Unpacking with Danielle

Travel & Exploration

Category: Culture

Trump Dong-un

Not too many people know this about me, but when I lived in Seoul I helped three North Korean refugees write speeches in English.  This was so they could share their experiences with the world.  At the time I had sympathy for them, but I never expected I would ever have any direct, personal experience with their stories.  It was early 2015.  I was American, Obama kept being the leader of the free world, and I had the privilege of being the helper, not the victim.

But here we are.  Two years later.  The first full day our new President is in office he sends his Press Secretary out to tell the media they shat on his brand new white carpet, all because they presented the fact that his Inauguration wasn’t as well attended as past Inaugurations.  Any of us can look at the pictures and see he’s wrong.  The Washington DC Metro rider numbers tell us he’s wrong.  The news organizations’ ratings tell us he’s wrong.

But when a fact is no longer a fact, and the only knowledge that is correct is knowledge that comes from the great leader, do you know what you have?  You don’t have a government- you have a regime.  And you know who’s in charge? Trump Dong-un.

Let’s circle back to the refugees.  I worked with three, but there’s one in particular who’s story is most pressing now.  She was a kindergarten teacher in North Korea.  We all know what they do: they teach little kids basic knowledge and social skills that will serve them later in school and life.  Sounds pretty straightforward.  But how does that play out when The Great Leader is responsible for everything good and wonderful?  It sounds kind of like this:

Kid Question: Why does 1 + 1 = 2?

Teacher Answer: Because The Great Leader made math!  He is so smart and he figured out this whole way for us to count and know how many things we have!

Kid Question: How come when I drop this thing it goes down instead of up?

Teacher Answer: The Great Leader made gravity so we could always get things we need.  If things kept going up, how could we get them?  They need to come down, and thanks to him, they do.

It was totally fucking crazy.  Part of me really didn’t believe what I was hearing.  Not because I thought she was lying.  I 100% believed her.  But I just couldn’t understand how a whole country could be like this.  Intellectually I could imagine it working, like how a novelist could imagine a fake world.  But on a personal level, I had no direct experience with anything like that.  It was so alien to me it didn’t feel like a real thing.

And then yesterday I watched that press conference and it started to feel real.  It’s not 1984.  This isn’t a book report I just have to do and forget about.  The White House Press Secretary actually got up in a huff and refuted plainly obvious, easily measurable facts presented by the press.  Wait- what?  The country that’s been saying for decades that North Korea is crazy for this shit is now doing the same thing?  Huh?

We’re not special.  We’re not exempt from crazy just because we’re America.  We’re prone to it just like anyone, anyplace else is.  We used to think North Koreans were the unlucky ones- and they still are, for now- by a long shot.  But we can so easily make ourselves just as unlucky if we don’t put a stop to this.

I asked her, “Did you believe what you were saying?”


“Then why did you say it?”

“Because that was my job.  To attribute anything good and great to the Great Leader.  If I didn’t say it I could be put in prison and probably killed.  They could hurt my family, too.”

“Did you know the truth?”

“I would wonder, ‘How could one man do all of these things?’ It didn’t make sense to me, but I had no answers.  So I didn’t think it was true, but I didn’t know how else to explain things.  But now I know it was all a lie.”

“How did you find out it was a lie?”

“My friend and I got an American dvd.  We lived near the Chinese border and they smuggle things in.  So we hid in my bedroom late at night and watched the dvd on a laptop.  We had it open just wide enough so we could see it, but could drop it shut in case anyone came in and saw us. It took us weeks to get up the courage to watch it because it’s illegal to watch outside media.  But we finally saw the movie and everything looked so nice and wonderful in America.  That’s when I realized it was all a lie.”

After much deliberation, she decided to escape to China.  She ran across the border in the middle of the night.  One of the North Korean guards saw her do it.  She could have been imprisoned and killed for attempting to leave, but she said she was lucky.  The guard knew her and decided to do nothing.  He just let her go.

