Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hwaseong Fortress: A Walk With Great Views

Our Family in Front of the Paldalmun Gate

It was nice to get outside of Seoul for a day and head to Hwaseong Fortress.  It’s in central Suwon, and the most accessible of Korea’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  On one of the first warm weekends this spring, we headed to Hwaseong Fortress with the extended family.  It was a really enjoyable day – for the children too.

On the Fortress Wall

As the name suggests, this is a fortress.  And, you can walk the nearly 6 kilometer fortress wall easily.  Along the way are sentry points and entrance gates, temples and other buildings to see.  Being up high, you also get some great views of Suwon.  We paid $1 to get three gongs on a giant bell – one for your parents, one for a healthy and harmonious family and the third wish is all yours.  The city is built up around the fortress, so you can take the stairs down for a break and grab some lunch too.

I'm getting my 3 wishes for $1

What I really loved was just being outside – you always appreciate the first warm days of spring.  The walk was good exercise, but not too strenuous and there was plenty to see.  It was amusing too, being with the whole family we seemed to become part of the tourist attraction.  As a trolley rolled by, everyone on board turned to their left to wave to us -- the group of foreigners.  Along our walk, people approached us to practice their English.  And the children collected a few candies – even some coins from friendly Koreans!

Getting to Hwaseong Fortress:  If you take the subway from Seoul to Suwon Station, you’ll then need to hop on a bus to get to the Fortress.  Buses #11, #13, #36, and #39 will all take you to the Paldalmun entrance gate.

This Man Gave Ethan Some Money

It's Tax Time...Even in Korea

I'm nearly 7-thousand miles away from home, but no matter how far you go, you can't escape them ...TAXES!  This year I had the added burden of figuring out what to do as a resident of a foreign country with foreign earned income.   

First, you start asking others.  Then, you look up information on the internet.  You read blogs and community forums and everyone says something different.  It's confusing.  So, then you go right to the source...the IRS.  While all forms are printed in English, it doesn't mean they're easy to understand.  So, then you ask an accountant back home, and still you're confused.  I have wanted to pull my hair out.   

So, in the interest of helping others experiencing the same agony, I'll share some things I've learned that may help American taxes payers living abroad.  Read on to de-mystify foreign earned income and how to get an extension.

The Basics:

  • First, you must report all foreign earned income to the IRS.  You may not have to pay taxes on it (we'll get to that), but you report ALL income.
  • All foreign income will include any housing and other paid benefits you get from your employer.  Housing, A company car, and paid airfare are common forms of alternative income for foreign residents. The IRS makes it clear, this income should be reported.
  • You must report your income in US dollars.
  • Go to www.irs.gov for full details.  Publication 54 deals with foreign earned income. 

Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE):  Do you have to pay taxes on your foreign income?  Maybe not...

  • If you meet certain requirements, you may qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE)(This mean you won't pay US taxes on your foreign income)  You will need to fill out tax Form 2555 or Form 2555 EZ and then attach it to your form 1040.
  • The maximum FEIE per individual for 2010 is $91,500.
  • To qualify your "tax home" must be in a foreign country.  Your tax home is the area of your main place of business/employment, regardless of where you maintain your family home. (Publication 54 has the details)
  • However, you must pass the "Bona Fide Residence Test" or "Physical Presence Test."  The "Physical Presence Test" is the easier of the two to qualify for.  It means the US taxpayer must have been physically present in a foreign county for at least 330 consecutive days during a 12 month period.  That 12 month period must have started or ended during 2010. 
  • Form 2555 will also cover your Foreign Housing Exclusion.  So, if you live in company-provided housing or get a stipend for housing you can deduct that income.  Yes, this is income!  Here's a breakdown of the requirements to qualify.


