door to ask “What’s Tom’s status? Is he even in the system or did his application get lost?” Well, we got up at 3:30, made the 20 minute drive, walked to the back of the already long line of blanket-laying people and laid our blanket down. The doors opened at 8:30 am and closed at 10 am because they had more than enough people to keep them busy for the rest of the day. Yes, the doors closed behind the person who was in front of Tom and me. We tried again the next day and we got reassuring news that he was still in the system. Shortly thereafter he got his green card in the mail. He too got his citizenship a few years later.

In my travels of other Asian countries sometimes I’ll pass or stop by an American embassy. It’s always the one with Old Glory waving proudly in the courtyard and a long winding line of yearning people trying to enter her gates.

Yesterday I called TXU, my Arlington electric company, to cut off the electricity since I had sold the house. The nice representative commented that it must be nice to travel to Korea and see the Asian culture. I blasted him, “But I wish I was you living in America right now! I miss America! The people, the openness, the language, the culture….!

“I know what you mean.” He said. I’m in Guatemala right now, but I’m going back to Minnesota just as soon as I can.

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Junior, Senior or friend?

– Last week I went to Costco with Andy, my mother-in-law (Omani) and Laura, a missionary friend from Maryland who has been in Korea for 7 years. Laura and I talked nonstop the whole time (usually I don’t talk much during the day since I don’t speak much Korean and my in-laws don’t speak much English). Afterwards Omani asked me how old Laura was. I told her that she was 31 years old. “And she’s your friend?” She chuckled. I reminded her, again, that in most parts of the world it’s okay to be friends with people of different ages. She nodded smiling, but of course, a mind convinced against its will is of the same opinion still.
Here in Korea you should only be friends with people that were born on the same year as you were born. Anybody that was born before your birth year is your senior. You are to show them more respect and comply with them as much as possible. Also, bow to them first and low. He will bow secondly and not necessarily as low. Anybody born afterwards is your junior. They should show you respect and bow to you first. Those that fall in your birth year are your peers and can be called a friend if much time is spent meeting each other. Usually friendship circles start in elementary school, then you make new ones as you progress to middle school, then high school, college, the workplace…etc.
My college-age students here in Korea were constantly telling me, “sorry, I won’t be in class tomorrow, I have to meet my senior”
I asked, “Why don’t you just call him ‘friend’? Why do you have to say ‘senior’ or ‘junior’?”
“Oh, he’s not my friend, because he’s older than I am”, was the typical response.
Whenever I take Andy to the children’s playroom other mothers ask me how old he is. I answer that he is 13 months old. Then they tell their child to either call him friend or junior or senior. It dates back to Confucius’ teachings to add harmony to society.
Tom feels more comfortable with this Korean system rather than the American system of equality. He says that at least in Samsung (Korean system) he knew how to behave and what behavior to expect of his co-workers. Now that he works in Microsoft (western system) he can’t help feeling irked when a “junior” treats him casually like a peer. Also, he has apprehension about directing a “senior”. He knows he shouldn’t take it personally, but it takes time to change a way of life.
We are creatures of habit and we tend to find comfort in our daily position and routines. I remember a sermon a pastor preached. He said that he went to India as a missionary and he met a man of the “untouchable” caste. He wanted to give the poor man a gift of a lifetime. A chance to live, even if only temporarily, in a society where he would not be labeled as an untouchable. He offered this man some money, a round-trip plane ticket and his house in California where he could stay for two months. The Indian gratefully took his gifts and departed to California. One month later the Indian had returned. The pastor asked him, “What happened? Didn’t you like California?”
“Yes, it was beautiful” replied the Indian.
“Then, why did you return early?” asked the pastor.
“Because, I was so confused” answered the Indian. “I didn’t know how to behave. I couldn’t bring myself to talk to anybody, even other Indians, and I couldn’t find anybody of my caste that I could feel comfortable talking to. I was lonely and miserable.”
In Korea I can consider myself to be friends with Koreans of various ages and they accept me as a friend because they know I’m a foreigner but if I were a Korean they wouldn’t see me the same way. I’m thinking that Andrew will probably pick up on mommy’s culture rather than his daddy’s in this matter. He’s already a people-person to people of all age groups.

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