Oh, hello Sunday Afternoon Rage

TINY KOREAN GIRL: Oh yes, I'm on a diet. I gained (negligible amount of) kilos in winter. I'm not eating dinner.
OTHER TINY KOREAN GIRL: Oh, how can you?
CHUBBO: Are you kidding me?
TINY KOREAN GIRL (not hearing the edge of rage peeking over my question): No. I don't fit into my clothes anymore. (Aside: Tiny Korean Girl is wearing less than US size 0. Every Sunday she has on really cute doll-size clothes. And they fit.)
OTHER TINY KOREAN GIRL: You're so small though.
TINY KOREAN GIRL: Oh, that's not what my friends say!
CHUBBO: Who are your friends? They suck!
TINY KOREAN GIRL: (insert extremely confused expression with cartoon eyebrows above her head here)
CHUBBO: So, what do you think of me, then?
TINY KOREAN GIRL: Oh, do not be angry. It's okay. You're not Korean.

Conclusion: Korean girls must be thin because they are Korean. They must measure the tops of their thighs and arms in middle school and cry because they have the biggest ones. However, Westerners must be fat because they are Westerners. Dang. I wish I could be thin just to spite them.


Life of Anonymous Celebrity, Part II

Or, My Identity as Korean Boy’s Girlfriend

Teacher’s Day was Thursday of this week and because all the kids who attend Haba are rich and generous (that most wonderful combination for those of us who aren’t rolling in the won), the school gives us the day off. This saves us the embarrassment and disappointment of having to return nice and expensive gifts, because we’re not allowed to accept any. So we are denied the benefits of the rich and generous. As the late Vonnegut would have said, “So it goes.” All of this to say Thursday was a holiday for me and it just so happens that the annual International Book Fair was on at Coex Mall and the Universe orchestrated it so that Keun Ha would be working his publisher’s booth that very day. So I headed over to the exhibition hall to check out the books and to have lunch with my love.

I called him when I got to the station and met him outside the building. We walked in and he decided we should eat before he showed me around. So we had a nice lunch at one of the restaurants there. After we ate, he decided to show me around the hall and take me to his booth at the show. I asked him if I should just pretend to be a nobody asking him for help so he could talk to me shamelessly for a ridiculous amount of time without censure from his coworkers.
“That’s impossible. They already know you’re coming. When I told them we were eating lunch first, they told me I couldn’t go and that you should come there first.”
In that case, the whole nobody scenario wouldn’t work out very well. However, meeting Keun Ha’s coworkers was still an experience of anonymous celebrity. Well, perhaps anonymous isn’t the right word. Because these people knew who I was. I was Keun Ha’s girlfriend from the States. And they all supposedly wanted to “meet” me.

We rounded the corner of the booth and I was met with the knowing smiles of all his female colleagues. So the normal bows and introductions were made and I Annyanghaseyo-ed myself to death. Then everyone took a step backwards. No one wanted to ask me any questions or talk to me. (I know what you’re thinking: They can’t talk to you if they don’t know English. Oh, but you would be wrong. They can talk to me in the most comfortable of ways: without making eye contact. They can simply ask Kenny to ask me questions. That’s usually par for the course when I meet his friends and acquaintances. But none of that for Hangilsa employees.) It’s obvious everyone just wants to look at me, to finally see The American Girlfriend, but no one wants to “know” me. And maybe that’s asking too much. And perhaps, they already know everything they want to about me because I have it from a reliable source that I am frequently talked about. I didn’t expect to make any friends there anyway. But it was still a strange experience, one where I was noticeably on display.

Kenny walks me around the booth, showing me the different sections and how everything is set up. Then, he attempts to introduce me to a woman on his team. (The editors are split into small teams of 3 or 4 people and work on projects together.) We start to approach her and people, this is not an exaggeration: She starts shaking her head no and backing up with her hands waving out in front of her like I have bird flu and she can’t be bothered to risk it. She is smiling as she does this, but it’s nonetheless incredibly awkward when you are approaching someone and they are refusing to stand still. Keun Ha grabs my elbow and propels me forward because I had stopped moving toward this woman in case she backed into a large stack of books or the wall of the booth. I bow my head and say hello in Korean. She says hello back and then twitters nervously in Korean to my boyfriend.

