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One Month Worth of Korea

One of the more difficult parts of immigrating to Korea has been the struggle to replace expectation with reality while maintaining the ability to leave the house. Before getting on the plane, there was really no way for the two of us to accurately picture what living in Korea would be like. The best we could do was stitch our combined life experience into a tissue of cultural quotations, a rough approximation, a roadmap missing its key. When moving, this usually gets you close enough. What I think neither of us realized is that we didn’t move to Korea. We immigrated.

Our misapprehensions went all the way to the roots. I don’t know about HCB, but when I started to imagine coming to Seoul, I began with what little I knew: big cities (London, New York, Paris). Having spent a not insignificant amount of time in London, I started there. To make room for the expected strangeness, I sort of looked sideways and squinted at all the specifics, which I thought meant I could use an English urban experience as my template for Seoul. Suffering from confirmation bias, my research reflected back what I was hoping to find. Democratic! International! English-speaking! But there was a problem: my liberal’s multiculturalism (and apparent unconscious desire for and belief in Western cultural imperialism) led me to assume, again and again, that it couldn’t be that essentially different, not really, not deep down. I know. That’s crazy, right? We’re all motivated, my theory ran, by the same deep tidal urges—which reduce down to the thousand flavors of pain and avoidance of pain—so, if you look carefully enough, nothing’s really that different. Right?

While that’s a good enough theory, I’m beginning to suspect that it’s less field-observable than it is lab-producible. Yes, Maslow governs, but when you’re actually on the ground and you have to navigate the day to day, it’s not psychological urges you’re dealing with. It’s the specifics of culture. That was a lesson I did not learn living in Europe, because although I sometimes found the food strange and the customs incomprehensible—Oh, for the strangeness and incomprehensibility of Europe!—everything I experienced was only a generation or two away from full recognizably. When it comes down to it, I didn’t have a proper appreciation for the Indo-European source code that allowed an easy cultural exchange to take place. Within a couple days of our arrival in Seoul, it became apparent that that’s just not what living in Korea was gong to be like.

What exactly it is like? Honestly? I don’t know. I haven’t been here long enough to parse our experience with any degree confidence. However, although my analysis here may be fumbling, I’m not making anything more than a very simple and self-evident observation—culturally, East and West are different in more than superficial ways—that gives proper respect to the distinctly and, I have to assume, proudly Non-Western cultural heritage of Asia. A thousand years ago, when I was doing my undergrad, I read a cultural theorist (what was his name…) who talked about how rather than waiting for “otherness” to come to us, we have to go to it and in doing so, we have to open ourselves to its strangeness. Rather than assuming that otherness will assimilate into us, rather than expecting to crack the shell of its unfamiliarity and find ourselves inside, we have to allow ourselves to be transformed, fundamentally, by every encounter. Either I never really got what that meant, or in the years since, I’ve settled back into a more comfortable position of cultural entitlement. Korea has reminded (taught?) me that as a white, American male, I have a thousand painful lessons to learn in this regard, but I’m working on it.

All this is to say that, at times, living in Korea is REALLY REALLY REALLY difficult because some of our most soothing assumptions about what life would be like were dramatically mistaken. With that on the table, let me go further and admit a few things that no travel blogger should ever admit: there are days when I fucking hate it here, when I just want to lock myself in the apartment and ignore all the adventures waiting to be had. But, for what it’s worth—and it’s actually worth a lot, at least to me—I forgive myself for all that. This is not a vacation and I will never live up to the travel blogger lie that EVERYTHING is wonderful and amazing and new, because I’m not a tourist and this isn’t a travel blog. I’m an expat and that means I get to have bad days. Claiming the right to be pissed off/scared/lonely/petty feels really good, and I think it’ll be the difference between success and failure at this whole living abroad thing.