  • What if you can't pass the "Physical Presence Test" by April 18th?  Well, you can file for a special extension (Form 2350).  If accepted, this extension allows you to file taxes once you've reached your 330 days to qualify for the FEIE. 
  • However, you must PAY taxes owed by April 18th, otherwise you will incur penalties and interest.
  • Keep in mind that extension Form 2350 is different from the typical form (Form 4868) used to file for extensions.
  • Also, it's good to know that many types of tax software (including Turbo Tax) do not support Form 2350.  That means it may be difficult to e-file this form.  I accessed the form on the IRS website, filled it out and mailed it in.
  • More good news about tax extensions:  If you are "out of the country" (meaning that on April 18th, you lived and worked outside the US) you get an automatic 2 month extension on your taxes.  You do NOT have to file a form to get this extension.  However, you must attach a statement to your tax return explaining how you qualified.  For a calendar year return, this means your taxes are due June 15, 2011.
  • Keep in mind -- each state has different rules for extensions.  Many honor the federal extension, which you'll just have to show proof of once you file your state taxes. 

Foreign Tax Credit:

  • If you are paying income taxes on your foreign income, you may qualify for a foreign tax credit.  This way, you don't have to pay taxes on your money twice
  • However, once you choose the FEIE, you can't then claim a foreign tax credit on the excluded income. 
  • To choose the foreign tax credit you generally must complete Form 1116 and attach it to your Form 1040.
  • You could choose instead to do an itemized deduction, in which case you must itemize deductions on Form 1040, Schedule A.  However, I recall reading that you get a bigger deduction if you do the work and go for the foreign tax credit

Miscellaneous Tidbits:

  • If you have a foreign address, then you can not e-file your tax return.  You must mail it in to the IRS.
  • It's also good to know that you're US Embassy has only limited IRS information available.  They will NOT be able to answer any specific tax questions and will refer you to the IRS.

Clearly, I am not a tax professional and I'm not issuing tax advice.  This information is also not exhaustive as everyone's tax situation is different.  I am just trying to gather some helpful information and put it in one place.  Frankly, it took me much too much time to find all of this information.  The most helpful information came from the IRS website and it's information you can trust..  Access Publication 54 here for more answers. 

Good luck...you may need it!

The Death of Our Car

Our Car, Right Before a Trip to the Junkyard

Whooo, whooo...grrrrr, blug, blug... clink, clunk, clank....When your car starts to make new, unrecognizable sounds you know you're in trouble.  Typically it means a repair is on the horizon and you get an expensive bill.  In our case -- it was the equivalent of automobile death -- a trip to the junkyard.

Our car was old and it made some funny sounds when we bought it -- but when you're spending about $500 on a car, that's to be expected.  However, a couple of weeks ago all those funny sounds suddenly got louder.  "Is that us?" I said to my husband as I looked at the other cars on the highway trying to find the noisy vehicle.  Moments later, my husband watched in the rearview mirror as a piece of our engine literally fell out from under us and bounced down the highway.  Okay...yes, that's us.

So, then began the fun of calling insurance from a rest stop, getting a tow truck and a ride home.  At this point, I was still optimistic.  Maybe the repair wouldn't cost that much I thought, giving myself a pep talk.  However, when our tow truck driver arrived and started the car, my optimism died.  He didn't speak English, but he communicated clearly enough -- he slowly drew his hand across his neck -- the universal symbol of death.  The next day, it was confirmed by mechanics.  Too expensive to repair, the best move was selling the car to a junkyard.

We didn't want a car when we came here -- the hassle or the expenses.  However, once we had our car and licenses, the freedom to explore was really nice.  The 25 minute drive to see our family was far superior to the 90 minute, nauseating bus ride.  We had taken only one long distance trip, but had plans this Spring to take the car out to see the Korean countryside.  Plus, what about our Costco trips and Sunday drives?  It was a disappointment, but unlike life in the States having a car is not necessary.  We're back to public transportation, and that's fine.

