October 5, 2012 Enter your password to view comments.
July 28, 2012 8 Comments
My ability to worry is epic. For this reason, I only managed to get about 30 minutes sleep last night. My mind was racing like a hamster on a wheel so, around 6:00am, I just let go of the frustration (I haven’t slept a full night in over a week) and got up. The bathroom and kitchen got cleaned, the sweeping (I was dreading that) done, the documents sorted and last of the packing finished. Insomnia and anxiety won the battle but I won the war by actually dealing with some of the the stuff making me nervous.
Sitting in my emptied out apartment at 7:39am, it seemed as good a time as any to start to write about what I’ve learned this year in Korea. I started jotting these thoughts down months ago but I knew I wanted to wait until the end of my time here to share this. That time is now. Tomorrow I get on a plane and travel backwards through time so that I land in Canada on the same day that I leave Korea. I’m excited to see family and friends, glad to be finished with the job I had this year…and almost as anxious as I was when I came to this country.
Keep My Mind on the Prize, But My Eyes on My Feet
I’m anxious for all kinds of reasons. I want to come back to Korea and there are no guarantees that it will happen. There’s all the visa paperwork to do again and even though I know what I’m doing, somehow it’s still nerve wracking to even think about. There are loose ends here in Korea to keep on top of from the standpoint of no longer having legal status in this country. There’s a whole new job to find with the hopes that it will be one that I enjoy a lot more than the one I had this year. I have a much better sense of what questions to ask and what to watch out for, but there’s never a foolproof system, and then there’s issue of getting the location and pay that I want. There are some complicated travel plans that need to be worked out for while I’m in Canada and budgetary constraints to keep in mind when making those plans. And there’s a budding relationship that I’d like to pursue which requires me to be on this side of the world without too much delay.
It might be safe to say that the one thing I did not learn in Korea is how to stop sweating the small stuff. But I have learned that it’s the baby steps that get you through everything. The tiny movements towards a goal, rather than the giant leaps and bounds, are usually the stuff of dream-making. Getting to Korea was really a series of very small steps and getting back here will be much the same. Cleaning up my bathroom and kitchen this morning–essentially cleaning up my space so that I could think straight (I’m one of those people)–those are tiny steps towards getting me to where I want to be. I need to keep the prize in mind, but my eyes on the baby steps in front of me.
Slow and Steady, Baby, Slow and Steady
On the topic of baby steps, they also happen to work well with major changes to my habits. I did not exercise before I came here. Period. Now I do. I don’t do it everyday and I probably don’t look like someone who exercises regularly, but I am. It took a lot of really small baby steps to get there. There were days when it was all I could do to go out for a 15-minute walk, but as of a month ago I was walking nearly 10km in about 90 minutes. That was a huge leap forward for me, but it happened in very small steps. The cool thing about it was that the shift from entirely sedentary to exercising wasn’t immensely painful because I didn’t try to do it all at once.
I was listening to a podcast recently where this guy said it really never pays to make massive changes all at once. They generally lead to no change in the long haul; in fact you should always make the smallest changes possible at any time because that gradual change will stick. Go figure!
It got me thinking about small changes in terms of a lot of things–weight, exercise, money management. I have generally felt like a failure because I didn’t save any money this year. But I serviced my debt and this year I did change one habit–I barely used my credit card at all apart from emergencies. That was a big change for me from the last few years. So maybe in a couple years I might turn into a saving master of sorts. But to expect my behaviour to change 180 degrees after YEARS of retail therapy probably wasn’t reasonable.
We’re trained to believe that change always has to be dramatic and difficult rather than slow and steady and frankly, kinda easy. It’s far less impressive to save money or to lose weight over years, but it’s a lot more reasonable and likely successful. While there are probably times when dramatic change is the order of the day, I think that’s probably 10% of the time and not the 90% that we all think it is.
They weren’t lying; slow and steady really does win the race.
People! People! People!
