Monday, October 13, 2014

Korea 2014

We've been in Korea the past three weeks, heading home tomorrow- On the way here Eli had his own seat for the first time and was glued to the in-flight entertainment.

In-flight entertainment
We're always thinking about how to help our kids learn and grow, and while traveling seems to make them more flexible, it also seems to involve a whole lot of entertainment hours, because of the ways our schedule is messed up, not to mention 24 hour trips in airplanes (with personal screens) and airports. Horrible amounts of passive entertainment aside, before our trip Eli was mainly wearing underwear, but peed a lot outside on our plants because he hated asking us for help. But he didn't want to wear diapers on the airplane (or ever again, apparently), and amazingly, he's now completely fine day and night while in Korea. The boy knows what he wants. If it sticks when we get back, I will be faced with an existential crisis over what to do with all the time we used to spend washing diapers.

So anyway, Noah hates change, Eli doesn't mind as much. Noah is acutely aware of the perceptions of everyone around him, which presents a lot of pressure when he can't understand much Korean. That's pretty much the story of our trip. That, and my being much more grateful than last year for free food and hot showers at Eug's family's place, and our family all wearing clean clothes simultaneously.

Playing dinosaurs.

dancing to the beat of his own drum.

We stayed in a hotel for a couple of nights so that the kids could go to Lotte World. I really dislike theme parks, serious (no-fun) person that I am, but I was persuaded that the kids should experience it once. The kids spent ages watching construction on the huge new Lotte building across from the hotel, and probably enjoyed the swimming pool at the hotel as much as the busy, crazy Lotte Adventure theme park, where they were over-stimulated and over-tired.  Take home message was: it's fine to be persuaded, it's also fine not to go there again.

A room full of balls with different ways to shoot them= Heaven for Eli and Noah.

Besides our time at Lotte world, we pretty much stayed near Eug's mom's place in Bundang, hanging out with family, visiting parks and doing our usual stuff: playing, reading, sometimes working.

My mom-in-law's place, where we've tried to just have a normal schedule as much as possible, which evidently includes pretending to sleep in a cupboard. 
We get to see many different parks, and though they're all very similar, to the kids it's like a whole new world to explore every time we arrive somewhere (very slightly) different.
Sculpture park, where Noah and Eli climbed on a few sculptures, and a lot of burial mounds.
Seoul forest- big and full of millions of school groups (except in this picture). In the background are the 2 largest apartment buildings in Seoul, where the rich and famous apparently live.

Playing with school groups

Eli got a lego airplane with pizza. To be fair, it was a very expensive pizza.
For Eli, anything that has both an engine (theoretically) and eyes is worthy of attention.
Eli has spent a lot of time on my back. Our first trip without a stroller, and the problem is less one of stamina and more about safety in super busy streets, with a little boy who thinks that he can face down a car and win.
Book theme park at Yuldong park. Loud classical music in an empty amphitheater, with the kids' footsteps amplified by the stones.


Korea brings up a lot of insecurities for me, and this year was no different. The slice of Korean life that I'm exposed to is centered a lot on convenience, which involves a lot of consumption, often conspicuous and frantic. This seems to be more or less the opposite of our apparent quest for total inconvenience (with some reasoning and hopes behind it, but still), and previously I took this contrast to be some kind of aggressive threat to our lifestyle, and to sustainability. This visit it wasn't as important to make a decision on the roots of Korean society (and I realized how much judging I do), and we were grateful for very generous family members, great infrastructure, and feeling safe walking in the street, among many other things.

I think this change in perspective might reflect my current approach to our hopes and dreams. I feel tremendously grateful for what is ahead of us- having land to grow stuff, building a really small house, meaningful work, home/unschooling, trying to make sense of the world and our place in it, listening to God and other people. I feel as though we're stepping towards really good things.