So, yeah. Don’t worry about us. HCB has his dream job (his students are better than he could have hoped for) and I’m working on finding my place here. My Korean classes start in two weeks and this Sunday, I have the first of five outdoor climbing classes. Which. Is. Exciting. I have several posts in the works, but on the one-month anniversary of our arrival in Seoul, it seemed fitting to take a slightly wider view.

Our first picture, on our first day in Korea

Much love,
DME + HCB

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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Eve #

    Seeing that picture of you guys after reading that post makes me want to give you a great big, big sister hug. I love you both. Hang in there and keep up the good work. I love love love reading your blog.

    March 17, 2012
    • Love you, Evers. I’m sticking’ with it! And I plan to cash in that hug over the summer.

      March 17, 2012
  2. Dad #

    Dear David

    I just wanted to tell you that I second what Eve wrote. I admire your courage. Keep up the beautiful and honest writing and remember, it’s all “grist for the mill”. I have been reading Sumerset Maulm and thinking of you. Take good care of yourself and eachother.

    Love Dad

    March 17, 2012
    • Dad, thank you for the encouragement. Hard as it may be, this really is supplying a lot of material for my brain to chew on. It’s just also totally exhausting, so I’m struggling to find the energy to process it all. Everyday there’s more. But, especially after giving myself permission to feel shitty, it’s all feeling better. I haven’t read any Maugham, although I have heard of “On Human Bondage.” Is that the one you’re reading?

      David

      March 17, 2012
      • Dad #

        David, Sounds like alienation. No big deal. As you know, in the social sciences context, the state of feeling estranged or separated from one’s milieu, work, products of work, or self. The concept appears implicitly or explicitly in the works of Ferdinand Tnnies, Max Weber, Paul Elkins and Georg Simmel but is most famously associated with Karl Marx, who spoke of workers being alienated from their work and its products under capitalism. In other contexts the term alienation, like anomie, can suggest a sense of powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, social isolation, or cultural- or self-estrangement brought on by the lack of fit between individual needs or expectations and the social order. Every time I travel it happens to me. It even happens when I’m not traveling. Maugham’s writing is all about alienation. Yes, he wrote OF Human Bondage. I am currently reading his short stories. Do you have an amazon audio account? Keep up the good work. Love Dad

        PS Do they have Scientology in Korea? Good luck.

        March 19, 2012
        • I don’t know about Scientology… I know it’s illegal in China but Korea is much more liberal about those sorts of things. But still, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were trying to prevent the encroachment of that sort of Western system.

          March 19, 2012
  3. Katie #

    Wow, I can’t believe it’s a month already. It’s like… you actually live there. Crazy.

    Re the distinction between moving and immigrating: this seems like a pretty important one, and one which did not occur to me until you mentioned it. It’s particularly interesting to get glimpses of a non-American place not from the point of view of vacationers, or of slightly relocated natives, or of EMIGRANTS, but of honest-to-god immigrants. Writing from California, I of course wonder what the local attitude is toward you guys showing up being all culturally retarded, not speaking the language, hating the food, etc etc etc. I wonder also if Koreans will be open with you about what they think about that, or if they’ll do some Korean equivalent of waving nicely at the Mexican family down the block and then delivering a dinner-table diatribe about why they haven’t learned goddamn English yet. Huh.

    I miss and heart you both.

    March 17, 2012
    • Katie, that is a great question. I’m going to have to investigate further, but I think it’ll take a little while for any Koreans we meet to open up enough to answer truthfully. Our lack of fitting in is a commodity here in Asia, but does total ignorance enhance or diminish our value? Probably total ignorance of the sort that we exhibit is a negative, but it seems, at least from my totally limited vantage point, that Westerners who have cultural competency are kind of boring to Koreans. They’re not strange enough. We wear our shoes inside and leave our chopsticks in the rice bowl and don’t hold our water glasses with two hands, and that’s what makes us global. When a white guy knows all the rules, he’s just a white guy in Korea. He’s a person, whereas we are aliens. But, you know, this is all coming straight out of my ass, so you probably shouldn’t pay too much attention to me…

      March 19, 2012

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