Sunday, February 27, 2011

Loves Me, Loves Me Not...

The city surprised me this week with a bout of warm(er) weather. As the temperature rose, my mood improved considerably. Walking to and from work, with the sunlight glinting off some of the more stately buildings in Paddington, and a warm breeze lifting my hair, I fell in love with the city all over again. The glorious sunset one night gave a glow to even the dodgy bit of West Hendon (where I work). Then yesterday it reverted back to cold, dreary rain, and I’m not gonna lie. I was pretty darn crabby, muttering things like ‘I hate this meeping city’ and ‘Ugh, rain again… why why why??’ under my breath as we walked to the bus stop.

Expats almost always have a bit of a love-hate relationship with their adopted home. Even those who retire somewhere nice and sunny probably think to themselves occasionally, ‘Gee, it would be nice to have some snow at Christmas’ or ‘I wish I could get (insert hard to find ingredient) here so I could make that special dish from home.’ Michael and I are no different, though he tends to be a lot more forgiving of London than I am. Maybe that’s because it was his first experience living abroad, and it’s like his first love or something. The hussy!

Don’t get me wrong, I love London, I really do. But we have a bit of a toxic relationship. I get frustrated by something almost every single day, though this could be because I take 2 buses to work, and the possibility of something stupid/time consuming/gross/weird happening is pretty high. And then, just when I begin to dream about the day we can move to a slightly less rainy city, London surprises me with a grand, romantic gesture, and I conveniently forget my anger.

I don't know that we'll stay forever, but I don't doubt that this is where we should be for the next few years. I mean, London is THE place for the young, childfree professional couple. We don't need a car, there's always something cool going on, and because we aren't shackled blessed with children, we can go out all the time. Okay, we go out some of the time. But still, the possibility for 'round the clock fun exists.

Plus we are a short train ride away from Paris, which is almost as good as living in Paris (well, not really, but it comforts me to say so). So I say, bring it on, London! I am going to make the most of everything here, and when I'm done with you, you're going to be begging me to stay. Plus, next week I'm buying a train pass. Think of it as couple's therapy.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Seoul Searching

My brother-in-law is living in Seoul, South Korea right now, and Michael and I get to be the wise, all-knowing, already-lived-there expats who constantly irritate him by saying ‘ you should definitely go see (insert random tourist attraction, museum, giant mall)’. Actually, he probably isn’t all that irritated by it, but the fact remains: we are smug expats. Mirror, mirror on the wall… who is the smuggest of them all?

As such, we I suffer the occasional pang of expat jealousy. Fellow expats will know the feeling. You’ve lived somewhere foreign, made it your own, created memories and interesting stories to tell, and eventually left… and then someone you know goes and moves there years later, and you feel as though no other expat should be allowed to have your experiences.

All of this is completely ridiculous, of course. I’d never in a million years wish some of my Korean experiences on Michael’s brother (random shot of whoknowswhatkindofmedecine in my rear to cure me of the Asian death flu being one experience that comes to mind). In any case, he’s there with the imperial American army, and not teaching English to small children. He definitely has the easier job. I’m pretty sure if he had to spend a day in a Korean classroom repeating ‘no, I don’t want to see your boogers’ ad nauseam, he would be signing up to fight Pyongyang faster than a speeding kimchi fart.

Despite my expat jealousy, I find it fascinating to see the country through his eyes. He really seems to be making the most of his time there, which is even more admirable when faced with the reality of being separated from his wife and children. I am very happy for him that he is able to do this, because I think that Korea is one of those countries for which you really have to make the effort. Lord knows, they don't make it easy to integrate beyond the friendly tourist fa├žade. If you can move to Korea with unwavering optimism, and not mind that you'll always stick out, then you will find a wonderful country full of many hidden delights. Unfortunately, I wasn't quite able to do that, and my optimism gave way to frustration. I didn't absolutely hate my time there, but I didn't make the most of it either, which I often regret. I feel about Korea the way I felt about my students there: I'm fond of the place, but I don't really want to spend much time with it. I'm glad my brother-in-law seems to feel differently.

Still, I can't help being a smug expat. So here is a list of THINGS KOREANS LOVE:

- Kimchi in all its various forms (from cabbage to radish, our favourite was always the cucumber kimchi)

- Pop songs with English choruses: "I want nobody, nobody but YOU!"

- This

- Noraebang (Karaoke)

- Long, drawn out work parties (often with Noraebang)

- Hating the mother-in-law (the bane of Korean wives everywhere)

- Dried squid, dried octopus, and dried random sea creature whose name we never figured out

- Korean-ized foreign food (kimchi pilaf at Indian restaurants, squid on pizza etc)

- Smoking at the gym

- Matching couples' outfits

- Teetering along in insanely high-heeled shoes

- Heated floors (actually, these were amazing)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Karate Kids

I have a made a number of great friends in London, which is quite admirable given my personality. No no, I’m not truly snarky all the time (just on this blog), but it has taken me many years to figure out how to live in an extrovert world. I used to be quite shy reserved, and wouldn’t tolerate many people other than my parents, grandparents, and the odd aunt or uncle. Apparently, most people couldn't tolerate me either. I was what my mother calls ‘a charm-free child.’ Thanks, Mom…

This being the case, I didn’t have many childhood friends. If it weren’t for pre-arranged friendships, I might not have developed the social skills I have today. One of these friends was my cousin, who was 2 years younger than me, attended the same school, and provided me with a ‘lower-ranking’ individual to torture play with. She has always been like a sister to me, and I swear I really did not push her down that advanced ski run (no matter what she says to the contrary).