In the course of 5 minutes, I have ceased to be a real person. I am The Korean Boy’s Girlfriend and I am apparently unapproachable, even through a translator they are friends with. I am there to be seen. And I guess that’s okay. It’s not like I am going to be their BFF or anything. The introduction to strangers in this country becomes not a meeting, but an appearance. I sometimes feel like a celebrity that no one wants to interview, but everyone wants pictures of.

I’m not complaining, and I’m definitely not raging. But I do find myself in bizzaro-world because meeting people in English is okay for me. I enjoy getting to know new people, wowing them with my intelligence and wit (inevitably apparent in my native tongue), and all the possibilities that present themselves at the moment of connection. And I guess that’s part of the reason I sometimes feel lost here. Because things that would delight me or be no big deal to me in English are impossible for me to enjoy in Korean. I find myself in situations that I want to be natural and relaxed in.

Solution to Life of Anonymous Celebrity: Learn Korean. Simple sentence, but difficult to accomplish. And because learning another language is a long-term goal, there will be plenty more LAC experiences in between! So, no worries, dear readers. My life will continue to be awkward, occasionally uncomfortable, and usually hilarious. And I will continue to share it with you.


Ajumma Rage Resumes

Oh, the ajumma (large sigh and shaking of the head in a way that lets you know there is no hope left ). This morning I was at the end of a line of people. It had ended precisely at the point where there was no more room for anyone because there was a large vending machine backed by an enormous supporting square column. I had slipped in behind the average Korean woman commuter: short skirt, long hair, body like a Victoria Secret model minus the boobage. (Yep. That’s right folks. Go ahead and insert it into your vocabulary and somebody call Webster. Boobage (n) /boob’- ij/: a word of db origin formed by joining boobs and baggage, both of which can be weighty and a pain to haul around.) So, I’m standing there thinking about the more serious issues in our world, i.e. does my hair look really greasy from the back today, how that guy got a shirt that says Wal-Mart, and how much longer I can wear these shoes before they need to be replaced. And Rainbow Brite Ajumma comes slipping through the lines on my left. I see her coming. You can’t miss the lady. She is sporting a bright punch-you-in-the-face green jacket and the mandatory foot-long visor. If I were in a room with my eyes closed, this jacket would wake me up. Seriously.

So Rainbow Brite Ajumma comes closer and I assume she shall wheedle or whack her way through my line. I squeeze as flat against the vending machine behind me as the chubb-o belly will allow in order to let her pass because I don’t like people touching me before 9 a.m. I thought she would just move on through. Negative.

She just stays there.

Yep. She just plants herself on top of the girl in front of me. I can see Victoria Secret Minus Boobage’s hair blowing in the breath of R.B. Ajumma. Yeah, she’s that close. And then she kind of leans her shoulder into Sans Boobage’s back to look around her at who knows what. So Sans Boobage kind of arches her back and gives a halfway glance behind her with a look of annoyance on her face. R.B. Ajumma does not notice or does not care. She does not take a step back. I wonder how long it will be before Sans Boobage turns around and gives Rainbow Brite a good verbal scathing in Korean, but all of a sudden, this ajumma steps out of the line, wheedles through two more lines to the right of us and stands next to the first person in that line, bypassing the 10-15 other waiting commuters.

Rage! Absolute rage! It’s so fortunate for R.B. Ajumma that no one in this country is allowed to own a handgun. (Most fatalities are stabbings, which cannot be done en masse. Perhaps America should consider this. Just a thought.) The thing that most infuriates me is not that this woman has no respect for personal boundaries. I understand that every culture usually has different values, especially when it comes to personal space. I’m able to accept that. But the fact that in any country, any person thinks they have the right to step in front of a line of waiting people in order to beat them all to the first seat, is simply enraging. To quote Jim Carrey as the Grinch: “The audacity! The unmitigated gall!” I cannot fathom thinking in this way.