At the same time, it is good to travel and see that our kids are just kids with strengths and weaknesses, and our parenting- for all it's idealism and striving- is similarly just a mix of life experiences, limited perspective, strengths and weaknesses. It's obvious that our unusual lifestyle (as compared to our peers) hasn't given us a special edge on joy- when we have a sense of joy, it's from somewhere much more powerful. My experience of Korea is also improved by age: I am also, gradually, no longer the youngest adult in a room, and this also provides a healthy dose of realism. I'm in my thirties! We do some work stuff! We have kids and responsibilities! Sometimes it works! Sometimes all we get is a smelly case of self-righteousness. There is something to be said for embracing mediocrity to the extent it affirms some of our common human experience. This trip, the daily decisions with extended family over what to eat (meat? not? takeout?), wear (my mom-in-law's clothes, or in Eug's case my brother-in-law's), or talk about, and whether to buy stuff or not, did not loom as large as previously. It was a relief.

All to say, it will be good to be home but I'm so grateful that we're figuring out this multi-continent family stuff as best we can.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Spring on a bike

I know this is about the mountain, but for me it was about the fact that I showed the world my legs for the first time since puberty. Not only did the world not implode, it didn't even notice.
For so many reasons, I am excited for summer. Or that winter is over. For one, my dissertation is no longer hanging over me (it's too early to celebrate, but it is out of my hands at least!). For another, we are getting out more, and there is nowhere I am happier than the beach.

It also means that we made it through our first winter without a car. Looking back on the past year or so of biking, I am surprised by how much I have changed.When I am on the bike I feel how riding fundamentally shifts my perception of myself. It has affirmed my hope for myself: If there is one thing I seem to want, it is to be considered strong, by myself and others. Not just physically strong, but resilient, you know? And part of that is totally oriented around God, around the sense that I don't have to fight for myself. And another part is totally oriented around myself, where I'm totally fighting for myself and winning (see dissertation). Which is to say, a bike is probably a good vehicle for self-reflection (and narcissism).

Inconvenience aside (or glossed over for the purposes of this post!), it is amazing to have gone through winter, with small kids and a vaguely middle-class suburban Cape Town lifestyle, without a car. I know not many people will think it practical just yet, but every day we bike, I get more excited at the potential it presents. We've renovated our house to put it on the market, and surprisingly, it was actually easier without a car. Rather than go to the massive Builder's Warehouse, Eug found all the small shops in nearby Woodstock and Salt River, where the shop workers are super competent and give great advice, lines are non-existent, and he buys exactly what we need for the next week. When we buy gas canisters for our stove from the petrol/gas station, they get the canister the moment they see us pulling up.

From our recent ride to Milnerton: Biking from Obs-Milnerton beach is great on a Sunday, but  tough on other days, because it involves Albert Road. Albert Road is set to get a painted bike lane, so this may help. Right now, cyclists have to go in traffic along Albert, which on weekdays has tons of traffic and double-parked cars, and a killer traffic circle (which you can always walk your bike across, if you don't feel comfortable). Once on the bike path at Woodstock, the ride is lovely, sharing the MyCiti route.

As Spring arrives, we are mark almost 3 years since we left Boston and a little less since we arrived in Cape Town (we arrived Dec 6, 2011). And so it is a time of change. We've put an offer on an acre of vacant land in Noordhoek/Capri, and 6 years after praying with our small group during lent for a tiny house, it looks as though we will have our own tiny, off-grid house (although it won't be quite as tiny as many are- probably around 36m2). Amazingly, it is financially neutral, as we're moving to a much cheaper area and building a very small house. More on that soon. It feels like a very hopeful faith-building time.

I recently had a discussion with a friend about the ice-bucket challenge, where I shared, not very deeply, that such challenges scare me, though I couldn't really articulate why. She suggested that people sharing about what they give, and who they give to, could be a powerful vehicle for social change. 

In that spirit, I felt like talking about what we did with the money we got from selling our car. When people see the Bullitt they always ask how much it cost, and I always say vaguely how much and they sigh and say that it would be impossible for them. This sometimes leads me to say that we sold our car and actually it cost the same as a cheap car, and costs almost nothing to run as compared to a car, which requires petrol, which is edging up to R14.00/L. I say this because I want to seem the same as them, and I want them to feel like this is a change they could maybe try out. Usually, the people asking have professional full-time jobs, which immediately means they have an income that is many orders of magnitude more than our family's income. But I also do feel pretty rich, and I'm on a bike, I probably smell bad, the kids are somewhere nearby, and I don't want to seem too weird or start up on a financial conversation about why the Bullitt might make financial sense. 

