Stranger in a Korean land

Regular blog readers will be aware of my ambivalent attitude towards work. Having freed myself from that particular shackle, I was ecstatic and planned a week of craft beer and debauchery. My body had other ideas, and a few days later my scratchy throat progressed to a fever and chest cough, and my social activities were reduced to stumbling to a nearby cafe to read the newspaper. I was sick for two weeks.

In hindsight it makes sense: a year of keeping to a more-or-less rigid schedule, not to mention reconciling myself to the irreconcilable drudgery of wage labour, left me mentally and physically exhausted. There’s some cognitive dissonance involved: in the few lucid moments I had to and from the office, I planned glorious blog entries on the state, imperialism and social movements, and an ambitious research agenda to haul myself back on the academic wagon. But post-work mostly involved Simpsons episodes and trying to keep my sinuses from overflowing.

Duff Gardens hoorah!
Duff Gardens hoorah!

It’s also meant engaging with where I am. Working in an English-speaking office, absorbing English-language TV and books at home, and writing English-language job applications insulated me from the reality that I’m in a foreign country. Believe it or not, despite being surrounded by 24 million Koreans it’s easy to live in a bubble.

I can get British groceries from Home plus, the joint supermarket venture with Tesco’s. I can eat subpar Italian food in nearly every neighbourhood and Thai and ‘American’ in the central, foreigner-friendly ones. The internet allows me constant contact with foreign media outlets (and allows me to bypass the English-language papers in Seoul, which are remarkably content-free). The essentials of everyday life, like paying bills and rent, are entirely automated. If I wanted to, my only contact with Korean daily life would be the dozens of people serving my cappuccinos each week. This is not a good thing, but keeping that distance has helped me survive, because, post-work, I’ve realized how strange and foreign I am, or the place I’m in is – or both.

Some random Seoul graffiti: this one is in Haebangchon

‘Foreigner’ carries pejorative connotations in the west: someone dissociated from and rejected by mainstream society. But in Korea it’s the catch-all term for the 3% of people who aren’t from here. A friend of mine has observed that two years marks a turning point for most foreigners: they either find some reason to integrate or they give up and go home.

The familiarity of home has a strong pull on me. I wanted to leave Canadian comfort for many years, and I still find my country bland and insipid when it’s not being viciously reactionary, such as with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s support of Israeli state terror. I don’t identify in the slightest with whatever counts as authentic Canadian culture (except for maple syrup. I can’t live without that.) But I miss the diversity that comes with official Canadian multiculturalism.

This is skin-deep, to the extent that multiculturalism doesn’t mean much more than restaurants from different parts of the world, different music coming out of car stereos and the occasional street festival. As a white person, I have the privilege of sampling different cultures without committing to any of them or experiencing the racism that attends minority status.


However, there’s also a comfort level with seeing different kinds of people on the street, and there being different cultural practices available. I’ve only experienced this in one other city, London, which is a large part of why I felt so comfortable there. Even the surface-y multicultural stuff – like a good curry or kalamata olives in the grocery store – starts to grate when it’s missing.

It’s ridiculous to claim South Korea is a monolith. Korea is riven with multiple fractures of class, gender, sexuality and, in a different way, geography, as it’s trapped between the ocean and the Stalinists. This introduces a new form of status – those who can leave for education or citizenship, and those who are stuck here. Which leads to a defensive Korean nationalism vs. cosmopolitanism, which in turn is mapped onto class. For example, it’s no accident that the most foreign luxury cars are bought, and the most English is spoken in Gangnam, a place Koreans call “another country” (another wealthy country, as Psy reminded us.)


But the promotion of Korea as a centralized, unified entity has a long history. There’s nothing like repeated invasions and occupations to give you a sense of national purpose. This means that there actually is something identifiably Korean, and it’s more than a flag. I maintain that Canada and many other countries have no national identity other than a few surfacey details like sports teams and national dishes. (This doesn’t stop wars being waged using those symbols for their respective capitalists, of course.) Korea, on the other hand, has markers of a distinct culture, in its food and fashion on the surface, but also in its family relations, formal respect for authority and spirit of social solidarity. Koreans are proud of this, and even the ones who want to get the hell out of Korea are hardly going to reject it wholesale.

What I’m slowly getting to is that my experience of being a foreigner in Korea is different than being a foreigner in western countries I’ve been to. Most migrants eke out miserable lives on the margins in the hopes that their children will have better lives. But in theory, if you’re the right colour, class and gender, you can pretty much do as you please in London as you can in New York as in Toronto. Society won’t judge you, because society doesn’t share that much between its disparate individuals pursuing their fractured autonomous identities.

A dress in a vintage shop. Colour me good, Ryan Gosling. Colour me good.

In Korea, being a foreigner means working very hard to find all the places that you can consume different, foreign things; being subjected to intense curiosity about your foreign ways; and constantly feeling not just on the outside of the mainstream, as a migrant in any country must feel, but being outside of a thing called ‘Korea’. It’s presented that way by Koreans themselves: Korean people are the first to say that “in Korea, we are X and Y”, in a way I’ve never encountered in another country. Indeed, the existence of the category “foreigner” is the clearest sign of this: it designates some essential otherness that erases differences. There’s Korean, and there’s everything else.