Trump is The Great Leader.  His cabinet is the regime.  They are the kindergarten teachers and we, the public, are the curious little kids getting fed garbage answers.  This is us now, but it doesn’t have to be us in the future.

I was fortunate enough to travel and live overseas to have this experience.  But you can find it right here at home.  We have refugees here and I encourage you to talk to them.  They can be from anywhere.  Refugees are often very willing to share their stories because they want the world to learn from their horrific experiences.  It’s not going to be a nice conversation.  You’re going to hear things that make you uncomfortable and feel very sorry for the person you’re talking to.  But it’ll, hopefully, also be a wake up call for you about how easily societies fall into tyranny.

We do have a choice here.  We can steer ourselves away from it, if we choose to.


How it Pays to Buy an $850 Phone

Nine days after I came back to the US, AT&T charged me $121.86.  ‘FOR WHAT?!’ I wondered.  I hadn’t put their SIM card back in my phone.  In fact, the SIM card hadn’t been in my phone for 13 months!

It seemed ridiculous to me that I should have to pay so much for a service I wasn’t using.  When I called to get the details, they said they had put my contract on hold for a year and I should’ve known when it was going to restart, without any warning.  Meanwhile, I had been paying $11 and some change monthly so they could hold onto my number- that’s about $135 for the year, and with no communication about when anything would change and how it would change.

Over a few phone calls I was able to talk them down to charging me only $50, but that still seemed like a lot to pay for something I didn’t want or use.  I could understand if they had sent me a notice giving me a head’s up of when the account would be reactivated, but that never happened.  It was all done passively in the background and I was supposed to be the one on top of it, contacting them to find out.

I have to say I felt cheated.  They did something for me I never asked them to do and they expected me to pay for it.  Why should I?

One of the benefits of living abroad is you experience how other cultures handle things.  Nothing like this happened to me in South Korea.  Even with the language barrier, my cell carrier was straightforward and a breeze.  I didn’t have one surprise.

Even when I traveled abroad, as soon as my plane landed my carrier sent me text messages saying I’d have to use a different network to make calls, send texts, and use data.  The roaming price per unit was spelled out in the text, along with the price to get unlimited roaming and instructions on how to sign up.  The last text said roaming would be automatically shut off at $100/month.  That means when I was in China for 2 weeks and I roamed on occasion, I got a daily update saying how much I had spent on roaming and I knew I’d never exceed $100.  It was considerate and fair.

It was also 3 weeks before AT&T slapped me with a huge bill, unannounced, with no services rendered, which made for a shocking juxtaposition.  It didn’t make sense how the company in Korea could offer great customer service and a superb technical experience (they do have the world’s fastest internet), all for around $70/month and that AT&T couldn’t.  It hit me that in America, large companies don’t do what’s right, they do what they can get away with.

Bejeweled toilet at AT&T (at least in my imagination).

Bejeweled toilet at AT&T (at least in my imagination).

This attitude doesn’t sit well with me.  So much so that I will complain and try to get as far away from it as I can.  So I figured out another option, and it’s way, way better.

Here’s what I did:

  1. Buy whatever phone you want outright (or use your existing unlocked phone)
  2. Set up a Google Voice account and use it as your main number (you can port your current number, if you want)
  3. Turn off cellular data access in your phone’s settings so you automatically use wifi*
  4. Get pay-as-you-go minutes, texting, and data in case of emergencies when you don’t have wifi**

*For step 3, think about where you spend most of your time.  For me I’m typically home or at work.  Since there’s wifi at both places, this means the majority of my web browsing I can do through wifi.  It also means that when I’m out shopping,  killing time on public transportation, or whatever and there’s no wifi, if I want to browse online I’ll dip into my prepaid data.  Knowing that, I typically will choose not to use my phone unnecessarily because I don’t want to pay extra for it.  This has the added benefit of keeping phone addiction at bay.  That said, people’s browsing and spending habits vary, so be self aware and consider what you’ll likely do.  Even if you use a lot more talk, text, and data than me, the savings are so great I expect you’ll still come out ahead with prepaid.