However, I think my husband and I both deserve badges...you know like the ones you get when you go on the big theme park rollercoasters.  It can say something like "I survived driving in Korea" or "I drove a car in Korea and lived to tell the tale" ...nope, that one's too long, but you get the point.  So, farewell little car -- it was an adventure and you'll be missed.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why I Love Korea

(Typical signage on Korean buildings -- I love the chaos!)  

These thoughts often cross my mind – I try to mentally register all the little things I love about being in Korea.  I’m thankful that I feel self-aware, appreciative of what I’m experiencing.  But I also have this nagging feeling.  The one where you start to miss something even before it’s gone because one day you know it will be.

I love the neon lights of Korea.  At night, everything is aglow.  The businesses compete for your attention with bright lights and flashing signs.  During the day, you see the surface of buildings (even the windows) plastered with signs.  In high-rise buildings sans storefronts, this is how businesses let you know they exist.  This should be ugly and irritating, but I love it.  I find it lively, exciting…even cheerful.  When I go home, I will long for neon lights.

(Some amusing neon lights.  See the monkey?)

I love my commute to work.  It’s a fifteen minute walk through a lovely neighborhood.  On a brick paver pathway, we cross a stream, and then wander past a playground where vendors sell cotton candy, fruit, and sometimes hamsters.  Children whiz by on their bicycles while others run by in backpacks…maybe headed to English school.  And next to me is my husband…a great commute.  I also love working with my husband.  For the first time, our schedules are in sync.  We see so much more of each other and that’s a good thing.

(The view on our commute)

I love the street vendors selling fresh produce.  I love my neighborhood and the convenience of walking everywhere.  I like grocery shopping with my cheesy grandma pull cart.  I love that the subway is a block away from my house.  I love the persistence of the people when we run into the language barrier – they don’t turn away, but instead engage in wild gesturing with me to communicate.  I love the victory of actually being understood when I try to speak Korean.  I love Korean BBQ – imagine cooking on a grill at your restaurant table.  I’ve never loved meat this much.

(BBQ with the family.  Those are grills in the center of the table)

(This meat is going to be delicious!)

I love being a tourist on the weekends and seeing the sights.  That includes visiting Korea's crowded, hectic, has-it-all markets.  The atmosphere and the prices are unforgettable.  I love the children I teach and I really enjoy teaching them English.  I love the lack of crime in Korea and the feeling of safety that comes with it – walk the city streets day or night and rest assured, you’re safe.

(Food stalls at Namdaemun Market)

I guess I could boil it down to this...I like my job…I like my lifestyle…and I’m truly enjoying this cultural experience.

Monday, March 14, 2011

My "Sunny" Valentine (Video)

Marketing ploy or holiday tradition, I'm not sure which...but Korea has two Valentine's Days.  On February 14th, the girls buy gifts for the boys.  Then, on March 14th which is known as White Day, the boys give gifts to the girls.  I'm not sure everyone abides by these rules.  My students certainly didn't, because any chocolates and treats I received came from the girls on both days.

However, one present I received is just extra special.  It came from a 7-year-old named Sunny.  She's a little thing who always has a big smile on her face, which I love because she's missing her two front teeth.  It's just adorable.  Before the bell rang for class on "White Day," Sunny approached me with her present.  You could see how excited she was for me to open it.  The contents are both cute and pretty funny.  I have pipecleaners twisted together...I think they're in the shape of a bow.  I have two used pens.  I have 3 tiny action figures with very large heads, and finally I have a pair of heart earrings.  All of these items look a little used and abused and that's just fine.  I picture Sunny scrounging around her room looking for items to give "Lauren Teacher," and that's just adorable.  I will be wearing the earrings next class, of course!

I made a very big fuss over the presents, and Sunny was very pleased.  Afterward she launched herself into my arms for a big hug.  How lucky I am to have a "Sunny" Valentine!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Living Simply

(Our Apartment:  Stairs to our loft, kitchen and bath in the background with our cluttered desk in the middle of it all!)

