Monday, February 28, 2011

exposing myself to Korea

When I arrived in Korea on my one-year working visa, there were a few strings attached.  Aside from shipping away my diploma and a medley of notarized documents to Seoul prior to my arrival, there were a few things that needed to be taken care of upon touching down fourteen time zones into the future.

Lest they allow any impure mudblood foreigner taint their aseptic culture, immigration requires a thorough physical of all foreign visa holders (or "body check" in creepy Konglish).  Fail this, and they send you packing.  For visiting foreigners (who from most countries are granted a 90-day tourist visa), HIV disclosure is not mandatory.  If, however, positive HIV status is revealed, you'll be given the boot.  For all foreigners on working visas, blood work is done ASAP to confirm negative HIV status.  While this is a questionable human rights issue that makes me feel a bit uneasy, countries do have the right to make their own immigration laws, and S. Korea is not alone in requiring HIV testing for prolonged stays.  In fact, until 2010, positive HIV status could restrict entry to the United States (though immigration did not test for it, failing to disclose positive status could be considered "immigration fraud").  While it is still considered a "communicable disease of public health significance," HIV no longer bars individuals from entering and residing in the United States, which is a considerable step forward as we increase our understanding of the disease and aim to reduce the stigma surrounding it.

In addition to HIV tests, they require a few gallons of urine for, among other things, extensive drug testing.  In reality, it is more like a pint, but it sure feels like gallons when you are nervous, dehydrated, and trying to aim to fill a cup and several test tubes while straddling a squat toilet.  As I was particularly inept when it came to squat toilets (oh what a difference a year would make), this also required partial undressing as to avoid reeking of urine throughout the rest of the day with three hours of class left to teach.  My heart went out to the friend with the childhood fear of soiling his clothes that to this day requires him to completely undress to take a shit, a task made particularly difficult in business attire.  I would undress, squeeze out a few drops, get dressed, wash the cup of urine that I was about to stow in my pocket, and hit the vending machine for yet another cup of coffee.  The staff member that brought me to the hospital would call to wonder if I had left without her, and I would inform her that I regrettably had yet to produce an ample enough urine supply.  My so-called "diuretic" would fail me once more, and I'd be left to contemplate my performance anxiety and start the process all over again.

And I haven't even gotten to the good part.

Immigration also wants to make sure that you don't have TB.  Instead of doing a tuberculin test, they run a chest X-ray.  I was led down to radiology by an English speaking aspiring med student volunteer who instructed me to take off all my clothes, including underwear, and slip into hospital attire.  No problem... except that they only are providing shirts.  Now I know there are a lot of 4'10" adjummas running around, but this thing really seems to short to be intended for use as a gown.  So I asked for pants.  "No pants."  Wait, whattt?  This girl definitely understands English.  But I ask again.  "No pants."  I peek outside the curtain I am changing behind.  In addition to the technicians and my volunteer, there is a room full of old Korean male patients.  All wearing pants.  Now I've only been in this country for a week, and I am pretty sure that modesty, particularly between men and women, is a pretty big deal.  But maybe there is a different standard that applies in a medical setting, kind of like how people casually talk about having diarrhea as if it were a headache.  So I brace myself to bravely Pooh Bear a room full of strangers.  I'll never see them again, right?  For those of you who don't know what I mean when I use "Pooh Bear" as a verb, let me remind you of what Pooh Bear looks like.  More importantly, what he wears:

hello, world!  isn't life better without the constraint of pants?

I mumbled a lot of incoherent words about seeing a lot of my ass and nervously penguin waddled out from behind the curtain.  Volunteer stares at me awkwardly and tells me I can keep my pants on.  But you just told me several times not to wear pants, you sadistic fuck.  Oh, I technically was never wearing "pants" because I was wearing a skirt.  Kill me now, I just Pooh Beared a room full of strangers.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

I'm a whore for science

That's right.  I said it.  When I said you'd never have to sell your eggs to afford to travel, I wasn't telling the whole truth.  You want to know a great way to make some easy cold hard cash?  Give your body to science.  Science.  Now, I know that science has that in-tell-ec-tu-al ring to it, and we, as Americans, fear the intellectual, but hear me out.  You will be free to indulge in all the non-intellectual pursuits you've ever dreamed of when you are basking under the sun on a beach in Thailand, paid for (in-full) by science.  Ah, the life of a professional guinea pig.  Does it get any sweeter than that?

