Sunday, March 1, 2015

Expat Wives in Korea.

 In both countries in which I was an Expat wife I was sure to take advantage of Expat women's organizations. When you are an Expat wife it is of the utmost importance to make friends and find out what's going on around you in your new home. Your husband would have many people to talk to and opportunities for socializing through work and the children make friends at school but the wives had to make friends and get situated through these Women's organizations. Anyone could join the organizations and clubs even if you were local and not an Expat which made it even more interesting.

As soon as I got to Seoul I was introduced to a Russian lady who had already lived all over the globe through her husband's job working for an international Pharmaceutical conglomerate. As she had lived in Seoul for two years already she was working for relocation company which specialized in cross cultural training for expats and their wives. It was from her that I learned about largest women's organization and other international women's organizations that helped me survive my first year in Seoul.

Living in Germany was such great experience that at first I was determined not to like Seoul and acted like it was a bit of a disappointment. As time passed though I started to like it more and more and realized it was my own fault for listening to negative comments that I felt this way. The Expat women in Seoul seemed to be made up of mostly very positive people who were delighted by the prospect of living abroad and enjoying a new culture but there were others who were very patronizing towards the host country. I used to think to myself that these particular negative women were like mini Empresses who had the world at their feet, lived in unheard of luxury that they would probably not experience back home. All of the children went to international schools that provided them with unbelievable opportunities which some of the families could probably not afford back home.There were couple of very cool ladies I met  including an American who reminded me "there are always going to be haters out there but just don't listen to them and think of all the amazing opportunities to experience living in Asia."

Initially I had the misfortune to live near some very negative Expat neighbors who totally looked down on the Koreans so every morning when I would go out for my walk with my dog to Namsan park I met these women. Often the conversation consisted of how they hated being in Korea and Koreans. I listened to some terrible comments about how one of their Korean teachers expected a lady to give her breakfast when she came to teach her Korean. Oh the horror of it! I come from a very hospitable family so I actually didn't think it was a big deal that the Korean teacher expected a little something when she came for the lesson. The country where this person came from must be very inhospitable was my only thought( it turned out be Canada). As I went on to learn in my five years Koreans are extremely hospitable and where ever you went you would be offered a cup of coffee, a drink or a snack at every opportunity!

So I joined the largest organization and a whole new world opened up for me like Aladdin's cave of treasures and adventures that I never expected unfolded in front of my eyes. The members were from all corners of the globe including England, Russia, Ukraine, Indians, Germany, Sweden, Singapore Australia, Japanese, Spain, you name the country and there was a representation from there. Apart from the usual coffee mornings, information meetings and socials there were classes offered that you could participate in for a small fee. The classes offered included painting classes, international cooking classes, Hanji traditional paper craft, jewelry making, flower arranging to name a few activities. I think by joining this organization my life took on completely new direction and met new people that I definitely would not have otherwise.

There was an opportunity to take some jewelry making classes with an Indian lady (we will call her Ganesha). It was such a great class and I had never done anything like that before and as we were welcomed into the teacher's stunning home I decided to stick with it twice a week. The participants were treated to tea and snacks as we all made the most beautiful treasures with exotically colorful beads and pearls that she collected or ordered from all corners of the world. It was a total surprise to me that I could even do such things and ended up making the most exquisite jewelry. I had really expensive taste and always chose the most expensive pearls and accessories but I did end up making some stunning pieces which I wear to this day.

Another benefit was that the ladies in the class were very interesting people and I learned so much just being with them so I ended up making some really amazing friends. The host of the class was an incredible lady her self. It was obvious that she had lived to travelled all over the world as her furniture was ravishing. For example her dining table which was purchased in Thailand where we worked was made up of unbelievable intricate carvings of animals. It was fascinating just looking at the pictures in the wood carving and this made for endless discussions about furniture, travel and carvings.

When you meet people you never know what part they will end up playing in your life. Our host of the jewelry making class also headed up an American Women's Club and ran an operation called the Thrift shop on the Yongsan Garrison army base. The donations were from the Expat families and the proceeds from the donations benefitted American army families and local Korean charities.

One summer when I left my older daughter to look after and accompany my husband while I was in Europe and the USA with my younger daughter Ganesha gave her a job at the Thrift shop where she managed to sell her clothes on consignment, make friends and get a fantastic reference from her time there. It was a huge relief and comfort for me to know that my oldest daughter was able to use her time so usefully thanks to Ganesha. Also the other women who worked at the Thrift shop with my daughter took her under their wing and looked after her that summer. I will be ever grateful to all of them for the care, guidance and understanding they showed that summer.