Or perhaps it’s not a mindset, a thought. Perhaps it is a lack of thought, the absence of public consideration for others. This country harbors so many contradictions within its customs. Koreans are some of the most kind, generous, and giving people I’ve ever met. Individually. It seems that the same rules that apply to any single person do not apply when one is in a large group, particularly underground. I’ve had several ajummas whack me with purses, shove me out of the way, and literally run over my feet to beat me to a seat on the train. But I’ve also had the singular experience of an ajumma giving me her seat an entire stop before she left the train. And one other time, an elderly woman patted the seat beside her with a smile, inviting me to sit down with her.

And because of these small incidents, because of these exceptions to the rule of inconsiderate behavior, I do not retaliate. I silently bear my rage and grit my teeth and take deep breaths. I do not push back. I do not cut in line. I do not always close my eyes while sitting down so that I don't have to feel guilty about not relinquishing my seat to the nearest elderly woman or man standing on the train. Because if I resort to mimicry, if I give in to my heart’s burning desire to push Rainbow Brite Ajumma out of the way, to step back in front of her, it’s like a seal of approval. I am signing off on this behavior as acceptable. And although this behavior is rampant, there are a great many people not partaking in the serve-yourself subway mentality. And for them, I rage here, instead of on the platform waiting for the train.

You’re welcome, Korea. You’re welcome.


We Interrupt The Scheduled Series....

Eh, who needs a series all in a row anyway, right? How about I just leave you thirsting for more and make you read all the stuff in between that you might otherwise skip over if you weren't waiting for the latest installment of Life of Anonymous Celebrity!

I went to dinner at a friend's house tonight for the first time since living in Korea. Keun Ha's family doesn't count. Keun Ha's friends don't count. This is my friend. She is wonderful and generous and kind and Kiwi (or from New Zealand!). And man, can she cook! I've been terribly ill with the worst 감기 (Korean for cold) I've ever had for close to a week and tonight was kind of like my first foray out into the social world. And it was lovely. I guess I realize the more I hang out with My Kiwi, the more I realize how isolated I've become. My world, despite opening up in huge ways to another culture and another way of life, has also shrunk when it comes to personal relationships and friendships. And this is mostly due to my weird and inexplicable desire to be left alone by any and all Westerners I come into contact with. I want to complain of loneliness, but in fact, I'm enabling this isolation by being closed off and reserved. ( I know, those of you back home may close your mouths and manually push your eyebrows back down your foreheads. Danielle? Closed off and reserved? Surely not!) But with My Kiwi, it's like one of those friendships I think only girls experience. One where you fall right into place. From our first coffee and croissant, there was fellowship, a kinship almost. Although we come from two different places, our experiences here have been freakishly similar. Our feelings, our reservations, our fears, our discoveries= same same (as my kids at school would say).

Anyway, all this babbling to say that I felt true joy tonight, just speaking with her on the phone and making plans. There are some friends who somehow coerce you into being more of yourself just by being there. And My Kiwi did that for me. I remembered what it was like to be excited about conversation, dialogue, the exchange of ideas and the expression of emotion between women. I was reminded how it felt to be a silly girl and talk about silly girl things. I reveled in the friendship and the good food that brought us together over a small table in a small apartment with small glasses of wine.

I know I don't usually post like this. My posts are usually edited and pasted into Blogger and then edited again. But tonight, I'm just writing. Sorry if you were expecting the normal rage. Good wine and a good Kiwi are definitely on the list of Rage Reducers. (Oh, that reminds me! Coming soon: The List of All Lists- Rage Reducers Vs. Rage Inducers. But you'll have to wait for it. I have so many posts that I need to make and yet I seem to be spending all of my time making notes for posts instead of actually writing them!) And there, I just broke one of my bloggy rules: Never talk about posting in a post.

Eh, what can you do? I'm giddy.


New Series! Get Excited, People. Get Excited.