When I was a student at University, I became a regular in neuroscience research studies.  Most of these involved sitting through after-hours MRI sessions that paid a whopping tax-free $20/hr.  Every now and then someone would get curious and ask me for the hook-up.  Kind of like having the coolest drugs, except I had nothing to gain by recruiting new research subjects.  Just more people in the pool to take away from my income!  How dare they ask to get into this exclusive club!  And if they couldn't perform a simple Google search to find it for themselves, would science even want their inferior brains?!  I became a pro at showing up in my zipper-less pants, no underwire bra, keeping still in that tiny tube as I drifted off the the knock-knock-knocking of magnetic resonance.  What a life.

Flash forward to 2010.  I have just returned from my escapades on the other side of the world and am slowly realizing that I am no longer earning a comfortable income, nor living in a country where I can survive on $20 a week.  Who can I turn to in these dire economic times?  You guessed it: SCIENCE.

I've been enrolled for awhile now in a study that is paying some decent bones.  I joke that I have a tiny crush on the research assistant handling my guinea pig body (oh, how I wish he was literally handling my not-literally guinea pig body).  He used to call to schedule things early enough in the morning that my guinea pig ass was still in bed.  I'd answer in my half-awake raspy sex voice and try not to sound like too much of an asshole for still being in bed while decent people were off working.  By the voice on the other end, I decided that I wanted him to be an attractive person, and so when the day finally came to get drunk in front of him (for science, of course), I was delighted to see that he wasn't someone unfortunately mismatched in terms of voice/appearance attractiveness.  Let's just say that when you are hooked up to machines measuring your heart rate and blood pressure, you aren't really in the best position to make small talk with your one-sided love (yes, that is Konglish for "crush").  Throw in the fact that you are drinking cup after cup of worse-than-frat-house jungle juice (only the best for the guinea pigs!) by yourself (for science)... and well, you are now self-conscious of the fact that you are tipsy before noon on a Monday and you just want to hold your shit together the best way you know how and not be an obnoxious drunk Chatty Cathy in front of some stranger that you find vaguely attractive. 

I have a few rules for being a research subject.  Unfortunately, this ends up ruling out all the high-paying studies, but I usually value my health over some quick money, and isn't it nice to know I have boundaries?  Put simply:

-no experimental drugs
-no exposure to diseases or drugs that simulate diseases
-no long-term consequences
-nothing risky (clearly open for interpretation)

I am now faced with the dilemma of continuing with my current study and exposing myself to unnecessary levels of radioactive materials and earning myself an extra $200, or calling it quits.  

The obvious benefits here are:
-monies.  200 of thems.

the maybe benefits are:
-see pseudo crush object (though I'd probably make it awkward- if there is a way to be awkward, I will inadvertently succeed in finding it)
-have colorful photos of my brain to display in my future new home.  said photos will certainly bring all the boys to the yard.  (but if I wanted my brain in day glo, I could have just signed up for the shrooms & meditation study- yes, this is a real thing.  Science!)

the definitely not benefits are:
-unnecessary radioactive isotopes cruisin' through my body

What's a girl to do?

this is my brain.  it is for thinking.

my blog.  brought to you by this guy ^.

