Enola/Alone: How to cope as a recluse in Korean society.

Hey! Longtime reader first time questioner here. I know you're from the Midwest and you know how we like our alone time. How do you go about getting that precious solitude in such a massively social culture without being offensive?

Hey yourself! I'm not actually from the Midwest. I'm a Texan, and I guess we are meant to be quite sociable. I'm not really sure. All I know is that I am most definitely a grade A fucking recluse, even by American standards, with all kinds of deeply rooted psychological issues surrounding "MY FUCKING PRIVACY". So, regional classification aside, I do feel quite well-equipped to take this one.

Buddy, it's intense. Whatever you people do, do not allow whoever it is you're working for to wrangle you into sharing your living space with absolutely anyone else, because you're going to need it all to yourself. People are going to be minding your business in every which way possible, especially anything pertaining to your eating habits or your physical appearance. You'll get all kinds of dumbfounding questions along the lines of, who are you eating dinner with tonight? When did you last have a boyfriend? What was that text message you just got on your phone?

I am not a 'question' person. I am so not a question person that my mother actually apologizes after asking me more than three in a row on the phone ("How are you doing?"/"How is work going?"/"What did you do last night?") for fear that one of my infamous "STOP FUCKING ASKING ME FUCKING IRRELEVANT QUESTIONS" blowups is in the post.

Incidentally, as a side note, I just learned quite a useful phrase in Korean, especially with the students: 남이야 (nam-ee-ya). It literally means "other person", and is akin to saying, 'none of your business'. So pack that one away in the arsenal, just in case.

But the point is, "남이야!" is not an appropriate thing to say to your co-workers, right? Well. There are a few techniques I've developed for (somewhat) coping with the beehive quality of life here in the ROK.

1. Lying. Also known as, saving face.

This entry gets into this more in depth, and how it's not lying, exactly. It is lying to us, but that's beside the point, because you're not dealing with us. In Korean culture, it's socially acceptable to come out with a bit of a 'truth generosity' when you're not particularly inclined to engage in one or another social activity. In fact, it's considered good social graces. Being a foreigner in this situation is immensely helpful. I've had all kinds of imaginary foreign friends who have needed help with all kinds of imaginary foreign problems that absolutely cannot wait (since we don't have the ability to fall back on the tried-and-true Korean excuse of, 'my mother is sick'). It's nothing to feel guilty over -- it's just the way that things are done.

The biggest thing I've been having trouble with lately, for example, is people wanting to drive me all over god's green earth. And that's just... no. I like public transportation. I like walking. I like putting on my headphones and having an hour or so to decompress, people watch, and just let my thoughts wander. I need that time to unwind in between whatever other engagements I have throughout the day. I do not fancy spending those precious breaks in the car with someone awkwardly trying to make small talk in a language they don't really like speaking. Furthermore, I'm not a child. And that's exactly what being driven everywhere makes me feel like. Waiting for someone else to pick me up. Having them in control of when I arrive at my next engagement. Not being able to stop into a shop along the way, or grab a cup of coffee, or (and here's the big one) duck into a back alley and suck down a goddamn cigarette while I'm busy dashing from here to there. As kind as the offers are, I don't like being carted around and watched over all the time.

So I absolutely always have to go to the store first. Or pay a bill. Or change my clothes. Or meet a friend for dinner in between. So on and so forth.

2. Taking a cue from the students. Aka, The Bartleby.

Have you ever read Bartleby, the Scrivener? Welcome to Korea. You are now Bartleby. You would prefer not to.

One thing I've always been in awe of is my students' ability to stand in the office and be berated for half an hour straight and just let every last word roll right off their ever-broadening little backs. And also their ability, when confronted with a direct question that requires a response, to come out with something completely deadening to any further elaboration.

Learn the art of "smiling and nodding" and also the art of giving vague, conversation-ending answers to questions. "네.... 네....네...." is going to be perhaps the most useful Korean you can ever learn to speak. And it doesn't have to mean, "yes I'm listening and I'm going to do exactly what you're suggesting right this very minute". It can just mean, "yes I'm acknowledging the fact that you're speaking to a point that makes you feel sufficiently justified in having used up the oxygen it took to do so, and I'm not going to directly defy your suggestions right to your face". That's often good enough. Choose your battles. Don't engage in debate, unless with close friends and co-workers. And don't allow someone to bait you into having conversations you don't wish to have (this is a really good recent example of this).

It takes a little time to get it down, but passive aggression is generally the way to go. Smile, nod, disregard. Smile, nod, disregard....

3. Don't answer.

Just don't answer it. Don't answer the door. Don't answer the phone. They're not going to ask you about it later -- it goes against the rules of saving face.

I don't get it. I really don't. One of the things that will make me irrationally flip my shit the quickest is someone calling me over and over and over when I'm not answering. This is not the fucking olden days. I will see that I missed a call from you when I see that I missed a call from you, and I will call you back when I feel that it's appropriate for me to do so.

Koreans tend to be so fucking bad about this. It borders on insanity, in my opinion. 25 missed calls between 4:32 and 4:46? Really? Was that necessary? Also, my apartment is a fucking shoebox. If I didn't hear you screaming, ringing the bell and banging on the door the first five minutes, I'm not likely to hear it for the next five either. Or I'm clearly choosing to ignore it. What does that mean? It means you should fucking fuck off now.

It doesn't mean anything. There's nothing crucial going on that you need to know about right now. And they're not going to call you out on it later. Just ignore it and it will go away.

