4.15.2011

Questions: Are you getting used to Korea?

I am a 7-monther gearing up to renew my contract. Might be here a long time. As an experienced expat, does anything take you by surprise anymore? Things (cultural difference things!!!!) still tangle me up a lot. Are you a totally cool customer in situ


About a year ago, you wrote about saving face. I struggle with this too, and was wondering if you have any more insights into this aspect of Korean culture a year later.


Hey INP, Been reading your blog for .. almost a year maybe? So I have a question now: What does it feel like to be the minority? I guess I'm asking for the emotional, rational and overarching perspectives =).

Okay. I'm going to have a go at all three of these at the same time, because this relates to something I've been thinking about a lot lately. It may not exactly be an answer, but maybe it will be useful anyway.

A couple of weeks ago, somehow Grace and I got on the topic of how being culturally fluent affects your relationships in Korea. It sounds kind of obvious, but I think it's one of those things that only becomes obvious after you've moved off from the place where it completely wasn't. What the fuck does that mean? I don't know. It's Friday, and I'm going to have a hard time explaining this anyway. But basically, living in a foreign country is much like undergoing some kind of continuous, eternal adolescence, where at every point (even if you know better), you're convinced that "now" you "understand", only to move down the line a few months and look back at yourself and cringe.

Grace has been here longer than I have, and it's not hard to feel like the senior in the foreigner-in-korea situation, if you've been here for longer than two years. Every few months a new wave comes in, and you're a few more months down the line of figuring shit out and getting your shit together. It's these new waves most often, in fact, that cause you to look back and cringe. Because you remember doing those things, making those cultural mistakes, and having not a clue. But now you know better. Which causes you to think: what am I still doing that's cringey? What have I not caught onto yet?

The point is, we were (I think) discussing some or another faux pas that had been made by another, newer foreigner -- not with contempt, it's important to note, but in that way that anyone kind of acknowledges someone being in a place they've already been. With affection. A little bit protectively, even. And it started us off on a reflection of our own past mistakes, and how embarrassing we'd been in the past, without even realizing it.

The first 1-2 years in Korea are full of learning. When you start from scratch, you've got a long way to go. What I think has happened in the last year or so, however, is that I'm not so much learning as I am settling in. There were things that I "understood" after the first year, that I'm just now getting used to. Saving face is one of them. Being a minority is another. How do you know when you've really conquered these kinds of issues? When you stop noticing them.

When I first came to Korea, I was determined to try to understand everything as well as I could. But something I've learned since I've been here is that dissecting everything and being able to talk about it analytically is not really the most important part of understanding it. Saving face caused huge issues for me, as the commenter points out. And it wasn't that long ago that I thought there was no way I could never understand it. And maybe I still don't understand it. But something even better happened -- I got used to it.

I don't really know how to explain it. I guess because saving face is such an instinctual practice to begin with, it makes sense that my adjustment to it would, ultimately, be instinctual. I can talk about it with, for example, my boyfriend or Grace with relative clarity. Because my boyfriend is Korean and he gets saving face, and Grace has been here for longer than I have, and she gets saving face. But I can't really articulate it. I'm not saying I'm great at it, or that I'm no longer socially clumsy with it, but I have definitely absorbed it on some level. And, for me at least, I think that's the way that it had to happen. I just had to get used to it.

It's the same with being a minority. I once saw a short video clip of a foreigner doing stand-up comedy in a bar in Itaewon. He nailed it, exactly, when he said, essentially: If I hear one more fucking foreigner carry on about how their coteachers are so amazed that they can use chopsticks, I will flip my shit. If I have to hear that fucking story one more time. It's like being born -- it happens to everyone. Move on.

And that's the thing. It stops being weird to be weird. It stops being amazing that people stare at you on the subway. It stops being surprising when waitresses in restaurants all over the country who have never even seen a foreigner before all say the exact same thing when you go to order the food (and you all know what that thing is). It just becomes normal. You get over the fact that this is what being a minority is -- hearing the same things everywhere you go, having the same tired conversations with people over and over and over. Being placed into a category and reacted to as part of that category. And, if you're smart, you realize that it's the same everywhere. For all minorities. And you take a lesson from that about your own behavior, and your own reactions to people of other categories. And you recognize that there's nothing special about your situation. And then you get over it.

That having been said, regarding the first question....

As I've said before, the S.O. knows all about my blogs. He even made a little guest post on the other one a couple of days ago. He also sometimes will call or text and ask what I'm doing, and the answer will be, 'writing something for the blog'. He constantly bemoans the fact that I am too used to Korea, and that he can't explain anything, or guide me in anything, or show me anything new. Which isn't true at all. Especially with cultural issues. So it confuses him that I'm still keeping the blog -- he says, "What else is there for you to write about? Haven't you written everything in nearly three years? What could you possibly still have to say about Korea?"

That's amazing to me. That he could assume that less than three years is enough time to conquer a completely different culture.

To answer the first question, I am still surprised every day. Maybe not in the same way that I was in the beginning, when everything was completely new. But in a more subtle, more nuanced and -- I think -- deeper way, now. You know I love to compare my relationships with places to relationships with people, and that's true with this as well. You know, there are those first few months when everything about the person is incredible and new and fascinating and you're just really busy working it all out.

And then there's the period that comes after. When you're used to each other. When you know all the basics. But do you stop learning about that person? Do you ever know everything there is to know? I don't think so. Every day you go through new situations together, and every day you are in a different place than you were before. You get to learn how that person is at one month in, at six months in, at a year in, at ten years in. And they are different at every stage. And so are you. You start to learn about their history, their psychosis. Under every layer you peel back, there's a new one waiting. And you can take it as far as you want to.

Korea is new every day. It's changing just as quickly as my understanding of Korea is changing. And I've also got a hell of a lot to catch up on. But I think I'd probably be doing the same kind of thing anywhere. Sometime I feel like no matter where I am, I still have some kind of inherent confusion about things. Life is confusing. Interacting with other people is confusing. I find most things to be at least somewhat mysterious. It's our instinct to want to get to the bottom of things, and to feel like we're making progress. At least, it's mine. As Kerouac put it, "All of life is a foreign country." I just happen to actually be in one, as well.

6 comments:

Emma Faye said...

like like like like

Sandra said...

thanks for the words of wisdom

Derek, Rachel and Cadence said...

Loved this post!! The newness of each day in another culture is what I loved best about living in Korea. Sometimes the newness was interesting, sometimes it was frustrating and sometimes it was downright embarrassing, but it was always NEW!

Chris in South Korea said...

After three years and having traveled all around the country, yes, I'm used to Korea... And that's not a bad thing! There aren't too many surprises in everyday life, no, and there are times when I wonder what's coming up next...

Nthing the mindset of flipping my shit anytime a Korean asks me something inane. To be fair, though, I haven't gotten that too many times recently...

쏘냐 said...

I like the Kerouac quote. I like seeing that I'm not the only one cringing at my past behavior. I like hearing that the staring will get better eventually. hooray for this post.

Desesperado said...

Every time I think I'm used to the korean culture.... I listen my girlfriend's mother (a very angry-bipolar-witch-bitch-ajumma) talking to her (yelling) on the phone... I realize I am so far away to understand (accept) the fact that Korean seniors have a big ass issue with the minority in Korea.