Another thing I learned, or perhaps re-learned, is that it’s the people that make the place. Korea is a fascinating, quirky and fiercely proud country and it’s been incredibly interesting to start to get a taste for what it’s all about, but it’s the people I’ve met here who have made it what it is to me. Tonight I said good-bye to a co-worker who really helped to keep me sane this past year and that’s when it really hit me that I’m leaving. Realizing it was the last time we would stand at that corner where we part ways every night on the walk home from work, I started to choke up and knew *this* was the hard part. Not making sure the school doesn’t screw me on pay, not getting the apartment cleaned, not dealing with the myriad details of moving countries again, but leaving the people who have made this year special. She’s leaving Korea for good so she won’t be here if/when I come back and for that reason, Korea will be just a little bit poorer for me. It’s never about location, location, location but always about the people, people, people.
There are other things I’ve learned this year–to think more highly of myself, that anonymity is a precious thing, to ask for what I need without guilt, that it is possible to live and function in a place where you don’t speak the language, but that it is far better to speak the language, that trying and failing is always better than inertia, that for all the ways that Korea frustrates me, this place has carved out for itself a special place in my heart.
A few weeks ago, when I was just relieved to have my plane ticket taken care of and the end of my job in sight, I was really already gone in my head and my heart. But unlike the sad strains of the song, I was happy to go. Now, with all the details taken care of, every last moment is precious. After spending a day wandering around this neighbourhood that is so familiar to me, I realized that I don’t want to be gone long.
And to you the readers, thank you for taking this journey with me. Your comments, encouragement and feedback have been so very appreciated. I have grown and learned so much this past year and you have been part of that process. You’re the best. I heart you.
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June 10, 2012 3 Comments
Did you know the song Possession was inspired by Sarah McLachlan’s brush with a stalker who used to send her crazy letters? Yeah, me neither. Go and read those lyrics again and feel a shiver dance up your spine. You’re probably wondering what that lead-in was all about. Well I don’t have a stalker (you may breathe a sigh of relief now), but I do have a really awful neighbour who seems to believe that I am something to which he is entitled–a possession perhaps.
He used to be content with just talking at me in Korean and I would give him that fake smile that all foreigners give Koreans when they insist on being friendly in a language you don’t understand. Apparently this was too much encouragement. There was a time when I was going for a walk at night and someone ashed out their cigarette from an open window above my head just as I walked out the door. I was about to yell curses and I looked up, but it was him so I didn’t say anything but hello. Another time he sort of stepped out of the shadows at night and nearly caused me heart failure. There were other annoying encounters with this man, but they all felt benign until a couple weeks ago.
It was one of those moments when even following your gut doesn’t quite save you. I saw him walking toward my building one night after work and I did my best to stay out of his sight line, desiring absolutely no conversation. For some reason though I didn’t remember that he lived in my building so my plan backfired when we met at the door. He insisted I go ahead of him and I did. Stupid me. He then proceeded to grab me by the hips–yes basically my ass–and steer me up the stairs. My arms were full with my laptop and a pizza and so I was propelled in this manner up three flights. This isn’t the first time in my life that a man has taken liberties with my body space and I keep hoping I’ll have the appropriate reaction some day–a swift kick to the nads. But each time, my brain does this thing where I start making excuses for their insane behaviour. And then it’s not until about 20 minutes later that I get mad and subsequently feel utterly soiled as a human being. The same thing happened this time.
He tried to invite me into his place but I did the fake, and likely terrified-looking, smile and hurried into my apartment. And then I was struck with the realization: this fucker lives two doors down from me. In a fit of pique the next morning I stole his newspaper and threw it in the trash. What I really wanted to do was “redecorate” his door with some descriptors of his behaviour but I’d rather not get deported.
A friend who’s worked here for 15 years told me that I should inform the school as they’re the ones who determine where I live. I didn’t though. I can’t even bear the thought of having that conversation with my Korean, male boss.
“I think you should know…”
“A man in the building groped me.”
“Touched you? Touched you? How?”
“On your side?”
On my short lived secondary Korea blog, chocolatekimchi, my first post was about a man on a train who hugged me, in full view of his wife, and wouldn’t let go until I forcibly removed myself. When we all got off the subway at the same damn stop, he and his wife then invited me to take the elevator with them. I’ve never run for a set of stairs so fast in my life. Here’s his picture.
