4.06.2010

The Foreigner Freakout: a phenomenon.


"In this world, there are things you can only do alone, and things you can only do with somebody else. It's important to combine the two in just the right amount."

-- Haruki Murakami


I've got a little bit of free time to myself this evening, before (once again) appropriate phoning-the-homeland time arrives. I'm just sitting here soothing my sickly stomach with peppermint tea and soy milk, which is just so fucking poncey and not at all satisfying compared to my usual four or so cups of evening coffee. But I'll get over it. Since you lovely people have elected not to give me a single new idea for something to address, I've been left to my own devices trying to come up with something else a bit focused to write about. Which is, I guess, sort of like the thing that I'm doing now.

How about this? If all of you lovely Korea expats haven't experienced it yourselves at least to some degree, I know you've at least witnessed it on multiple occasions. We'll call it The Foreigner Freakout. It can begin as soon as a plane lands, take a few months to set in, last a month before someone caves under the pressure, result in a midnight run, or, in the worst case scenario, completely infest a previously completely ordinary individual's personality, resulting in Those Guys we all see hanging around the foreigner bars, who have been here for like fourteen decades, don't have a dime to their name, and are still shouting, "TWO! BEERS! TWO! DO-GAY! BEER!" at the poor unamused Korean behind the bar, who just so happens to speak fluent English. Which said individual should know, considering he/she has spent every night of the last fourteen decades shouting at this same poor Korean bartender.

But that's just the worst case scenario, and not something I really want to get into here. God knows we've all encountered it enough "in real life".

I want to talk about the version that seems to catch all of us a little bit off guard. Including me, for some time. In fact, it's fair to say that I've only recently been coming out of my version of this phase.

Perhaps "freakout" is a bit extreme. I don't get falling-down-drunk ever, have only vomitted from alcohol consumption twice in my entire life (neither time in Korea), and will generally blow the majority of my spending on a night out on a cab home from Hongdae at 3 am, because there's no way in hell I'm sleeping in jimjilbang/in the House music room of the club/at some random's apartment/in a love motel/on the sidewalk. No. I guess my version of debauchery is quite tame, really. But compared to how I was back home....

God. How many times have we heard those words come out of the mouths of our expat brethren? I've heard them dozens, and actually, more often from women than from men. Of course, it does mainly seem to be a first year phenomenon. It's easy enough to explain, in that case:

You land in a whole new world, where the language and culture are both foreign to you. You've got a new job with new pressures and stresses possibly (probably) previously unimagined or unencountered before. It's a drinking culture -- a BIG drinking culture -- and you've got money to spend. Add to this the fact that you've got the enormous task of creating a whole new community for yourself (the only suggestion for which anyone seems to have is "the foreigner bar is atta way!") and the fact that you are suddenly "exotic", which means it's quite easy to just show up somewhere and have people swarming around starting conversations and paying you attention, and there you go -- all the ingredients for a prime Foreigner Freakout.

Booze ahoy! Stumbling in at 5 am? Pfft. For amateurs. That's why God invented GS25, plastic tables and paper cups. It doesn't count if the sun isn't up.

At the height of my own version of nonsense, my phone was overflowing with numbers. I had to start taking photos of people when I met them so I had some chance of figuring out who it was when my phone buzzed with a new text. I never went out on weeknights, save for a few very rare (I mean like maybe four) exceptions, yet that didn't seem to slow me down any. I probably don't have to mention that the overwhelming majority of these numbers belonged to men.

I couldn't walk down a single street in Bupyeong without bumping into somebody who knew somebody who was over at this other place, hanging out with somebody, if I wanted to join. It wasn't bad, and it never got out of hand. I was still putting away enough money every month and wasn't doing anything I felt put my dignity into too much jeopardy. And it was nice to feel like, in place of all of the family and friends I had left back home, there was at least something. Several dozen very unimportant somethings. If I'm honest.

Which I couldn't help but be, once I returned from visiting my best friend in the world in Glasgow this past winter. Which was where my turning point came.

Where was all of this really going? It was fun while it lasted, but what was I actually working toward? All of the false hope that somehow that half-drunk guy I talked to for an hour at the bar on Friday night was going to turn into a replacement for my very dear friend who left back in August. That the next person I meet purposely hanging around the foreigner bar won't be looking for a chance to practice their English with the assistance of a little liquid courage, or having a little walk on the wild side by being seen in such an establishment by the other Koreans walking past, or looking for an easy lay from the obvious easy foreign female target.

Now. Don't get me wrong. I've met some lovely people, had some fantastic conversations, learned a lot and generally had a good time. But there has to come a time, if you're not a one-contract-wonder, where you stop fooling around and taking the easy way out. Because, at the end of the day, the easy way is actually damn exhausting.