Welcome to a new series I’d like to call, The Life of Anonymous Celebrity. It will be comprised of short scenes that have taken place so far. As a foreigner, I already look different. But the fact that everyone in this country worships English makes me even more conspicuous.

So, without further delay:
Life of Anonymous Celebrity Part 1 (will from here on out be referred to as LAC)

One day I was at Hyundai Department store, Basement 1 where all the food is, with Kenny’s mom. I was sick (again). So she asked me if I wouldn’t like some gelato. Seeing as I had been in the country for over 2 months without a DROP of ice cream, I figure why not. So we step up to the counter and the girl behind it immediately dips a popsicle stick into two different kinds of chocolate based gelato and hands it to me to try. I pick just regular chocolate.

Two weeks later, I walk into the same Hyundai Department store, Basement 1, with Kenny. We are in search of the lovely gelato I’ve been raving about ever since I had it the first time. 4 counters away, the girl behind the gelato stand spots me and immediately begins waving frantically, smiling, and yelling, “Annyanghaseyo!” Oh good grief. I’m across the store and already a walking “stare at me because I’m white” sign. When we walk up, she treats me like royalty. There’s no waiting to see what kind of samples I would like. She just starts shoving popsicle sticks at us. She’s so very happy to fulfill our every gelato whim.

I've been twice and the gelato girl “knows” me. See? Immediate popularity. The pros: it’s nice to see a friendly face, even if she’s just smiling because she knows the chubb-o will give her money in exchange for a small amount of chocolate goodness in a cup. The cons: it’s a bit embarrassing. Why can’t the fresh fruit juice lady remember me? Or the mandu lady? Like something Korean and not particularly calorie laden.

The kebab guy knows me, too. Eh, what can you do?

Teaching the Facts

So, in my Wednesday multimedia class with my 6 year olds, there is a workbook page called “Who’s Money?” They love this class because it uses a big interactive touch screen. My kids are learning about different countries’ flags and their greetings. For example, whenever someone from Kenya comes on the screen, the kids say, “I’m from Kenya. Jambo! Welcome to Kenya.” So on this day, they are matching the country to its currency. Simple enough. But this page is set up so that they click on 3 pictures: Picture one has a kid with a speech bubble saying, “In Korea,” or “In America.” And in this set of pictures the kids are buying something. Picture 2 simply shows the kids enjoying whatever they purchased. Then Picture 3 is an image of the currency for each country. The goal is to match the country to the currency, right?

In Korea, the kids are buying mandu, which is a small boiled or fried dough filled with meat or veggies or kimchi. In picture 2, the Korean kids are eating their tiny mandu with chopsticks. Of course, this is matched with the Korean won.

In France, the miniature Frenchman is buying art supplies. In Picture 2, he is on the banks of the Seine in Paris, painting a picture. This is matched with the Euro.

In Japan, the kids are purchasing Hello Kitty toys. In Picture 2, they are sitting down playing with their kitties. This is matched with Japanese Yen.

In China, the kids are buying toys. Picture 2, they are playing with the toys…. blah blah, you get the picture.

Now for the illumination:
In America, the two children are buying really large hamburgers across a fast food counter. In Picture 2, the two kids have very chubby faces and one of them has his mouth open really wide and is attempting to shove his double-stacked burger into it. The other kid (with a fat face as well) is just smiling happily at his burger. This is, inevitably matched with the US Dollar.

This is how the world views America. This is also how 5 young Korean boys view America. If you didn’t know, now you know.