I had seen no pictures of my apartment before arriving in Korea.  I knew it would be small…but how small?  We didn’t know when we could move in.  So, when we arrived, we were met by our boss.  Outside a building, we unloaded our trunks.  Was this our hotel I asked?  Nope, this is where you’ll live he said.  Then commenced the silent begging and praying…please be nice, please be nice.

The first impression:  it was small, really small.  But, it was cute.  And now it feels like any home should – a sanctuary, a restful, peaceful place. 

Our apartment has no bedroom – only an upstairs loft.  The loft is a nice size; however with low ceilings you can’t stand at your full height.  Downstairs there’s a small living space, kitchen and one bath with 2 closets.  Two closets for everything – including clothes.  Our apartment was furnished with a mish-mash of furniture to which we’ve added a few pieces to continue the disjointed look.  There’s no dishwasher and while we have a clothes washer there’s no dryer.  The best feature is a huge floor to ceiling window that brings in plenty of natural light. 

Of course, it’s easier to live in a small place when you don’t have a lot of stuff.  We couldn’t bring a lot to Korea and we’re not accumulating much either, because we know we can’t take it back with us to America.  I’m used to buying new shoes, new clothes and things for my home.  Not this year.  As far as possessions go, we’re operating on a need and not a want basis.  All of this may sound inconvenient or unpleasant.  However, it’s actually been nice.  We’re living simply with a lot less than we’re used too.  It can actually be freeing.  I think in one way or another that’s really what this entire experience has provided – a feeling of freedom.

So, take a little tour of our place.  With a few pictures, you can see it all!


(Our Living Room/Den:  This is where we relax, watch TV, blog, and spend most of our time)

(Our Living Room/Den:  There's our fabulous TV and entertainment unit!  See the space heater on the floor, which is cheaper to use than the Korean Ondol/under floor heating system) 


(Our Kitchen:  Notice the built in washing machine and the dishes drying in the dishrack because we have no dishwasher.  While we have a 2 burner range, there is no oven!)

(Our Wardrobe Closet:  Although we have 1 dresser, most of our clothes (for him & her) go in here!  Our small bookshelf is in front.  Our bath is again in the background and you can see a lounge chair in our loft above.)

Asian Kitty

Asian Kitty was a surprise.  He was a gift from our family when we arrived in Korea.  He was an unwanted gift.  You see…when I left for Korea, I left a cat behind.  Finding a home for my cat was a grueling and emotional experience.   So, I was ready for some pet free living.

Well, let me tell you…I was wrong.  Asian Kitty is the best cat in the world.  Yes, I just told you that my cat is better than your cat.  This cat is funny.  He sleeps on his back with paws raised in the air.  It looks like he’s playing dead.  When Asian Kitty is really happy to see us, he drools.  Little droplets drip, drip from his mouth.  Trust me, it’s cute.  He loves human food – anything we eat, Asian Kitty will eat.  Peanut butter, ice cream, tortilla chips, or pasta…he’s tasted and enjoyed them all.   If you rattle around in the kitchen, open a bag of chips or crackers, and when you sit down to dinner, Asian Kitty comes running.  He sits and stares at you while you eat, silently begging for a taste.  I’ve never seen a cat behave quite like this…like a dog.  Don’t fret…his diet is really just dry food.  And that’s great too.  It’s cheap and it doesn’t smell.  Asian Kitty still has his front claws, but he only scratches his scratching post…amazing!

(Asian Kitty sleeping/playing dead -- also with a lot less fur)

Now, this cat likes attention.  He’ll follow you around the house looking to cuddle.  He wants to sit next to you or on top of you.  In the morning, he’s happy to wake you up.  Your wake up call can include him stepping on your face, sitting on your head or in my case, biting your hair.  Or how about a head-butt?  Purring, he’ll just ram his head into yours demanding some attention.  Now, if you’re not a cat lover I can see that this wouldn’t be appealing.  But, if you love cats…well, this is adorable.