I have the privilege of a Korean girlfriend, who has not only helped me negotiate the more difficult aspects of life here but given me access to Korean society that I wouldn’t have otherwise. We’ve been to weddings, pool halls, noraebang (karaoke to use its Japanese term). So I haven’t been sucked into an expat bubble, exclusively hanging out with foreigners – which would be easy considering I live in the expat neighborhood. It’s also meant I haven’t had to function on my own as a foreigner in a strange society. Moreover, my girlfriend has given me insight into the real functioning of Korean society, beyond the tourist board image of Korea and the polite-and-friendly front that Koreans present to white foreigners. Thanks to her I know about things I don’t hear foreigners or the government talk about, like:

– the intense appearance-ism that leads to plastic surgery, comb-overs and disturbing kpop advice videos
– the shyness that Korean people feel about speaking English, and their shame at lacking English abilities
– the ageism permeating Korean society: women are over the hill at 30 if they’re not married and careered, while middle-aged men are an object of ridicule

My girlfriend’s knowledge of how things really work here, and her ability to confirm or correct my own impressions, has been invaluable.

She counts on her fingers by closing them; I count by opening them.

But despite this, I’m still experiencing what I’m going to call ‘delayed culture shock’, or maybe ‘culture weariness’ is better. There are dozens of blogposts about culture shock in Korea: the poor-quality public toilets, the shared soup dishes, the differing ways of addressing older and younger people. Some of these are written within weeks of foreigners’ arrival here – it’s not hard to figure out how things are different from back home, and the observable differences are quaint and manageable. For example, I don’t really consider a staff person repeating “Welcome to Uniqlo” every 5 minutes when I’m buying underwear that big of a shock. Learning that a caramel macchiato is actually just a latte with caramel syrup was disappointing but not earth-shattering. I just learned to ask for an espresso macchiato.

No, what bothers me about my medium-term adaptation to Korea is that the longer I stay here, the more deeply-rooted things I learn about how Korea works… and the less I like some aspects of it. Maybe I would’ve figured this stuff out earlier had I been single and working in a private school. But newly unemployed, and woozy from cold meds, I had time to contemplate the aspects of life I find difficult. The constant second-hand smoke, the poor selection of vegetarian food and the near-complete ignorance of what that is, the complete lack of public space, to the point where houses are walled to hide gardens from the road and sidewalks are a rarity, notions of public and private health I find baffling – these are wearying. (For example, gym shoes that only see use in the gym are banned from locker room floors, so as not to track dirt in. Yet nobody uses flip-flops in the shower room, despite the obvious threat of fungal infections.)

Just in case you weren’t sure what hipsters are into

It’s also the lack of English. You may ask what kind of an asshole comes to another country and expects them to speak his language, and you’d be right. In my defence, I’m the kind of asshole who believed that 15 years of mandatory, relentless English studying by every Korean person meant actually learning English. But English is a requirement to get into a good university and company job. As a friend put it, it’s a sign of submission, proof that you will be a pliant worker. And there’s no surer way to kill learning than to make it entirely test- and performance-driven. So I don’t blame Koreans in the slightest for not knowing how to speak English: I would do exactly the same in their shoes. If anything, not learning English is a Korean form of passive resistance to the concentration of money and power at the top.

So, while this makes it hard for me to communicate, this is my fault: my Korean skills are below the abysmal level they attained last year, and I feel badly that I can’t communicate beyond smiles and hello with the old women who squat outside my front door every morning. Everyone I know who’s mastered Korean has studied it full-time for at least 6 months. When I’m not struggling to scrape together the $10,000 a minimum rent deposit requires, I’ll do just that.

Most Seoul cafe names are non-sequiturs, but Thanks A Latte nailed it.

Less trivially, as I’ve written before, the intense focus on status – which many expats seem to be oblivious too because they’re not targets of it – is deeply troublesome. And the explicit hierarchies – the expectation that you must do what older people tell you because they’re older, the deference to authority and its flip side, the adherence to group culture, the rigid gender roles – my resistance to these has been growing. Living in Korea as a foreigner has made me aware of how western I am. For that I’m grateful, because going abroad has cured me of some naive, false universalism I held back home – the idea that most people enjoy living the same way.

For instance, I’ve learned that I dislike the “all together” attitude and, instead, really value my privacy. I don’t just mean physical space, though I can’t say I enjoy being squeezed on a sidewalk by slow-moving groups. It’s more the expectation that people must eat, drink, and walk together at all times. For example, my Korean friends tell me that there’s immense social pressure to eat lunch together at the office, which would’ve killed me at my last job. It’s indicative of a social, expressive culture that values reciprocity and feedback… which apparently I don’t.

Kimchi II (Our Fragrance)
Though this is from a DPRK film, there’s a grain of truth in his self-criticism.

As I face the next period of uncertainty, stuck in a country that I’m not sure I want to be in, work visa-less yet unclear where else I could go at the moment… I’m learning that in a crisis, it’s possible to let go of all the politics, caring about people and events happening thousands of miles away that will never affect me personally. On days when I’m wondering how I’ll pay my rent deposit, and stop my greedy landlord from overcharging me for repairs, it’s occurred to me that, if not for Facebook and progressive websites, the broader world wouldn’t even exist for me.

But after all that, there are still things to do: work or looking for it, rent/mortgage, getting to work, paying for groceries and hoping to afford an occasional holiday weekend. So the contradictions – chiefly of having little income when some people have vastly more – don’t go away, and politics comes back, but more personalized and in some ways more scary. There’s no leaving the issue behind at the pub after the demonstration and resuming everyday life. This is everyday life in a society that does not guarantee our means of existence, and it’s hard.

Life isn't fair


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