The worst part of that incident was telling my friends about it that night and having them poo-poo it like I was just not understanding some Korean cultural norm. As if it’s totes normal to catch strange women in a bear hug here on the peninsula. Belatedly my reality was affirmed by other foreign women. Apparently Korean men of a certain age–often referred to as ajusshi–just believe that all foreign women of a certain body type (the type with T&A and some general fluffiness) are at their disposal, ready and willing.
More than the kids who bring up my weight on a regular basis in class (emotionally shredding), or the women who think they have free reign to touch my hair without asking (bloody annoying), the teaching jobs that have absolutely nothing to do with teaching (frustrating) or even the blatant, racism and anti-foreigner sentiment* (incredibly depressing), I think what makes me the least excited about working in Korea again is this sense of sexual entitlement that seems to be so prevalent in older men here.
This doesn’t seem to happen to all of my female friends. The ones who are slimmer and perhaps more Korean looking in their body type don’t get this kind of unwanted attention. But the ones who are more voluptuous seem to. The incidents have made me think about how incredibly difficult it must be to report rape or major sexual violence because it’s so natural to internalize this kind of thing when it happens to you. In both cases, I didn’t yell the few Korean expletives that I know at the men involved and run away; I froze up, got out of there as fast as I could and went home and felt gross and weepy. I’m starting to think one of those self-defense courses I always considered so cheesy might be in order. I don’t want to be violent for no reason as I’m pretty sure the law would not come down on my side as a foreigner here, but I’d like to at least develop whatever it is one must develop to make your first reaction in a situation like this indignation and anger rather than bewilderment and some sense that you shouldn’t ruffle any feathers or embarrass anyone.
I’ve made it my policy since that night a couple weeks ago that if any ajusshi talk to me, nothing more than basic civility is required from me in return. I don’t smile, I don’t encourage, I simply say what is required to not be rude. I’ve already employed this once and I think I’ve made myself safer for it. My landlord, an older man, always says hello to me in Korean and that’s what actually makes him feel safe to be around. The ajusshi who think I’m some magical source of sex on tap always say “hello” to me in English. They may try to have a full on conversation with me in Korean after that, but that initial English “hello” immediately gets my back up. It’s a shitty, one-word pick up line.
For whatever fucked up reason, there are people here who just can’t see non-Koreans as fully human. They can only see us as some sort of short term possession. Something to be used and discarded. There are people who feel this way at home, but at least they’re pressured by social norms to keep it to their damn selves. They don’t act on it in full view of others.
A couple nights ago I was coming home from work with a friend and I saw my neighbour again. My friend asked how I knew it was him since we couldn’t see his face from such a distance, but you know how it is when you know someone far better than you want to. I know his gait, his shape, the way he holds his body. I stood with my friend awhile waiting for him to go into the building, but I guess he knows my body from a distance too. He was about to go in the door but he turned and started to walk toward me. My friend asked me if I wanted her to stay with me but I told her to go ahead. She reminded me that I had a huge umbrella–a good weapon. It hadn’t occurred to me. I held up the umbrella like a baseball bat and took a swing and then I bid her goodnight.
As I walked past him at a clip, he yelled to me with a big shit-eating grin “Pizza?!” Like we were gonna go and get a meal together or something. I yelled back “NO!” and then when he didn’t look sufficiently put off “ANIYO!” with the umbrella pointed at him. He seemed surprised, but kept walking.** Then I texted my friend and told her to watch out since he was coming her way. He’d gone in the other direction though and I don’t think she’s his target market anyway.
I’m not in the head space I’d like to be in yet, but I feel good about that situation. In a year of many, many steps forward, it was another small but significant one.
*Here’s a link to a ridiculous “documentary” segment aired on a national network recently that has foreigners angry to put it mildly. It’s basically a massive load of anti-foreigner BS.
**aniyo is “no” in Korean.
May 27, 2012 Enter your password to view comments.
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