(Cuddling together after work)

So why the name Asian Kitty?  Well…he’s Persian and we laughed when we saw him…because upon our arrival in Asia, even our cat looked Asian!  I absolutely adore this animal.  He’s loving and well-behaved.  He makes me laugh and immediately made my house in Korea feel more like a home.  So, now I’ll eventually have to leave this cat behind in Korea and my heart will break.  I can say with certainty I will shed a few tears, but it was worth it.

(Relaxing on the windowsill in the sunshine)

Big Binondo Food Wok

This post is still in progress!!  Come back later for a fun video!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Philippines: Boracay's White Beach (Video)

The Philippines has many beautiful beaches dotted along its’ shores.  Being a beach lover, I knew I wanted to visit one, but where should we go?  We opted for the obvious – Boracay’s White Beach.  According to travel guides and reviews, it’s rated one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

So, here’s my review:

Boracay is lovely.  The cool – never gets hot and burns your feet – soft white sand beach stretches for a few miles.  It’s an hour’s walk from one end to the other, so there’s plenty of beach to go around.  Something I’ve never seen before – tall palm trees line the entire beach, giving it an almost wild, deserted island appeal.  That’s was lovely.  The waters were a nice green-blue that beckoned you for a swim.  But, I’m going to say the waters of the Caribbean and along Mexico’s Gulf Coast are even more stunning.

(High season meant people on the beach, however it never felt too crowded)


(With the sun shining, the waters looked really blue) 

Some will say Boracay is now too “built up.”  Since none of the resorts along the beach are taller than the palm trees and they’re fairly modest in size, I wasn’t bothered by this.  In fact, I enjoyed having restaurants and shopping nearby.  If you’re on the beach, you don’t even need to put on shoes to hit the White Beach Path, which is lined with businesses.  This makes it easy to take a lunch break.  At night, it’s standard fare for the restaurants to set up their seating on the beach.  That felt like a luxury – night after night eating on the beach with my toes digging in the sand listening to live music.

Here’s where I was disappointed.  The Philippines are known for outstanding scuba diving and snorkeling.  Unfortunately, off the beaches of Boracay the coral is dying and few fish have stuck around.  Now, there are plenty of outfits offering tours – that’s not an obstacle.  However, our tour disappointed.  With that in mind – there are plenty of other activity options like parasailing, skim boarding, or jet skiing.

(On our boat trip/snorkeling tour -- soon to be disappointed)

Boracay is a popular destination, so it may be considered expensive within the Philippines.  But, it’s certainly affordable when you compare it to many other beach destinations around the world.  You can find budget accomodatation in Boracay.  We did – and La Bella Casa was simply lovely.  Our most expensive dinner on the beach was $25.  Our full day boat/snorkeling tour was $35 for two people and an hour long massage on the beach was $7.  So, Boracay won’t break the bank.

I loved that Boracay is a true world destination.  I’m so used to Americans dominating any tourist scene.  But, when you’re on the other side of the world, that’s not the case.  Your ears buzz with the sound of dozens of languages around you.  However, English is spoken everywhere so it’s easy for you to get around.

So, is Boracay one of the best beaches in the world?  It’s lovely…but the best, I’m not sure.  I’m reminded of trips to Seven Mile Beach in the Cayman Islands, Horseshoe Bay in Bermuda, and Riviera Maya, Mexico.  All of those were stunning.   But, I enjoyed Boracay and the feeling of pure contentment that comes when I’m on the beach.  The warm sun, the refreshing water, the soft sand – I’m certain that’s one of the best feelings in the world.

More Information:

My Boracay Guide:  This guide is great for transportation tips, hotel listings and maps.

(We did have some overcast skies, but we still hit the beach)

(This photo documents the best feeling in the world -- at this moment I'm perfectly content!)