Anyway, on to selling our car. We have this thing that cars have mainly felt like gifts to us, and we've also found it useful to consider cars sunk costs (although hopefully we don't have to buy a car again for a long time!!) so we've always either given away the car or given away the money from the sale of the car. Which is not like a million cars: Eug and I have been married almost 8 years, and had 3 cars during our marriage. Anyway, so this time when we sold the car we gave the money to the Bicycling Empowerment Network. We don't know that much about them, but we liked that they seemed to be interested in making cycling in Cape Town more than a middle-class hobby, and they seem to have a dream that we'd love to share. We also liked that we can hopefully visit and hang out with them, as they're just around the corner from our plot in Masiphumelele. The money for the car would have constituted quite a big amount for us, so I guess my point in sharing this is that our experience is that outwardly strange financial decisions have all these other dimensions. Even though we've never met the people at BEN, we feel like we're part of their story, which is pretty cool. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Dinosaurs, forests, rain.

We haven't gone on as many exciting trips recently- winter combined with my work. I'm conscious that this blog is curated and that you only see little bits of our life, and I wonder how best to show parts that are both fairly honest and helpful. I have no idea. So here are some pictures of the kids in front of extinct animals, and in the forest... 

The National Museum is this year's big destination for us. It's fairly quiet, right in the centre of the city so easy to combine with other trips (to home affairs...). The aquarium was our go-to place on a rainy day when we had a car, but we haven't renewed our membership because it's a fairly long trip in heavy traffic on the Bullitt.
Eli takes his trains everywhere, so for him the museum is mainly an exercise in finding straight lines for a train track.

Noah to Eli: They've never actually seen a giant squid, ELI!! 

We had to reapply to Eli's Social Security at the U.S. embassy (after they lost the application the first time) so we borrowed my parents' car and combined the trip to the embassy with a trip to Tokai forest:

This picture is probably more representative of our winter: a lot of time spent playing games with duplos:

Noah and Eli have started to play complex games together, for hours at a time (they also fight, so it's not all idyllic). We spend hours reading to them every day, drawing together, and if the sun comes out we go to the park and sometimes see friends. And that's about it.
Noah is four now, and while we're not following a formal curriculum for his (very early) education, I wouldn't say we're unschooling either. Eug and I talk about what we'd like for him in the next months, and these conversations mainly revolve around wanting to help him cope effectively with everyday situations. There are moments where the kids are so genuinely kind to one another that I feel like I'm getting a glimpse of heaven. Noah is teaching Eli- about plants (edible and inedible : "don't eat it unless I give it to you Eli!! It might be poisonous!!), planets (MARS is the ONE WITHOUT OXYGEN Eli) and Noah-type logic. This is sometimes followed by really bad moments when they're hitting each other.

Eug and I were joking recently that our lives seem to be an experiment in inconvenience. In winter, we're without hot water much of the time because the sun doesn't get the solar geyser hot, and biking is not always that practical with the kids + heavy rain, so we're home a lot. We get food from our farm share, and at the end of the week sometimes we're left eating a lot of cabbage. Winter has made our choice seem more extreme, and there are real losses that get more noticeable over time- for example we can't safely go out after dark without a car. While life has many inconveniences, it feels abundant. I should qualify that- time is still in short supply, and we've come to terms with that more or less. The natural limits of life without a car seem to fit the place we're in, with small kids who don't like to be rushed.

Lastly, if you're the praying type, could you pray for the decisions that are in front of us for next year? I hope to finish my PhD soon, and since we have not returned to the U.S. since we left almost 3 years ago, we are considering whether to do part of a post-doc in the U.S. It would allow us to visit and reconnect with friends, both in Europe and Boston. We are also considering the possibility of selling our house and moving to a small farm in nearby Noordhoek, where we could have extended family join us. We have a farm in mind, so we're hoping if it right for us, it will still be available when we are ready to buy.