An Open Letter

Dear Idiot Woman on the 8:30 train from Cheonho to Jamsil,


I want you to know that this morning was the first time I’ve ever had the disgrace of being caught in the closing doors of the train. And I also want you to know that I hold you entirely responsible. Your behavior this morning was selfish and inexcusable. I had waited in that long line on the platform the same as you. As a rule, I do not push and I do not squeeze my way onto a full car. It’s a principle I stick to without fail. However, this morning Moron Man Behind Me wanted desperately to be on this particular train. I was going with the flow, minding my own business and moving towards the doors in a timely manner, making sure not to leave an inch in between you and me in case any ajumma got the idea of whacking herself into that space with a ridiculously oversized handbag. But when you walked into the train and did an about-face and stood firmly in that prized spot “by the door where the nice little personal handle is conveniently located,” you made it impossible for me to get on the train. I was okay with this. You wanna be that way, fine. But Moron Man had his forearm pressed firmly across my back and was pushing me into you. But you just stood there, refusing to give way, although there was space behind you. I was being forced through the doorway when the doors began to slam shut. Have you ever felt the crush of automatic sliding doors? You would think the rubber tubing would provide some kind of cushion, but it doesn’t. Nope. One door punched my left arm while the other sexually assaulted my right shoulder and frisked my purse. They both jumped back open after running into the obstruction of myself. I fell into you and you just held onto the nifty little handle you believe was put there just for you. No eye contact, of course. Poor Moron got the brunt of both doors as he muscled his way in directly on my tail. They finally shut and I inched my way around your offensive and unforgiving body to stand in the space behind you.

Again, I ask. Really? Because this kind of behavior is childish. Even if you’re only going one stop, it’s not good etiquette to go through a doorway and then stand in it. Not on the subway, not anywhere. I don’t care that you wore your favorite pink dress suit. It was ugly and the skirt was a stupid length anyway. I also don’t care that you decided your dumb hair needed to be fluffed and that you came dangerously close to poking my right eye out with your selfish little fingers. I’ll do you a kindness and go ahead and tell you the truth: that perm was a mistake and the raucous fluffing didn’t help. However, I do care that the steadfastness with which you held your position this morning screams repeat offender. Is this a habit? It is disrespectful to the people around you. And it defies all common sense. Please, please exercise some common courtesy and remember your brain tomorrow morning. And give Moron Man my regards, because you’re obviously in some kind of Most Obnoxious Commuters League.

May the grace of God find you and teach you how to respect others, how to be generous in shared space, and good grief how to fix your hair.


Oh dear readers, did I say that I was tired of rage? Because I am. But just because you are weary of an emotion doesn’t mean it still won’t course its way through your body, leaving you exhausted and wishing that everyone would go away and you could get to work by yourself somehow, without seeing a single person.

Will to live another day in the city on a scale of 1 to 10: Negative. Below zero.
Wish to move to the countryside ASAP: Overwhelming


Less Blind Rage, More Open-eyed Reflection

Did you miss me, mom? (I say this because my mom is the only person whom I know for sure reads this thing, and she’s the only one who’s asked me where I’ve been. Yes, I’m hurt. Yes, you should post your profuse apologies in the comments section.) I’m still here in Seoul. There’s still rage in the morning. Don’t worry your head about that one. It’s a given.

However, I’ve grown a bit tired of rage. And channeling such intense emotion on such a frequent basis is proving to be quite exhausting. So, I’d like to make a sharp right into digression. Limiting myself to unpleasant commuter experiences is not very representative of my life here. I want to talk about so many things, tell you how much I’m learning, explain why parts of my background and family are becoming precious, lecture you on the parts of Eastern society that we should open our minds to, and amuse you with my anecdotes of being an American girl in Seoul. So, rage is on the backburner: contemplation is piping hot and ready to serve.

Welcome to Contemplation #1

As of last Friday (May 2), I’ve been here for 2 entire months and I’ve collected quite a few experiences as a foreigner that I’m still processing. My identity is not at all settled here. It’s kind of like being back in high school and trying to locate my genuine self, only on a much less boy-driven and drama-ridden level.

I find myself wearing a particular facial expression when I’m in public. It consists of making my eyes as bored and empty as possible so that I won’t seem excited by my surroundings. It involves my eyebrows being pulled down just a bit so that I might appear “to know something about something.” My mouth is closed, my lips locked in a straight line that tries to say. “Hey, I’ve done this before. This is nothing new.” I don’t know what this expression actually communicates, but it’s purpose is to shout to every Korean staring at me, “I AM NOT A TOURIST. I live here, thankyouverymuch.” This desire itself is a mystery to me. Why is it so important to me that random strangers know I’m not just passing through? And is this directly related to my aversion to all Westerners who appear in the street, on the train, or across the coffee shop? I’ve never had such an overwhelming desire to stand apart from people “like me” and to blend in with people who are “different.”