**If you’re concerned about connectivity issues with pay-as-you-go, fear not.  The company I went with, Tracfone, uses the same towers as AT&T, so coverage is exactly the same.

Now, let’s say you do what I do and it turns out you only need 300 MB for web browsing a month from cellular data (because you’re doing the rest of your browsing through wifi).

Here’s the math if you get the latest iPhone 6s Plus, 64G:

Option A: Buy phone, then do pay-as-you-go with Tracfone

iPhone 6s Plus: $849 ($35.38/month)

Service: $300 ($12.50/month for 24 months)

2-Year Total: $1,149 ($47.88/month)

Service Details:

Tracfone Nano SIM card + 1st 90 days access: $40

(includes 360 minutes, 360 texting, 360 MB data)

2 years of minutes & texting:

$120 1 year service, 800 minutes (also doubles all future minutes) & 800 texts (remember, these are for emergency, non-wifi times)

$40 9 months service, 300 minutes & 300 texts

2 years of cellular data:

300 MB/month x 24 months = 7.2 GB/2 years

–> $50/4 GB card x 2 cards = $100


Now let’s say you want to go the traditional route with a cell carrier:

Option B: Get new phone with 2-year contract with AT&T

iPhone 6s Plus, 64GB: $400

Monthly Bill: $60 (300 MB) or $70 (2G) or $140 (15G)***

300 MB/month: $1,840 ($76.67.month)

$60/month x 24 months = $1,440 total 2 year charges + $400 phone = $1,840

2 year savings with Tracfone: $1,840 – $1,149 = $691 ($28.79/month)

2 GB/month: $2,080 ($86.67/month)

$70/month x 24 months = $1,680 total 2 year charges + $400 phone = $2,080

2 year savings with Tracfone: $2,080 – $1,149 = $931 ($38.79/month)

15 GB/month: $3,760 ($156.67/month)

$140/month x 24 months = $3,360 total 2 year charges + $400 phone = $3,760

2 year savings with Tracfone: $3,760 – $1,149 = $2,611 ($108.79/month)

***I’m including the 2GB and 15GB pricing options because I suspect most people fall into these categories, or somewhere in between.  I know I used to.

Finally, let’s talk about my own savings.  I decided to keep my old iPhone 4S because it still works pretty well.  Also, when I started the new iPhone wasn’t out yet and I didn’t want to buy a new phone that was about to be an old model.  So, I had no upfront phone cost.

My old plan with AT&T cost me $121.86/month.  If I hadn’t changed anything with them and continued to pay that bill with my old phone, I would have paid $2,924.64 in service fees over 2 years to use an old phone.  Given that the service fees with Tracfone are $300 for the same amount of time, I would have paid $2,624.64 in additional service fees I wouldn’t use with AT&T- that’s equivalent to 3 NEW IPHONES!

So there you have it.  Get rid of traditional service carriers.  They’re like any bad relationship: they’re expensive and come with a ton of bullshit.  You don’t need that.  You have better options.

Speech Police: Stop Telling Women How They Can Talk

About a month ago I noticed several female friends sharing this article on social media.  It’s about how using the word “just” makes people tune you out in the work place.  And the people who use it most?  Women.  So all you ladies out there, cut that word out of your vocabulary if you want to be heard!

I got so annoyed seeing this.  Sure, it was shared in the spirit of trying to help each other out.  It came with comments like, “I had no idea how much I was holding myself back!  I will need to work on this!” It was as if they had just learned that drinking soda was keeping them from losing weight.

The difference between this and hard sciences like food science is that, the way you talk and the way you’re heard is socio-cultural, meaning the society and culture you’re in influence how you speak and how people hear you.  There are no absolutes.  It’s completely based on culture.  And the thing that pissed me off about this is that no one ever shames men for the way they speak, but they openly and comfortably shame women for their speech.

