1.4 Spring 2020 (COVID Archives)

May 11

I came to South Korea to teach and do things and for the last five months I have neither taught nor done things.

So, it’s been an ongoing challenge to balance the lack of doing with the reality of being.

It hasn’t been bad persay and I’m certainly so grateful to be in South Korea during this time! The desk warming reality is only truly negative in that it harkens back to my cubicle days which I left for a good reason.

To put it in perspective for myself, I imagine a reality where I would be working at the Atlanta job but during a home office pandemic setup. The thought of being trapped in my (admittedly wonderful) Atlanta apartment with my terrible manager digitally breathing down my neck and criticizing my work twenty four hours a day is legitimate nightmare fuel.

I wish I had more to tell you but I’ve stayed away from the gym as a precaution to my punctured face and underarms and have no humorous updates about the motley gym crew.

Oh! One of the male grade five homeroom teachers who supposedly speaks English well (as always, this means absolutely nothing unless the person actually speaks to me) and has never said anything outside of 안녕하세요 greeted me today with “good morning”. Luckily I reeled in my knee jerk reaction of “why” and returned the greeting. Thank you but also much much too late.

My lamb skewer friend told me about her social lunches with coworkers and I pouted since in comparison my school seems incredibly introverted and antisocial.

This weekend was only mildly devastating in terms of language learning: for my monolinguals, you should know that it’s an ongoing and endless process with pitfalls and plateaus. Realistically I know I must have progressed but emotionally I feel stuck.

I complained to my tutor that even though doctors study medical school entirely in English and even though Koreans have ten years of compulsory English education, locals would rather I lose face than they. In order to spare their embarrassment of less than perfect English, I embarrass myself and struggle with barely-above-beginner Korean. I feel like I’m struggling to carry three boxes but must hold open the door for someone with a postcard.

Lamb skewer friend told me that if I pretend to know no Korean whatsoever, people will speak English. But if I give a mouse a cookie, he’ll force me to conjugate verbs and discuss medical terms in Korean.

Seoul loves to think of itself as international and metropolitan; I think you readers and I can all agree that is far from true. Not even thirty minutes outside the city and people say “oh! A foreigner!”. And if Seoul was truly the multicultural hub it imagined, it would stop calling non-Koreans “foreigners” in English language brochures or people would not run from visibly non Asian residents in fear of potentially having to speak another language.

My coworkers H and S were aghast I’d ever move out of the only city worth living in under the assumption life must be harder where there are fewer foreigners. Au contraire! I’ve found small town retirees to be so kind and helpful if I bumble along in Korean. Or remember that kind Pyeongchang merchant? Or that chatty grandpa on the hike who talked for so long his friends left him behind?

I suppose the difference is Seoullites aren’t (visibly) shocked at foreigners, but that doesn’t mean they’re rushing to speak English or provide assistance (nature of big city living mostly).

My intent is not to disparage Seoul at all. I do find that in an extremely homogenous country like this, all my native friends are those who have lived abroad; we have the shared foundation of being an outsider which is not an experience most Koreans have.

Koreans who have lived abroad also tend to see their foreign friends as people rather than tokens or language exchange practice. Both my online tutors live or lived abroad and the level of empathy they bring is unparalleled.

I’ve been burned too many times by seemingly charismatic people who value the street cred my foreign face gives them over my actual personhood. Nowadays if I see anyone who describes themselves as seeking “foreigner friends” I run far away.

Don’t worry, I haven’t given up on making friends! But I need to learn Korean to get to the gooey center if I ever want to be real friends with locals.

As an American it’s difficult to understand but I’m trying: we’re built on a nation of immigration where origins and accents and customs vary from family to family. Most Koreans live in the same city they were born in while young Americans move up and out across the country for different job opportunities. My coworkers thought living four hours from my hometown must have been terribly difficult. When I told them my next job was seven hours away by car, they couldn’t fathom it (it’s impossible to drive more than five hours in Korea before you hit ocean or the DMZ).

I just mean to say that sometimes shared experiences are vital to friendships within other cultures; it’s certainly why my closest friend here is a Thai woman with whom our only shared language is beginner Korean.

But it works out for us, and I know it will work out for me too. Just keep swimming.

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