Friday, February 25, 2011

local spotlight: Thir-Tea-First Street Cafe and Tea Room (Baltimore)

Few things can get my engine running quite like a quality cup of tea or a ridiculous vintage hat.  When I suggested to my mom that we check out a tea room in Baltimore, I had no idea that I'd be getting both in one afternoon.  The Thir-Tea-First Street Cafe and Tea Room is located on the boundary between Charles Village and Waverly in a gorgeous Victorian that dates back to the 1890s.  We had the entire place to ourselves, as the shop was closed to walk-ins in preparation for a huge party the following day, and spent some time chatting up the owner, Ms. Washington, about her charming tea room.  She bought the house at auction and opened in 2001 (the year after we moved to the area- somehow it has taken us a decade to discover her!), the hats and silver tea service belonged to various aunts, the baking is done fresh and can be made to accommodate vegans (though she doesn't like to make scones without their proper ingredients), and, yes, she frequently hosts rehearsal dinners and even the occasional bachelor party (!!!). 

We ordered the five-course royal tea.  After choosing our teas (an herbal apple cranberry for mom, and an aromatic masala chai for myself), we started with fresh-from-the-oven scones and biscuits with a smattering of jams and artery hugging creme fraiche, Devonshire clotted cream, and lemon curd.  Naturally, we wanted to taste everything, and perhaps were a little too gung-ho going after the first course.  Had we known that we could take our leftover scones to-go, perhaps we would have exercised more restraint.  Perhaps.  Soup and salad followed, both delectable, and then onto the tea sandwiches.  Much as sushi is praised as an edible art, the tea sandwiches were gorgeously crafted and presented on a serving tray that was probably a lot of fun to thrift for.  Our brownie-sundae-in-a-martini-glass dessert was probably my least favorite course, but maybe that's just because I was already way past the unbuttoning my pants phase (had I been wearing pants).  Small cookies might have felt more appropriate, but as we were the only guests I suppose it would have been asking a lot to receive freshly baked cookies AND scones in one sitting.

And have I mentioned the vintage hats enough times yet?  I don't think I have.  The room that we occupied was home to dozens of hats, boas, and costume necklaces and brooches.  We had no trouble occupying the time, as we tried on hat after hat (almost a week later and no lice to speak of!) and admired the stained glass windows (the originals from when the house was built over a century ago) and charming decor.  I wish I had brought my camera, but had to make do with my mom's P&S.

The five-course royal tea will set you back $30 and about two hours.  It may seem a bit steep, but if you go with the right attitude and company, I can almost guarantee it will be an afternoon you won't soon forget.  There are also 3- ($25) and 1- ($20) course options, and according to an ancient review you might be able to stop in for a pot of tea and a scone or two for $10.  And while you are in the neighborhood, how about stopping by the Baltimore Museum of Art to take in the legendary Cone Collection for free?

I would love, love, love to go back with a group of girlfriends.  Any takers?


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Reasons why I travel...

impromptu dance parties!

world travel: for more than just spoiled rich kids

Sarah Palin is going to go find herself in India.  Let's all breathe a sigh of relief that this fine diplomat is one of the few Americans with a passport (one-quarter to maybe one-third of us have one, and of those that do, most have not traveled outside of N. America/the Caribbean).  Today, I was reminded of that painful Katie Couric interview that took place September 9, 2008, in which Palin was asked to espouse her foreign policy views. 

She opens the interview by saying:

"I'm not one of those who maybe come from a background of, you know, kids who perhaps graduated college and their parents get them a passport and a backpack and say, 'Go off and travel the world.' Noooo. I worked all my life. In fact, I  usually had two jobs all my life, until I had kids. ... I was not part of, I guess, that culture."

Now, I realize that not every American can afford to travel.  There is an alarming number of Americans living in poverty, and even those comfortably "middle class" struggle to pay mortgages, car payments, and college tuition.  But let's back up here and look at the college graduate population she is talking about here.