And that's why I haven't had a drink for a month and a half now. Not because I'm on some weird sobriety kick, or because anything was getting out of control. I've never been out of control in my life, and I don't plan on starting now. But I've found that in Korea, as a foreigner, it's far too hard to resist getting caught up in that game. And, ultimately, it was time for that to end.

Now I've got a long row to hoe. Because, although I've already got a rich community of Koreans here in Incheon who are nowhere near my fucking age, and I've got a few dear friends out in Seoul, who I can visit whenever there's enough time to plan around distance and schedules, the situation out here in Incheon isn't exactly rife with opportunities to meet-and-greet with people who aren't falling on their faces drunk. But I want to take my life more seriously than that, now.

I feel a lot of hurt sometimes when I encounter other foreigners in passing. I can see a lot of myself over the course of the last year reflected in them. Because, after all, we are all sort of generally starting out in bizarrely similar circumstances. I think there's a lot of compensating going on -- there certainly was for me. Which isn't easy to admit, as I fancy myself quite self-realized and above such things, on a good day. But the truth is, I'm not. Or I wasn't.

So it isn't judgement, so much as commiseration. And a hope that all foreigners here in Korea, for however long they may choose to stay, can survive whatever their version of The Foreigner Freakout may be for long enough to come back around and find their real place here, however temporary. Or that they can make it through whatever they may be experiencing, and come out on the other side richer, rather than damaged.

As for me, I'm doing my part by stepping out of that scene for a while. It's certainly been a lot quieter around here, and there are some people who have just given up on me. I'm no fun anymore, don't you know. But every place I've been in my life, back home and in New York, that was when the true friendships started to blossom. Being "no fun" makes it a lot easier to find the other people who are also "no fun". And that's when the real fun begins.

10 comments:

babs said...

do you find the freak out the equivalent to high school students moving out of the house for the first time getting their party on in college going balls out? after awhile the party fades... not for all, but it's not fulfilling after long periods of time. people get caught up, but ultimately it's up to them to find their way back. i don't know if this is what you mean, but this is what i've gathered. i'm moving to korea after i graduate and i'm really enjoying your blog by the way. kudos

babs said...

uh i forgot i already said i was moving to korea and i liked your blog but hey... yeah just hey

I'm no Picasso said...

Hey babs. I think the Foreigner Freakout is a little like that, but a lot more exaggerated and a lot more widespread because of the added effects of culture shock. I've had several conversations with otherwise mild natured foreigners who've agreed that something about the foreigner culture in Korea makes you feel almost *guilty* for sitting in on your own on a Friday night. You feel a lot of pressure to get out and socialize all the time, which usually means feeling a lot of pressure to stay out drinking till dawn.

I don't know. I didn't go through any weird thing after leaving for college, but I've definitely felt the pressure here. Like if you don't get out there every weekend, the whole social world is just going to move on without you. And in some respects, it's true. But I guess it just depends on what social world you're talking about.

And hello!

Kel said...

I'm living proof that even those who have already had the foreigner freak-out in other Asian cities are not immune to having it again in Seoul...and lucky you got to witness it first hand ;)

I must say, after coming out on the other side of it (twice) I am now officially immune...and old.

I'm no Picasso said...

Haha Kel. Round 2 wasn't even a freakout in my opinion -- it was just a bad night out. I've had a few of those as well, although you know how they say depression is anger turned inward? Mine's usually more outward-facing. I'll leave it at that.

I hope I'm old now too and not just on hiatus. Honestly. I'd give anythign to skip ahead to my 30s.

patrick said...

ok, i'm very late to this conversation but i cannot stop myself from commenting. you've obviously worked hard and developed your mind as i can see through your witty,insightful postings. now i'm stuck wondering, why wish to put that wonderful mind in an older body? i would like to suggest you devote some time to developing your physical skills. run, dance, bike, stretch, climb, skip, swim....
anything that will make use of your youthful vigor. i only mention this because i believe the mind will continue to be stronger in the near future, but as i am now experiencing, the body will not always be a source of such joy. forgive me if appear pedantic, just count me an 'older' teacher and a fan who feels compelled to comment.

I'm no Picasso said...

Patrick.... haha what? Forgive me for not really seeing the relevance here. You don't really know how 'developed' or underdeveloped my body is.... or what I'm doing to maintain that. I guess I don't really see where that came from....

patrick said...

fair enough, i meant no disrespect. i was responding to your last line.
'Honestly. I'd give anythign to skip ahead to my 30s.'

I'm no Picasso said...

Ah. I get it now.

Yeah. I mean I already feel like I'm getting older, physically. And I guess I don't look forward to that part. But 30s just seem so nice. Settle down somewhere with someone and stay in cooking on weekend nights. Versus everyone ringing your phone off the hook at all hours telling you this or that is going on at the club/bar.

patrick said...

buy a car escape the scene at your whim. best thing i ever did. the small country roads of korea are pretty sweet and the old timers in the villages are generally kind and always curious.