So many times, I find myself on the train wishing away my double eyelids, my language, and my western penchant for cheese. I just want to melt into this culture, to be a part of it as much as possible. But the largest part of this culture, I am finding out, is based on appearances. And therefore, no matter how fluent I become in Korean, no matter how good I become at using chopsticks or eating kimchi, no matter who I marry, I will always be outside, set apart. Damn this adorable nose and my big eyes.

I am a breathing, walking, coffee-gulping dichotomy. I guess I am trying to reconcile my western habits and preconceptions with the eastern society I’m trying to become a part of. I find myself reveling in the parts of myself that are truly American and western. I often celebrate my sincerity and genuine expression of emotion over this oppressive Korean emphasis on formality and social posturing. But at the same time, I admire the communal eating and bathing (with your own gender) within Korean society, mourning how isolated we westerners have become. I rejoice in the American idea of putting in a good day’s work, but see how this pales in comparison to the work ethic of Koreans. They are a tireless people who work long after their hours on the clock are over because that's just the way it is. Their grandfathers and fathers loved their country and wanted to make it strong and prosperous after the war that destroyed so much for them. This mentality is left over from the previous generation and it makes me realize how quickly the youth in America abandon the principles of their fathers.

There are some things I cannot learn to see differently: the pushing and shoving that are socially acceptable without a word to the pushed or shoved. Even after Kenny explained to me that there cannot be “Sorry” in Korea because the word for sorry in Korean is 3 syllables at it’s shortest, and must be adjusted in each case according to the pushed or shoved person’s age and status. There’s simply no time to make these decision correctly. It’s less offensive to push someone and move on rather than to say you are sorry without using the correctly respectful ending. I understand this. My solution: import “Sorry” into the Korean vocabulary just as they have imported many other words, like hand-phone (cell phone), TV, mp3, banana, etc. Or better yet: STOP PUSHING.

There are some things I want desperately to show my country how to change: the way we treat our elderly is one of them. Here, the elderly are treated with the utmost respect. The eldest son or eldest daughter (if there are no sons) of the family cares for them when they grow old. They are not shoved into the nearest nursing home and visited only on national holidays. Every time I enter Kenny’s home, it is important that I find the oldest person in the house and say hello. In this case, it’s his grandmother. Every Saturday morning, Kenny bathes his grandmother because she is paralyzed on one side and cannot wash herself. It’s a task done with love and without shame or embarrassment.

There are many aspects of Korean society I chuckle at: For example, the men carry purses here. Yep. Real purses, like Louis Vuitton and Coach bags. They’re not just doing the manly across the shoulder, but the full-out on the shoulder under the arm. Sometimes I think men in America need to get over their masculinity issues and not be afraid to carry a bag. I mean, men need stuff too, right? So it makes total sense and I appreciate the freedom these Koreans feel to accessorize. The ajummas are always wearing huge visors that stick out incredibly far so that no sunlight dares to touch their skin! If they’ve forgotten their visor, but the sun is out on the street, they will guard their precious faces with a newspaper, an umbrella, even their big bags they use to whack innocent bystanders in the subway with.

So, I’m doubling in on myself. I’m finding new ways to live and function in an Eastern society that has different goals and priorities. And while I’m doing that, I’m trying to hold onto my Western born-and-raised self and the good things, the important things that are a part of my history. I am having to open my mind and accept that things are not always as I wish them to be, nor would it be positive or perfect if they were as I had imagined. I feel that although I’m not a tourist (and for some inexplicable reason deem it somehow embarrassing to be labeled as one) I am a traveler. And when you’re traveling, it’s important to look around with your eyes open and your heart ready for new, surprising, or difficult things. The traveler doesn’t just long to “see,” but wants more than anything to “experience.”

I am definitely experiencing.
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