If you don’t believe me try this experiment:

1. Think of 5 annoying speech traits characteristic of women.

2. Think of 5 annoying speech traits characteristic of men.

I bet it was much easier for you to come up with the first list about women, than it was the second list about men.  And I bet you also don’t realize that all the things you listed about women are also true of men, you just don’t pay attention to it.  And the reason you didn’t notice is that in American culture, we think it’s not just okay, but our place, to tell women how they can speak.  We do not do this to men.

So now I’m going to say: Shut up.

If you’re the one policing people in how they talk, shut up.  It is not your place to tell other people how they can talk, just like it’s not your place to tell other people how they can dress, who they can hang out with, and what kind of job they can have.  Speech, like so many other things, is a marker of our identity, and it’s not your place to tell another person how they should craft their own identity.


If I want to use the word “like” often in my speech, I should do that.  And you should shut up.

If I want to use vocal fry, or have a creaky sound to my voice, I should be able to do that.  And you should get used to it, and shut up.

If I feel the need to say I’m sorry to convey understanding and respect for another person, I should be free to comfortable do that.  You should understand that without negative judgment, and shut up.

If I feel like having uptalk, or a rising intonation at the end of my sentences, I should just do it.  You’ll learn to live with it, so shut up.

If I want to use the word, “just” as I’m making a point, I should go for it.  Nike makes a ton of money off of that word, so, just shut up.

If you don’t want to use these parts of speech, that’s fine.  You don’t have to.  The way you talk is your choice, so you’re allowed to not use them.  But the way talk is my choice, and the way other people talk is their choice.  I don’t get to tell them how they’re allowed to or supposed to talk.  You don’t get to either.

But if you think you do, perhaps you should ask yourself why.  Why do you think you get to tell other people how to talk?  Why do you think you should be allowed to control what other people say?  And, why do you only direct your control at women?

Instead of trying to tell other people that the way they talk is bad, you should try understanding what nuanced meaning they’re conveying.  Because when you tell women- or anyone- how the way they speak is bad, you actually expose that you just don’t get it.  It shows you have a limited understanding of and respect for the variety of identities that exist in the world, and that YOU are really the problem.  And the more people try to control others without examining themselves first, the more intolerant we are as a society of differences.  The less tolerant we are, the more problems we have.

So, enough with trying to tell women what they can or cannot say, and with “diagnosing” how they must feel (like they have no confidence) because of what you think you hear, and instead try harder to understand and appreciate the variety of styles you do hear.  I guarantee the effort will broaden your horizons, deepen your understanding of other people, and get you respecting them for who they really are.

Little White Lie: Thoughts

Last night I watched the documentary Little White Lie.  If you’ve never heard of it, here’s a synopsis:

The filmmaker, Lacey Schwartz, explores race and identity by telling the story of her life.  Lacey grew up in a Jewish family in New York.  By all accounts, she had a typical NY Jewish childhood.  The only thing that stood out was that her skin was noticeably darker than everyone else’s and her hair very curly.  In college she discovered her mother had had an affair with a black man, and that she’s half black.  She takes you on this journey and how she came to understand herself, family, and race.

Here’s the trailer:

Overall, I found this to be an intriguing exploration of race, identity, and community in America.  Lacey grew up believing she was 100% white and Jewish.  When the question of her dark skin came up, the family referred to Lacey’s great-grandfather from Sicily who had dark skin.  Other than that, no one ever discussed it.

But when Lacey went to college, the university accepted her as a black student, and at college she was part of African American student groups.  College is what got her to take a good hard look at herself and to push her family and childhood friends to do the same.

It blows my mind how Lacey’s mother could, for so long, not acknowledge who Lacey’s real father was, and as a consequence, leave literally everyone else wondering what was going on.  It also blows my mind how no one discussed it.  Denial is one of those things I know happens, but I just don’t get it.

But the thing that also struck me about the film was how when Lacey discovered her biological father was black, how she started to call herself “black”.  Her biological mother was still a white Jewish woman, so she had just as much of her blood as her father’s.  But she still called herself “black”.

Why do we do that in America?