4. Have a set day/night every week that is your waegookin friend special meeting time.

Oh, I'd love to come to all thirteen of your family members' weddings on Saturday, but Saturdays are my knitting-while-speaking-Lebanese-Arabic meetings. Haven't you heard? I can never do anything on Saturday afternoon, because I'm the knitting-while-speaking-Lebanese-Arabic team captain. They depend on me to be there. Every Saturday from six am until sunset.

Tuesday night hwaeshik? Tuesdays are the day that all foreigners meet in Sinchon to practice eating spicy food and using chopsticks, though. It's of intrinsic value to my acclimation into Korean society that I attend.

Choose one day that's just off limits, no matter what. Word will spread (as it always does), and, no matter what invitations get passed around that week, you'll know you have at least one day to go home, put the chain lock on your door and just bask in the silence (minus the fruit trucks). Knowing you have that one day coming will make everything else endlessly easier to endure. Me, I need like three of these. But that's up to your own personal discretion.

5. Seriously, though. Take a day off.

I've found it so much easier to participate in all of the random social nonsense that goes down in my work place since I've stopped feeling the need to go out and run around every single weekend night. If I stay in on Friday or Saturday night (or both), I don't feel so fucking exhausted when the week hits, and I don't feel like I'm living one year-long week anymore.

My tolerance for social activity is a lot like a bank account -- I can only withdraw so much before I'm in the red. If I use up all of my social nonsense tolerance on the weekends, I have a lot less patience for it during the week at work. Taking at least one day off during the weekend helps with this a lot.

Of course you're not in the fucking mood to sit around and listen to everyone babble in Korean over coffee for three hours after work today. You spent the entire weekend sitting around and listening to everyone babble in English over beer. And then you spent all day listening to your students babble in god-only-knows-what. You can only take so much of that before you fucking snap. Give yourself some time off. The whole social world on the entire penisula is not going to march on and leave behind sad and lonely. They'll be there next weekend, largely doing exactly what they were doing last weekend. You're not going to miss anything crucial. Place an order with What the Book?, turn off your phone and just fucking take it easy every now and then.


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot said...

Always reliable Tolkien. By the way it would probably take three hours to get to where you're from from where I'm from and I'm in the Midwest. Is Texas actually considered the south or is that just your Texan pride coming through? ^ ^

PD said...

i don't want to speak for liz or anything, but even if she's "originally" from texas, i think that once you lived in new york for an extended period of time, and as long as your heart still lives there, you consider yourself a New Yorker. that's what i do. with pride. :)

I'm no Picasso said...

Whiskey -- I don't fucking know. Are we the Midwest? People are always like, what is Texas? Is it the south? Is it the west? I don't know. It's Texas. There are still people down there who think it should be its own country....

PD -- I have friends who always try to introduce me as a New Yorker, but I always correct them. I think I'm pretty obviously Texan. There's nothing I can really do about that, one way or another. At least most of the accent is gone these days, unless I'm on the phone to my family.

Gomushin Girl said...

Speaking as a quasi-Southerner, Texas ain't the South. Texas is its own entity, and Dixie does not hold itself responsible for the actions of that large block of land sitting right there by the Rio Grande. Most noteably, they use beef in their bbq instead of pork, which will strike most people from the South as a particularly dangerous kind of heresy.

Noname said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Noname said...

Great post.
Minor correction:

남이야 (x)
남이사 (o)

남이사 meaning "남의 사생활 (others' private matters)"

'남이야 뭘하든 무슨 상관이냐'는 뜻.


Anonymous said...

Hi. Your blog is very informative and funny..thanks for writing :)

I've been in Korea for a few months and unfortunately I'm sometimes a gullible and too-trusting person and I don't like to disappoint people, but I'm aware of it and working hard to correct this habit, have made progress but from time to time I still f**k up.

So one of the teachers at my school helped me out with stuff like internet and computer and invited me to her church (I just wanted to check it out, but then she has been trying to force her beliefs on me when I've been in her company) and I visited her home a couple times (on her invitation/making-me-feel-obligated, never voluntarily).

Sadly, she has shared too much of her personal problems/life with me, and sadly I was too easy and I shared too much personal stuff with her in the beginning. She is unfortunately chronically ill and a bit depressed and I have a very strong feeling that she tries to rely on me for comfort and company, since she can speak some English. She is reminding me to visit her home and almost making me feel bad for wanting to refuse. It's hell.

I am in a kind of delicate emotional state myself and I have to stay away from negativity and people who will drag me down with them (I've struggled with family issues and other things and I worked hard on my own to make it and to get here)...

Since you have talked about the stark contrast between western and Korean cultural context, even though I am bicultural and lived in America and the Middle East both, I am definitely uncomfortable with the level of "saving face/white lie/indirectness" here and generally prefer the openness of the west, and what is most frustrating is that everyone here seems so straight faced all the time and no matter what emotion they are going through they put on a smile, genuine or fake.

Sandra said...

Thanks for the post. I feel a lot better now about brushing co-workers off for social babble.

Justin said...

This was a VERY funny post. I appreciate your ability to keep humor about you in that crazy situation.

Lane said...

YES!! I fucking love you for this article. I am an introvert, and I have a great time by myself. I was having a difficult time about a week ago because I kept thinking about how people must be judging me because I do some things with friends, but alot of things by myself. Yesterday, I did take-out Thai, and the owner asked me "where's your friend?". Hm I didn't know my friend and I always came together. I was startled. LOL. Thanks for your honesty and transparency.