To insinuate that only spoiled rich kids are world travelers is ludicrous to me.  Most of the world traveling that I have done has been solo.  Occasionally with a friend.  On those occasions, my parents were never the ones fronting the bill.  Since renewing my passport in 2007 (which had only previously been used on one occasion in the Caribbean),  I have traveled on almost every opportunity that I have made for myself.  Much of the money earned at the job I held down in college and acquired through Christmases and birthdays went toward budget travel.  When I graduated from college, I got a job in a foreign country that paid my travel and living expenses and earned me a good enough salary to travel to nearby countries during my few vacation periods.  While working abroad, I was frugal enough to amass enough savings (and frequent flier miles!) to see a little bit more of the world before returning home.  Does that make me horribly elitist?

Now, I will say that I am fortunate enough not to be repaying college loans, thanks in large part to my parents and the amazing benefits at their jobs that paid for a significant portion of my education.  Post-graduation world travel, however, is not just limited to those folks not bearing the financial burden of their four-year education.  There are a number of global opportunities for college graduates that offer loan deferments while paying travel expenses and living stipends- how about Peace Corps and Fulbright for starters?  Sure, these sorts of programs require some effort, a certain degree of passion and intelligence, and the foresight to apply nearly a year in advance, but having known both Peace Corps members and Fulbright award recipients, I'd say they also offer the clichéd "opportunity of a lifetime"- especially for a recent college grad who has never left the country.  Or how about a route I'm certainly familiar with: teaching ESL in a foreign country.  A very large percentage of the teachers I met in Korea were there to save money, often to help pay back student loans or to save up for grad school and other worthy endeavors.  In a country like Korea, the name on your diploma might have an impact on the particular school or student body you work with, but as long as you are a native English speaker and have a diploma from a four-year university, you are good as gold.

So, yes Miss Palin, I did go off and travel the world after college.  And, heck, I even worked, too!  You can have both, but it really depends on how willing you are to put yourself out there and create opportunities.  Dare I say it, but maybe if more Americans were willing to get out of their comfort zones and see beyond their cushy lives in Wasila, AK, our country just might have fewer residential bigots and enemies abroad.

Part of my goal here is to showcase opportunities for affordable travel.  This does not have to mean uprooting yourself for months or years at a time, like I have done, and certainly does not mean you will still end up selling your eggs on craigslist to pay for said "budget" world travel.  Part of my goal is just to keep writing, keep busy, maybe make somebody (or just myself) laugh with the type of ridiculous true life stories that involve reptiles and ER visits (<--what?).  Part reflection on past travel (awkward stories that would only happen to me included), part space for future explorations, part musings on whatever I damn well please, this is litterulae mundano.

hello world, here's my cliché "beginnings" post

I'll preface this entire project (lifestyle?) by quoting the lovely Margaret Atwood, just as I did my last blogging endeavor...

In The Blind Assassin Margaret Atwood writes:

“Why is it that we want so badly to memorialize ourselves? Even while we’re still alive. We wish to assert our existence, like dogs peeing on fire hydrants. We put on display our framed photographs, our parchment diplomas, our silver-plated cups; we monogram our linen, we carve our names on trees, we scrawl them on washroom walls. It’s all the same impulse. What do we hope from it? Applause, envy, respect? Or simply attention, of any kind we can get?

At the very least we want a witness. We can’t stand the idea of our own voices falling silent finally, like the radio running down.”

I offer this passage as the anthem to the Millennials.  Say what you want about us, maybe we are all just attention seeking whores.  But is it so bad to want a witness?  Perhaps memorializing ourselves is not something undertaken in an act of attention seeking, but rather in pursuit of a future pause for reflection.

A year and a half ago, when I left the Northeastern US for Seoul, S. Korea, I deliberated for a long time over whether or not to keep a blog.  In the end, I resolved to put away my blogger judgment and give it my best effort.  Sure, I had a small audience who tuned in now and again to see me make an ass of myself in my new surroundings, but ultimately I wrote for myself.  Looking back, it is easy for me to form opinions one way or another about my overall experience in Korea.  But reading through that stupid blog chronicling the ups and downs over the span of my year in Korea reminds me that life is not just about the averages.

So, here I am again.  Insert something cliché about "starting over" here.

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