Obama’s mother was white and his father was black, and we say he is the first black president.  I’m not saying he’s not black, but he’s still half white.  I’m not saying Lacey’s not black, but she’s still half white.  So why, in both of these instances, do we call the person “black”?

When someone’s mother is Chinese and their father is white, we don’t say he’s “Asian”.  We say he’s “half white, half Asian.”  When someone’s mother is white and their father is Native American, we say she’s “half white, half Native American”.  Throughout Latin America, when someone is partly of European descent and partly of native descent, they’re called “mestizo”.

So why, in America, if someone has some African blood, are they “black”?

In the film, Lacey discusses this a bit with a couple of her friends.  One makes the point of the “one drop rule”, that if you have one drop of African blood, then you’re black.  They also say “black” is an inclusive term.  Anyone with some African can identify as “black”.

But when we use this label, we deny the totality of who they are.  We ignore the fact that, biologically, parts of them are not African.  There is nothing wrong with being African American- in fact, there’s a ton of history and culture to embrace.  And I’m not saying people who are part black, part White/Asian/Hispanic/Native American/etc forget their other part, but why as a society do we call them “black” when there’s more diversity than the term alone provides meaning for?  And why is “black” the only race we do this for?

I don’t have clear answers to these questions.  I don’t think anyone does.  At best we’ll have speculation and discussion, with no final THIS IS THE REASON.  But it is something to think about, and whatever conclusions we draw ought to tell us something about our own ideas of race, identity, and community.

My own thoughts are, people should use whatever term, or terms, they feel match who they really are.  It’s up to the individual to decide.  That said, it seems strange to use a term that only lends itself to part of who you are.  No one said you had to pick just one.

10 Korean Talents

When you live in another culture for a while, you notice some things people are really good at doing.  I mean, Americans are good at some things, but we aren’t good at everything.

So here’s a list of things I’ve notice Koreans not only do, but do very well.

10. Wearing long pants and long sleeves in any level of heat, humidity, and activity level.

Koreans love having white skin.  Like so white it’s can look ghastly.  So when summer comes, it’s like the sun is their worst enemy.  They still go out though.  It’s just that they’re often covered up so they don’t tan.

I don’t know how they do it.  I sweat way too much to wear long pants and long sleeves in the middle of summer.  But these people, I have to hand it to them, they do it.

9, Cramming lots of people into tiny spaces, especially public transportation.

I’ve already commented on this a lot, but I can’t stress it enough.  They PACK people into subway cars and buses.  A good day is one when your lungs aren’t pinched.  It’s too much for me.  I think it’s a big part of why I’ve gotten sick here a lot.

8. Drinking heavily, including mixing alcohol.

I don’t drink, but I see it and hear it all night long.  These people love to get drunk.  They go out often and for long.  There’s no shame in going to work hungover the next day.

7. Not being able to speak English or think critically, despite studying for more than 12 hours a day and valuing education.

I don’t get it.  They work so hard at it, but their efforts are for naught.  Too much emphasis is on memorization and going through the motions, versus thinking about how the subject plays out in the real world.

6. Holding a grudge.

You can add jealousy here too.  If you’ve in any way wronged people here, they will never forget it.  Japanese people will never truly be welcome.

5. Eating a lot and not gaining weight.

This is something most foreigners notice immediately when they arrive in Korea.  There’s so much street food, quantities of food in restaurants are large, and there are tons of cafes serving sugary sweets and drinks.  All of it gets consumed, often with some beer and soju along with it.  And yet, most Koreans are very thin.  Their metabolism is the envy of the world.

4. Brushing their teeth.

Koreans brush their teeth after every meal.  This includes the bathrooms at work filling up with employees brushing their teeth. American dentists would rejoice.

3. Falling asleep anywhere.

I’m more used to it now, but it still amazes me.  People will fall asleep anywhere here.  On the subway.  On a park bench.  On the sidewalk.  At a restaurant. At work.   No, these aren’t homeless people.  They’re normal people just taking a nap.  No one bothers them and no one steals their stuff.

