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.
DME + HCB