The other is my good friend, Zoe. Our parents were friends, so we were forced to play together while they ignored us in favour of adult conversation. I loved to go over to her house and play because she always had the coolest toys and the awesome board games my parents refused to buy me because they were big meanies (okay, actually it was because I was super competitive and a sore loser, and they had long since given up playing games with me*). But as with any friendship between little girls, we were in a constant power struggle. Most of the time she won. That was okay, though, because she brought me out of my shell and had me trying things I'd never tried before.

Things like crossing the street by myself. We were about five years old and playing in her front yard when she decided we should go to the park. "The small park around the corner?" I asked. Nope, that wasn't what she'd had in mind. She wanted to go to the big park. This made me nervous. The big park was a whole two blocks away. "Won't we have to cross the street to get there? Are we even allowed to cross the street on our own?"

"Sure," she replied, "I always cross the street." She gave me a disdainful look that plainly said 'you're a big baby if you don't come with me'. So I followed her lead, and we went to the big park. We were happily swinging away on the swings when her father marched up in a fit of rage to collect us. As he carried us off, one under each arm, it became clear that we'd never been allowed to go that far, and as usual, Zoe was making things up as she went along. I resolved never to trust her again.

But a five year old's resolve doesn't last long, and before I knew it, I was duped once more. "Let's go outside and play karate," she suggested one afternoon.

"But I don't know how to play karate," I replied.

"It's okay. I'll teach you. Besides, it's just pretend." It wasn't pretend. Hmm, I thought as she began high-kicking at me, this probably isn't going to end well. The great Karate incident of 1987 ended in a bloody nose (mine) and tears of pain (mine) and guilt (hers). Turns out 'playing karate' was a synonym for using me as a punching bag. To be fair, I should have caught on by the first punch, and put a stop to it. But I didn't.

Over the years I took my revenge in many ways. I once got her to eat an entire jar of pickles, with the predictable, stomach-turning results. I would speak French to her, knowing full well she didn't understand me. I broke many of her aforementioned cool toys (purely by accident), and I even puked in her beloved Sneaky Snake box (that one was entirely unplanned).

Somehow though, we remained close through adolescence (braces, frizzy hair, acne and all) and into young adulthood. We've offered each other dating advice and career advice, and I was thrilled when she flew out to attend my wedding. Now she has a wonderful new food blog called 'Runny Yolks are Better', which I encourage all of you to read.

Neither of us ever learned proper karate, but it doesn't matter. I know she'll always be there to punch me if I need it. After all, it's what karate kids friends are for.

*I'm pretty sure even my husband hates playing card games with me, but he's nice enough to ignore my fiery temper.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Immigration 101

I take the ‘immigrant bus’ to work, through the not-so-posh suburbs of North West London. It’s just a regular city bus, filled with a rainbow of skin tones and the sound of foreign chatter. We have come from all over the world to try and make a life in this rain-soaked country. I often look around me and wonder what led these people to move to the UK. Some have undoubtedly come as highly skilled migrants, forced to take jobs well below their qualifications. Some have been brought over by established family members. We are all hard working.

I am exhausted at the end of the day, but I can only imagine I have it relatively easy in comparison. I can relax at home. I don’t have any children to tend to, and I am lucky enough to have a husband who takes care of most of the housework. As much time as it took me to get a job, and as stressful as moving here was, I only make up part of the ‘invisible minority’. I am an immigrant, but I have the luxury of not facing discrimination based on the colour of my skin. English is my native language, and my name probably didn't earn my CV an automatic spot in the ‘no’ pile.

Despite the fact that I have had an easier time of it than my fellow commuters, I was out of work for longer than I thought I'd be. Part of this was due to the British economy, which still has not fully recovered. But I suspect another reason was because I was a foreigner.

Up until recently, immigrants (especially highly educated ones) were a desirable addition to any developed country. Some countries were even built entirely on mass waves of immigrants (and on convenient eradication/displacement of the native peoples). Other countries continue to have their economy held up by illegal immigrants willing to perform the work no one else wants to do for the equivalent of slave wages. (Yes, Michael, I did just link to Wikipedia... get over it already!)

Now it seems as though governments and employers alike are shying away from immigration. From a business standpoint, this seems ridiculous to me. Who better to employ than a foreigner? Think about it. We are highly adaptable, cultured, and able to cope with adversity. We obviously handle ourselves well under pressure (customs officials, long queues waiting to register with the police, the frustration of trying to rent a flat or obtain a bank account), and we are willing to work very hard to be able to stay. Many of us also come with different ways of doing things, and we can provide that 'fresh perspective' you talked about in your poorly written job description. We know it's poorly written because, unlike you, we actually studied the language.

Language is another thing we offer. Because London is part of Europe, language skills are actually valued. In Canada, you will probably further your career by speaking both official languages, but additional languages are still undervalued. Unfortunately in the US, if you have an accent, instead of thinking of you as bilingual or multilingual, many people assume you are not very bright. Look at 'Apu' on The Simpsons. Most of the humour surrounding his character is based on the fact that he 'talks funny'. Sadly, the US has a long way to go before ceasing its monolingual bullying of other languages, but I suspect it will step up its game soon when it realises it needs to learn Mandarin.

I know many companies are nervous about hiring someone who may not stay beyond two or three years. But really, most people, especially those beginning their careers, don't stay too long in one company anyway. It is easier to make a lateral move to a better position than it is to get promoted internally. And foreigners are more likely to (visas permitting) stay in the country, considering how far they had to move to get there in the first place.

In an increasingly global economy, it only makes sense to hire proper global citizens. And yes, I actually used the term 'global citizens' in a job interview. I got that job. It seems some employers are still willing to look beyond their borders.