2. Getting work done at the last minute.

One thing I’ve had to get used to here is the lack of planning, which results in getting asked to do things at the last minute.  Koreans are so used to this they will drop whatever they’re doing to complete a task at the last possible minute.  This has included my co-teachers having to work on a report instead of helping in class because they were just asked to do it and it was due in an hour.  It stresses people out and no one seems to like it, but it’s the norm so they don’t complain.  I think American corporations would love Koreans.

1. Eating after having just vomited.

This takes true skill and it’s downright disgusting.  But I’ve seen it.  Oh, I’ve seen it.  If you’re out drinking, there’s no giving up.  If you’re sick with a stomach bug, you still go to work and you have lunch with your coworkers.  I physically could not do it.

Top 10 Inside Amy Schumer Sketches

If you didn’t know, prior to coming to Korea I spent 5 years doing comedy in the US.  It was mainly improv.

I love comedy because people will let you rub their noses in their shit.  What I mean by that is, comedy can be a depiction of and comment on culture.  I love analyzing culture.  When I did it in an academic setting I found the general public often wasn’t interested in hearing about itself.  But as a comedian you can say SO MANY THINGS and people want to listen.

That said, the US is still a sexist place.  (There’s so much I could say on that, but to keep it brief: if you were unaware, then you’re part of the problem.) So when I did comedy there, I rarely felt like a feminist perspective was welcome.  The only times it was welcome was when I a) performed with only women, b) performed with gay men, or c) performed solo.  Those things didn’t happen too often.

I’m glad to see that Amy Schumer has her own show and that many of her sketches have a feminist bend.  We all need to hear it and the perspective she shares needs to become part of regular discourse in America.

Amy has had a few sketches that have gotten a lot of attention.  Last Fuckable Day and 12 Angry Men need no comment.  But she’s made a lot of other pieces that deserve a shout out.  Here are my favorites to date, and why I think they’re great.

10. Sext Photographer

Amy has made several sketches that examine what women do to make themselves attractive to men.  They tend to end with the men they’re trying to impress either losing interest, or it becoming clear the guy was just barely interested to begin with.  Here we see a girl trying to get the perfect selfie for a sext for a guy who is just the worst.  So awful.  So typical.

9.  POV Porn

Porn has gotten so out of control that I love the idea of porn being juxtaposed to the reality most women experience.  If you’re a guy and wondering- yes, this seems true to life.  You, and what you do, is not special.

I also love how Amy looks so into it.  Just like how guys can light up while watching porn.

8.  Focus Group

So messed up in so many ways.  These guys are not answering the question.  But they’re so dumb that maybe the interviewer was really asking the wrong questions all along.

Plus, so many girls have been objectified for so long that Amy’s reaction at the end is all too real.

7.  New Body

This is basically how I shop.

Whenever I start working out again I get these grandiose ideas of how I’ll look and what I’ll need.  Spot on.

6. Acting Off Camera

Nice comment on the entertainment industry.  It’s a great look at how they do business.  Everyone’s trying to be so positive they are nothing but fake, and they get away with so much shit by throwing the promise of money at people.

5. A Very Realistic Military Game

So true and so wrong.  The sketch says it all.

And how after all of that, Amy just sits there at the end.

4. Mom Computer Therapy

We’ve all been there.

Though, I could do without the foaming at the mouth at the end.  I like the idea in theory, but seeing it in the sketch is too much for me.  Just cut it with her starting to look crazed.

3.  9/11

When I saw this I got so annoyed.  The sketch is great.  It so accurately depicts how a lot of self-centered girls act nowadays.  But I got so annoyed because this reminded me of conversations I would have back in the US.  I haven’t had to deal with this attitude since coming to Korea and I don’t miss it at all.

2.  Lunch at O’Nutters

Do I even need to explain this?  If you’ve ever been to a Hooters you’ll understand.

1. Herpes Scare

Deals with religion and sexuality.  God clearly needs a vacation.

“I need to stop making so many white girls.”