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.