There were so many things to do through Seoul International Women's Association and the other international Women's organizations that for the most part the experiences were very positive and a majority of the members were incredibly supportive women, some of whom are my friends to this day. However there were a few incidents that made me realize that a small number of the women used their Expat lives to play little power games through these organizations as if they were the Empresses of Asia with delusions of grandeur and power struggles.

An example was when I became involved in the fund raising efforts of SIWA which organized a massive campaign every year to raise funds for local Korean charities. In itself this was a wonderful gesture on the part of the women involved and I believe it gave them a great sense of purpose to do this. I was really excited to be apart of this effort and thought of it as a great opportunity. However there were two sides to this as I found out as I got more and more involved.  SIWA was run by a group of very some women who had very forceful personalities. You can't be shy or humble to run an organization like that. Yes they gave their time, attending meeting after meeting, giving their ideas, efforts and it was after all for charity and giving back to the country that hosted us.

Volunteering to be fund raiser for the organization was hard work but it felt pretty cool being a part of a sisterhood which showed a positive caring side to our host community in Korea. Donations were raised by soliciting funds from large international corporations including airlines, hotels, banks but also local Korean businesses, to name a few sources. Also the officials and staff of the many Embassies became very involved and donated money to get publicity for their countries.

The first year I helped to raise funds and worked at the giant bazaar and it was great fun followed by a huge dance party and dinner. These were so fantastic that I learned a lot, met some incredible people, had super experiences and felt a part of some thing really worthwhile. At the bazaar I saw what a huge effort is needed to organize these events and also saw the leading personalities of the organization. One of Korea's most famous fashion designers Andrea Kim came to the bazaar, all the embassies came with their international food and goods, such as cheese, olive oil, other hard to find items in Korea. For the most part the ladies who ran SIWA were very approachable, friendly ladies  but there were some absolute drama queens who were lapping up all that their positions gave them as the head of these International women's club and the power trip they were on was incredible to watch along with the show they put on. Expat life and the opportunities it presented was far beyond any thing they would experience back home.

However it was in the second year that some some interesting things happened. In 2010 I was nominated by SIWA to be the special find raiser for Itaewon because I lived there and shopped there. Itaewon was the shopping, entertainment and club are a where the Yongsan Garrison army base was located. It was home to many shops, restaurants and clubs that not just foreigners went to but also Koreans. There was a red light area, transgender bars, ethic shops, jewelry shops, tailors, shoe shops boutiques and numerous eateries.

Due to my friendly nature a lot of people knew me in Itaewon and the SIWA ladies were aware of this fact. However some of the business owners did not understand the concept of fund raising and thought I was nuts while others were totally on board and knew how to get new and loyal customers from the expat community. Even the normally reluctant Bangladeshi shop owners and restaurant owners gave donations and wanted to tell me how they were donating other services to Korea.

 Swallowing my pride,  I did my research and got my materials together such as SIWA monthly magazines, statistics and anything else showing SIWA's efforts in Korea and went down into Itaewon. I did this every opportunity for a few weeks and  the response was pretty great and managed to get such a great response that I got an ovation from the participants of the monthly meetings for the amount of sponsors I managed to get. One lady felt a bit competitive towards me so she also joined in saying that there were places I hadn't covered. She gave me a few more leads and together we managed to raise even more money.

 Between the two of us in Itaewon if I remember correctly we raised $7500! Incredibly that year SIWA raised approximately a staggering $80,000! I was so proud to be a part of this effort and the money was distributed amongst some very deserving Korean charities such as Hospices, children's charities and Orphanages throughout Korea. There was a spread sheet with which fund raiser raised funds from what organization or business and my name and the other person's name was practically on all of the document.

Of course $80,000 is not raised by one person's efforts but my disappointment was that even though I had clearly outdone a lot of people in my fund raising effort that year there was not one mention of my individual work and I was not in any photos of the fund raising team in the special magazine that year. Over and over in the magazine it was photos of the women who were the highest magazine officials and not the people who wandered around Itaewon humbling themselves to ask for donations for Korean charities.

Now you may think I have sour grapes saying this but I know I did a good job because in the following years that I lived in Seoul I was contacted repeatedly by the women of SIWA and other organizations about helping to raise money for their respective charities. I know how valuable I was no matter what happened by the fact that I got phone calls and emails all the time after I started working as a teaching assistant in Seoul and could no longer take part in any voluntary work. The last time I did one of the Empresses of Asia even took credit for some of the funds I raised from merchants in Itaewon on their spread sheet.

For the Expat women who are living Seoul now I would urge you to get involved in everything and join the Expat organizations. Don't be timid as I was if you do good work. Stand up for yourselves if you join any organizations and claim the acheivement that is rightfully yours. Do not let the self proclaimed Empresses of Asia take all the credit just because they are the loudest and forceful.

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